Transgender basics

Transgender Basics is a 20 minute educational film on the concepts of gender and transgender people. Two providers from The Center’s Gender Identity Project (GIP) discuss basic concepts of gender, sexual orientation, identity and gender roles. Three transgender community members share their personal experiences of being trans and genderqueer. The film targets service providers and others working with the LGBT community, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse into gender and identity for the general public. “Our culture likes to make things simple, and gender isn’t.” Carrie Davis, Transgender Community Organizer, in Transgender Basics.

Choosing M or F

Count the number of times in a week you are asked to choose between M or F. It will surprise you. At work, you may have to choose every time you use the toilet facilities; when you are shopping for clothes, you will be asked to choose the men’s or women’s department; when you select a book or movie, entertainment is segregated into sections such as “chick-lit” or “movies for men”; and, when you fill out a form, the place you are applying to will want to know, too (if for no other reason than to be able to address you formally).

Here’s a list of some the things that we came up with that ask us to choose:

  • Public toilets
  • Changing rooms
  • Hospital wards
  • Airport security
  • School
  • Prison
  • Military service
  • Public transport (in some countries)
  • Religious observance
  • Sports teams
  • Exercise classes
  • Application forms
  • Shopping centres (especially clothing stores)
  • Advertising/products
  • Books/movies

toiletsignFor many of the things we’ve listed a strong argument can be made for a unisex approach to them. Take shopping for instance, stores could be organised by the item you wish to purchase, instead of effectively divided into two stores, M and F. Imagine M&S having departments simply called underwear, shirts, trousers, skirts, jumpers, etc. Would this be a problem? You need a pair of jeans, so you browse through all their jeans and you come out with a pair of jeans that fit and that you are pleased with. Does it matter that the designer of the jeans had a particular gender in mind when they created them?

Ah, but what about the changing rooms, though? The same argument that we use against those who think that making trans* people use toilet facilities that match their biological sex, rather than their preferred gender, is relevant here: when did you last see a person naked in a department store changing room (or public toilet)? It never happens. Unisex facilities put nobody at any greater risk than segregated facilities and, with appropriate doors/curtains on the cubicles, are entirely private.

So, why is it a choice? Why have we come up with the idea that men and women should be kept separate? Honestly, Trans* Jersey struggles to answer this question. We don’t really know. We can only guess that it comes two parts: a) it is a hang over from when the church’s idea of sin governed our morality and contraceptives were not widely available. In the interest of stopping boys and girls doing what boys and girls might do, segregation was strictly maintained. b) it makes it easier for the marketing men. They can generalise how women respond to products, as distinct from men, and target their marketing accordingly.

The other question that is relevant here is: why did we decide that we should separate the human population into only two groups? And why pick this particular facet of humanity? Why not hair colour, or eye colour, or whether we can dance or not, or whether we like Marmite or not? There aren’t two genders. We know that gender is a spectrum. There aren’t even two sexes. 1 in 100 births are intersex (see here for more information). Like so many facets of humanity, trying to put us all into two categories doesn’t work. Right or left handed? What about ambidextrous people?

Categorising us all into two genders is unnecessary and arbitrary but it persists. We wish it didn’t. It would make living in the middle easier. So, until such time as society gets over its hang up with labeling us one or the other, we are forced to choose every day. Count the number of times.

What makes a (wo)man a (wo)man?

We all know what makes a (wo)man a (wo)man, right? Make a list of the things that differentiate men from women. What are the clues you look for when you meet someone for the first time?

Here’s our list, which is not in any way exhaustive:

Men-v-WomenAn anthropologist will tell you that evolution over thousands of years is responsible for many of these differences and a biologist will tell you that the hormones bathing the brain are responsible for the others. But that cannot be the whole story as one look at your list will tell you that for every trait you put down you know a man or woman who does not conform to the stereotype, and it doesn’t make them feel or appear less manly or womanly.

