The media today is somewhat swamped by the Trans* conversation, whether that be the discussion of whether or not to prescribe hormone blockers to children or Trans* ‘idols’ such as Caitlyn Jenner, Eddie Izzard or Riley Millington. Sometimes lost in the rhetoric of inclusivity and acceptance (and unfortunately, scandal), however, is actual understanding of what it means to be transgender. People do not tend to wake up one day and decide, “I was born a girl, but I am actually a boy”, or vice versa or otherwise. The mysterious “feeling” can hide itself behind many guises, including confusion over sexuality, social anxiety and a whole host of other issues that can be easier for the mind to contend with. Part of the reason that Trans* issues can be so hard to wrestle with is that the Trans* conversation is sensationalist, it is not mundane. The more mundane that it becomes, hopefully the better our understanding will become.
This article is intended as an explanation of and an introduction to Trans* issues as well as quite likely an important correction of any misconceptions the reader may have gleaned from the populist media. There is much to explain, so let’s start at the beginning.
Often the first question that is ever asked about a new life is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”. Before a child is born we begin to make assumptions that will profoundly affect its life, based entirely on an aesthetic difference detected by a scan. This isn't a decision that is being made by the parents, let alone taking into consideration the feelings of the child. This is purely a visual means of segregation.
In the ideal world, babies are born as humans - nothing more, nothing less. Nursery decorations are chosen, clothes are clothes, not because of what genitalia happen to reside between a child's legs but because of what the parent(s) actually think are practical or nice or sometimes, in the case of a lion onesie, a little fun. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world; children are born into one of two possible genders based on their outward appearance. They are taken home and announced to the world as "A little baby boy/girl"; it is at this juncture where sex has crucially been confused with gender.
And it doesn’t stop there. The first piece of knowledge almost all children have growing up in our society, along with who Mummy and/or Daddy are, is whether they are a boy or a girl. And this isn’t just an arbitrary label, it means things. Like what your favourite colour should be, whether you should be mad about horses, what toys you are allowed to play with, which other children you are allowed to play with, whether or not you should have pierced ears, what clothes you can wear, which changing room you should change in and which sports class you attend. We are segregated from the moment we come out of the womb and taught to be proper boys who grow into proper men, or proper girls who grow into proper women.
Most people accept this as the normal order of things and their prescribed place within it. Other people may not accept it but decide to live with it anyway. A further group of people decide they do not want to live with it and as a result become labelled by society as strange, subversive or in the more extreme cases perverted and morally abhorrent. Yet this need not be the case. Whilst the world at large is likely not prepared to be the ideal world that one could wish for, there are simple ways in which we can educate ourselves so that future generations are not pigeon-holed into two factions without so much as a whisper.
So, what then is gender? To put it crudely, gender is not determined by what does or does not hang between a person's legs. Gender is more complex than genitalia or the presence of a Y chromosome. Gender is about how someone feels and it slides on a scale, not a good-egg, bad-egg scale but a “wibbly-wobbly gendery-wendery… thing”. Flippant remarks aside though, where an individual falls on such a scale at any given point is not a choice, they just fall. It is the decision to publicise their location on the scale that sometimes elicits comment.
At this point some definitions may be useful. We shall try to elucidate the meanings of some of the more common terminology used in discussion of gender and trans* issues. It is, however, important to note that these are only general accepted meanings within the trans* community and that gender is a very personal thing which varies from person to person. These definitions are therefore intended as a reader’s guide, so that you know what someone most likely means when they use a term that you were hitherto unfamiliar with. They are not terms that you can start ascribing to people without their consent.
Sex: Whether by genetic examination or simply waiting until birth, a person’s sex is characterised on the basis of their reproductive functions. Most definitely not to be confused with gender or sexuality.
Gender: The state of being that a person experiences, whether male, female or non-binary. Typically associated with references to social and cultural differences. Not to be confused with sex or sexuality.
Transgender: When someone’s gender identity does not match the gender that they were assigned at birth based on their genitalia or chromosomes. This says nothing about their physicality or their gender expression, but simply means that the gender they feel they are is different to what a doctor sweepingly meant by the statement “It’s a boy/girl!”. Often shortened to “trans”.
Cisgender: When someone’s gender identity does match the gender that they were assigned at birth based on their genitalia or chromosomes. Often shortened to “cis”.
