What Does It Mean To Be Transgender? A Complete Guide

Being transgender, or trans, is when someone’s gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people may identify as male, female, non-binary or other genders. Understanding what it means to be trans can help create a more accepting, compassionate society. This comprehensive guide explains key aspects around transgender identity, community and rights.

Key Takeaways:

  • Transgender refers to people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
  • Gender identity refers to someone’s inner sense of being male, female, neither or another gender.
  • Sex assigned at birth is based on external genitalia and classified as male or female. This may not align with gender identity.
  • Transgender people may identify as male, female, non-binary, genderqueer or other genders.
  • Gender expression relates to how someone outwardly presents their gender through behavior, clothing, hair, voice, etc.
  • Transitioning refers to steps some transgender people take to affirm their gender identity, like changing name, pronouns, style and sometimes medically with hormones or surgery.
  • Understanding and supporting transgender people creates a more accepting community.

What Does Transgender Mean?

Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity or expression does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a transgender person may identify as female, but have been assigned male at birth based on their external genitalia.

Some key terms help explain what transgender means:

  • Gender identity – Someone’s inner sense of being male, female, neither of these genders, or another gender. This forms during early childhood and may align with or differ from sex assigned at birth.
  • Sex assigned at birth – Classification as male or female based on external genitalia present at birth and recorded on a birth certificate. This does not account for variations in biological sex characteristics.
  • Gender expression – How someone outwardly presents their gender through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice, mannerisms, activities, and more. This may or may not conform to traditional gender roles expected of their assigned sex.

While someone’s sex is usually assigned at birth as male or female, their gender identity may not fit neatly into one of two categories. People whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth describe themselves using many different terms, like:

  • Transgender woman – Assigned male at birth, identifies as female. Also referred to as MTF, AMAB or trans feminine.
  • Transgender man – Assigned female at birth, identifies as male. Also referred to as FTM, AFAB or trans masculine.
  • Non-binary – Identifies as neither exclusively male or female, but rather something in between or outside the gender binary. Umbrella term for many gender identities.
  • Genderqueer – Similar to non-binary, but actively rejects the gender binary rather than identifying between or outside it.
  • Genderfluid – Gender identity shifts between genders or expresses multiple genders at different times.
  • Agender – Does not identify with any particular gender identity. May see gender as irrelevant.
  • Bigender – Identifies with two genders, either simultaneously or shifting between the two.

Along with varying gender identities, expressions of gender through names, pronouns, clothing, behaviors and interests fall along a spectrum. There is immense diversity within the trans community. The common thread is that being transgender represents some incongruity between sex assigned at birth and felt sense of gender identity.

What Causes Someone To Be Transgender?

Many hypotheses exist about the causes of transgender identity, but conclusive research remains limited. Some key factors potentially influencing gender identity include:

  • Biology – Research indicates biological factors like genetics, prenatal hormone levels and brain structure play a role in gender identity. Studies of trans people have found variations in these biological markers compared to cisgender (non-transgender) individuals of their assigned sex.
  • Environment – Social and cultural factors are also thought to contribute, but no definitive environmental cause has been identified. The wide global presence and historical record of trans and non-binary identities challenge arguments that biological factors alone determine gender.
  • Individual agency – Most trans people describe their identity as an innate self-awareness of their gender that differed from societal expectations. This inner sense of self forms the basis for openly expressing their gender identity.

There is likely interplay between these factors that lead someone to identify as transgender or non-binary. However, being trans is now classified as a natural variation in human development, not inherently a medical condition or disorder. Focus has shifted to enabling people to freely express and affirm their gender rather than identifying external “causes”.

The Process Of Transitioning Genders

Many transgender individuals choose to transition from living as their assigned sex to aligning their gender expression and physical characteristics with their gender identity. This may involve:

  • Social transition – Adopting gender expressions like clothing, hairstyle, name, pronouns and behaviors of their identity. Using facilities associated with their gender like bathrooms.
  • Legal transition – Changing legal name and gender markers on identity documents like driver’s licenses, passports and birth certificates. Varies by location.
  • Medical transition – For those who choose, using cross-sex hormones or gender affirmation surgeries to change secondary sex characteristics and appear more congruent with gender identity. Requires persistent medical evaluation.

Transition decisions are highly personal based on individual needs. Not all transgender people medically transition or have gender confirmation surgery. Social and legal transitions provide significant affirmation. Those who do transition medically take hormone therapy for months to years prior to any surgeries.

Transition eases distress transgender people often feel when their body or how others perceive them misaligns from their gender identity. It enables them to live authentically, improving mental health and quality of life. Transition extends beyond a “before” and “after” – it is an ongoing process of aligning gender expression with identity.