There are many, many men who work in artistic or caring professions; who have hobbies that do not correspond to the stereotypical man; who enjoy talking; who take responsibility for their children and for making a home; and, who show/share their emotions willingly. But they still feel like men. Equally, there are many women who work in tough, hostile environments; who are capable of fixing an engine; who enjoy their own company; who don’t get broody at the sight of a pushchair; and, who are not in touch with their emotions. But they still feel like women.

So, maybe there is no universal checklist that we can use to say that is a man and this is a woman. But we know what a man is and what a woman is, don’t we? We use that definition every day without thinking about it. So, is there a default within all of us as to what defines a man or a woman? We believe we can get closer to an answer by agreeing that there is no universal set of criteria. Our education, experiences, and society shape our definition of men and women, and it is subtly different for each individual. We know that is a man and this is a woman because a lifetime of influences has taught us that, when we receive those particular signals from the people we meet, it means man or woman. We only think about it when we come into contact with someone who blurs the gender divide. And, even then, we don’t think about it too hard.

Within a single culture, both sender and receiver will know “the rules”, ie. the accepted gender presentation for a man or a woman. This means that a sender can consciously elect to blur their gender. Done successfully, the receiver will not be aware that they are meeting someone whose biological sex is not aligned with their presented gender. But this also means that the receiver can get it wrong if their experience is not the same as the sender’s. Receivers from another culture may be particularly bad a guessing the right gender based on appearance.

Can you guess the gender of the following people? It’s not so easy when you don’t know the cultural gender clues and begs the question of why society gets so steamed up when individuals digress gender boundaries. Visit another culture and you won’t have a clue whether the person you are meeting is genderqueer.

mursi-womantharaka-girlmaorimasai-warriorsAnswers: Mursi woman (Ethiopia), Tharaka woman (Kenya), Maori woman (New Zealand), Maasai men (Kenya/Tanzania)

The gender pyramind

This is Trans* Jersey’s patented gender pyramid that explains how sex and gender are related.

Sex is at the top of pyramid because it has the smallest number of possible variations and is, therefore, the narrowest. It is also the least significant factor in all of this – although those who struggle with the issue of transgenderism would have you believe it is the most important. It is shown as either blue or pink – male or female. (We know blue and pink are a cliché, but had we used yellow and green, you would have had to remember that men were yellow and women were green, so we went with the accepted norm!) Currently, it is impossible to completely change your sex. You can go some way towards altering physical/cosmetic aspects, but no male can yet have a functioning uterus and ovaries implanted, and no female can yet have functioning testes implanted.

The middle layer of the pyramid is your gender identity. It represents where you feel you fit on the spectrum and how you would like to be perceived by the world. We’ve called this being a man or a woman. It is not quite as deeply embedded as sex and there is a greater blurring of the line between blue and pink on the pyramid.

The third layer of the pyramid we have called gender expression. By this, we mean the way that an individual is received by the world. Do they act, react, dress, in a more feminine or masculine way? It is the most fluid of all the layers, with a spectrum of pink to blue on which an individual may fall at any point.
Gender pyramidSo, let’s take a look at some famous faces and start a debate! We’ve selected Marilyn Monroe (A) and George W Bush (H) as polar opposites on the feminine-masculine scale. There is no doubt in the mind of the onlooker that their presentation, gender, and sex are aligned.

Moving in from them on the scale, we have selected Sharon Cohen (B) and Ian Harvie (G). Sharon is a glamorous, curvaceous brunette who won Eurovision in 1998. There is no doubt that she is a very feminine woman, but she was born male. Ian is a bearded, stand-up comedian who grew up in a rural mountain town in Maine. He is a masculine man, but he was born female. They are both transsexual.

Next on the scale are singers George O’Dowd (C) and k.d. Lang (F). When both singers first appeared on the music scene the fact that their presentation was at odds with their gender and sex caused confusion for the public at large. However, just because society was confused, it doesn’t mean that they are, and so cannot be considered transgender. As far as we are aware, they identify happily as homosexual, which by definition means George is a man who loves men and k.d. is a woman who loves women. They both happen to be homosexual, but, as someone like Grayson Perry proves, this is not a given when you queer your gender.

