Content Warning: this page includes mentions of dysphoria, gender policing, colonialism, transphobic assault, coming out, erasure.
What does 'Transgender' mean?
Transgender (often abbreviated to ‘trans’) is used as an inclusive umbrella term used to describe anyone who feels that the gender that was assigned to them at birth incompletely describes or fails to describe their relation to gender. This term includes people who:
Identify as members of the other binary gender than the one they were assigned. These people might describe themselves as binary transgender, or transsexual (though the latter is less popular among current students).
Identify as being outside of the western gender binary. These people might describe themselves as one or more of non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, pan-, bi- or agender, neutrois, demiguy, demigirl, or a multitude of other descriptions, or none at all.
Not all people who fit the above definition identify as trans. In particular some Indigenous people and people of colour feel that the western concept of transness only makes sense to apply within the western colonial narrative and therefore do not apply it to themselves.
It is always best to ask people how they identify, if this is relevant information you need to know, rather than making assumptions about the words they use to describe themselves.
‘By “Trans / Transgender” we are referring to all people who consider themselves to fall under the trans / transgender and gender variant umbrella. This includes, but is not limited to: Cross-dressing & transvestite people, trans women, trans men, transsexual men & transsexual women, people identifying as androgyne, polygender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, dual gendered, & non-gender identifying, gender questioning people, gender variant & gender diverse people, transgender people & intersex people and anyone who feels that the gender assigned to them at birth incompletely describes or does not at all describe their own personal gender or non-gender identity.’
– from the Transgender Resource and Empowerment Centre website (in Manchester, serving the North-West.)
Sex vs. Gender
The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are distinct, with both referring to diffuse subject matter; however they are not necessarily fully separate, since they are historically used in an intrinsically linked sense, and sex terminology is gendered - that is to say that describing something as "male" is equivalent to associating the thing with men/manhood.
In a biomedical context, sex is often used to describe certain anatomical and genetic features of an individual such as X/Y chromosomal status, gonads, genitalia, hormonal levels, etc. It is worth noting that these are not always grouped as typically expected, in the case of intersex individuals.
Gender is a term used for a wider range of socially constructed ideas. Historically in the West it has described the social features (appearance and societal roles) typically attributed to one of the binary sexes; however, this idea has come under increased scrutiny over the past few decades.
Gender, or gender identity, describes the gender-related aspects of a person’s innate sense of identity, with or without reference to stereotypes associated with their sex assigned at birth. Terms to describe gender in this sense include female, non-binary, agender, male, genderqueer, genderfluid, and a whole host of other terms.
Broadly speaking, the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are used with varying degrees of sense and accuracy. You should always describe people using the terminology they use to describe themselves. When you do not know what sex terminology a person uses but you do know their gender, you should default to using the sex terminology associated with their gender, not with their assigned sex at birth.
Starting definitions of these terms can be found in the glossary, but there is a lot of confusion and misinformation around them and their distinctions, so don't expect to get a grasp on either quickly. In the mean time, just remember to default to treating sex terminology as though it is gendered, and to always describe people using the terminology they use to describe themselves.
Am I Trans?
The short answer is if you want to identify as trans, you can - feeling that either there is something wrong with the gender identity you have been assigned, or that you are happier with a different gender identity, is all there is to it. There's no right way to be trans; you don't need to have dysphoria or to have known for a long time. Society's powerful impetus of cisnormativity means that almost every trans person doubts their right to claim transness, often on a regular basis, so don't worry!
If the question of whether you're trans is not something you've ever put serious time and effort into, then it may be worth putting some time aside to think about it. Almost all trans people have spent a proportion of their adult lives either not connecting certain feelings they have with the concept of transness, or having suppressed feelings about gender to the point where they don't notice them. So have a think!
Gender policing within the trans community
As a result of power dynamics within the trans community (i.e. white trans people and DFAB trans people having significant power over trans people of colour and DMAB trans people - and particularly over trans women of colour), as well as significant gatekeeping from both medical and legal institutions, there can often be a lot of gender policing directing at trans people (i.e. telling people what gender they can or can't have or be or what they must do to qualify as their gender) that also comes from other trans people.
Gender policing is always wrong and always harmful. With the exception that you may not claim a culturally specific gender identity if you do not belong to the culture it is specific to, all that is required for you to have a particular gender is for you to want to have that gender identity. Whether or not you have dysphoria, have known for a long time, choose to having hormone therapy or surgery, etc. etc. your identity is valid.
It should be noted that transgender is a very broad term, and it encompasses many different constituents who face distinct (though often overlapping) sets of issues. Whether or not an individual subscribes to the term transgender is subject to self-definition. For example, many intersex people do not self-identify as transgender because they feel that this does not relate to gender but rather to physical sex.
