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When we were born, the doctor or midwife who helped deliver us looked at our genitals to decide whether we were a girl or a boy. Based on that decision, we are treated a certain way from that point on.
For instance, boys are given boys toys and are dressed in boys clothes, girls are given girls toys and dressed in girls clothes. There’s no real reason why girls and boys need different toys or clothes, but many people take it very seriously.
Boy babies are expected to grow up into boys and then into men. Girl babies are expected to grow up into girls and then into women; but it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes, people are put in a gender category that they don’t belong in. Babies who everyone expected to grow up to be one gender, actually belong in another, or might not have any gender at all.
We call this situation ‘trans’. Trans is quite a big term that describes all the different ways of not belonging to the gender you were given at birth.
Trans is a latin word that means ‘across’ or ‘on the other side of’. It’s used in this context because of the words transgender and transexual which doctors used to use to talk about situations where people disagree with the gender they’ve been given. Transexual is quite an old fashioned term now, but transgender is still used, to describe people who move from one gender to another.
You’ll find people referring to themselves as trans men – who are men who were expected to be women when they were born, and as trans women – who are women who were expected to be men.
People who have stayed in the gender category they were given at birth are called ‘cis’, or ‘cisgender’. Cis (pronounced ‘siss’) is a latin word that means ‘on this side of’ ; it’s the opposite of the word ‘trans’. You’ll find people referring to themselves and others as cis men, or cis women.
Being a trans man and being a cis man are different ways of being a man. Being a cis woman and a trans woman are different ways of being a woman. Neither is any better or worse.
It can be very tempting to think of gender as an either/or situation where people are ‘either’ a woman ‘or’ a man. We call this a binary system, which is a technical way of saying either/or.
Gender isn’t binary, though, and there’s a whole spectrum of options in between and around ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that people can occupy. There are many more ways, in fact, of being trans than there are of being cis – and there are lots of terms that people use to describe gender. See our page on gender: a few definitions.
Always be respectful of the way people describe themselves. They know more about their gender than you do.
Gender expression is the way in which a person communicates their gender to the outside world. If you think about it, an awful lot of gender is communication; men and women wear different sorts of clothes, have different styles of hair; they might talk differently and walk differently. We are taught how to express our gender when we’re very little, and are constantly signalling our gender all the time.
Cis people may never have to think about their gender expression. That’s because they often behave in ways that they are expected to, so people may not say much about it.
Trans people want to be in a gender they’ve not been put in, so often have to fight to be allowed to express the gender they want to. Think about how people react when boys put on ‘girls clothes’, or when girls behave ‘like boys’. It can make people very uncomfortable or even angry.
Imagine you’re a woman, but everyone expects you to be a man, then every time you express your gender people try to stop you. This makes life very hard and this gender ‘policing’ is a very unpleasant form of bullying that trans and genderqueer people have to put up with. Think about this next time you see someone teasing or criticising people in this way.
Some trans people may change the clothes they wear in order to express the gender they want to express. Some may cut their hair differently or start or stop wearing makeup. Some trans people may take hormones or have surgery. We call these sorts of things ‘transitioning’, which means someone has made a decision to move from the gender they were given to the gender they belong in.
Transitioning can be very hard, but people are often happier after they’ve transitioned than they were before. If someone tells you they’re transitioning, be friendly and supportive. If they say it’s ok, ask them any questions you have, but don’t force them to answer or to explain if they don’t want to. See our page on transitioning if you want to know more.
Watch this NHS video featuring Jay who describes his transition from female to male. He talks about the expert help he received, his relationship with Lani and how he feels now.
Here is a quick guide to being respectful of someone’s gender identity:
With thanks to Dr Jamie Lawson (@drlawson) academic sexologist and honorary research fellow in anthropology.
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