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9 questions about gender identity and being transgender you were too embarrassed to ask

Samuel Kubani/AFP via Getty Images

Transgender people are now at the forefront of LGBTQ issues in America.

Across the country, conservative lawmakers are pushing policies that prohibit transgender people, who identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth, from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. State officials say these laws are necessary for public safety — despite no evidence that letting trans people use the bathroom for their gender identity causes public safety problems.

And recently, Trump administration revoked a guidance, originally written by the Obama administration, that told federally funded schools to not discriminate against trans students and, most controversially, let trans students use the bathroom and locker room that correspond with their gender identity. The Trump administration effectively argued that whether trans people are protected under the law should be decided at the state, not federal, level.

At the heart of the issue seems to be a widespread lack of understanding of trans issues and gender identity. After all, until a few years ago, concepts like gender identity and expression — and how they affect the hundreds of thousands of Americans who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary — hardly scratched the surface of mainstream news and entertainment in any meaningful way.

Now, the issue is at the forefront of public attention. The stories of Caitlyn Jenner; Laverne Cox, a trans woman who plays Sophia on Netflix's Orange is the New Black; and Maura, a fictional trans character in the series Transparent, have all drawn greater attention to the many aspects of trans lives and what it means to identify with a gender different than the one a person was assigned at birth. And state lawmakers, notably in North Carolina, are now passing anti-LGBTQ laws that specifically target trans people — in large part as a response to the progress we've seen with LGBTQ rights.

But the increasing coverage of gender identity issues has in many ways outpaced public understanding. What does it mean to be transgender? And what would compel not just a rich and famous person like Jenner but the thousands of other less-privileged trans people across the country who face discrimination, family abandonment, and even violence to publicly come out?

The answer is both simple and complicated, and challenges some of society's deeply held — but evolving — ideas about gender.

1) Why do some people identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary?

gender symbols Shutterstock

Some people don't identify their gender as the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people, for example, may have been born with a penis, and designated male at birth as a result, but later realize that they identify as women and typical social standards of masculinity or femininity don't apply to them. These people are adopting forms of gender identity and expression that aren't related to their body parts or what sex a doctor decided they are at birth.

And to understand what transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary mean, you have to understand what gender identity and expression are, and how both concepts differ.

Gender identity is someone's personal identification as man, woman, or a gender outside of societal norms. Gender expression refers to characteristics and behaviors a person identifies with that can be viewed as masculine, feminine, a mix of both, or neither.

The vast majority of Americans are cisgender, meaning they identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Perhaps because of this — and because people who are not cisgender have been visible in the mainstream media only relatively recently — there's an exposure gap for many Americans. For them, it can be difficult to understand how, for instance, a person born with a vagina and raised as a woman might identify as a man.

Lily Carollo, a trans woman in North Carolina, said she helps cisgender people expand their views on gender identity through a thought exercise that, if successful, conveys the feeling of being identified by others as the wrong gender.

She begins by asking people if a huge sum of money would get them to physically transition to the opposite gender. Most people say no, she said, because they'd rather continue presenting themselves as the gender they were born as and identify with. "If you go into why they're answering no, they'll usually say that it wouldn't feel right," Carollo said. "That's what you lock into. Take that sense and imagine if you had been born in the opposite body."

A common misconception is that gender identity and expression are linked to sexual or romantic attraction. But a trans person can identify as a man, even though he was assigned female at birth, and be gay (attracted to other men), straight (attracted to women), bisexual, asexual (sexually attracted to no one), or attracted to a traditionally undefined gender. Trans women, gender nonconforming people, genderqueer people, and nonbinary people can also be sexually attracted to men, women, both, no one, or another preference.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, acknowledged that this concept can be difficult to explain. "If somebody was living as a man dating women, and now they're living as a woman dating women, what does that mean? They were straight; now they're gay," Keisling, a trans woman in Washington, DC, said. "But did their sexual orientation change, or were they always attracted to women?"

This infographic, put together by Trans Student Educational Resources, helps break through some of that confusion by showing how a person's gender identity and expression fall outside characteristics like sexual orientation and sex assigned at birth:

The gender unicorn explains the difference between gender identity, gender expression and presentation, sex assigned at birth, and sexual and romantic attractions. Trans Student Educational Resources

The idea behind these different forms of identity and expression is that traditional gender roles — how people are expected by society to act based on the gender assigned to them at birth — are a social construct, not a biological one. This is a concept that causes a great deal of debate in religious and conservative circles, but it's largely uncontroversial for many anthropologists who indicate that gender is flexible enough that different societies and people can construct and interpret it differently.

So transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary are terms people use to describe their gender identity and expression, and how they differ from traditional societal standards and expectations.

2) Okay, so what does it mean for a person to be transgender?

Transgender — or trans — is an umbrella term, so it applies to at least 700,000 Americans who feel their internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Although some research suggests people can identify as trans as children, it can take years of pain and social stigma for people to begin living their lives as the gender they identify with.

Keisling, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, knows what it's like to embrace an identity that is suppressed for a long time.

"People say things like, 'You're pretending to be a man,' or, 'You're pretending to be a woman,'" she said. "What they don't understand is I was actually pretending before."

She explained that a widespread — and "baffling" — myth is that trans people are somehow confused or misleading others. "We're among the few people who are really approaching things with full integrity and full transparency," she said. "We're saying, 'This is who I really am.'"

Going from presenting as one gender to another is called transitioning, but not all people take the same path. Some trans people are satisfied with only coming out to their friends or social circles, in what's called social transitioning. Others will medically transition, which can involve hormone therapy and multiple surgeries, to change their physical characteristics to match the gender they identify with. Even after medically transitioning, a few will keep their gender identity secret from people they encounter — sometimes to feel like they have a fresh start, to avoid discrimination, or for their own personal privacy.

"We're saying, 'This is who I really am'"

Kortney Ziegler, a trans man in Oakland, California, described his social and medical transitions as "a journey."

"I use that word — journey — because it contrasts from a definitive time stamp," he told me. "It's not that simple for a lot of people."

Keisling and Ziegler explained that not all trans people undergo medical treatments to change their physical traits, perhaps because they are comfortable with their bodies, don't want to go through what can be a very complicated, invasive medical procedures, or can't afford the hormone therapies and surgeries involved.

Still, medically transitioning can be a health necessity. Some — but not all — trans people experience severe gender dysphoria, a state of emotional distress caused by how someone's body or the gender they were assigned at birth conflicts with their gender identity. Dysphoria can lead to severe depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. But this is a temporary condition that can be treated by allowing the people it affects to socially and medically transition.

Transitioning can be made much more difficult by persistent misconceptions, including the myth that trans people belong to a third gender. Emily Prince, a trans woman in Virginia, previously struggled with this while signing up for a therapy program. "The first line of the form asked for sex with three options: male, female, and transgender," she said. "Right there, we already have an issue. I'm a woman. I'm not some third sex. There are some non-binary people who don't fit into male or female, but you don't describe all trans people in that way."

Another pervasive point of misunderstanding is that trans people are all cross-dressers, drag queens, and drag kings. The LGBTQ group GLAAD helped clear this up in its organization's handy reference guide on trans issues: "Transgender women are not cross-dressers or drag queens. Drag queens are men, typically gay men, who dress like women for the purpose of entertainment. Be aware of the differences between transgender women, cross-dressers, and drag queens. Use the term preferred by the individual."

There's no denying that gender identity is an important part of everyone's life, but — just like with race, sex, and sexual orientation — no one wants to be stereotyped.

3) How about gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary people?

Although genderqueer, nonbinary, and gender nonconformity are expressions often associated with sexual orientation — think stereotypes of flamboyant gay men or butch lesbians — they're not intertwined.

Gender nonconforming people don't express their genders in a way society expects them to. Some gender nonconforming people might be androgynous, meaning they don't readily exhibit traits that can easily identify them as men or women. Men who exhibit feminine traits and women who express masculine characteristics may also identify as gender nonconforming.

"Some people just don't think the term 'male' or 'female' fits for them"

Genderqueer and nonbinary people generally don't identify or express as men or women, sometimes adopting gender roles and traits outside society's typical expectations and other times taking elements from both masculinity and femininity. Androgynous people can also fall into this category if they identify their gender as neither male nor female. (There are some nuanced differences between the terms genderqueer and nonbinary, although they are frequently used interchangeably. For more on that, check out Nonbinary.org.)

"Some people just don't think the term 'male' or 'female' fits for them," Keisling said.

Sometimes there is an overlap between transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary communities. People might identify with all, some, or none of these concepts, even if they exhibit traits attributed to these three forms of identity and expression. There are dozens of ways people identify and express themselves, so these three concepts fall far short of the full realm of possibilities.

4) How do people realize they're trans, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, or nonbinary?

A visualization of a brain and a person’s reflection in a mirror. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Some people know and fully understand their identities when they are children.

"I always knew," said Jordan Geddes, a trans man in Maryland. "But I grew up and had the whole world telling me I'm wrong. At that point [as a child in the 1990s], there was no visibility whatsoever about trans issues. My parents just assumed I'm a very butch lesbian."

A study from the TransYouth Project found that trans children as young as 5 years old respond to psychological gender-association tests, which evaluate how people view themselves within gender roles, as quickly and consistently as those who don't identify as trans.

What can lead people at such a young age to know their gender identity? Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine conducted a review of the current scientific research, and concluded that the available data suggests there's a biological link to a person's gender identity, indicating that trans people are essentially assigned genders at birth that don't match their inherent, biologically set identity.

The scientific community has increasingly come around to the evidence that it's very much possible for some people to identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth without major problems.

The American Psychiatric Association, for example, now recognizes that gender identity isn't inherently linked to other mental health problems: "Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder. For these individuals, the significant problem is finding affordable resources, such as counseling, hormone therapy, medical procedures, and the social support necessary to freely express their gender identity and minimize discrimination. Many other obstacles may lead to distress, including a lack of acceptance within society, direct or indirect experiences with discrimination, or assault."

A similar shift occurred in the medical community with gays and lesbians in the 1970s, when experts stopped considering homosexuality a mental illness.

As APA suggests, many obstacles — particularly discrimination and lack of knowledge about gender identity and expression — can make it difficult for trans, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary people to come out until later in life.

Ziegler of California, realized what it means to be FTM, a term for a trans man that stands for "female to male," early in adulthood. "When I was in college, maybe about 18 years old, I saw a book at the LGBT center called FTM," he said. "I had no idea what that meant. I was like, what's FTM? I opened the book, and it changed my world. It blew my mind. Ever since, I knew it was a possibility."

Ziegler's story demonstrates that trans people sometimes don't know how to identify when they're young, because they're never educated on gender identity or expression.

"I didn't realize what was going on with me in clear terms for a long time," Carollo of North Carolina said. "I knew something was up. But if I understood what was going on earlier on in my life — for example, if schools taught about sexuality and gender identity — I would have transitioned so much sooner. It took me a while to really think about myself in that manner and be sure enough I was going to transition."

While these stories provide a small glimpse into people's experiences, they show it's impossible to assume how and when people came to terms with their gender identity and expression. Everyone's experience can vary.

5) This is a lot to take in. Can we take a break?

Yes, if only to show some of the more accurate and perhaps illustrative examples of trans people in media. In the past few years, shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have put a spotlight on trans characters and raised awareness about some of the issues people in these communities often go through.

Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia in Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, in 2014 became the first trans person to be featured on the cover of Time:

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Time

Here is one funny clip introducing the Sophia character, who has an acute sense of fashion:

While Cox has a supporting role in Orange Is the New Black, Amazon's Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a divorced trans woman who is transitioning late in life. The show, which won two Golden Globes, is perhaps the most nuanced look at a trans person on television. Here is a trailer for the first season:

These shows, while phenomenal in their own right, have also played a big role in pulling back the curtains on trans issues in mainstream media. By focusing so much on trans people, the shows have introduced many Americans to a concept they may not have been familiar with in the past — much in the same way shows like Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under exposed Americans to gay and lesbian people.

6) I want to know someone's gender identity, but I don't want to be offensive. Is there a polite way to ask?

What pronoun do you use for a transgender person? Whatever they use for themselves. Javier Zarracina/Vox

If there's any reasonable uncertainty, GLAAD says the best thing to do is directly ask what someone's gender identity is. Although it can be awkward for both parties, it's much better than the problems that can arise from not asking and making an assumption. And there's a good chance trans, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary people may be used to the question — and might even appreciate it, because it shows you don't want to misgender them.

Misgendering is seen as an insult within LGBTQ communities because it characterizes people in a way they don't relate to. What's worse, some opponents of LGBTQ rights purposely misgender people to show their disapproval of identifying or expressing gender in a way that doesn't heed traditional social standards. These subtle acts are viewed by many LGBTQ people as microaggressions, which, while not always overtly or purposely insulting, can act as a constant reminder to people that large segments of the population don't understand or approve of their personal identity.

"Imagine going through life every day and having so many of your interactions involve somebody trying to give you a hug and stepping on your foot while doing it," Prince of Virginia, said. "And then when you ask them to step off your foot, no matter how polite you are about it, they respond with, 'Oh, excuse me, I was just trying to give you a hug.'"

Sometimes the problem is magnified by limitations in the English language, which relies heavily on gendered pronouns. LGBTQ communities have tried to propose various gender-neutral pronouns, but none have caught on. Some people and organizations, including Vox, might use "they" instead of "he" or "she" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

The lack of a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun makes it difficult for even the most well-meaning person to correctly address someone without running the risk of misgendering them. That's one of the reasons it's typically better to directly ask about a person's gender identity if there's any reasonable uncertainty.

7) What kind of hardships do trans people face?

Laverne Cox at an LGBTQ pride march. Eric Thayer/Getty Images

It might be difficult for most people to fully understand the many hurdles that trans, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary people deal with on a daily basis. But they face huge disparities in nearly every aspect of society.

Families shun and even disown children over their gender identity and expression. Employers and landlords may deny people jobs and homes because they don't conform to gender norms, which is legal to do under most states' laws. In social settings and media, trans people are commonly portrayed as purposely deceptive individuals and even sexual predators who want to trick or trap others into sleeping with them.

Here are a few more examples:

  • The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found trans and gender nonconforming people are nearly four times as likely to live in extreme poverty as the general population.
  • NTDS found 57 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people report family rejection. This rejection had precipitous effects: Trans and gender nonconforming people who are rejected by their families are nearly three times as likely to experience homelessness, 73 percent more likely to be incarcerated, and 59 percent more likely to attempt suicide, according to NTDS.
  • A 2013 report by the New York City Anti-Violence Project found trans people, particularly trans women of color, face some of the highest rates of hate violence and murder in the country.
  • A 2014 study by the Williams Institute and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that 46 percent of trans men and 42 percent of trans women have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared with 4.6 percent of the general population.

The surveys and studies above found these disparities are more pronounced among trans women of color, who can live within the convergence of transphobia, racism, and misogyny in the US. "The bodies of trans women of color are the site of multiple forms of deeply historical oppression," said Chase Strangio, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and AIDS Project. "That's a critical part of understanding the violence against trans people."

