There are a lot of swirling misconceptions regarding what it means to be transgender. So I'll just jump in real quick and try to sort some stuff out. Keep in mind that information, etiquette, and language is a living thing and changes from year to year and from person to person. When in doubt, just don't be an a-hole.
Myth: Transgender people are confused about their gender.
Reality: Most trans folks are pretty darn certain about their gender. It is others who are often confused and non-accepting of this fact. This can lead to an individual being confused about other things—such as their personal relationships, the right language to use, and societies' views of gender, but they still know who they are.
Myth: All transgender individuals medically transition (have surgeries, take hormones, etc.)
Reality: The choice to get "top" surgery, "bottom" surgery, or any other surgery is based on a number of factors that may include financial resources, accessibility, conflicting medical conditions, or simply just a personal preference.
Also, it's inappropriate and/or creepy to ask a trans person whether they have undergone any surgery. Is it okay for an absolute stranger or acquaintance to ask you about medical procedures you have had or any information about your genitals generally speaking? Now imagine, that you get approached that way several times a week.
Myth: All trans people are gay
Reality: Gender identity has nothing to do with sexual orientation. For example, a trans woman could identify as lesbian, straight, bi, asexual, etc. One is an identity and the other is an orientation.
Myth: Transgender women are drag queens and/or cross-dressers
Reality: Drag queens create a character as a form of entertainment, self-expression, and/or political commentary. The art of drag often involves extensive costuming, make-up, and props. Some transgender women may have performed as drag queens before transitioning perhaps as an outlet to express their true gender or simply out of a love of performance but they are nevertheless distinct categories and most drag queens are not transgender and vice versa. Transgender refers to a gender identity—not a character to perform.
Cross-dressing is an umbrella term that includes drag queens but also includes people who dress up as other genders as a disguise or sexual fetish. However, enjoying the feel of your wife's panties against your penis or having your boyfriend clean your house in a French maid's uniform has nothing to do with actual gender identity. Transgender people are not cross-dressing.
Myth: All trans people are hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine
Reality: While some trans folks choose to be blazing high-femmes or fully bearded leather daddies, most don't have time for that shit ... and/or have day jobs. Any old pair of jeans and a T-shirt is far more likely with any gender.
Myth: Transgender people are intersex.
Reality: Intersex refers to biological sex characteristics that are often outside the scope of the male/female gender binary that our society desperately likes to impose. If a baby is born with a combination of these characteristics that don't line up according to this binary, oftentimes surgical procedures are performed and hormones are given in an attempt to disassemble and reform a healthy baby into something society can more easily accept—instead of accepting the baby as a rarer but completely normal body.
Transgender, on the other hand, does not refer to a material set of sex characteristics but rather an internal gender disposition that is not the gender that was assigned at birth. Transgender individuals often have to fight for the surgeries that they need in order to physically align themselves with their actual genders.
In other words, many intersex folks are forced to undergo surgeries as infants, while transgender folks often have to fight for these same surgeries.
Myth: "Transgender" is a third gender.
Reality: The emphasis of "transgender" is on the discrepancy between gender identity and the gender one was assigned to at birth. "Transgender" doesn't actually say much about a person's actual gender. In some ways, "transgender" is an umbrella term, and in other ways it's not necessarily a gender at all, but more like a descriptor of a gender. Transgender includes those who don't identify as either one of the genders on the binary (genderqueer, agender, pangender, etc.) as well as those who identify as distinctly female or male. While this may also include people who identify as a "third gender" it is not a third gender in and of itself.
Forms that have three boxes under gender—female, male, and transgender—miss the mark. While this can be useful in terms of compiling more refined statistics that may ultimately help address the needs of those in the transgender community, this also has the potential to be confusing and alienating because that blazing femme certainly does not identify as the same gender as that bearded leather daddy, yet they're required to check the same gender box? Additionally, treating "transgender" as a third gender in this manner is also an insidious way of claiming that "transgender" is neither "female" nor "male."
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her at her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St.. You can reach her at 777-9434 or AllyBooker@Jellywink.com.