Since gendernote and sexnote are frequently associated or conflated in most societies, including Western ones, babies with penises are designated baby boys and babies with vaginas are designated baby girls. Nature is more complicated than that, of course. But "transgender" is an umbrella term that can be used to refer to all people whose genders don't match the sex they were designated based on visual factors. This includes (the most commonly depicted) "trans women", women who are designated male at birth; "trans men", men who are designated female at birth; and nonbinary people who don't identify as men or women (but can identify as a combination of men, women, and other genders and/or outside of man and woman altogether), and even agender/neutrois people who don't identify as any established gender identity. There are also bigender people, who identify as two genders at once and are usually included in the "nonbinary" or "genderqueer" category above.
Some activists stretch the definition to include everyone who doesn't conform to gender expectations, whether expectations about anatomy or behavior — this broader definition would include cross-dressers and non-traditional men or women who otherwise still agree with whatever sex they got asigned at birth. There's also academic and activist debate over whether some non-Western societies' "third genders" or "third sexes" — categories which are traditional but also not considered "male" or "female" — should be counted under "transgender", or more likely "non-binary"... but this isn't an Anthropology of Gender course.
OriginsBeing transgender is frequently associated with a symptom known as gender dysphoria. It manifests differently between individuals, but generally speaking, it involves a sense of dissatisfaction with one's physical body as the result of their biological sex (hence "dysphoria"), and a wish to have a body of a different gender. Some symptoms that can occur but are, once again, not universal, include the feeling of "being in the wrong body", evaluating one's body by the standards of the other side's (even subconsciously), cross-gender dreams, transformation fantasies, and so on.
Some dysphoria is less physical, where their body parts themselves may not cause them great discomfort they find that the mere idea of being perceived as the wrong gender because of those body parts does. As stated above, manifestation of dysphoria depends on the individual.
Opinions are divided on whether gender dysphoria is inborn or a result of personality development, but it is often stated by medical experts to relate to one's brain structure not matching the expectation (i.e. a biologically male person developed a female brain structure or vice-versa). To the big picture, it is largely irrelevant. It can manifest at different ages, although subconscious manifestations of dysphoria can at times be traced to the time before conscious self-discovery. For a somewhat dated (it was made in The '80s) but still fascinating look at some of the brain and body chemistry behind gender, the BBC documentary The Fight To Be Male is an excellent place to start.
Consider the typical involuntary Gender Bender plot (such as in Ranma ½, or with Roy in The Order of the Stick): the victim often outright hates or is ashamed by their new body, experiencing discomfort with it and seeking ways to remove the "curse". This is how many cisgender peoplenote might react, while many transgender people would consider the "curse" a blessing. In fact, transition (see below) exists exactly because there's no convenient way in real life to quickly change a human's physical sex. Yet, anyway. If there was one, transition would largely be limited to social adaptation to the new gender role.
Self-discoveryAccepting one's own gender identity, or even acknowledging its existence, might take a while, going through stages of denial. This period seems to receive the least coverage in mainstream fiction, which is primarily concerned instead with either the start or the end (or near-end) of the path. An interesting phenomenon can take place that's essentially the reverse of gender dysphoria, which one may call "gender euphoria". It seems under-represented in fiction, if represented at all: Man, I Feel Like a Woman could be considered The Theme Park Version, but gender euphoria doesn't require any physical changes to actually occur.
TransitionTransition, the transgender "journey", is a twofold process, and in fact not universal — some choose not to undergo it at all. One side of it is socialization: learning and adopting the social patterns of the target gender, which by itself becomes progressively easier in the modern society as the gender roles themselves become blurred — however, with it come numerous issues of acceptance versus discrimination, as well as legal issues, of both of which a lot has been written in detail.
The other side is physical change — becoming closer in appearance and function to the target gender — which can be motivated not just by desire of social acceptance, but also by psychological issues of self-esteem, and yes, the "wrong body" feeling. Much is written in details about physical transition as well, involving voice training/alteration, sex-specific steps (e.g. hair or breast removal), the proverbial hormone therapy, and the even more proverbial "op" — that is, genital surgery.
Two myths need to be debunked there. First, hormones aren't Applied Phlebotinum — they can only do so much. While they do cause things like breast growth and thinning of body hair for trans women, or on the contrary, growth of body hair for trans men, as well as some voice changes * and redistribution of body fat — they don't magically alter the skeleton to adjust body shape, nor do they remove facial hair, which has to be done separately. Some skeletal adjustments do happen — the skeleton is a living part of the body, after all, and there is increasing evidence that it continues to develop and change through adult life, but more slowly and on a much more subtle level — but they take years and may never have more than a slight visual effect.
Finally: while the operation may be required for a legal identity change (depending on the geographical area), it's otherwise only one of the transition options available which a person may or may not need, and when the person does choose to undergo it, it always comes last, after a period of living under the new identity. Also, keep in mind that there is no one specific procedure. Terms like pre-op and post-op typically refer to genital reconstructive surgery (GRS or SRS), but there are a variety of surgical procedures that trans people may pursue- for example, many trans men find that having their breasts removed is a more important step than getting work done below the belt. Easy Sex Change only exists in TV Land.
Transsexual vs. TransgenderOften these two terms get conflated and confused but with good reason. A common perception is that transsexual people are those who have surgery and transgender people do not. While the former is mostly accurate the latter is not always so. There are people who view the term transsexual as too stigmatizing and argue that it contributes to the conflation between gender and biological sexual organs and avoid it, even if they choose to have surgery. The majority of trans people identify under "transgender", which is a more liberating term for both binary trans people and nonbinary people, who may not seek surgery in the first place, as well as averting the stigmatized term of "transsexual".
However, older transgender people may still use this term. The origins of changing the term was that cisgender heterosexuals used the term with the suffix "-sexual" against transgender people, claiming it was a sexual fetish, and that trans people were not legitimate or deserving of either respect or (transition related) medical care. The term transgender clarifies that it is not orientation (unlike, say, bisexual, which is an orientation) and does not lend itself to corruption of the term for the purpose of excusing bigotry. All in all, what one uses for themselves is their choice and no-one else's, but cisgender people would do well to use "transgender," and it is also the proper term in any sort of public/medical/academic capacity.
SexualitySexual orientation can be difficult to describe in a binary, ciscentric framework. Traditional labels, like "heterosexual," "homosexual" and "bisexual", are based on the gender binary, and break down when the very framework of gender is in question, although many transgender people use them for themselves nonetheless. Without getting too philosophical, however, they are like everyone in this respect — they may have a sexual preference for males, females, both or neither (or for wider or narrower sections of the gender spectrum), regardless of the direction of their identity. There are proposed terms for sexual orientation that would help resolve the ambiguities, but they are yet to meet universal recognition.
It is worth noting, however, that for some trans people, their sexual preferences change as they go through transition. Sometimes this is the result of exploring the nature of gender and sexuality; sometimes this is due to resolving discomfort with one's own sexuality; sometimes this is just one of the strange things that hormones will do. And sometimes, none of this happens, and they maintain the same sexual identity no matter what alteration might occur to their body.
Stealth or notSome transgender people prefer being "stealth," in that they seek to fully adopt and fit into the cultural role of their gender ("passing") with no traces of having had the body or life experiences of someone who had to live as the other gender. Others, either out of necessity * or simple preference for androgyny, choose a more androgynous presentation.
Same goes for behavior in general: some want to blend in, making a point to act more aggressive/more gentle/etc, taking up hobbies and interests traditional to their gender and shunning those that are not, changing the people they spend time with or their line of work, etcetera, while others don't change their attitudes or interests or friends or preferred work. Sometimes this is because they had a relative balance of interests to begin with; for example, a trans man who leaned toward being tomboyish while living as a woman may already have interests and friends and preferred work that tend toward masculine, for example, so there's no need to change much. Other times because people don't wish to be a part of the predominant cultures/subcultures for their gender anyway, for example, the same as cisgender men who don't like "dudebro" culture or cisgender women who aren't interested in "femininity" as it's sold and packaged in general.
None of this is relevant to whether they are actually "trans enough" or not, despite what some may say. The five foot one trans man who keeps his "pink collar" job/doesn't bulk up/is asexual/doesn't like sports/still has to use the ladies room in some situations/etc is just as much of a man as the six foot tall one who retrained to a more traditionally "male" job/got into bodybuilding/developed a reputation as a heterosexual ladies' man/is a huge sports fan/who would never have to fear for his safety in a restroom/etc. The broad-shouldered and deep-voiced trans woman who works in occupations related to her past work in the military/is a lesbian/doesn't have much of an interest in makeup and fashion/is barred by law from using the ladies room is just as much of a woman as the slight and thin one who became a teacher or nurse or housewife/who got married to a very masculine cisgender man/always has absolutely perfect fashion and makeup/lives in a place where no one or the law would question her right to use the ladies' room.
The important takeaway here is that unless you are a close friend (and even then be very, very, very careful) do not offer "helpful advice" on passing unless it is asked of you. Said advice may be unwanted at best, as well as something already known but ignored or impossible, even if it isn't physically impossible (e.g. changing a stable "pink collar" job like waitressing/waitering or a secretary job for an unstable "man's job" like construction worker or mechanic is a bad idea in a bad economy), and at worst — especially if you are not yourself transgender — a deep and horrific personal insult. Finally, some of the more androgynous transgender persons see fixation with passing as Compensating for Something and therefore just another form of closeting (e.g. "what's the point of coming out of the closet if you have to immediately closet your sexual orientation or your interests or your looks to fit in with gender stereotypes?").
Other common misconceptions and myths:
- "Transgender people are dangerous/ freakish Attention Whores /sexual perverts!" This one is what happens when Hollywood misinformation, confirmation bias, and selection bias meet plain old bigotry, homophobia, and transphobia.
- Transgender people are not exemplified by what you may have seen on Jerry Springer or in the more freakish media portrayals, and are no more inclined toward violent or "dangerous" behavior than the common cisgender population. In the case of trans women, the hormones they are on are actually generally less conducive to violence or sexual predation. In the case of trans men, the dosage of testosterone most are on is not enough to induce "roid rage" or violent mood swings and most have lived long enough socialized as closeted trans men (which is very similar to female socialization) to not seek violence as the first and only solution to a bad day or a mood swing. Most transgender people are more likely to be the victims of violence or sexual assault than the perpetrators of it, or to be capable of violence (martial arts or street fighting skill, carrying a knife or firearm) but only willing to use it in self-defense to stop someone from raping or killing them or someone else.
- Transgender people are no more "freakish" or the Attention Whore on average than cisgender people. Again, while there are some exceptions, these do not speak for all transgender people, and there are a lot of transgender people who do focus on being "normal" and being stealth and not attracting notice of any sort. That said, even the "freakish" people aren't necessarily seeking attention or wishing to start drama with their existence — it is thoroughly possible to be someone who is seen as "freakish" or "weird" by mainstream society and yet be entirely harmless and non-attention seeking. It is also thoroughly possible to be "different" or "unusual" and only be so to be oneself — not in any attempt to draw attention for it. Finally, even the Attention Whore is generally harmless, if annoying — not deserving of social ostracism and punishment to "make them normal" or "make them go away and shut up" — to bully even a confirmed Attention Whore is also pointless, because a true Attention Whore could be incredibly insecure, and looking for validation - or does not want to be normal. And maybe the person isn't actually an Attention Whore but is just living their own life in a different way because that is what they are comfortable with, in which case bullying and ostracising them goes beyond pointless into cruel and discriminatory.
- Transgender people have the same range of sexuality and sexual behavior as cisgender people. While sex work is more common among the community (mostly due to the same economic reason that Single Mom Stripper exists as a trope — when you can't get work or work with reasonable pay anywhere else, sex work is one of the few options left and trans people tend to have roughly three times the unemployment rate of cis people, or higher among trans minorities), not every transgender person is a sex worker. Also, while some may be kinky (from everywhere from the lighter end of BDSM to hardcore highly risky practices), others may not be or may only be in specific settings. Nor do transgender people develop a desire for sex with anything and everything — in fact, the rate of pedophilia and bestiality is lower among the community than among cisgender heterosexual males.
- As a subnote to sexuality and sexual behavior, how a trans woman may feel about wearable breasts or a trans man about a wearable penis, for example, may range from anything from "needed prosthesis" to "fetish" to "toy" and anything in between. If you are curious and aren't having sex with or considering having sex with the person, mind your own business. If you're curious and are having or considering sex, ask before assuming a given set of feelings and especially before asking that the person take the object off. In the case of trans men specifically, many prefer wearable "equipment" because phalloplasty is still primitive and risky as compared to other genitourinary surgeries (and even if desired, is far harder to get covered under much insurance than even top surgery), and/or for reasons of versatility.
- "Transgender people are unstable!" This is an example of what happens when Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and circular reasoning feed into bigotry. Most if not all of the reasons why transgender people can be objectively unstable - you know just like everyone else (lack of financial wealth and liquidity, lack of stable dwellings, not being married or partnered or having strong family ties, anxiety ranging from nervousness to paranoia of straight/cisgender strangers who act in certain ways) - are directly due to the way trans people are or recently were treated, especially poor trans people, and the way society is often set up to encourage violence and mockery toward the transgender or androgynous and discourage them, in turn, from participation in society except among themselves, unless they have money or they are far more beautiful/handsome than even the average cisgender person is.
- This can even sometimes result in a Vicious Cycle of instability based in the reality that when people are treated badly and disrespected, they tend to expect more of the same from those doing it — and the solution isn't to blame them as "unstable" but to encourage others to cut some slack for this, to understand that someone may have been legitimately hurt and may not be incredibly sociable/interested in family or may have unusually strong boundaries due to that, for example. Or to understand that someone might have bad credit/a bad rental history and still be a good tenant or a good worker who just needs someone to give them a chance to prove themselves. The "mental instability of trans people," aside from trans people who actually do have severe mental illnesses unconnected to their status, is pretty much solely the result of their being treated and marginalized as if they are creepy/weird/dangerous/fragile.
- Similarly, a strong correlation has been found between being Trans and on the Autism Spectrum, and it's debated as to whether some of the same genetic or fetal developmental factors are involved. For those who are on the spectrum, it provides additional difficulties with social integration and achieving a "normal" life, and the combination can be disabling, especially in societies where "weird" people are heavily discriminated against. It is unknown if this overlap is biological, or perhaps due to autistic people not understanding (or caring to understand) social gender constructs.
- Connected to the above, "transgender people are not real, they are just confused in the head." Dispelling this myth is part of why the DSM is re-categorizing gender identity disorder as a physical problem of the body similar to intersex. In intersex conditions, the intersex person simply had the hormonal "luck of the draw" to develop physical characteristics of both sexes, whereas the transgender person did not, so their condition is not "visible" even though it is a physical condition of hormones and fetal development, as opposed to a psychological problem of "this person is messed up in the head."
- Some anecdotal evidence tends to point to the "invisible physical condition" theory as well: for example, many trans men report having deeper voices, PCOS symptoms, male pattern hair loss, difficult/painful menstruation, mood swings, or severe fatigue even before transitioning at all and/or when having to be off outside testosterone — which hints at the "natural" state involving a higher amount of testosterone or a different response to it. Or as an alternate theory, a lower amount when the body's balance would be better with the same amount cisgender males naturally have and is instead functioning on a too-high for the individual level of estrogen and progesterone — putting the trans man not on outside testosterone in a similar place biologically as a cisgender male whose body didn't produce the proper level of the hormone.
- There is a growing suspicion that intersex conditions are actually under-diagnosed, and that a routine check ought to be made, instead of only checking when the external genitalia is ambiguous.
- An alternate mistake is assuming that someone is not/cannot be disabled by anything related to gender identity disorder if it is not in and of itself a mental disorder, with a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" or "man up" type attitude. The reactions of others toward it (in societies that remain transphobic at large) can make it a disabling condition (as in, if no one has hired you because of it, you can't get job experience, hence you can't get hired for "no experience"), and associated issues such as adjustment to hormones (fatigue often being a side effect of the dose adjustment phase before optimal levels are reached), menstrual issues in pre-menopausal trans men who can't do hormones or surgery, development of anxiety or depression, development of PTSD and/or social anxiety post an assault or prolonged abuse/bullying, and surgery preparation and post-op recovery are all things that can leave someone unable to work or to do some forms of work, and all are legitimate issues that originate as a result of social stigma, of physical problems the disorder itself presents, or of recovering from treatment.
- It has now been shown that transgender people possess brain structures similar to their cis counterparts, proving further they are not just mentally ill. A newer study (whose link has sadly expired) confirms the above's results.
- For more information on transgender people and their experience, see the trans wiki.
- For help writing a transgender character, see A Single Unified LGBT Character Thread in the forums.