Coolsville Featured Pop Culture

Transgender, Transsexual, Intersex: A helpful guide for beginners

I’ve seen people I care about confused about the transgender, transsexual or intersex population. That confusion can lead to ignorant or even hurtful comments and posts on social media. I thought it might be helpful to explain a few things.

I’ve seen people I care about confused about the transgender, transsexual or intersex population. That confusion can lead to ignorant or even hurtful comments and posts on social media. I thought it might be helpful to explain a few things.

I’m going to keep this simple and accessible for people new to the conversation, so some of the ways I talk about things won’t necessarily be in the preferred terminology for those communities (to avoid defining more terms!).

For the sake of our conversation here: Sex refers to physical and biological characteristics. Gender refers to culturally constructed roles and expectations of people according to their sex. (This isn’t universally accepted terminology, but it will make the discussion here easier.)

  1. Transgender, transsexual and intersex are not interchangeable terms.

Transgender is when someone feels their gender and biological sex differ. This is the “I feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body” sort of comment you may hear occasionally. This is also called gender dysphoria. The idea is that one’s emotional, mental or spiritual identity doesn’t match one’s physical identity.

Transsexual is when a transgender person makes the decision to transition physically from male to female (or vice versa). In other words, they take medical steps to change their sex, either through surgery, hormonal or other treatments, often called “sex reassignment treatments.” So while all transsexuals are/were transgender, not all transgender people are transsexual (i.e. there are people who experience gender dysphoria and choose to retain their biological sex).

Intersex means someone who has biological determiners of both sexes. So, for instance, someone who is born with both a vagina and a penis, or born with a vagina but with testes instead of ovaries, or born with a penis that has a urethal opening on the shaft of the penis. It’s not only the sexual organs, either… it can be chromosomal, meaning someone is born with XXY or some other variation in their chromosomes.

  1. Intersex births are not uncommon.

There is some debate over what “counts” as intersex, but the general agreement is that it’s somewhere between 1-2% of all births. The number of babies who receive some sort of surgery at birth to “normalize” their genital appearance (i.e. to make it clear whether they are male or female) is about one in a thousand. There are kids born into the world every day who are literally assigned their sex as well as their gender (i.e. a decision is made for what gender they will be, and there is surgery or other medical procedure to make their sex match that gender… or at least make it “more obvious” which gender a kid is).

In other words, there are kids whose SEX does not clearly identify their GENDER, and so their gender is chosen for them, and their sex altered to match that chosen gender (of course there are parents who decide to wait and let the kid decide for themselves, and there are people who decide not to alter their sex).

  1. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not necessarily correlated.

transgender transsexualIn other words, someone can be transgender but not attracted to members of the same sex. The terminology here gets complicated quickly (a biologically male transgender person (female gender, male sex) attracted to biologically female people might self-identify as gay, thus appearing to be a man attracted to women). The point, however, is that a person can be transgender, intersex or transsexual and not be gay.

  1. Using the word “hermaphrodite” for people is generally considered stigmatizing.

The term is still used scientifically for the large number of animals who either have both male and female genitalia or which naturally change between sexes (i.e. are born one sex but change over time).

The word comes from Greek mythology, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, who, depending on the version of the myth, was either born both male AND female or was born male and then fused with a nymph. Either way, the idea in Greek mythology is of someone who is “fully” male and female, and that doesn’t describe the experience of really anyone.

You may find a few intersex people who refer to themselves using the term hermaphrodite, but it’s mostly considered poor manners to use the word as an outsider to that community.

  1. Cross-dressers are a whole different category.

Yes, some transgender people cross dress. But there are, for instance, many cross-dressers who are male by both sex and gender and enjoy dressing as women. So be careful conflating these groups.

  1. Please, please don’t equate transgender, transsexual or intersex people with sexual predators and child molesters.

There is zero indication that the rate of sexual abusers is higher in this population (in fact, most studies suggest it’s lower). Please keep in mind that 90% of sexual assault and abuse against minors is perpetrated by people known to the child… friends, family and other trusted individuals. If you’re concerned about protecting children (I hope most of us are), watch for warning signs in the people you know. The vast majority of abuse takes place in private homes of trusted individuals, not at school or in public restrooms. More stats, warning signs and facts here.

  1. Let’s do the work of educating ourselves and not allow pundits to dictate our opinions.

I realize politics are involved for many of us, and that we suddenly have strong opinions about transgender people because there’s an intersection with our lives (i.e. the bathrooms at Target or the recent note from the Obama administration to public schools). If you want to speak up on the issues (I encourage you to do so), please at least read the letter sent to public schools as well as the examples of policies provided. Don’t let other people tell you what it says while they pick the most inflammatory comments and examples (from either side). And let’s please remember that transgender, transsexual and intersex people are PEOPLE with real thoughts, feelings, preferences and needs. If you don’t have acquaintances, friends or family who are in that community, I’d encourage you to make some, so that you can hear their experiences and opinions.

Likewise, I’ve seen people saying strongly worded things that aren’t based in reality. For instance, when I see people on different sides saying “I’ll never use a gender neutral bathroom” or “I need access to gender neutral bathrooms and there aren’t any” I’m a bit confused. The bathroom in your home is gender neutral. Many restaurants have gender neutral bathrooms (you know, the ones where you stand outside waiting for one of the bathrooms to open up). Bathrooms on airplanes are gender neutral. Let’s not allow our politics or pundits to simplify complex issues… we have a question about whether gender specific bathrooms in public are good and necessary, not about whether sex defines what bathroom you should use.

One last point, this one for my Christian friends:

  1. All people are made in the image of God.

    Let’s not forget that. People born intersex are created by God in his image. Male, female, transgender, transsexual or intersex, gay, straight or bisexual, these are all people made in God’s image and precious to him. Let’s keep that in mind as we engage in conversations online and with one another, please.

(ETA: Someone reached out on Facebook to say that the the word “transsexual” has largely fallen out of use and, like “hermaphrodite” can be offensive. It’s a good reminder that labels in general are dangerous, and your best bet when talking to someone from any community is to ask them what terminology they use, and what terminology is appropriate for you to use. For those who are or have been offended by the use of the term here, my apologies. Please reach out to me if you’d like further discussion.) 

By Matt Mikalatos

Matt Mikalatos is a writer not a fighter.