Trans man: A male transgender person. This may seem fairly obvious, but the number of people who assume that the “man” bit refers to the “gender that the person was” rather than the “gender that the person is” is quite staggering. If someone says they are a man, they are a man, regardless of whether they are transgender or not. Trans men usually use “he/him/his” pronouns and can usually be addressed as Mr.
Trans woman: A female transgender person. The above comment also applies here. Trans women usually use “she/her/her” pronouns and can usually be addressed as Mrs, Miss or Ms.
Non-binary: Someone who identifies as neither purely male nor purely female. This is an umbrella term encompassing many gender identities for which individuals or groups may have found their own terms, but a non-binary gendered person by definition falls outside of the gender binary, whether they do this by identifying as male and as female at the same time, as a gender in between, as a completely separate gender, as completely lacking in gender or as gender-fluid, having more than one gender and moving interchangeably between these over time. Non-binary people (NB for short) may or may not identify as transgender.
Non-binary people most often use “they/them/their” pronouns, although other non-gendered pronouns do exist. They can usually be addressed as Mx, although they may also us any of Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms, depending on the person.
Trans*: An umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum that are not simply cisgender. The asterisk denotes that not just trans men or women are meant, but also all transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming identities, and this term is thus more inclusive.
Transition: Broadly speaking, this is when someone realises that their actual gender is at odds with the gender they were ascribed by others and does something about it. This may not necessarily mean they are out to everyone about their gender at once and, depending on the person, they may take a while transitioning, as they realise more things about what their gender means to them. An important thing to note here is that the word “transition” does not mean “have a sex change”. Some people, as part of transitioning, may undergo surgery to make their bodies reflect their gender identities better. This is, however, often only part of their transition and the term, like so many terms, means different things to different people.
Right, now you have the lingo, or at least as much as is possible to give you in such a whistle-stop tour of such a complicated and important issue. Now it might be worth properly introducing ourselves and giving you a bit of our personal experience of being Trans*, so that you can put into context all that you have just learned.
My name is Alison, or rather, one of them is, the one I didn’t choose. I have another name which I chose for myself and which I go by in my private life as it more correctly applies to my identity, but in the work environment I have chosen to go by my birth name. I am a non-binary transgender person, which for me means that I am neither male nor female, but rather something in between. How I express my gender varies over time, so you may see me at one point wearing a flowing brightly coloured dress, with elegant jewellery, painted nails and make-up, whilst at another time you may see me looking dapper in a three-piece suit with a flat chest and a short-back-and-sides haircut. More often than not, it will be a mixture of these extremes, something in between where I happen to feel comfortable. Whatever my expression on any given day though, I am always non-binary and the correct pronouns to use for me are always “they/them/their”. Regardless of what I look like, it is never correct to assume that I am a man or a woman, nor to make assessments as to exactly how male or how female I am.
I was assigned female at birth and grew up as a girl knowing that something was wrong, but not knowing what. My sister, 14 years my senior, was trying at this time to persuade my parents that it was all right for her to be in love with a woman, so naturally I felt an immense pressure to be the “normal straight girl”. When I got a boyfriend I seemed to be ticking their boxes, but I still knew that something was wrong. At university I became aware that I was not only attracted to men, so I briefly tried going to LGBT+ events, but I never felt like the other people there took my claim to the banner seriously when I vaguely tried to explain that I was probably bisexual and was thinking about my gender.
A turning point came when I finally found a friendship group in which I felt normal and accepted. This was a drama group with quite a lot of LGBT+ people in it, including several trans* people. It was with the support of these people that I was able, in stages, to work out that I am non-binary, as well as pansexual (like bisexual, but with the acknowledgement that there are not just two binary genders; this is another story though). Just knowing my identity and being out in most situations is a huge positive for me and my life is immeasurably better for my having realised that I am non-binary. However, the society in which we live still poses problems to my happiness and mental well-being every day.
When you become aware of and subsequently accept who you are, you become hyper-vigilant of any references to your gender. It can be very difficult not to become easily distressed when other people in your life do not adjust accordingly. My family, for example, does not accept my gender identity and the constant misgendering really gets to me. This distress can extend, unfair though it may seem, to people whom I have not yet informed. I didn’t come out about my gender in my first job and ended up leaving because I couldn’t deal with the gendered environment of the workplace. There is a constant weighing up of options whenever I enter a new professional or social situation. I am always faced with the choice: let people assume my gender to keep things simple but allow myself to be hurt in the process, or come out to them and make myself vulnerable to other people’s ignorance and/or prejudices?