In 2015, multiple transgender women, most of whom were racial minorities, were murdered. For a segment that makes up less than 1 percent of the US population, the number of deaths reached what activists referred to as "a horrifying litany" and "an epidemic."

8) Why does society give people who don't follow gender norms such a hard time?

bathroom signs

Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

As with many other issues of discrimination, the root of the problem is prejudice: the idea that people who are not cisgender are somehow inferior or wrong about how they identify.

The biggest issue, voiced by Keisling and many other trans people to me, is the mischaracterization that people who don't conform to society's expectations of gender are always trying to deceive others. It is perhaps the stereotype that underpins so many of the issues these people face in their everyday lives, making it so they have a difficult time even entering the bathroom that corresponds to their gender — much less getting a job or gaining family acceptance.

"It's creating a phobia," Angelica Ross, CEO of TransTech Social, a company that actively trains and hires trans people to provide them with job opportunities, said.

Some of the prejudice shows itself in state policies. Bathroom bills, for example, try to stop trans people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity. The worry is that if trans people are allowed to use the bathroom for their gender identity, whether through inclusive policies or laws that ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in certain settings, men will somehow take advantage of these measures to sneak into women's bathrooms and sexually assault women.

But even if states allow trans people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, rape and sexual assault remain completely illegal.

Moreover, there are no reports of any sexual assaults happening as a result of states or facilities letting trans people use the bathroom for their gender identity. In two investigations, Media Matters confirmed with experts and officials in 12 states and 17 school districts with protections for LGBTQ people that they had no increases in sex crimes after they enacted LGBTQ protections.

Experts say LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws do not lead to sexual crimes in bathrooms. Media Matters

Trans people say they just want to use the correct bathroom, previously taking up the Twitter hashtag #wejustneedtopee to show their discontent with the state bills:

At a more basic level, many people don't believe that expressing or identifying with a gender different from the one designated at birth is a healthy possibility. It wasn't until 2012 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classified gender dysphoria as a treatable state of emotional distress instead of a permanent condition called "gender identity disorder." If some of the world's leading medical experts and academics didn't come to this conclusion until recently, it's not surprising the rest of the population is in many ways catching up.

LGBTQ advocates say conversations have to start at the individual level to drive broader cultural changes and understanding, similar to the effect gay, lesbian, and bisexual people had on society by coming out and showing others that their love and marriages are largely no different than those of heterosexual couples.

"People try to find these direct solutions," Ross said. "But it's more so a conversation about how we accept everyone's expression. … We have to focus on creating a society that fosters uniqueness and diversity, not that kills them."

9) Is there any sign that things will get better?

Barack Obama

Mandel Ngan/Pool via Getty Images

Although polling data on trans issues is scarce, there are multiple signs of a cultural shift on gender identity and expression in the US.

The fact that trans people are now major characters in award-winning shows demonstrates that times are changing. Laverne Cox's rising fame and the popularity of shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black indicate that many parts of society are ready for a broader conversation about gender identity and expression.

On social media, Facebook now allows users to write in their own gender identity on profiles and also provides more than 50 predetermined options, after users and LGBTQ allies clamored for more choices.

LGBTQ advocates are also making gains in the political arena. President Barack Obama became the first president to mention trans people in a State of the Union speech this year. Many states — most recently, the very conservative and religious Utah — have passed or are considering laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in the workplace and housing.

Still, there are many areas where advocates say society continues to lag behind. Some states, like North Carolina, have passed or considered anti-LGBTQ laws that ban trans people from using the bathroom for their gender identity. The federal government, which now bans several forms of health care discrimination through Obamacare, doesn't require health insurers to provide full trans-inclusive coverage. Despite some progress at the state level, most states don't ban workplace discrimination based on gender identity.

The nation appears to be at a transitional point on gender identity issues: While there's been some progress, there's a long way to go before trans, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary people have equality.


Watch: How most states still discriminate against LGBT people

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