Medically reviewed on Aug 31, 2017
Want to better understand what it means to be transgender? Here's a primer on the basics, as well as the definitions of common terms used to describe gender identity.
The word "transgender" encompasses more than you might realize. It covers a range of gender identities and expressions that might fall outside of the idea that all people can be classified as only one of two genders — male or female (gender binary).
Transgender is an umbrella term used to capture the spectrum of gender identity and gender-expression diversity. Gender identity is the internal sense of being male, female, neither or both. Gender expression — often an extension of gender identity — involves the expression of a person's gender identity through social roles, appearance and behaviors.
People who are transgender include:
- Those who have a gender identity that differs from the sex assigned to them at birth
- Those whose gender expression — the way gender is conveyed to others through clothing, communication, mannerisms and interests — and behavior don't follow stereotypical societal norms for the sex assigned to them at birth
- Those who identify and express their gender fluidly outside of the gender binary, which might or might not involve hormonal or surgical procedures
The relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation
Being transgender doesn't say or imply anything about a person's sexual orientation — physical and emotional attraction or sexual behavior. Sexual orientation is an inherent component of every individual. A person's sexual orientation can't be assumed based on gender identity or gender expression.
Understanding gender dysphoria
Gender dysphoria is the feeling of discomfort or distress that might accompany a difference between gender identity, sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics. This type of distress doesn't affect everyone who is transgender.
Gender dysphoria is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose mental conditions. Gender dysphoria is a diagnosis that is given to individuals who are experiencing discomfort or distress due to the difference between gender identity, sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics.
Knowing helpful terms
Other terms that might come up in a discussion about being transgender include:
- Cisgender. This term is used to describe an individual whose gender identity and expression matches the stereotypical societal characteristics related to sex assigned at birth.
- Cross-dressing. This involves dressing as the other gender for entertainment or pleasure. Cross-dressing isn't necessarily a sign of a person's gender identity or sexual orientation. Cross-dressing also isn't indicative of gender dysphoria.
- Gender fluidity. This is the exhibition of a variability of gender identity and expression. Gender fluid people don't feel restricted by typical societal norms and expectations and might identify and express themselves as masculine, feminine or along a spectrum, and possibly with variations over time.
- Gender nonconforming. This occurs when gender expression, gender roles or both differ from societal norms and expectations for an individual's sex assigned at birth.
- Gender role. This term refers to the societal norms and expectations associated with a person's sex assigned at birth.
- Sexual minority stress. This is stress related to societal stigma, prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with diverse gender identity and expression.
- Trans man and trans woman. These terms are used to describe, in a gender binary manner, a transgender individual's gender identity or expression. For example, the term "trans woman" is used for an individual whose sex at birth was assigned male and whose gender identity is female. However, not all transgender individuals use these terms to describe themselves.
If you have further questions about gender identity, consider checking out resources such as The Fenway Institute or the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at the University of California, San Francisco.