Having a conversation with an older generation about people who identify as transgender, their experiences, and pronouns can be difficult given the differences in cultural contexts and references, so here’s a 101 on trans identities that is (hopefully) broken down enough that even someone who does not understand what it is to be transgender person can understand it.
First off, gender is a social construct. This means that it is a social invention dependent on culture and context. It is not just a function of biology. It is not enough for someone to have xx chromosomes and ‘female’ genitalia in order for them to be a woman– they would also have to functionally prove that they are a ‘woman’ through gender roles and relationships. For example, often when you see a woman on the street, you have no idea whether or not she has ‘female’ genitalia. Her appearance and behavior are enough to convince you of her femininity.
Gender is performative. It has to be constantly proved and performed through ways of speaking, dressing and behaving. Think of the very existence of a term like ‘tomboy.’ It proves that there is something different about a person designated by this term, that they are ‘female’ but also not. This is because gender is not simply a way of living in the world, it is also a way of defining relationships. For example, what does it mean when a (usually heterosexual) person asks a gay or lesbian couple “who’s the man and who’s the woman?” It’s not that they’re (wrongly) implying that simply by virtue of being in a gay relationship these people experience a change of gender; it is that gender is automatically understood to be a way of behaving rather than an absolute. All of this means that gender is defined by far more than the chromosomes or genitalia you were born with.
Secondly, sex is not — and has never been — binary. Intersex people have always existed. Therefore, claims of trans non-binary identities being ‘unscientific’ ignore the fact that this binary we have created has always been false and have traditionally ignored the existences of many people. Not only is sex not binary, but non-binary genders have also always existed. From the two-spirit people in Native American cultures to Hijras and Kinnars in India, non-binary genders are, in fact, far older than the Christian colonist denials of them.
A transgender person is a person who identifies with any gender other than the one assigned to them at birth, while a person who does identify with their assigned gender is ‘cisgender.’ There are two important conceptions in regards to understanding trans people. The first is ‘dysphoria,’ which refers to a physical discomfort between the body a person has been born into and the gender with which they identify leading to mental distress, or accompanied by mental distress as they are ‘misgendered’ or referred to by the wrong pronouns. Dysphoria is what leads to trans people binding or tucking, using makeup, cutting their hair in certain ways, and other methods of coping with their distress. An equally important term is ‘euphoria,’ which refers to the feeling of elation at being identified by pronouns related to your gender of choice rather than the one that has been forcibly assigned to you at birth.
Transgender identities form an umbrella under which identities can broadly be divided into two categories — binary and non- binary identities. A binary identity is either male or female, that is a person who identifies as either male or female. For example, a trans person who was Assigned Male At Birth (AMAB) is a trans woman, while a trans person who was Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) is a trans man. A person who was “assigned female at birth,” for example, is a person who was called a ‘girl’ when they were born. A non- binary identity is any identity that is outside of this false dichotomy of man and woman. Non- binary identities include identities such as genderqueer, gender, gender fluid, or simply non-binary. While most trans binary people use traditional gender pronouns such as she/her for trans women and he/him for trans men, most (though not all) non-binary people may use gender-neutral pronouns like the singular they/them, or neo-pronouns like xe/xem. Despite people claiming that such pronoun usage is dramatically incorrect, this is untrue. The singular ‘they’ has been in use for centuries. Often, if you do not know the gender of a person you will use they/them pronouns without even realizing it.
Lastly, all trans identities are valid, even if they seem confusing to you. A trans woman is not a man in women’s clothing, no matter what best-selling children’s authors would like to tell you. Transitioning and transgender identities are scientifically and socially sound. It is only a colonial, evangelical mindset that keeps society from accepting them.
Photo: Alok V Menon via Cade Hildreth