Trans 101

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The rules

Hello, and welcome to Trans 101. Here are the ground rules. Learn them, love them, live them, or else go to the "I Don't Care Enough To Be Respectful Of People Who Are Different From Me" room down the hall.

  1. Sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears. Sex is male, female, and intersex, and has to do with your chromosomes, genitalia, hormones, etc. Gender is man, woman, boy, girl, androgynous (gender-neutral), etc., etc., and has to do with your internal sense of self and how you express yourself.
  2. There are currently five medically recognised (by the American Medical Association, at least) sexes - male, female, and three kinds of intersex. Gender is an infinite spectrum, and there are more ways to express one's gender than anyone supposes.
  3. When you have met one Trans person, you have met one Trans person. We are not cookie-cutter. We are, by and large, just like anyone else (as much as anyone is like anyone else, because of course we're all different). You've probably passed Trans people on the street without realising it. Trans people, just like anyone else, prefer to be treated as people first. We are brains and hearts and souls who happen to have certain genitalia attached, not the other way around.
  4. Transgender is an adjective. It is not a noun (i.e., 'He is a Transgender'). It is not a verb (i.e., 'My cousin is transgendering'). It is an adjective (i.e., 'I know a Transgender person', 'He is Transgender'). Please respect that. You will look very ignorant and rather foolish if you don't.

For more information about hormonal transition for FTM folks, click here.

For more information about hormonal transition for MTF (male-to-female) folks, click here.

For basic tips on how to be respectful to Trans people, click here. Excellent resource.

What exactly is Transgender?

Transgender people are those who transgress gender norms. It really goes much deeper than that, though. Most people who are Transgender or transsexual feel that they're somehow in the wrong body. Many FTM people, for instance, identify as men with a severe hormonal imbalance - that is, having way too much oestrogen in their system, and not nearly enough testosterone. (This, by the way, is easily remedied by taking hormones by prescription.) Crossdressers, on the other hand, dress either for sexual arousal (this is known as fetishistic crossdressing), to express the more masculine or feminine side of themselves, or simply because they find those clothes more comfortable.

Now that you're thoroughly confused, let us just add this. Probably the absolute simplest way to describe a transsexual, if not the rest of the Trans* community, is to say that they are physically female and psychologically male, or physically male and psychologically female. Many Trans* people don't fall under that designation, though. Most transsexuals do, while most crossdressers don't.

Trans*ism, Transgender, transsexual ... what does all this stuff mean? What's the difference between them?

Okay. Here are a few basic definitions. (For more definitions, see Category:Definitions or this other site.)

