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How to Help: Transgender and Gender Identity

Transgender is a word used to describe those whose sense of themselves as male or female differs from the gender usually associated with their birth sex, according to the American Psychological Association. Sex refers to physical attributes including chromosomes, gonads, hormones, and internal and external genitalia. Gender is a word used to refer to the way people act and feel about themselves, which are generally associated with male or female sex. Rather than thinking of gender identity as binary, either male or female, it is useful to think of the expression of gender identity across a spectrum.

Transgendered persons have a variety of expressions of their identity. The term transsexual generally refers to those who live or wish to live full time as members of the gender opposite to their birth sex. They may choose to seek medical intervention (“sex reassignment”) to make their bodies more congruent with their preferred gender. This is not the same as those who identify as cross dressers, who wear the clothing of the other sex in varying degrees and for varying motives. There are a variety of other persons who identify as transgendered for biological or psychological reasons. Transgender is not the same as sexual orientation, which refers to one’s sexual attraction to men, women, both, or neither. 

Transgender is not considered a mental disorder by many mental health professionals, who contend that diagnosing someone with a mental disorder pathologizes normal gender variance. Many transgender persons do not feel distressed by their transgender feelings, but rather by the struggle to find social support, medical treatment, and to live without stigma and discrimination. The APA states that about 1 in 10,000 biological males and 1 in 30,000 biological females identifies as transsexual. Transgendered persons have existed throughout recorded history. There is no one generally accepted explanation for why someone is transgender, and most likely there are multiple biological, genetic, environmental, and social influences contributing to any gender identity. 

To be supportive of transgendered friends and family, consider: 

  • Learn more about transgender issues.
  • Notice your own attitudes and the language you use regarding those with gender atypical appearance or behavior.
  • Don’t make assumptions about transgender persons’ sexual orientation, desire for treatment, or other aspects of their identity and plan for transition. Ask, if you have a reason to know.
  • Seek support to deal with your feelings if you are confused about how to support your family member or friend.

Support and information is available through the Counseling Service. Other resources include:

American Psychological Association  

The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Inc.

Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG Transgender Network (TNET)