There are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be transgender. First of all, everyone’s journey is unique, and being transgender means something a little different for each person who identifies as such. But for definition’s sake, we are assigned a gender at birth based on our genitalia, or biological sex. The assumption is that penis equals male and vagina equals female. In most cases this is true; this is called cisgender. When someone’s gender identity (male, female, or nonbinary or third gender) does not align with their biological sex, that person is described as transgender.
In some cases, a child is born with ambiguous genitalia or variations of sex characteristics, and gender assignment does not happen until the child is older. It is a human rights violation to surgically modify an intersex child’s genitalia to fit a gender.
When someone is transgender, they often go through a shift or transition to become their most authentic and comfortable self. But transitioning doesn’t have to happen at all, and if it does, it looks different for everyone—again, everyone’s experience is unique. The most important thing for you to know is that there is no right or wrong way to be a transgender person. It’s also important to know that you are not entitled to know anyone’s story. It is a privilege to get to know the intimate details of someone’s life, and there are zero circumstances in which you are owed an explanation. Because I want to help you understand and be a better ally, let me give you some basics.
You are not wrong to assume that a transgender person has or will go through some transition. But that does not necessarily mean surgery. Surgery is not a requirement or something you should ask about.
I am nonbinary, and, like many people who feel like their body parts don’t align with their gender identity, I experience body dysphoria. For me, this ranges from constant agitation and feeling uncomfortable to crippling anxiety and depression. I simply do not feel good in my skin. Most of my dysphoria comes from having breasts. When the time is right and my budget can afford it, I will have them removed. This is often called top surgery.
Many transgender men (men assigned female at birth), but not all, have top surgery. Some transgender men also have bottom surgery, which is the surgical creation of a penis. Both of these surgeries are gender affirming procedures which help a person feel aligned with their identity.
Transgender women (women assigned male at birth) may also have surgery. The Adam’s apple can be shaved, breasts can be implanted, and vaginas can be created. Thankfully there are options for people who want to make these changes to their bodies. It can be a matter of life and death for some people because the pain and sadness of having physical features so different and so wrong from our known gender is overwhelming.
More people are living as their authentic selves at an earlier age than in previous generations. This means there are a lot of badass transgender youth making news headlines. I want to be very clear about something: no one is forcing kids to be transgender. And no responsible parent or doctor is performing “sex change operations” on kids. No one questions a little boy with a penis when he says he is a boy. Yet, for some reason we don’t believe another little boy with a vagina when he says he is a boy and not the girl society says he is. Why would a child lie about that? Forcing a child to be something they are not is wrong. The best thing to do is to follow a child’s lead.
When my transgender daughter made it clear (she was insistent, consistent, and persistent) from an early age that she is not the boy she was assigned at birth, my partner and I listened. We read books with gender nonconforming and transgender characters. We wanted to provide her with language and representation in a gentle way. We wanted her to define herself. She told us she is a girl.
We made social transitions to reflect her identity. We switched her pronouns from male to female. This is one of the most common and often the first thing a transgender person does when they “come out.” Another important fact: a transgender boy or girl has always been a boy or girl, they are now living as their known gender and not fearing it or being forced to hide it.
One of the most important things you can do to validate a person is to get their pronouns correct. No matter how hard it feels for you to get it right or to try to remember, you must address a person by the pronouns they want and by the name they ask you to use—even when they are not in your presence.
Just like it’s not okay to ask about surgery, it’s not okay to ask about a transgender person’s birth name. If someone tells you their name, use it. And if you know a transgender person’s birth name and they are no longer using it, you are not allowed to either. That is called deadnaming and it is extremely disrespectful and harmful.
Some transgender people transition through a change in hair style and new wardrobe. Some choose hormone therapy. While children do not have surgical procedures, tweens can be prescribed hormone blockers to stop puberty. This buys a family time to figure out the next best steps, is reversible, and prevents dysphoria-causing changes in transgender youth like a deepening voice for a transgender girl or breasts on a transgender boy.
As a child gets older, and with adult transgender folks, hormone therapy comes in the form of being given the hormones the body lacks so that it can develop in a way that reflects the appropriate gender. For example, a transgender man may choose to take testosterone so his voice deepens and he can develop facial and body hair.
A person can also transition legally. Gender markers can be changed on birth certificates, passports, licenses, etc. to best reflect and affirm a person’s truest self.
Imagine going through life with someone constantly calling you by the wrong name and pronouns. Imagine looking in the mirror or down in the shower and being so upset with parts you don’t believe you should have that you simply stop looking. Imagine going to the doctor, the DMV, or to a job interview and constantly being asked questions that have nothing to do with the reason why you are there. And not only are you being asked, but you are expected to answer before getting to the real reason for the visit.
You would transition too, and it would be for you and you alone to decide what is best for your mental and physical health. Transitioning comes in the form of social and physical changes, legal gender marker changes, hormone therapy, and yes, sometimes gender affirming surgery. But the most important thing to know is that you don’t have the right to know. Listen, respect someone’s wishes, and use Google. And please, don’t tell someone how well they “pass” as their true gender when you learn they are transgender. This indicates there is a right way to be male, female, or nonbinary, and the truth is that there is no wrong way to be who we are.