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'Transgender': What It Means

Transgender men and women are more and more visible in American society, with trans people now occasionally appearing as popular television characters and activists working to defend their human rights and to combat endemic anti-trans violence. But even as this long-reviled minority is increasingly in the news, many Americans are confused by exactly what being “transgender” means.

People who are transgender are individuals who feel that the sex they were assigned at birth, and/or their genitalia or physical attributes, does not match their innate gender identity, or who they believe they are inside. According to a guide prepared by several leading LGBT advocacy groups, Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans, “gender identity” is a person’s “deeply-felt inner sense of being male, female, or something other or in-between.” Gender expression,” on the other hand, is “a person’s characteristics and behaviors such as appearance, dress, mannerisms and speech patterns that can be described as masculine or feminine.”

People who are transgender may take any number of steps to make their gender identity and gender expression match; they may live in the community and use names and gender pronouns that reflect their identified gender; they may express their gender and dress in a manner that aligns with their gender identity; they may take hormones that stimulate male or female physical attributes; and, in some but not all cases, they may undergo gender reassignment surgery. Gender identity and expression are independent of sexual orientation. Transgender people, whether they have a male or female gender identity, may identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or something else.