What does it mean to be Transgender?
The word transgender or trans is an umbrella term. Breaking down the term, the Latin word trans means “to cross.” Therefore, transgender typically means crossing gender. Sometimes people will use the term trans* to describe anyone who is gender variant or gender non-conforming. The asterisk denotes an inclusive, diverse definition of the term.
To be transgender assumes that a person’s gender identity is different than the sex with which we were born. A transgender person’s gender expression typically does not line up with what society might expect from someone born male or female. When discussing gender we may be referring to a person’s gender identity, a person’s gender expression, or a combination of the two. Our gender identity includes how we see ourselves in the world. Our expression of gender includes how we communicate our gender to the world. Examples of expression might include the way we dress, the way we walk, the way we talk, etc. Gender expression is typically thought of as masculine on one end of the spectrum, feminine on the other, with a whole and vast continuum in between.
At what age do children know if they are transgender?
A person’s sense of their sex and gender typically forms around three years old. There are many documented cases of children this young reporting that they were actually the opposite sex. The number of children who are reporting that they are of the opposite sex goes up considerably once they reach the age of five or six. For many of those children, their understanding of gender and themselves will settle back into a gender-typical state. However, some of those children will continue to feel as though they are the opposite sex and this will remain their gender identity throughout their lifetime.
Does a person need to have sexual reassignment surgery in order to be transgender?
No. While some people elect to have surgery to change their bodies, many do not. Some people take estrogen or testosterone to help their gender expression be more in line with their identity. The typical minimum age for when a person can elect to change their body medically or surgically is eighteen years old. With parental consent, some pre-teens will take hormone suppressing medication to keep their bodies from developing secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts or facial hair. The effects of hormone suppression are reversible. Many of the effects of estrogen and testosterone are not.
What can therapy for people who identify as transgender do?
- help individuals understand what is happening to them
- provide individuals with a safe space to explore identity and expression
- help individuals advocate for themselves, and to find advocates who can help at home, school, or work
- help individuals learn to navigate and negotiate spaces that are traditionally set aside for the opposite gender (such as bathrooms, locker rooms, dorms, etc.)
- provide families with a safe space to work through what is happening in their lives and the life of their loved one
What about the family?
It’s normal for families to be confused, worried, and even angry when their child or loved ones’ gender is changing from what they expected, wanted, or knew. It can feel like the person you knew is leaving you. Some have even said it feels like their loved one has died. If this is impacting you or your spouse, what is the road forward? Profound sadness and even a desire to try to stop them from changing are all normal feelings.
Having a loving and supportive family or support network greatly reduces the risk of someone transitioning identities from becoming anxious or depressed. Therapy can help family members process their own feelings so that they can best take care of themselves and their loved one.