If it feels like you are hearing more and more about transgender culture in the news or even in your day-to-day life, there’s a good and very positive reason why. The World Health Organization announced in June that they no longer pathologize being transgender as a mental disorder.
Culturally it may feel new, with visible icons in pop-culture such as Caitlyn Jenner or mega-star Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black. But transgender is nothing new. Women used to live and dress as men with some regularity during the Civil War and WWI (and are recognized in the National Archives.) And while RuPaul may be the first drag queen to get a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, the tradition of men dressing as women goes back centuries in the world of theater.
What does it mean to be Transgender?
The word transgender or trans is an umbrella term. Breaking down the term, the Latin word trans means to cross. Therefore, transgender typically means crossing gender. Sometimes people will use the term trans to describe anyone who is gender variant or gender non-conforming. You may also see it as trans*. The asterisk denotes an inclusive, diverse definition of the term.
When discussing gender we may be referring to a person’s gender identity, a person’s gender expression or a combination of the two. Our gender identity includes how we see ourselves in the world. Our expression of gender includes how we communicate our gender to the world. Examples of expression might include the way we dress, the way we walk, talk, etc.
Gender expression is typically thought of as masculine on one end of the spectrum, feminine on the other and a whole, vast continuum in between. To be transgender assumes that a person’s gender identity is different than the sex with which they were born. Gender identity and sexual orientation, or who you are attracted to, are two different things. A person who is transgender can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight.
Are Transgender and Sex Reassignment the Same Thing?
A person does not need to have sexual reassignment surgery in order to be transgender. While some people elect to have surgery to change their bodies, many do not. Some people take estrogen or testosterone or other hormone therapy to help their gender expression be more in line with their identity. In fact as more people have room for gender expression, there may be less who choose surgery.
Is the number of people who identify as transgender growing?
It’s hard to know if the incidence of transgender is increasing. But certainly acceptance and freedom for self-expression is. Studies show that as a generation, Millennials are more inclusive and tolerant when it comes to all forms of diversity, including race, sexual orientation and class. They also have embraced a more non-binary way of living in their bodies. They see gender as more fluid or on a continuum. So while they may not consider themselves transgender, they also don’t feel that they fall into the strict binary of male or female.
People have toyed with biological theories, for example that someone has more estrogen or testosterone, but to-date, there is no science to substantiate them. It’s human nature to want to explain something. But current theories view it as a variation, such as hair or eye color, that until now has mostly been hidden because it was unacceptable by societal standards. Like race, gender is being seen more and more as a social construct, rather than science–based.
Greater freedom for self-expression without a stigma attached, including for people who identify as transgender, is a positive effect as the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association) continues to depathologize LGBTQ across the board. And that is wonderful for mental health overall.
Dr. Margo Jacquot is the Founder and Director of The Juniper Center: The Heart and Science of Meaningful Change. Counseling and therapy. Trauma Recovery; Anxiety and Depression; Addictions Treatment; LGBTQ, Sexuality and Gender; Relationship Therapy. Park Ridge, Oak Park, Chicago, Northfield, Barrington. 847-759-9110, www.thejunipercenter.com
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