Finally, converging in the centre are Sue Perkins (D) and David Beckham (E). Sitting centrally on the scale indicates a level of androgyny in a person’s presentation. There is no doubt about Sue and David’s gender or sex, unlike that of George and k.d. However, David’s light voice, attention to his grooming, and soft features are, arguably, more feminine characteristics. Sue’s career, style of dress, and forthright views are, arguably, more masculine characteristics. It’s a grey area, but that’s the point.

Take a moment and consider where you sit on the sex and gender scales. Are you a straight down the line Marilyn or George, or does your sex/gender line weave about a bit?

Gender: a human right

You have a right to present yourself in the way in which you wish to be received – so does a transgender person.

How proud of your presentation are you? Do you take time over it? Transgender people should be able to be proud of their presentation too.

How far would you go to protect your right to present yourself how you want? Transgender people all over the world put their lives at risk for this right.

In 2012, at least 265 trans people were murdered (data from 29 countries only). In only 13 cases has any arrest been made. In at least 2 cases the murders were committed by the police. In 56 cases the victim’s name has not been recorded. (Source: TDoR, 2012)

70% of children who are uncertain about their gender are subject to bullying, 88% of transgender employees experience discrimination or harassment in their workplace, and there has been a recent rise in hate crime against transgender people of 14%. (Source: UK Home Office report, 2011)

41% of transgender people in the United States have attempted to commit suicide; more than 25 times the rate of the general population, which is 1.6 percent. (Source: National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2010)
woman makeup mirror
These statistics are alarming for the friends and families of people coming out as trans. We hasten to add that trans* people in Jersey do not tend to experience bullying, discrimination or harassment on the same scale as elsewhere. Britain has a much better track record than most countries regarding crimes against LGBT people. Surrounding yourself with educated people who understand the importance of tolerance and diversity in a civilised society can also help to minimise a trans* person’s exposure to discriminatory behaviour.

What is gender?

Firstly, your gender is not the same as your sex. It seems obvious but it is so deeply embedded in all of us that most people don’t think about it and use the terms interchangeably. According to the OED, sex is “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”. A look at the reproductive organs or chromosomes of an animal will scientifically prove what sex they are. (There are a number of rare and specialist medical conditions where this is not the case. They are called intersex conditions, sometimes wrongly termed “disorders of sexual development” (DSDs), and occur before birth.) The OED defines gender as “the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)”. There are two parts to gender: how you perceive yourself, i.e. man or woman, and how society receives your gender presentation, i.e. masculine or feminine. The genderbreadman (below) calls this your gender identity and your gender expression. To find out whether someone is a man or a woman, you have to ask them. Where sex is a physical state, gender is a mental state. It is about how you feel. Do you feel like a man or a woman? The answer to this question will, of course, be informed by the individual’s definition of what a man and a woman are, their life experiences, the society in which they live, etc. To decide what someone’s gender expression is you simply look at the way that an individual presents themselves to the world. Do they act, react, dress, in a more feminine or masculine way? This is all about society’s definition of what constitutes masculine/feminine behaviour and it changes as one moves around the world through other countries, tribes, and cultures. For a man to wear a skirt in Edinburgh is acceptable masculine behaviour but may not be so in Chelsea! It is about how an individual conforms to society’s norms for masculine/feminine behaviour, or chooses not to conform, and how other members of that society receive that individual’s presentation. genderbread So, to recap: Sex is biological – male or female Gender is psychological – man or woman Presentation or expression is an external representation of sex and/or gender – masculine or feminine Gender is how you would like to be perceived but, crucially, it is also how society receives your expression of that.