There is no right way to be trans, and all trans identities are equally valid. Since there is such diversity of experience within the transgender umbrella it is important for groups within that umbrella to listen and defer to one another on particular aspects of trans experience - in particular when there are uni-directional power dynamics involved. One trans person can never claim to represent all trans people.
What does 'Cisgender' mean?
The term ‘cisgender’ (often abbreviated to ‘cis’) is used to describe people who are not transgender, i.e. who experience complete congruence between their gender identity and gender assigned at birth.
Much more terminology can be found in our glossary.
Being the 'T' Within LGBT+
Some people – both transgender and cisgender LGB people – argue against the inclusion of T issues alongside LGB issues because they consider sexual orientation and gender identity to be incomparable. It is true that an individual’s sexual and romantic orientation, and whether or not they are transgender, are separate concepts which have no bearing on one another. However, CUSU’s group is an “LGBT+” group, including advocacy of transgender issues within its remit. There are a number of reasons for including trans people within LGB+ safe spaces and advocacy:
1. Much of the infrastructure of the LGB movement was built by trans women of colour.
From the Stonewall riots (started by TWOC and the namesake for the famously trans exclusive Stonewall UK charity) and the pride protests that commorate them, to much of the underlying theory behind LGB and trans liberation, trans women of colour (particularly black trans women) have played a pivotal role at every step of the LGBT movements and are responsible for many of its successes.
When LGB movements or white trans movements try to seperate themselves from this, or to write over this history, they are stepping on those who got them where they are today.
2. Many trans people are gay, lesbian or bisexual; many gay, lesbian or bisexual people are trans. Non-binary gender identities render heterosexuality nonsensical.
Those transitioning from one gender to another in many cases will be moving into or away from the LGB community; as most people who transition retain their sexual orientation (although not always – it is not uncommon for transgender people to identify as heterosexual or homosexual both before and after transition), a transgender person is likely to start identifying as gay, lesbian, or otherwise queer as a result of their transition, or is likely to have previous links with the LGB community which they do not wish to entirely break with as a result of subsequently identifying as heterosexual.
Similarly, those with non-binary gender identities are likely to be placed in a position in which typical understandings of heterosexuality and homosexuality are nonsensical, due to there being no “opposite” gender to their identities.
3: Trans people have always been present in the LGB community.
LGB communities have long held ties with those with transgender identities. Although gender identity and sexual orientation are not comparable, many LGB people consider themselves non-gender-normative, ranging from “butch” lesbians and “femme” gay men, to drag kings and queens who are often non-heterosexual, through to those who more radically question societal assumptions around gender.
Historically, at the birth of western LGB rights activism, there was very little to no understanding of trans identities and no distinction was drawn between gay people and trans people. Trans people were subjected to the same injustices as LGB people and were included in the communities at the time.
4: LGB people often challenge gender boundaries in their social behaviour and may even be targeted because of their gender presentation.
Similarly, much of the prejudice facing both LGB and transgender people results from assumptions around what is considered to be gender-appropriate behaviour – that there are certain ways one is ‘supposed’ to act as a member of a particular gender, including being attracted to those of the ‘opposite’ sex. Much of the discrimination against transgender people is also likely to be familiar to LGB people (particularly older persons) and come from similar quarters – many are disowned by their family, and are subject to verbal, sexual and physical assault.
5: Learning to accept your trans identity can be in some ways similar to the process that some LGB people experience in recognizing and accepting their sexuality.
LGB and trans people have to face similar issues as they come to terms with the sexuality and gender identity respectively. These include the common processes of disclosure and coming out, adjusting and adapting or choosing not to adapt to social pressures to conform to the norm, and fear of loss (or indeed actual loss) of relationships.
6: Many identities within the ‘+’ have strong links to trans identities and may have broader notions of sexual orientation.
The ‘+’ at the end of LGBT+ is an attempt at creating a broader and more inclusive community and some of the identities covered by it fall outside the traditional areas covered by LGB. For example asexual identities can be held at the same time as LGB ones, creating a fuller picture of what it means to be LGB. Some identities, such as pansexual, are sexual orientations that may not be based upon gender identity at all, something that traditional views of LGB identities fail to include. Intersex people are frequently included within the ‘+’, which again falls outside the remit of sexual orientations. When creating an inclusive community it would be illogical to exclude any related identity.
7: We’re stronger together.
The transgender community is relatively small compared to the LGB community; although most statistics are based upon those accessing public healthcare, it is estimated that somewhere between 1 in 500 and 1 in 125,000 people are transgender. These figures are of course based on western notions of trans people and in some countries, where different ideas are prevalent and there is much greater acceptance, anything up to 4% of people may identify as trans. Because of the relatively small numbers of trans people in this country, ensuring a safe environment may require advocacy from the non-”T” elements of LGBT+.