Discrimination and Mental Health Considerations

Transgender people face disproportionate levels of mistreatment, discrimination and health disparities compared with the general population:

  • High rates of family rejection, bullying, violence, workplace discrimination and denial of health services
  • Significantly higher risks of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide
  • Lack of legal protections in many regions, leading to exclusion or criminalization
  • Physical and sexual violence, including high rates of murder against trans women of color

This pervasive harassment, prejudice and inequality lead to lasting mental and physical health consequences. Trans youth are especially vulnerable when family and peers reject their identity during formative development stages. Supportive families, schools, workplaces and legal protections are critical to protect transgender human rights and foster resilient, thriving individuals and communities.

While discrimination and stigma impact mental health, being transgender itself is not a disorder or disease to be cured. Focus must shift to enabling social acceptance and ending systemic oppression that prevents transgender people from safely expressing their identity.

Sports Participation and Transgender Athletes

Participating in sports provides many developmental, social and health benefits. However, policies around transgender athletes have stirred debate. Opponents cite perceived competitive advantages, while advocates argue policies that ban trans athletes are discriminatory and lack scientific basis.

Several key considerations shape this complex issue:

  • Trans athletes display a wide range of physical attributes based on genetics, age of transition, hormone therapy and other factors. Blanket advantages or disadvantages are not scientifically supported.
  • Most sport governing boards have policies for trans inclusion based on specified time on hormone therapy at appropriate levels to minimize potential advantages.
  • Elite competition requires balancing fairness and inclusion. Grassroots participation should emphasize access and developmental benefits.
  • Trans girls and women face discrimination and barriers to participation beyond just athletics.
  • Trans youth in particular need access to sport for its physical and mental health benefits during development.

While ensuring safety and fairness is reasonable, policies that completely exclude trans athletes compromise inclusivity and reinforce gender identity discrimination. Nuanced evidence-based guidelines combined with education on transgender identity are required to address this multifaceted issue.

Becoming a Trans Ally: Creating Acceptance in Your Community

Understanding what transgender means is the first step to becoming a trans ally. Here are some ways you can show support in your community:

  • Use correct names/pronouns – Respect the names and pronouns trans people specify for themselves. Apologize for mistakes and move on. Don’t assume – listening is better than guessing.
  • Speak up against transphobia – Challenge anti-trans remarks and behaviors among friends and family. Report transphobic harassment or discrimination you witness.
  • Amplify trans voices – Follow trans activists on social media. Share, repeat and help broadcast trans perspectives and experiences.
  • Advocate for equality – Demand your workplace implement trans-inclusive policies. Contact politicians advocating for laws protecting trans rights.
  • Uplift trans joy – Honor trans lives by supporting trans works of art, films, books, music and culture. Appreciate the diversity and vibrancy.
  • Educate yourself – Seek out information from trans sources. Listen more than lecture. Remain open to learning.
  • Create safer spaces – Display trans pride symbols in your home, office or community. Advocate for gender-neutral facilities.

Small consistent actions based on respect and compassion can help transgender people feel accepted. Speaking up tells them they are not alone. Together, we can build a society that embraces transgender people and ensures they have equal rights, freedoms and protections under the law.

Frequently Asked Questions About Transgender Identity

What is the difference between sexuality and gender identity?

Sexuality or sexual orientation describes who someone is attracted to. Gender identity refers to someone’s inner sense of being male, female, both or neither. These are separate concepts – trans people can have any sexual orientation.

Do all transgender people get surgery or take hormones?

No – many transgender people do not medically transition. Some may take hormones but not have surgery, or just socially transition through changing name, pronouns and clothing. There is no single way to transition and not all trans people desire medical intervention.

What bathrooms do trans people use? Can they use bathrooms aligning with their gender identity?

Policies differ, but most major public facilities allow bathroom use aligning with gender identity, not assigned sex. Using the appropriate bathroom is important for trans safety and inclusion. Gender-neutral bathroom options are also beneficial.

Are there more transgender people now compared to historically?

No demographic data exists for ancient or medieval times, but historical records indicate transgender and non-binary identities have existed across eras and world cultures. Growing awareness and visibility today allows more people to openly acknowledge their identity.

Do doctors recommend transition for transgender youth?

Medical guidelines endorse gender-affirming care for youth experiencing distress around gender identity. This starts with counseling to explore options. Puberty blockers may be used to delay body changes during evaluation. Hormone therapy can begin in mid-teens, surgery only once adults.


Being transgender encompasses a wide spectrum of diverse gender identities outside conventional male and female categories. While complex issues like rights protections and athlete participation pose ongoing challenges, understanding and supporting transgender people remains critical for an inclusive society. By listening, learning and advocating, we can foster communities where people of all gender identities and expressions feel accepted.