What it Means to Be Trans (or: WTF is Going On??)
If you have no idea what it means to be trans, or you’re just totally overwhelmed by the idea, it’s okay! Before I realized I was trans, and even for a time during my own process, the concept was strange and complicated to me. It took me a long time to break down my own conditioning enough to really understand it. So long actually, that by the time I felt I fully comprehended how a person could be trans, which is not a choice, I had already accepted that I was undeniably trans. We’ve been conditioned since birth to believe that our gender is hard coded into our DNA. You’d be quickly forgiven for having a tough time wrapping your head around the idea that it’s not. The fact that you’re here and reading this means way more than that, and if you’ll have me, I’ll attempt to be your guide through this basic introduction to what being trans means.
Here's a link to some useful trans terms and their definitions in case you want to open it in another tab for reference while you're reading.
It starts with this: gender and sex are not the same. No trans person coming out is saying, "Nope, I wasn't born with biologically male/female parts. Never even had a penis/vagina. My sex organs and I have been female/male in every way this entire time." Keep in mind they probably don't want to talk about or be reminded of their birth sex, but nonetheless, that's not the statement that someone who identifies as trans is making. What many are saying is some version of, “I don’t relate to the role our society expects me to play based on the letter that was marked on my birth certificate.”
Look, most of us don’t realize it, but in accordance with our genders, we assume, to some degree, stereotypical behaviors, interests, and forms of self-expression. Boys like blue and trucks and sports and being tough. Girls like pink and makeup and dancing and being pretty. Yes, that’s an intentional hyperbole—I’m generalizing and being simplistic. But none of what we consider “normal” based on gender is genetic or dictated by the sex organs we’re born with. They’re all society’s creation, and together those behaviors, interests, and expressions form gender roles. So when a person identifies as trans, in many cases they can be seen as saying, “That gender role doesn’t work for me.” Some trans people—those who identify as the gender opposite from their assigned birth sex, like me, continue that statement with, “Instead, I feel that being female/male is right for me.” And then there are trans people who simply don’t identify with either of the binary (female/male) genders. These people are called non-binary, gender-nonconforming, or genderqueer depending on their unique identity and preference.
If you haven’t looked at gender under a microscope, this can all seem very foreign and strange, but if you keep an open mind and continue breaking it down, I promise it will start to make sense.
Allow me to walk us back a few steps. Society is very strange. Perhaps even more powerful than laws are norms—unspoken rules about what's acceptable and desirable, enforced unofficially through the judgment of our peers. Norms pervade in our minds and affect our opinions, interests and behaviors. As humans, we're the only species on Earth to drink the milk of another animal. It doesn't have any special health benefits, nor do we need it to survive, but we do it...because we always have I guess? But yeah, totally “normal.” For millennia we've created more and more mutant subspecies of wolves with inbred docility traits in every size, shape, and coat texture we can think up because dogs make us feel happy. Right, totally normal. For centuries, it's been completely normal for humans to grind up dried leaves, roll them up in paper, light the roll on fire and breathe through it until it's disintegrated, multiple times an hour, every day. Doesn't even turn a head. See? Things become "normal," and we stop questioning them. It doesn't mean something foreign, new, or unfamiliar is incorrect, misguided or morally wrong.
Normal ≠ right.
Consider all the horrifying practices and destructive behaviors that have at one time or another been labeled as tradition. How many can you think of that still exist today? How about the Yulin Dog Meat Festival? Or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East?
Traditional ≠ good.
America's 19th century slave economy and surviving culture of racial discrimination is something almost (can't believe I have to say almost) no visible mainstream figure would endorse today. But jump back even just a hundred years and see if public opinion wasn't a little more divided. Back up another 60 years and openly deriding slavery might've gotten you killed. If we're happy with where we've landed as a society on issues such as that, we have those who swam upstream and risked everything to change what was seen by most as traditional, normal, right and good, to thank for our evolution. Society progresses through different forms of revolution and renaissance. Nothing groundbreaking feels comfortable at first.
Rebellious/defiant/nonconforming ≠ bad.
As a society, long ago, but importantly not dating back to the beginning of humanity or organized civilization, modern human beings decided that there were to be two genders: male and female. Having a visible penis at birth qualified you as male, and having an obvious vagina made you female.
As humans we love what we believe to be order: organization, clarity, predictability, comfort. We want to know the boundaries that everything is confined to. So with gender, we created roles. Girls would like being pretty, wearing makeup, learning to dance, wearing dresses, having long hair, playing certain musical instruments, and of course, the color pink. That's right! An entire wedge of the visible color spectrum walled off for use by one half of the population, determined by the mass of cells between their legs. Got it. Boys, by contrast, would like being tough, building muscle, playing sports, fast cars, video games, and blue. That's just a tiny scrape off the tip of the iceberg.
