Transgender issues: Public awareness is on the rise

There has been a growing public awareness of transgender people, both in pop culture and mainstream media. The signs are everywhere, from characters in the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black to the spring 2014 campaign for U.S. department store Barneys, which features 17 transgender models. CBC News takes a closer look at what transgender means.

A look at 'trans' issues, from Chelsea Manning to Orange Is the New Black

Actress Laverne Cox is the first African-American transgender woman to appear on an American reality show. Cox was first seen in the VH1 show I Want to Work for Diddy and currently plays a transgender inmate on the hit Netflix series, Orange is the New Black. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

In the last year, there has been a growing public awareness of transgender people, both in pop culture and mainstream media.

The signs are everywhere — from characters in the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black and the Oscar-nominated film Dallas Buyers Club to the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Florida punk band Against Me! to the spring 2014 campaign for U.S. department store Barneys, which features 17 transgender models.

“Trans” issues are also cropping up in the news. Last week, a judge in Kansas approved a request by Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning, the soldier previously known as Bradley Manning who got a 35-year prison term for handing government secrets to WikiLeaks, to officially change her name as she now identifies as a woman

Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Dave Hancock recently announced that transgender people will no longer be required to have reassignment surgery before they can change the sex on their birth certificates.

Despite this rising awareness, there have also been a number of recent stories that highlight basic misunderstandings about transgender people. TV interviewers such as CNN’s Piers Morgan or ABC’s Katie Couric have been accused of using offensive language and asking intrusive questions. Sports journalism site Grantland was roundly criticized for a feature on a unique golf putter that ended up outing its inventor, a trans woman (who subsequently committed suicide). Meanwhile, the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race has come under fire for its use of the slur “she male,” which many people find to be transphobic.

These types of misunderstandings have real-life consequences. For example, when transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black) appeared on Katie Couric’s show, she explained to Couric why some trans people don't like getting questions that focus on their body.

“The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often, we are targets of violence,” Cox said.

“We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of colour, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

Janet Mock, a transgender author and advocate, acknowledges that even well-intentioned people struggle with finding the proper language to address trans issues. When she recently appeared on CBC Radio’s culture show Q, Mock stressed that being an “ally” to the trans community means actively and continually trying to learn for yourself.

“I think the next part of learning and wanting to heighten your own awareness is making it transform beyond curiosity, because curiosity can also be dangerous," says Mock. "If we’re just looking at someone as a piece of education for us, or something to heighten our awareness about something, then we’re not really seeing the person.”

CBC News takes a closer look at this often confusing issue.

What does transgender mean?

“Transgender” is an umbrella term that describes someone whose gender identity or expression does not match the gender they were “assigned at birth” – a phrase that recognizes how sex and gender are given to individuals at birth, rather than being innate or unchangeable qualities. Most people would probably consider themselves “cisgender” – that is, they identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

People who describe themselves as transgender – or simply trans – may include female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag queens and drag kings, androgynous people, genderqueers or anyone whose gender defies typical societal expectations. The trans community is very diverse and includes a multitude of identities and experiences. (Some advocates prefer to refer to the community as trans* -- the addition of the asterisk signifies the most inclusive version of the term.)

Film subject Janet Mock attends the premiere of The Out List on June 18 in New York City. Mock is a transgender rights advocate and a former staff editor at (Michael Loccisano/Getty)

While some transgender people transition from one side of the “gender binary” — man/woman, masculine/feminine – to the other, some prefer to exist in between, or outside the binary altogether. Whereas the term “transsexual” often refers to trans men or trans women who physically transition to bring their bodies more into alignment with their gender identity, “transgender” identity is not dependent upon altering one’s body with hormones or surgery. Many trans people prefer to identify as “transgender” rather than “transsexual,” because it doesn’t emphasize or denote bodily characteristics, which they may or may not decide to change.

“Transgender” is an adjective, not a noun, which is why advocacy group GLAAD says there’s no need to put an “-ed” at the end. Trans people may use a variety of pronouns to describe themselves, such as “he,” “she” or the gender-neutral “they,” and trans advocates stress that it’s important to refer to trans people with the pronoun they prefer.

If you’re unsure, it’s best to ask.

What is the difference between gender identity, gender expression, sex and sexual orientation?

  • Gender identity is one's personal, inward sense of being a man or a woman (or boy or girl) or any other shade of gender. Gender identity is not determined by bodily characteristics — while some trans people undergo hormone therapy and/or surgery, others decide not to change their bodies at all.
  • Gender expression is how an individual chooses to outwardly demonstrate gender, which is often conveyed through masculine, feminine or gender-variant behaviour, clothing or mannerisms. Gender expression doesn’t necessarily indicate gender identity. For example, just because British comedian Eddie Izzard cross-dresses as a woman once in a while doesn’t mean he identifies as one.
  • Sexual orientation (gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, etc.) denotes the gender(s) you’re sexually and/or romantically attracted to. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same – just because one shifts genders doesn’t mean one changes whom they are attracted to. Like cisgender people, trans people can be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual or queer.
  • Sex (female/male/intersex) is the classification people are assigned at birth based on a combination of physical characteristics, including external organs and chromosomes. Transgender people often seek to match their gender expression with their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex.

The web site It’s Pronounced Metrosexual illustrates the differences with a diagram called the “Genderbread Person.”

How can I be an ‘ally’ to transgender people?

Here are some tips from transgender advocates:

1. See trans people as people rather than objects or oddities.

2. Accept trans people for who they say they are, including their preferred name and pronoun.

3. Avoid asking inappropriate questions about a trans person’s body, medical history or sex life – questions you’d be unlikely to ask anyone else.

4. You can’t tell if someone is trans just by looking at them, so it’s best not to assume anyone’s gender.

5. Instead of saying someone was “born a boy” or “born a girl,” try saying they were assigned male or female at birth.

6. Remember that transgender women are women and transgender men are men, and that some people prefer to exist somewhere in between or outside of the gender binary.

7. Don’t use offensive and outdated terms such as “transvestite,” “tranny,” “she-male,” “he-she” or prefixes such as “real” or “bio-“ when describing someone who is not trans (it’s best to use “cis-”). Although trans people may use these terms in self-reference, cisgender people should avoid this language.

8. Be careful about “outing” trans people. Not all trans people feel comfortable sharing their status publicly and disclosing confidential information can be dangerous to their safety.