  • Transsexual (TS) - Trans* person who elects to change their physical sex through genital reconstruction surgery (GRS) (and/or chest reconstruction surgery - top surgery for trans men and non binary FAAB trans people) and almost always hormones. (Both surgery and hormones, of course, are sometimes temporarily or permanently impossible for some folks because of financial or health issues.) Sexual orientation varies.
  • Transgenderist - Obsolete. Trans* person who elects to not have GRS, but lives part-time or full-time as a member of the opposite sex and may or may not use hormones. Sexual orientation varies. (This word, coined by self-described Transgenderist Virginia Prince in the 1970s or '80s, is not really used today. "Transgender person or Trans person are more commonly used.)
  • Crossdresser (Transvestite - CD or TV) - Trans* person who does not have surgery or use hormones, but dresses in clothing typically associated with the opposite sex. Sexual orientation varies. (Note: The word "transvestite" is on its way out because of the connotation of a "transvestite prostitute," and because most people automatically think "fetish" when they hear the word transvestite. A tremendous number of crossdressers really don't crossdress for sexual arousal at all.)
  • Trans - Umbrella term encompassing all of the above.
  • Cisgender - The opposite of trans, a person who identifies as the sex/gender they were assigned at birth ie. a man who was assigned male at birth as opposed to a trans man who was assigned female at birth. 'Trans' means across; 'cis' means on the same side. It is not a slur.
  • Drag Queen or Drag King - someone who dresses up as a woman (queen) or man (king) specifically for the sake of performance, usually very over-the-top and exaggerated.
  • Intersex (IS) - A general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Formerly called hermaphrodite. Not, for the record, born with fully-formed and fully-functioning (i.e., able to reproduce) male genitals and fully-formed fully-functioning female genitals; such a thing is not possible in human beings, although it is in certain other species. Usually an intersex person looks mostly or fully male, or mostly or fully female. May or may not have surgery or use hormones. Sexual orientation varies. See here for more information and the Top Ten Myths about Intersex. (Note: Hermaphrodite is not a term you should be using. It's a medical diagnosis and sounds like a disease anyway, and can be taken as offensive. See here for more about that.) See also What's the difference between being transgender or transsexual and having an intersex condition?
  • Trans man - A person who was assigned the female sex at birth, but identifies as male. The term FTM should be avoided as it implies that trans men permanently have femaleness attached to them, something many trans men object to.
  • Trans Woman - A person who was assigned the male sex at birth, but identifies as female. The term MTF should be avoided as it implies that trans women permanently have maleness attached to them, something many trans women object to.
  • FAAB - Assigned female at birth.
  • MAAB - Assigned male at birth.
  • UAAB - Unassigned at birth, in regards to intersex individuals who were not assigned a sex at birth.
  • Genderqueer - Someone who identifies as a combination of male and female, neither, or something else entirely. Genderqueer people may believe that the gender binary is a social construct and doesn't really exist.
  • Gender binary - The belief that there are men over here, and there are women over there, and there's a huge chasm in between, and that's it; all people are either men or women, and nothing else is possible. Not actually accurate with regards to human beings, nor several other species.
  • Non binary - An umbrella term for anyone who's identity is something other than the typical binary male or female. This includes androgynes, genderqueer people, agender people, neutrois and so on. They may or may not seek to medically transition with hormones and/or surgery to make their bodies feel more comfortable to them. Trans men who identify solely as male and trans women who identify solely as female are not considered non binary, nor are cis people who appear androgynous but identify solely as a man or woman.
  • Two-Spirit - Term used mainly by American Indian/First Nations/Native American people of various nations, indicating the presence of male and female spirits in a single body. Used as a term of respect and pride.
  • Androgynous - Gender neutral, from the Greek "andro" for male and "gyno" for female. Someone whose gender is not readily apparent just by looking at them.
  • Pansexual/Omnisexual/Queer - Attracted to "people, not parts." Used instead of "bisexual," because "bi" means two, and there aren't two sexes or two genders; indicates the potential to be attracted to anyone regardless of their sex, gender identity, or gender expression.
  • Asexual - Not interested in sexual relationships with anyone. The asexual community is just barely peeking out of its shell, as more asexual people are standing up and saying that there is nothing wrong with them, it's not that they just haven't found the right person yet, they really aren't interested in sexual relationships. Some people are romantic asexuals, who date and have romantic relationships and may even get married - they just don't have sex. Others are non-romantic asexuals, who aren't interested in romantic or sexual relationships.

Note: These definitions are quite rough and do not hold fast when one delves deeper into the world of gender identity, but they serve as a good starting point for those in unfamiliar territory here. Remember, there is no magical surgery that "makes" another gender. You already are your gender. Surgery and hormones exist for the purpose of making how you see yourself on the inside match the outside. A lot of people have surgery but don't have GRS. Trans men and non binary FAAB people in particular may have surgeries without having GRS - chest reconstruction, hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), etc.

Important Note: Trans*ism is separate from sexuality. Sexuality (Gay, Straight, Bisexual, Pansexual, Omnisexual, or just plain Queer) is based on whom you are attracted to sexually. Whether or not you're Trans is based on your personal gender identity. An trans man who is attracted to women is usually considered straight, as is an trans woman who is attracted to men, because the gender with which they identify is the opposite of those whom they are attracted to.

Also, the term "straight" refers to sexuality and not to gender. The fact that you are not Trans does not make you straight, and vice versa. "Straight" means that if you identify as male, you are attracted to those who identify as female, or if you identify as female, you are attracted to those who identify as male. Those who identify as neither male nor female, as a mix of the two, or as something else altogether define for themselves what "straight" and "gay" are for them.

Gender identity, sex, sexual orientation ... I really don't get the difference here.

This is the fun part. Take out a piece of paper and turn it sideways, and make four parallel horizontal lines, one on top of the other. Leave some space in between them to write. Right under the top line, write Sex. Under the second line, write Gender Identity. Under the third line, write Gender Expression. Under the fourth line, write Sexual Orientation.

  • On the left end of the Sex line, write Female; on the right end, write Male; in the middle, write Intersex.
  • On the left end of the Gender Expression line, write Feminine; on the right end, write Masculine; in the middle, write Androgynous.
  • On the left end of the Sexual Orientation line, write Attracted to Men; on the right end, write Attracted to Women; in the middle, write Attracted to Both/All/None (usually referred to as Bisexual, Pansexual/Omnisexual/Queer, and Asexual respectively).