Acquired gender: see Recognised Gender below. A legal/bureaucractic term used to distinguish between the gender someone was assigned at birth and the gender they feel themselves to be. Not widely used in the trans* community because of its implication that a trans* person “acquires” their gender, rather than has always been of that gender.

Assigned gender: see Acquired Gender above. Again, not widely used in the trans* community because of its implication that a trans* person can have their gender “assigned” to them by a third party, rather than has always been of that gender.

Androgynous: the gender expression of a person who has both masculine and feminine characteristics.

Bigender: a person who tends to flexibly shift between the gender behaviour typically associated with men and women depending on context.

Cis or cisgender: a person whose gender conforms to their birth sex, i.e. a male who identifies as a man or a female who identifies as a woman. The opposite of transgender.

Drag (queen or king): this refers to an actor or actress who dresses as the opposite sex for the purposes of entertainment. Not related to being trans*.

FtM or F2M: see Transman below.

Gender dysphoria: the medical term for the feeling that a trans* person has that their biological sex is not aligned with their gender identity.

Gender expression or presentation: the gender that a person appears to other people to be, selected from a spectrum of genders.

Gender identity: the gender that a person feels themselves to be, selected from a spectrum of genders.

Genderqueer: anyone with a gender identity that is non-binary, i.e. not man or woman. Genderqueer people may identify as one or more of the following: having an overlap of, or indefinite lines between, gender identity and sexual and romantic orientation; two or more genders (bigender, trigender, pangender); without a gender (nongendered, genderless, agender, neutrois); moving between genders or with a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid); third gender or other-gendered. It also includes those who do not place a name to their gender.

Gender recognition certificate or GRC: a document certifying that for all purposes a transgender person is to be treated as the gender they feel themselves to be. In the UK, the document enables a transgender person to amend their birth certificate if they so choose.

Gender variance: a term for the feeling that a trans* person has that their biological sex is not aligned with their gender identity.

dictionary_1633840cMtF or M2F: see Transwoman below.

Passing: the act of successfully being accepted by society as the gender that you wish to present.

Pronouns: he/him/his/his, she/her/her/hers, they/them/their/theirs. There are a range of gender neutral pronouns that have been suggested over the years. A list can be found here. Never ever use “it” when referring to a trans* person.

Recognised gender: An acceptable term used to distinguish between the gender someone was assigned at birth and the gender they feel themselves to be. The term acknowledges not only the trans person’s recognition of their “true” gender but also society’s recognition of their gender.

Sex: the biological or chromosomal sex of a person, as distinct from their gender identity or expression.

Sex-change: out-dated and unacceptable now.

She-male: unacceptable description of a transwoman.

Stealth: the condition whereby a trans* individual passes so completely that they elect not to reveal they are trans*.

Tranny: unacceptable shortened form of the word transgender or transsexual.

Trans: an acceptable shortened form of the word transgender or transsexual.

Trans*: this has replaced trans in recent years. It has been adopted by the trans* community to encompass more groups than just transsexual and transgender individuals. Trans* encompasses anyone whose gender is non-binary or fluid, i.e. androgynous, bigender, genderqueer and some intersex people.

Transgender: a term that describes someone whose gender identity is not aligned with their biological/chromosomal sex. Transgender should never be used as a noun (“I met a transgender today”). Transgender is an adjective (“I met a transgender person today”). Transgendered is also not correct (“I met a transgendered person today”) and should be avoided.

Transsexual: a term that used to be used to distinguish between someone who had undergone gender reassignment surgery and someone who had not (who would have been referred to as transgender). This has fallen out of favour as people have begun to emphasise the plurality of gender rather than accepting it as binary.

Transition: the process that a transgender person undertakes to move from being accepted as one gender to being accepted as the gender they feel themselves to be. It usually includes hormone therapy to make physical changes to the body but may or may not involve surgical procedures.

Transman: a transgender person born female but living as a man. Synonymous with the term FtM (female to male).

Transwoman: a transgender person born male but living as a woman. Synonymous with the term MtF (male to female).