Hiya, I’m Emma, I’m an avid fan of rugby and cricket and I’m never happier than when cycling or cooking. Part of my daily routine is to take medication, it happens to be a form of hormone therapy; I identify as a woman but was not born as such. Being a trans woman is just a drop in the ocean that is my existence; whilst I am happy to support or advise others dealing with their own gender identity or even help answer queries regarding the practicalities of transitioning, like everyone else, I am complex and cannot nor will not be defined by a single label.
That the trans* narrative is in the public domain can mean that transitioning is a bigger deal for the uninitiated than it necessarily could or should be. I did not enter the profession as Emma; however, when I was taken on as a trainee I was well aware of my gender identity and where I chose to apply was strongly influenced by a need to know that when I chose to transition I would be offered support and understanding. For those looking into the profession from the outside, IP can not only seem like a male dominated environment but, being such a small profession, there are relatively few stories of LGBT involvement. Since I began my training, IP Inclusive and IP Out have grown and these organisations are thankfully addressing the imbalance, but there is always more that can be done. Change must start from somewhere and I offered to write this article with Alison as a means to raise awareness.
Dos and Don’ts
Whether a trans* person chooses to transition and to what extent is a deeply personal experience and to an outsider the natural instinct is to ask questions and only feel embarrassed or worried that the questions are inappropriate afterwards. Unless a person has addressed a particular topic openly here is a guide to what is commonly held as appropriate and not:
Do not ask:
Which bathroom do you use? Let’s be serious folks, as a nation we do not talk about these things and really don’t need to.
Are you sure it isn’t a phase?/Are you going change your mind? It is likely that the person has fretted over their gender identity for some time, so questioning them in this way de-legitimises their experience.
Are you sure you aren't just gay? Gender and sexuality are distinct concepts and, whilst they can play into each other, are not necessarily at all linked.
What’s your real name? Together with questions about someone’s life pre-transition, this is off-limits. Unless specifically instigated by the individual, odds are they will not appreciate this, as it implies that their current identity isn’t real. It may also bring back bad memories about their life pre-transition. Would you enjoy someone asking you about the moments of your life when you felt most desperate or unhappy?
Any questions about any parts of medical transition. A medical transition essentially involves not only going through a second puberty, but also, if opted for, major surgery. To ask a cis person about their genitalia or hormone levels is inappropriate, so the objectification of a trans* person’s body is equally inappropriate. If your curiosity is that great, please be directed toward the nearest search engine.
Encouraged to ask:
What pronouns do you use? You can ask this just as you would ask someone’s name when you first meet them. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, it is better to use ungendered pronouns (they/them/their) or just the person’s name, rather than guess and risk getting it wrong.
How to support someone in any given space. You might be in a public space and a stranger makes a scene. Whilst reacting may seem the right and valiant thing to you, the trans* person may see this as making the situation untold times more complicated or uncomfortable, so check with them in private what they would actually appreciate from you.
Whether shared information should remain confidential. If you knew the trans* person before they made their gender identity public, consider that others may not and for you to discuss this openly can expose them to a multitude of problems. Outing someone about anything without their consent is not cool and can have legal ramifications.
We hope our article has debunked some myths, addressed some preconceptions and generally illuminated what can be quite a complex subject. Trans* people are just part of a larger network under the LGBT+ umbrella. It can perhaps negatively impact the differentiation between gender and sexuality when the two are so commonly coupled, however we stand together in the modern world as it is not acceptable to marginalise or diminish the contribution, value and legitimacy of any person.
A simple notice about inclusivity on a firm’s website is not sufficient to advertise and raise awareness. Signing up to a charter is all very well and good, but at the end of the day, these are just words. It is the actions of individuals that create impressions that help to drive real progress and change in environments. It is important not to pressure, but still to ensure that everyone, regardless of their identity, has the opportunity to spread their wings and thrive. A person comfortable in their inward and outward presentation will be more valuable both to a company and to themselves.
Alison and Emma co-wrote this piece for IP Inclusive's LGBT+ network, IP Out. If you would like to get in touch with the group about any of the issues they’ve raised, please email IPOutNetwork@gmail.com.