(Be aware that we mark the middle of each line just to make it easier to read, really; intersex people are not perfectly suspended between male and female, genderqueer etc. people are not exactly in between man and woman, androgynous people are not exactly in between masculine and feminine, bi/pan/omni/etc. people are not necessarily equally attracted to men and women in a perfect 50-50 split - most aren't, actually.)

Find some coloured pencils or pens. To use one person as an example: His sex is female. Mark the "Female" end of the Sex line. His gender identity is genderqueer Trans boy. Mark the Gender Identity line about halfway between Genderqueer and Man/Boy. His gender expression is masculine, but not 100% so. Mark the Gender Expression line very near Masculine, but not all the way at the end. And his sexual orientation is pansexual but he's somewhat more into men than women, so mark the Sexual Orientation line a bit to the left of the middle.

Now choose another colour and mark where you fall on each line.

Basically, the point here is that each of these things is completely independent of the others. Where you fall on any one line has no effect on where you will fall on any other line.

Have some other folks fill out your chart with different colours, and make a legend if you like to show what colour represents which person. The more people who put themselves on the chart - don't do it for them, they should have the right to identify themselves - the more you will understand how varied everyone's identity is, and how each of those four parts of one's identity really have no bearing on each other at all.

Is Trans like a shemale?

"Shemale" is a very offensive term used in porn. Secondly, no. "Shemale" refers to someone with breasts and a penis, which is true of some Trans people, but not a majority. It also totally excludes FAAB trans folks, who (no matter what you hear or how it may seem) make up half of the Trans population. (MAAB trans folks are typically much easier to spot, and get WAY more press, because society tends to laugh at them, especially on talk shows and by degrading them in sitcoms, prime-time dramas, and mainstream film, as well as pornography. FAAB trans people are much more threatening to masculinity and it's easier to ignore them than deal with them. They're seen as women who are aspiring to be men, which supports the whole notion of male superiority, whereas MAAB trans people are seen as questioning the value of and discarding their male privilege, and thus must be reduced to the status of "psycho" or "clown" or both, to avoid validating their standpoint.)

Also, people usually take "shemale" to mean someone with breasts and a fully functional penis. MAAB trans people who are taking oestrogen don't always have fully functional male genitalia, because the oestrogen can make it difficult to become and stay erect.

Are all Transgender people escorts?

No. The majority of us are not escorts, prostitutes, porn actors, or sex workers of any kind. Those of us who are sex workers are largely in that industry because no one else will hire them, and/or it's (unfortunately) an easy way to make money if you can deal with being exploited and treated as an object rather than as a person. There are Trans people who are sex workers by choice and enjoy their work, but they're a minority. Trans people are no more likely to enjoy being a sex worker than non-Trans people are (and if you think most sex workers like their job, try actually talking to some).

So what causes people to be Trans?

There are a number of theories regarding what makes us Trans, and despite scientific research there's no concrete evidence so far. (Bear in mind that this theory doesn't take intersex people into account - this is only regarding foetuses whose chromosomes are XX or XY, although this situation may - and probably does - occur with some intersex foetuses as well.) Remember, XX is the genotype for female and XY is the genotype for male. "Phenotype" refers to physical anatomy, whereas "genotype" refers to chromosomes and genetics.

The most supported argument so far is that transsexualism occurs in utero, usually between 8-10 weeks after conception.

All foetuses, between 8-10 weeks, receive "hormonal showers" at this crucial developmental period. Usually, these hormonal showers lead to the formation of the testes and ovaries in XY and XX individuals respectively. Due to factors unknown, usually attributed to stress in the mother, certain medications or just unusual circumstances, the "dose" and/or timing of these showers can sometimes be a little off-target. XY foetuses receiving too little androgens, yet while still having the XY genotype are thought to most probably eventuate as gay. If the hormonal shower is even more different or ill-timed - i.e., even less androgens are released or the timing is further off, the result will most probably be a transsexual - i.e., phenotypically and genotypically male with testes etc, yet, due to not being showered with enough androgens at the right time, the brain hasn't sufficiently masculinised and remains feminised (feminine is the base "template" for all organisms).

In FAAB trans people's case, it's thought that the development of the ovaries occurred ill-timed when in relation to the hormonal shower - i.e., when the hormonal shower occurred, the ovaries weren't yet developed enough to produce the estrogen that would balance out the androgen shower ... hence, phenotypically and genotypically female, but with masculined brain due to the androgen shower.

Like in the case with homosexual men, this fluctuation in hormonal shower timing, when occurring in XX individuals but to a lesser extent, is thought to be the cause of lesbianism.

I've heard the term "gender dysphoria" ... what the hell is that?