Gender is something humans created for simplicity, predictability, and control. It's a construct. It's artificial. It doesn't exist biologically or physically. It's only a social idea we've all gotten used to and keep alive by buying into it. What does exist biologically related to sex is that reproductively, penises penetrate vaginas, and penises are male parts while vaginas are female parts. But nobody's contesting that. It's the human-only expansion of male and female into gender roles that's being dismantled.
When you're born, the doctor doesn't put 'P' or 'V' on your birth certificate. They put ‘M’ or ‘F’, and those letters come with expectations from society.
Even ‘P’ or ‘V’ would be questionable considering biological sex is way more than your external sex organs. Intersex people are human beings born with something between biologically typical male and female sex organs. They may have both a penis and a vagina, or any combination of partially developed male and female parts outside or inside. Beyond that, there are humans born with chromosomes that conflict with external sex organs, or those whose sex organs are not in line with their hormone levels. As a society today, we feel totally comfortable letting delivery room doctors determine their official gender based on what they can see and their judgment.
So what does gender, or even a male/female sex indicator on a birth certificate actually do?
If reproductive capabilities come to mind again, the idea of gender doesn’t do anything to indicate that either, because there's nothing about what you can see on the outside of a person's body that ensures their inner body's functionality. Having a penis doesn't mean you make strong swimmers.
The only thing your gender tells us certainly, is that some person with a medical license decided your infant crotch looked more like one thing than another. Period.
The Bottom Line
My trans brothers and sisters and I identify as trans because the role we were expected to play based on our crotches doesn't work for us. Plain and simple. "My crotch doesn't run my life, I do!," we say. (We don't say that. That's ridiculous.)
We're not in denial or mentally ill. If we were, you wouldn't see so many of us finally starting to be noticed in positive lights—rising to political office, presenting at the Oscars, being nominated for Emmys, or gaining platforms as activists. In fact for many of us it's the opposite. We woke up and realized the insanity of gender roles dictated by birth sex, and now we want to change it. At least that's what happened to me. Sure, I may have been born with a penis, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let that keep me from being myself just so the world’s majority will count me as one of them. I created this blog after realizing how oppressive and dark our binary world was to so many. Today there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of trans people across the world who are still too afraid to fight "normal," and who will therefore be subjected to a life of pretending, of suppressing who they are, of self-smothering the light inside them.
Trans is an adjective. It means "having a gender identity and/or expression which does not conform to one’s assigned birth sex." As a trans woman, I'm just a woman, no more or less so than any other, although proudly, my backstory is anything but typical, and not what was expected of me based on the sex I was assigned at birth.
Cis is the word used to describe people who's gender identity and/or expression does conform to their assigned birth sex. Cisgender is the opposite of transgender. If you were assigned female at birth (AFAB) and identify as female, you're a cis woman. If you were assigned female at birth and identify as male, you're a trans man.
No gender is wrong, unless it’s wrong for the person in it. When a person publicly acknowledges that their assigned birth sex is not how they identify, they are stating that they are trans.
The sooner we as a society can accept this on a global scale and allow people to live as their authentic selves, the more capable our species will become, and the faster we will evolve. Remember, in many cases what our ancestors upheld as tradition we now denounce as travesty. The same will one day be true of gender roles dictated by birth sex. The only question is, how soon will that day be?
- Gender is how you feel, not what you have.
- What kind of sex organs you have doesn’t dictate the role you should play in society if it doesn’t feel right to you.
- Gender is a social construct that we’ve invested in and linked to our sex organs, but that really has no purpose other than to make closed-minded people in positions of power feel comfortable, and marketing easier for companies.
- Trans people are those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Being trans is not morally wrong nor a sign of mental illness.
- In addition to male-to-female (MTF) and female-to-male (FTM) trans people, there are people within the trans umbrella who identify as intersex, non binary, gender-nonconforming, and genderqueer. All of these people are human beings who deserve respect and love.
- Whether or not a trans person transitions, or to what degree, has no bearing on their gender. This post goes into detail on the various forms of transition for trans people.
- Knowing what sex organs a person has is no more anyone’s right than knowing how fertile a person is. In other words, it’s not something you need to know until, at least, you’ve become or are genuinely considering becoming seriously invested in a relationship and a future with that person.
- We’re all just people trying to navigate a chaotic universe. If we default to compassion, acceptance and love, we will continue to evolve as a species. Hate and selfishness are our only real enemies.