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.
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, talk, etc. Gender expression is typically thought of as masculine on one end of the spectrum, feminine on the other and a whole, vast continuum in between. 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.
How old must someone be to really know if they are transgender?
The youngest reported case of a child believing they were transgender is 18 months. Arguably, this is the exception. A person’s sense of their sex and gender typically forms around 3 years of age. There are many cases of children this young reporting that they were actually the opposite sex . The numbers of kids who are reporting that they are the opposite sex goes up considerably once they reach 5 or 6 years of age. While for many of those children their understanding of gender and themselves will settle back into a gender typical state, some of those children will continue to feel as though they are the opposite sex and that will remain their gender identity throughout their life time.
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. Eighteen years of age is the typical cutoff for when a person can elect to change their body medically or surgically. Some pre-teens will take hormone suppressing medication (with the consent of their parents) to keep their bodies from developing secondary sex characteristics like breasts or facial hair. The effects of hormone suppression are reversible. Many of the effects of estrogen and testosterone are not.
Since being transgender is not a mental illness, there is no cure. Therapy for transgender children, adolescents, adults and their families often includes helping them understand, explore and navigate something that remains quite confusing to the general public and to themselves. Forming an identity as a tween or teen is complex enough. Adding in a gender expression that can include taking on an opposite sex name, dressing in opposite sex clothing and generally behaving as the opposite sex can invite great misunderstanding and judgement.
What can therapy do?
- help people understand what is happening to them
- provide them with safe space to explore identity and expression
- help them advocate for themselves and find advocates who can help at home, school or work
- help them learn to navigate and negotiate spaces that are traditionally set aside for the opposite gender (bathrooms, locker rooms, dorms)
- help families have a safe space to work through what is happening in their lives and the life of their loved one.
What about the family?
It is 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 love one has died. If you are a spouse, what now? Profound sadness and maybe even a desire to try and stop them from changing is all normal.
Having a loving a supportive family or support network greatly reduces the risk of someone transitioning identities becoming anxious or depressed. Therapy can help these family members deal with their own feelings so that they can best take care of themselves and their loved one.