Nancy Nangeroni, of Gender Education & Media (GEM) and formerly of IFGE, said once that gender dysphoria is a healthy disrespect for the cultural gender norm.

"Dysphoria," according to the dictionary, means "a state of feeling unwell or unhappy" (it comes from the Greek dysphoros hard to bear, from dys- + pherein to bear). So "gender dysphoria" is basically a profound discomfort or unhappiness with your assigned gender. Sounds good.

Then there's the clinical definition. Gender dysphoria is often used as another term for "Gender Identity Disorder," or GID, which is listed in the DSM-IV. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, fourth edition - the HUGE-ass book used to diagnose mental disorders. Your local library may have a copy.) It's diagnosed by the following criteria:

  • A strong and persistent cross-gender identification, manifested by a repeatedly stated desire to be, live as, or be treated as the other sex or by the conviction that the person has the typical feelings or reactions of the other sex. Children may insist that they are the opposite sex and exhibit a strong preference for clothing, games, and pastimes that are stereotypically associated with the other sex.
  • A persistent discomfort with their bodies, with boys often feeling disgust for their penis and expressing a desire for it to disappear and girls rejecting urinating in a sitting position, not wanting to grow breasts or menstruate, and asserting that they will grow a penis. Adolescents and adults exhibit a preoccupation with physically altering their bodies through hormones and surgery to simulate the other sex, usually because they believe that they were born the wrong sex.
  • The disturbance causes significant distress in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Certainly plenty of this stuff applies to a lot of Trans folks. But come on. This isn't a mental disorder. People have been trying to cure us psychologically for decades and probably centuries, with a variety of different kinds of drugs, shock treatment, forced gender conformity, isolation, intensive therapy, and a number of other methods. There is no documented case of anyone who we today would consider a transsexual actually being cured. The DSM-V is currently being written and may actually not have GID in it, which would be a huge step forward.

It should be noted, also, that the DSM-III didn't have GID in it but did have homosexuality in it. Due to the fact that homosexuality and gender-nonconformity are so often seen as being almost synonymous, it is not at all far-fetched to suggest that GID was put in as a replacement for homosexuality and an underhanded way to continue diagnosing homosexuality as a mental disorder.

If Trans people hate their bodies so much, how do they have sex?

Very well, thank you.

There are as many ways to achieve erotic pleasure as there are people on this Earth. People who are very uncomfortable with a certain part of their bodies will often simply ignore that part of their body during sex, as they do the rest of the time. Communication, of course, is key - if you don't want something touched, say so. Any decent partner will be 100% respectful and will do everything s/he can to make sure that it's a good experience for both of you.

If it helps you, you can liken it to the situation an amputee might face. If someone has had to have their arm amputated at the elbow and is really uncomfortable with that part of their body, particularly in an erotic sense, that doesn't mean they can't have good sex. It just makes for an obstacle. But if the person and hir partner work around it, there's no reason it should be a major issue.

For some people, certain parts of their body ARE a major issue no matter what they do. That's when people can become impatient for surgery and/or hormones to alter their bodies so they feel more comfortable. While waiting for these changes to take place, some people simply abstain from sex, and others try different methods to make sex pleasurable despite the issues they have with whatever body parts they have issues with. (It's not as simple as saying that genitals are the problem or that the whole body is the problem. The term "man trapped in a woman's body" or "woman trapped in a man's body" is really a misnomer. Most Trans people don't really want a new body - they just want some parts of their own body altered a bit.)

For another perspective (and quite an entertaining read), check out Raven Kaldera's Renaming and Reframing: Sex and the Third Gender, Sex in Cyborgland, and How to Suck a Strap On.

Why don't trans men just be butch lesbians? Why don't trans women just be femmy gay men?

Well, first of all, you're confusing sex and gender with sexual orientation. Plenty of trans men aren't attracted to women, and plenty of trans women aren't attracted to men.

Secondly, Trans people aren't just frustrated homosexuals. Cisgender gay people would no more welcome sex reassignment than they would welcome a frontal lobotomy. They're fine with their bodies, by and large, and just happen to be gay. Trans people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are NOT fine with their bodies, or at least with the heaps and heaps of gender norms that are enforced upon them as a result of their bodies. Their gender identity (their internal sense of self) and/or gender expression (clothes, mannerisms, makeup or lack thereof, hairstyle, etc.) is significantly outside the norm, to a degree that doesn't really fall within even the norm for feminine gay men or masculine gay women.

