For someone who IS transgender, one might think it would be easy for me to explain what it is to be transgender, and yet I still find it incredibly difficult even after identifying with the term for so long. So let me break it down:
In the most basic (and by basic I really do mean basic) of senses, “Transgender” is just that – the transition from one gender to another. Someone who is transgender is someone who identifies as a gender that does not match their biological sex.
Gender and sex are the same, you say? Absolutely not! Sex is all biological and is determined based on chromosomes. Whether someone transitions or not, their sex doesn’t change. This can be a cause for dysphoria and is NOT something that should be brought up in polite conversation with someone who is transgender. (More on polite conversation in a later post.) Gender, on the other hand, is a fluid idea, and there are countless genders and gender identities on the spectrum. Think of it as a rainbow (as cliche as that sounds) – on one end is male-identified born-as-male (cismale/cisman) and at the other end is female-identified born-as-female (cisfemale/ciswoman). In between those two extremes you’ll find female-born male-identified (FtM transman) and male-born female-identified (MtF transwoman), genderfluid (identifies as multiple genders or no gender and presents as various genders as they please), gender non-conforming (does not identify as part of the “gender binary” of male-or-female, sometimes not identifying as any gender), two-spirit (the First Nations/Indigenous North American word to describe not only transgender individuals but others who are on more central parts of the gender spectrum), to name a few. A person’s gender is determined by the individual; nobody can tell a person how to identify.
“Can someone identify as transgender even if they haven’t transitioned yet, or aren’t planning to transition surgically?” Of course! If someone feels that “transgender” is what best describes themselves, then all the power to them! But even if someone decides to transition, that doesn’t mean they have to identify as transgender. If they identify differently, that’s their choice, and we have to respect that. We can’t force labels on people that they don’t identify with, it’s not our place to decide what people are, or who they are.
“How did you know you were transgender?” This is where things get hard to explain. I always knew I was different, but it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I learned that what I was feeling was normal, and that there were others like me. I’ve always been uncomfortable in my own body. As I got older, I started to wear more boys’ clothes, and it made me feel a little better. I cut my hair short again, chose men’s glasses. Then I started wrapping my breasts when I’d get to school, starting in mid grade 11. I started using things like tensor bandages, multi-layering my sports bras. I tried duct tape once and ripped so much skin off when I removed it that I had a hard time showering for more than a week. Needless to say I never used duct tape again! Then, after graduation, I learned about special shirts they made for men with gynecomastia, and how other transmen wore them to bind their breasts too, so that’s when I ordered my first one. It was great! While it didn’t hide them completely, it did give me a much flatter look, and putting that shirt on instantly made me happier and more confident. I started wearing a softpack (soft rubber penis with scrotum that is worn either in one’s underwear or on a harness strap under pants to give the look and feel of having a real “package”) after that and felt even better, and when I’d get called “Sir” or “young man”, well, no words can describe how it made me feel. It was around that time that I met other transpeople, men and women like myself who felt like they had been born wrong, that something had been mixed up during development. That’s when I learned what it meant to be transgender, that I wasn’t weird or crazy or a freak. There is nothing weird or wrong about being transgender, just like there is nothing wrong with being queer, or from a different background. We are all human, and that’s all that truly matters.
“So you identify as transgender. What’s next” Stay tuned, I’ll cover that next time 😉