Imagine that at birth, you are assigned a favorite color. Let’s say it’s blue. You are expected to talk about how much you like the color blue, to wear the color blue, to have blue things. But when you are young, say five or so years old, you realize you have a certain affinity for the color purple. At the store you pass the purple clothes section and look at the clothes with longing, but your parents pull you by the hand to the blue clothes section and help pick out clothes for you.
One day when you are ten, you sneak some purple clothes into the cart. Your parents see them, quickly put them back, and leave the cart in the store without buying the items they have picked out. They rush you home and sit you down on the couch. They ask you why you’re picking out purple clothes, and you admit that you like purple, and have always liked purple. They explain to you that you can’t like purple, you were assigned blue at birth and you are expected to like blue throughout your life. If you openly like purple you will become a pariah. You will have less legal rights. You will be seen as less than human.
Trans-identifying is certainly not a matter of preference, but of identity. However, this metaphor I have written for being trans has helped me explain what being transgender is like to a lot of my cisgender friends.
In her 2013 book “My New Gender Workbook”, author Kate Bornstein writes: “From the moment we take our first breath (and sometimes even before that, what with sonic imaging technology), the cry “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” ushers us into this world. As we grow into adulthood, everything about us grows and matures as we grow and mature. Everything except gender, that is. We’re supposed to believe that our gender stays exactly the same as the day we were born. Our genders never shift, we’re told. The genders we’re assigned at birth lock us onto a course through which we’ll be expected to become whole, well-rounded, creative, loving people—but only as men or women.”
Transgender is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as an adjective meaning “identified as a gender other than the biological one”. Trans people feel that their gender identity is inconsistent with their assigned gender.
Trans- is a Latin prefix meaning “across or on the other side of” (ie: transatlantic, transaction, transfer, etc.)
Trans people often experience gender dysphoria, defined as the state of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity to be in opposition to one’s assigned sex. Dysphoria can manifest in multiple ways, including uneasiness with one’s body, apprehension about presentation, and self-doubt.
Some transgender people may opt for medical transition—hormones and surgeries—so that their bodies appear closer to what they would like to appear like. Some people do not undergo these procedures at all, and simply present as the gender they identify with.
Some people feel they don’t fit into either binary gender, or that they fluidly move between multiple genders. This is called being genderfluid or genderqueer. Still some people identify with two or more genders (bigender/pangender) or with none (agender).
Cisgender is a term, also an adjective, denoting that someone’s gender identity and gender assignment are congruent.
Cis- is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side”.
The word cisgender was coined as an alternative to the use of “normal” to denote people who were not trans. This “normal/trans” dichotomy results in an alienation and “othering” of transfolk by labeling them as “abnormal”.
SEX VS. GENDER
Usually we refer to sex and gender as two different things: we pin the physical characteristics of someone (their genitals, etc) as their sex, and their identity as gender.
According to Kate Bornstein’s 1998 book, “My Gender Workbook”, gender is a categorization made up of different parts:
Gender Assignment: The male or female designation given to a person at birth, generally determined by the presence of genitals labeled “male” (penis, testicles) or “female” (vagina, ovaries). According to Kate Bornstein, “gender assignment is something done to each one of us, long before we have the ability to have any say in the matter.”
Gender Role: Qualities, mannerisms, duties, and cultural expectations accorded to a specific gender. (i.e: pink for girls and blue for boys, women wear dresses and men wear pants, women should be emotional and nurturing while men should be stoic and protective, etc.)
Gender Identity: Someone’s personal identification and relationship with their gender; whether someone feels like a man, woman, in-between, both, or neither.
Gender Attribution: Pinning a gender onto someone based on physical and verbal cues such as what they are wearing, how they act, etc.
Kate Bornstein defines sex in her book as not the genitals and biological makeup that a person possesses (instead tacking to this the phrase “gender assignment”), but as the act of having sex: how we have sex, with whom we have sex, where, when, etc. She says, “Naming sex as the act and only the act robs essentialist thinkers of their biological imperative, which is usually based on some arcane combination of genitals, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive ability.”
If you are interested in learning more, here are some helpful links:
National Center for Transgender Equality: Resources
National Center for Transgender Equality: Understanding Transgender (PDF)
National Center for Transgender Equality: Transgender Terminology (PDF)
GLAAD: Transgender 101
NYU Local: Some Things You Might Not Have Known About Transgender Issues
Everyday Feminism: 10 Things You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns