Introduction to Transgender Identities

Transgender UmbrellaThis page is meant to be a brief introduction to transgender identities. There are many excellent resources elsewhere. Consider attending a Safe Zone training to learn more about ways to support transgender people. And check out our transgender-affirmative research page.

Gender Introduction

When discussing the term “transgender,” it is useful to begin by examining the concept of gender. We begin by separating sex from gender. Sex refers to biological and physical characteristics that are linked with being labeled male or female. Sex is labeled at birth, usually on the basis of genitalia and/or chromosomes. Gender refers to the combination of characteristics, expectations, and roles usually associated with biological sex – often placed on a spectrum between masculine and feminine. The concept of gender is complicated because most aspects of gender are social constructs that vary across time and culture. For example, gender presentation (appearance, clothing, mannerisms, and behaviors) and gender roles (social roles, occupational choices) vary widely depending on the culture and era.

A central aspect of gender is gender identity. Gender identity is the self-image that one has about one’s own gender as masculine, feminine, or otherwise. Often, people assume that gender identity is congruent with biological sex; they believe that a female will identify as feminine, and a male will identify as masculine. However, this is not true for everyone, since some people with male biology feel strongly feminine, and some with female biology feel themselves to be masculine. Others do not consider their gender to be either feminine or masculine, but a blend of both; still others feel that they are neither masculine nor feminine, but some other third gender. It is important to remember that gender is a malleable and variable category.

Transgender Introduction

People who defy gender norms have existed in every culture throughout time. However, the term “transgender” is relatively new, dating to the mid-1990s. Often, transgender people are not well understood by the general population. It is useful to think of the word “transgender” as an umbrella term that encompasses a number of people who live substantial portions of their lives expressing an innate sense of gender other than their sex assigned at birth. This includes transsexuals, cross-dressers and people who feel like their biological sex fails to reflect their true gender. People who do not identify as transgender can be called “cisgender,” meaning that they identify with the sex assigned at birth.

Some transgender people report feeling that they were born in the wrong body. For this reason, some transgender people choose to have surgery to take the physical form of their desired sex. This person is sometimes called a post-operative transsexual. Someone can also be pre-operative, or can choose never to have surgery (in this case, she or he might be known as “non-op”). Hormones are used to promote secondary sex characteristics, such as breast tissue or facial hair. Often, the word “transitioning” is used to describe the period of moving away from one’s assigned sex. Physical transitioning may describe surgical, hormonal, or other changes to one’s body. Socially transitioning may describe legally changing one’s name, asking friends to use a chosen pronoun, and other acts of disclosure.

If specifying that someone is trans is necessary (although it usually isn’t), the following terminology should be used: someone who formerly identified as a woman and who now identifies as a man is known as a FTM (female-to-male) transsexual, a trans man, or a transgender man. Likewise, someone who formerly identified as a man and who now identifies as a woman may be labeled a MTF (male-to-female) transsexual, a trans woman, or a transgender woman. It is extremely important to remember that MTF people are women, just as FTM people are men.

Addressing transgender people the way they prefer to be addressed (including chosen name and preferred pronouns) demonstrates respect. Some transgender individuals may choose to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as “ze/hir/hirs,” as in the sentence “That book is hirs. Ze brought hir favorite book.” Other pronouns are in use; the best way to find out someone’s preferred pronoun is to simply ask.

Transgender people may identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, heterosexual, or some other sexual orientation. Having experienced discrimination, prejudice, oppression, fear and shame, they share commonalties with LGB people. Like LGB people, transgender individuals should not have to hide who they are in order to have safe and satisfying lives.

To learn more about ways to be an ally to trans people, check out some of the following resources.

Practicing Inclusion

Many people have questions about how to send signals of inclusion to transgender people. Regardless of context, everyone can work to create environments that are more inclusive of a diversity of gender identities. Below you will find basic principles of inclusion. These principles can help you ensure that everyone under the transgender umbrella feels welcome. Click the principle to expand for more information.

Use the correct name.

  • The correct name is always the one that someone chooses to use to refer to themselves. Regardless of someone’s legal name, always use the name they choose.
  • Make it easy for people to share the name they use by including a nickname field on forms and nametags.
  • Do not ask transgender people about the names they used before they transitioned.
  • Certain computer systems at Hopkins allow for a “preferred name.” Visit our name change page for more information.

Use the correct pronoun.

  • It is a good idea to ask “What pronoun do you use?” when you meet someone for the first time. You can also ask people to share pronouns when they fill out a registration form or information sheet.
  • You can make it easy for people to share their pronouns with you by sharing your own pronoun verbally and in your email signature. For example, “I am Dr. Eric Smith. You can call me Eric, and I use he/him/his pronouns.”
  • When facilitating a small group discussion, ask people to share their pronouns along with their names as a part of the discussion. For example, “Let’s go around the group and do introductions. Please share your name, your major, and your pronoun. I’ll start. My name is Yvonne, I’m in BME, and I use they/them/theirs.”
  • If you make a mistake, correct yourself as quickly as possible and try not to repeat the mistake. If you hear someone else use an incorrect pronoun, simply correct them by saying “I think that Clarissa uses she/her/hers for her pronouns.”

Protect confidentiality.

  • If you happen to know that someone is transgender, it is not your business to tell other people that information.
  • Regardless of how someone identified in the past, use their current pronoun and name. You would not say “Back then, I knew Julie as Frank. Frank told me that he saw the funniest thing in the library.” You would say, “Julie told me a story about how she saw the funniest thing.”

Use inclusive language.

  • Most gender-specific language can be replaced with inclusive alternatives. Instead of saying “ladies and gentlemen” or “men and women,” try “everyone,” “people,” or “folks.”
  • If you are creating a form, consider whether you really need to have a question about sex or gender. If you do need to have that question, provide several gender options. PDF Document: See our suggested form for ideas about how to do this.
  • Try not to make assumptions about the genders of people you interact with. Instead of calling on “the woman in the back row,” you might say “the person in the blue shirt in the back row.”
  • “They” is widely becoming accepted as a pronoun that can include everyone, and is far less awkward than having to say “she or he” regularly.