Writer bio: Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer-inclusive, health-informed, pleasure-inclusive, sex-positive journalist and educator whose work reflects the intersections of LGBTQ+ issues, sexual health, wellness, and pleasure. She is also the co-host of Bad in Bed a queer sex education podcast featuring the queer sex education you never got, but always deserved.
Maybe you recently met someone who is transgender and don’t know what that means. Maybe you’ve heard the term non-binary before but don’t know what it means. Maybe you are looking for new ways to be an ally to gender minorities. Regardless, you ended up on this page because you’ve got questions! Luckily, we’ve got answers. In honor of Transgender Pride Day, we put together this guide on what it means to be transgender, featuring insights from gender-affirming therapists and educators.
Cisgender vs. Transgender
To understand what it means to be transgender, we need to take a quick pit-stop in the delivery room. When you were born the doctor eyed your genitals then declared loudly, “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl”. (If your parents were impatient fuckers, they did something similar with the ultrasound!). This is known as your sex assigned at birth, explains mental health professional Kryss Shane, L.S.W., L.M.S.W., author of The Educator's Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion.
But this doctor wasn’t actually identifying your gender, they were identifying your sex. Different than your gender, sex refers to the biological its and bits a person has, she says. Gender, however, refers to a person’s deeper, internal sense of self. Some of the genders a person might be include: non-binary, agender, bigender, two-spirit, boy, boi, and girl, to name just a few!
For some people, their sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender. A person with a vulva who is proclaimed to be “a girl!” at birth, for example, may end up identifying as a girl. While a person born with a penis may be a boy. These folks are known as cis-gender. (The pre-fix ‘cis’ means ‘same’. So essentially, someone who is cisgender has a gender that is the ‘same’ as their sex).
There are also people whose sex assigned at birth is not correlated with their gender. These folks are known as transgender.
What Does Transgender Mean, Exactly?
“Someone who is transgender is someone whose gender identity is not aligned with the gender that was assumed and assigned at birth,” explains Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.
For someone people, transgender is their specific identity. Some people identify as trans women, trans men, trans girl, trans boy, or something similar, for example. For others, ‘transgender’ simply names, broadly, that their gender and sex are not aligned. But does not name their specific gender.
If this is confusing to you, consider the ways the some people identify as specifically and exclusively as queer, while other’s identify as queer (broadly) and bisexual (more specifically).
Wait, So Is Transgender The Same As Non-Binary?
The two terms are not synonymous. Someone could identify as both transgender and non-binary. But not all people who are transgender are non-binary, and vice versa.
“Someone might use the term non-binary for themselves but not transgender, and someone else might use the term transgender for themselves, and not non-binary,” says Kahn.
If you’re curious how someone identifies, the only way to know is to ask. But let it be known that you shouldn't ask someone questions like this willy-nilly; wait until you have some base-line relationship.
What Do Pronouns Have To Do With This?
Great question. With the implementation of the pronoun feature on Instagram and more and more corporate commanders adding their pronouns to their email sign off, you’re probably wondering what pronouns have to do with all of this. The answer: It depends on the person.
Quick grammar lesson: Pronouns function as a way to identify someone, other than their name. Common pronoun examples include: she/her, he/him, and they/them.
Historically, pronouns have also been called gender pronouns. Meaning, that using them reveals and affirms someone’s gender. Those who used she/her pronouns, for example, were girls, while those who used they/them pronouns, were non-binary.
For the majority of people this is still the case! Pronouns still are a way to affirm and recognize someone’s gender identity. But this is not always the case! Someone, Jonathan Van Ness, for example, uses he/him pronouns and is non-binary.
Your move: Use the pronouns for a person that they use for themselves. If you don’t know the pronouns someone uses, avoid short-hand pronouns and use their name instead, or use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them) until you know.
Finally, don’t assume that just because you know someone’s pronouns, you know their gender identity—and vice versa.
What Does Being Transgender Mean For Someone’s Sexuality?
Not a single thing! “People have genders and they also have sexualities,” explains Kahn. And they are different.
“Someone’s gender is about who you are in terms of your gender,” they explain.. “And your sexuality is about who you are attracted to sexually and/or romantically” or not attracted to.
So, just as someone who is cisgender can be straight or gay or bisexual (or any other sexuality), so can someone who is transgender. Someone who is transgender might be straight, or bisexual, or gay, or asexual.
How To Be The Best Ally To Transgender Folks
1. Keep learning.
Kudos to you for taking the time to read a transgender 101 article. Taking the time to learn about these things on your own time, rather than treating your transgender friends like Transgender Google is a great first step.
But this article is just the tippy-top of the iceberg. To continue learning more about different genders, consider tuning into podcasts like Gender Reveal, En(ba)by, Sensual Self, and Disability After Dark.
If you prefer to read—rather than listen to!—your information, check out Beyond The Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon, Sissy by Jacob Tobia, Detransition, Baby by Torres Peters, and Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein.
One of the important considerations regarding allyship is to vote for politicians who explicitly support trans people and communities,” says Kahn. And to rally against those who actively work to put trans lives in danger.
This means a few things. First, it means that you need to get out to the voting polls.
It also means that if even if you claim to be financially conservative but socially liberally, if you vote in such a way that puts trans people in danger, you are actively doing harm.
3. Respect pronouns.
Do you know what pronouns someone uses? Use them. Regardless of whether or not someone is cisgender or transgender, and/or if you know that information, you need to use the pronouns someone uses for themselves.
Another good move is to offer up your pronouns and introduce the idea of pronoun sharing in conversations and spaces where that has not yet been done, notes Shane. “Offering your own pronouns when you introduce yourself by saying "I'm Kryss, I use she/her pronouns" or "I'm Kryss, she/her" is another way to promote pronoun sharing and also let people know you respect all identities.”
4. Stand up for trans folks.
“Being an ally also means being mindful of what others say and speaking up when you hear transphobia,” says Shane. “Just like with sexism or racism, if someone makes a comment or a joke, acknowledging that it isn't funny and telling the person to stop can go a long way.”
This stands even if there are no (known!) trans folks in the room there to witness you standing up for them.
5. Don’t stop.
“It’s important to remember that being an ally is an ongoing process,” says Kahn. “It is something you are always striving for, not something you can label yourself as and is person specific.” Basically, you want to think of ally as a verb not a noun.
It’s also important to recognize that being an ally to one person with a marginalized (gender) identity is not sufficient, you need to be an ally to the most marginalized people in the world, even if you do not know them outright. “One person can think of you as an ally and another person with similar lived experience can not think of you that way,” they say.