Thirdly, not all FAAB trans folks are terribly masculine and not all MAAB trans folks are terribly feminine. That's another common misconception. Trans people aren't all striving to be nice, normal, heterosexual, pretend-you're-not-Trans people with 2.3 children and a white picket fence. There are trans men who are drag queens and trans women who are butch lesbians, for the same reason that trans men aren't butch lesbians and trans women aren't femme gay men or drag queens - butch lesbians are women, and femme gay men and drag queens are men. It just goes to show all the more that gender really is infinite, and WAY more complicated than we have language for. But we're doing our damnedest.

Is it okay to ask a Trans person questions about it?

Depends on the person. In general, if you want to ask a personal question, first ask if it's okay to do so. Personal questions include anything to do with one's sex life, anatomy (not just genitalia), and relationship status - past, present or future. Be warned that some people may even consider questions like "are you on hormones?" personal. When in doubt, ask if you may ask them a personal question before going ahead. Respect people's boundaries.

A good general rule regarding this is as follows: If you wouldn't ask a non-Trans male his penis size, don't ask a Trans person about hir anatomy. In other words, if the person were not Trans and you wouldn't feel comfortable asking, there's no reason for you to feel more comfortable or more entitled to know just because the person is Trans. (This goes for more than just anatomy, of course.)

What the hell is "hir?"

It's a gender-neutral pronoun, pronounced "here." Others include s/he and sie (both pronounced "see"), and ze or zie (pronounced "zee"). All four of these replace "he" and "she," while hir or zir (rhymes with "here") replaces "him" and "her." A lot of people who don't feel comfortable using either masculine or feminine pronouns use these, and ask others to do the same for them. Many people also prefer the use of "they" to refer to them. It's respectful (this really should go without saying) to do as they ask, even though it feels weird at first.

A lot of people who aren't comfortable with either masculine or feminine pronouns, but who also don't really like any of the gender-neutral pronouns, just alternate the masculine and feminine as they see fit, and tell people to use whichever they want. This can be a lot of fun. Again, it's all about each person's own comfort level and what they want to be called. And it's important to always respect other people's personal identities over your comfort level with a new word - it's far more important to honour someone's identity than it is to worry about the fact that you feel a little funny. Especially since that goes away after a while, and people's identities usually don't.

Remember, a lot of Trans people are perfectly comfortable using either masculine or feminine pronouns, and a lot of them prefer that. When in doubt, though, use gender-neutral ones. (This also totally applies to when you're speaking about a generic person whose gender doesn't matter, i.e., "when a person goes shopping, s/he often brings a shopping list.")

Do Trans people have the best of both worlds, or are they the best of both worlds?

One person says:

I think "best of both worlds" is a fun little catchphrase that some of us use, probably stolen from sketchy guys who jerk off to fantasies of "shemales" who have tits like a woman and will bang them like a man; I joke about it sometimes but I don't really consider myself to be the best of both worlds, because I don't think there are two worlds. That's just propaganda. And I'm just me, and I'm one complete person, not some weird hybrid.

Some people do consider themselves to be the "best of both worlds," and that's their prerogative, but it's not something you should assume. Let a Trans person tell you first that ze thinks of hirself that way; if you just come up with it on your own, you're liable to offend hir.

I want to date a Trans person. Can you help?

Start off by reading How to Get Your Hands on a Transman (also available at and/or The Transwoman's Boudoir, and How to Get Into It, both by activist Raven Kaldera, who is both Intersex and Trans.

What does it feel like to be transsexual?

What an interesting question. Here is some info on just that.

Remember, everyone's experience and perspective on this is different. Don't make sweeping judgements.

What it feels like to be Male-to-Female (MTF) Transsexual

What it feels like to be Female-to-Male (FTM) Transsexual

Click here for answers to a lot more questions that Trans people get asked ALL the time. The language on this site is specific to FTM (female-to-male) people.

Things to NEVER say to a Trans person (the Don't list)

  1. Do not comment on a Trans person's gendered appearance or passability unless ze has asked you for your opinion.
  2. Do not pretend that you can spot a Trans person at 50 paces, and when someone comes out to you, insist that you knew all along. You can't, and you (probably) didn't. If you really believe that you can, you need to really examine why that is, and spend more time with a variety of Trans people. If nothing will convince you that you are not able to pick Trans people out from a crowd, keep your mouth shut about it.
  3. Do not say, when someone comes out to you as Trans, 'I never would have guessed!' With rare exceptions, we are all heartily sick of being told this. Why is it so amazing to you that the person in front of you passes well? And why do you think ze would appreciate hearing how amazed you are?

How to Get Your Hands on a Transman and The Transwoman's Boudoir, and How to Get Into It have more important Don'ts.

See Also