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Transgender is an umbrella term that describes different ways in which people transgress the gender boundaries that are constituted within a society. Groups encompassed by this term include people who have an atypical gender expression, sex, sexual identity, or gender identity. An understanding of transgender requires an awareness of the difference between the terms sex and gender—terms that often are conflated.
Sex is a biological construct. It refers to a person’s physical anatomy, usually determined by their genetics and exposure to hormones. While sex often is considered dichotomous, so that individuals are classified as male if they have a penis and as female if they have a vagina, inter-sexed persons are an exception to this dichotomy because they have features of both sexes (Fausto-Sterling 2000). The debate about the treatment of intersexed infants whose sex organs do not appear traditionally male or female has been heated. On one side, people feel that genital surgery should be performed early so that the infant has the genitalia of one sex and can be raised without confusion about their sexual identity—that is, without confusion about how they understand and label their own sex. On the other side, organizations of intersexed people, such as the Intersex Society of North America, have protested this practice on the grounds that the sex assigned to the child in surgery may not correspond with their sexual identity as they mature. Instead, they argue that intersexed children should be raised with their geni-talia unaltered until they are old enough to determine if they would like genital surgery and, if so, to select which sex is a better fit for them.
Unlike sex, gender is a social construct. Within social groups, sets of traits are linked together come to form genders, such as masculinity and femininity, through repeated performance and symbolism. The set of traits may depend upon the culture and time, such that enacting femininity in one country may appear different from doing so within another country or within another era. While many cultures recognize two genders attributed to male or female physical sexes, other cultures have formed genders that are based upon a combination of the sexes and personalities of individuals. For instance, some Native American tribes recognized “two-spirit” people as having distinct genders with valued social roles—so “masculine women” might become warriors and “feminine men” healers (Feinberg 1996).
In most cultures, however, gender is thought to be dictated by one’s physical sex, without any recognition of the cultural assignment of gender traits to one sex or another. When people fall outside the norms of gender transgression—that is, enacting traits that are attributed to the other sex—they may fall into one of the categories of transgender identity. People who adopt gender expressions (i.e., appearances that reflect gendered traits) that are not consistent with their sex by wearing clothing that is associated with the other sex may identify as cross-dressers or as transvestites. Because women are permitted a broader range of apparel in the West, male cross-dressers are more common and noticeable than female cross-dressers. Cross-dressing does not indicate a person’s sexual orientation; in fact, most male cross-dressers identify as heterosexual (Docter and Prince 1997).
Transsexual people have a sexual identity that does not match their physical sex. While some desire sex-reassignment surgery so that their anatomy can match their sense of self, not all transsexuals want to change their bodies. Surgery is costly, and can have mixed results. Hormone therapy may be used as well, as a complement to surgery or independently, and is less costly. To receive services, many clinics require that transsexual people first meet the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care (Meyer et al. 2001), which detail a list of steps that people complete to show that they are ready for surgery—such as living for a year as the other sex. Transmen or FTM (female-to-male) and transwomen or MTF (male-to-female) are common labels to describe the sex of those who transition from one sex to the other.
Sexual orientation refers to one’s emotional, physical, and sexual attraction to another person. Individuals who are attracted to the other sex are heterosexual, to the same sex are homosexual, and to both sexes are bisexual. While having a sexual orientation other than heterosexual does not necessitate a transgender sexual identity or gender expression, there are forms of gender or gender expression within some nonheterosexual communities that fall under a transgender rubric. For instance, being in drag is slang that connotes appearing and acting, for entertainment purposes, in a way that is typical for the other sex—with drag queens being men emulating women and drag kings being women emulating men (Volcano and Halberstam 1999). Within lesbian communities, terms like butch and femme describe the gender identities of women who display different sets of gendered traits. Although they often are misunderstood as mimicking heterosexual genders, these genders are composed of traits that do not fall neatly into masculine or feminine genders but have unique meanings within those communities (Levitt and Hiestand 2004).
People who are transgender tend to experience more discrimination and harassment than those who are not, even when compared to gay or lesbian people who are not transgender (Herek 1995; Levitt and Horne 2002). There is debate within the psychological community on how to understand transgender. A diagnosis for gender identity disorder remains listed in the 2000 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. Many mental health professionals believe that this diagnosis should be abolished because it is based upon a false understanding of gender and that treatment should focus on creating supportive environments for transgender youth rather than pathologizing them (Hiestand and Levitt 2005). At the same time, others believe that the diagnosis is necessary so people can obtain insurance coverage for treatments (Brown and Rounsley 1996), and still others persist in conceptualizing transgen-der as a mental disorder inherent to the individual.
Groups of transgender people have organized to fight for supportive legislation and medical and mental health treatments that meet their needs and respect diversity within gender experiences. Such organizations as the International Foundation for Gender Education and the National Center for Transgender Equality also work to educate the public about transgender issues and concerns.
- American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). 4th ed., text rev. Washington, DC: Author.
- Brown, Mildred L., and Chloe Ann Rounsley. 1996. True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism—For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Docter, Richard F., and Virginia Prince. 1997. Transvestism: A Survey of 1032 Cross-dressers. Archives of Sexual Behavior 26 (6): 589–605.
- Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
- Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Herek, Gregory M. 1995. Psychological Heterosexism in the United States. In Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identities Over the Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives, eds. Anthony R.D’Augelli and Charlotte J. Patterson, 321–346. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Hiestand, Katherine, and Heidi M. Levitt. 2005. Butch Identity Development: The Formation of an Authentic Gender. Feminism and Psychology 15 (1): 61–85.
- International Foundation for Gender Education. http://www.ifge.org.
- Intersex Society of North America. http://www.isna.org.
- Levitt, Heidi M., and Katherine Hiestand. 2004. A Quest for Authenticity: Contemporary Butch Gender. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 50 (9–10): 605–621.
- Levitt, Heidi M., and Sharon G. Horne. 2002. Explorations of Lesbian-Queer Genders. Journal of Lesbian Studies 6 (2): 25–39.
- Meyer, Walter, III (Chairperson), Walter O. Bockting, Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, et al. February 2001. The Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders–Sixth Version. The International Journal of Transgenderism 5 (1).
- http://www.symposion.com/ijt/soc_2001/index.htm. National Center for Transgender Equality. http://www.nctequality.org.
- Volcano, Del LaGrace, and Judith “Jack” Halberstam. 1999. The Drag King Book. New York: Serpent’s Tail.
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