Being Transgender Is Still Widely Misunderstood

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Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Image shows a scene from Alston house, a transitional home in Washington DC for homeless GLBT youth.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, transgender activists the world over will hold their 13th annual Day of Remembrance. The gatherings and vigils are meant to draw attention to “transphobia” and, according to the event’s website, to “memorialize those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.”

Despite major strides that have been made in the acceptance of LGBT people in the U.S., hundreds of LGBT Americans are still seriously harmed each year, and dozens are murdered, according to 2008 statistics, the latest available, from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

Bias lingers too. Just last week, a transgender teen said she was suspended for using the womens’ bathroom at her high school in Fort Collins, Colo. She said she and another transgender student weren’t allowed to enter the bathrooms they wanted, and were told to use the few staff bathrooms at the school instead. (The school didn’t comment.)

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The students’ predicament shows how hard it can be for people to move beyond the traditional gender labels they grew up with, even if they’re not “transphobic.” Part of the problem may be that people still don’t understand what transgender really means.

The term transgender, which describes some 700,000 Americans, has been around for more than 35 years — as long as Microsoft and disposable razors. And yet, according to a recent survey of about 2,000 Americans by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 3 in 10 Americans still can’t define it.

To be sure, the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition of transgender is a mouthful — and not one you’d expect the average Joe to remember: “a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender, but combines or moves between these.”

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The first recorded instance of joining together the Latin prefix trans-, meaning “across, beyond or over,” and the 14th-century word gender, to designate “male or female,” was in 1974, according to the OED, when just over 100 people came together for the First National TV TS Conference in Leeds, England. (That’s TV TS, as in transvestite and transsexual.) The hope at that time, according to the conference report, was that “better understanding may ultimately mean that the transvestite and the transsexual can walk freely abroad in Society, offending no-one…tolerated by all.”

Nearly 40 years later, progress has been made on that front. According to the PRRI survey almost 9 in 10 Americans now agree that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other citizens. And 75% agree that Congress should pass laws to protect transgender people from job discrimination. In the U.S., more than 300 colleges have instituted policies protecting transgender students from discrimination and harassment, and the IRS has decided that gender reassignment surgery is tax deductible. Countries from the U.S. to Australia to Bangladesh have started issuing transgender passports.

And yet, when PRRI asked respondents to actually define transgender in their own words, nearly one third were unable to provide what was deemed an “accurate” description. Here are just a few of the answers researchers got:

  • “Girl becomes a man in an operation”
  • “When a person prefers both genders for relations”
  • “Someone who has both female and male body parts”
  • “Like a drag queen”

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The first describes a transsexual, the second a bisexual, the third a hermaphrodite, the fourth a transvestite — none of which is an exact synonym for transgender. That term can encompass a variety of self-identities and include everything from cross-dressing to surgical sex change. (Hence the OED’s rather tortured definition.) Its inclusiveness is certainly part of the reason people have trouble understanding its definition. That so many people defy the conventional male/female division only compounds the confusion.

The ignorance still begets disgust, disapproval and stigma. “You are not satisfied with the way God made you,” said one PRRI respondent. “There really is nothing you can do.” Their “mind is not right,” said another. Multiple people responding to the PRRI survey mentioned Chaz Bono, Cher’s transgender son who became a cultural lightning rod when he recently joined the cast of Dancing With the Stars (at the time, critics questioned whether kids should still be allowed to watch the “once-family friendly” show).

The vast majority of Americans are taught that you’re either male or female. You use the girls’ room or the boys’ room. Contemplating gender as a spectrum rather than multiple choice can be a brain strain — which is why many people in the survey defined transgender in terms of what it isn’t. A version of “Somebody who is neither a boy nor a girl” was a repeated response. That’s a start. But acceptance will come more easily when the transgender population is acknowledged for what they are, rather than what they aren’t.

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