'Gender and Sex are a Spectrum'

Trans and Non-Binary Identities

By Al Tyrrell

Trans is the short form of transgender, an umbrella term to describe anyone whose gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth. Basically, gender – your inner identity in relation to the characteristics of masculinity and femininity – isn’t binary, it can’t be divided into two categories. There’s not just male and female, but more of a spectrum of genders, with some people feeling like men, some people feeling like women, and some people feeling like neither (and therefore feeling, literally, non-binary). Sex, on the other hand, refers to physical anatomy and is divided into male and female on the basis of reproductive function. Everyone in the UK gets “assigned” a gender at birth according to their sex – i.e. labelled “boy” if they have a penis, or “girl” if they have a vagina – and for the majority of people, this works, because their biological sex and inner gender identity lines up. These people are cisgender, or cis. Some people, however, grow up to realise that the gender they’ve been assigned doesn’t match their inner gender identity. These people are transgender.

(Biological sex isn’t actually binary either, because not everyone is born with either female or male sex attributes – intersex people are born with genitalia/hormones/chromosomes that don’t fit into either sex category. Both gender and sex exist along a spectrum.)

Trans people may transition – change themselves outwardly to affirm their inner gender identity – in various ways, from changing names and pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them), to adopting new hair and clothing, to altering gendered behaviour. Many trans people, but not all, may choose to medically transition where possible as well. There’s no single surgery which constitutes a “sex change” – instead, there are a range of different medical transition options, from hormone therapy (which causes bodily changes such as breast development or the deepening of the voice), to feminizing or masculinizing gender-affirming surgeries for different parts of the body. You should always refer to a trans person by their chosen name and pronouns as soon as they ask you to, regardless of whether their transition is visible to you.

Derogatory Words

The word transsexual is sometimes used to mean transgender, but it’s a bit outdated and medicalised (usually suggesting someone who has medically transitioned). Some trans people might use this word about themselves, but others experience it as derogatory. The word transvestite refers to a cross-dresser (someone who wears clothing associated with a different gender from their own) and shouldn’t be confused with transgender; to refer to a trans person as a transvestite is offensive because it reduces their gender identity to a costume. Similarly, tranny (derived from transvestite), is a derogatory slur, and should never be used by non-trans people.

Common Myths

“Being trans is a new fad – there were no trans people in my day / at my school / where I work.”

Not true. Trans people have existed as long as the categories of “man” and “woman” have existed, it’s just that trans visibility has increased in the media in recent years. Chances are that there probably were trans people at your school / workplace, just not people who were out. As our understanding of gender has developed and the world has grown (slightly) more accepting of trans people, it’s become easier to come out as trans without facing extreme hostility – which is why it seems like many more people are living as trans now than in past decades and centuries. If you’re interested, there’s a lot of information online about cool trans people who were out and visible going back through the ages!

“Okay, so maybe there are transgender men and transgender women. But more than two genders? That doesn’t make sense.”

Non-binary people (people who do not identify as either men or women) have, just like trans people, been around forever. The word “non-binary” may be new, but the idea itself – that some genders sit outside of the categories of “man” and “woman” – is pretty ancient, with evidence of gender nonconforming people existing across the globe throughout human civilisation. In fact, shamefully, the Western gender binary is something that was forcefully imposed on much of the rest of the world through colonialism, displacing many cultures’ richer understandings of gender and its fluidity. If you think about it, the thing that really doesn’t make sense is trying to fit everyone in humanity into these two rigid and unimaginative boxes in the first place.

“I want to support trans people, but there are so many new words and names for things that I don’t even know where to begin.”

The constantly evolving terminology surrounding trans identities can make it feel like an uphill battle trying to stay informed, but the most important thing, more so than learning all the words and terms, is to approach people’s identities with an open mind and to respect the words that people ask you to respect. Ask people what name and pronouns they prefer (don’t assume), use their chosen name and pronouns even when they aren’t around, and correct yourself when you get it wrong. It’s totally forgivable not to know all the right words for things off the bat – as long as you’re prepared to be open, admit mistakes, and keep educating yourself.

“I support trans rights, but there should be rules about bathrooms to make sure that cisgender men can’t get in by pretending to be trans.”

Violent men don’t have to pretend to be trans to assault women – if they want to assault women, they’ll do it anyway. And, for that matter, violent men are as much of a risk to men and children in the gents as they would be to women in the ladies. The concept of the cisgender man pretending to be trans is a false threat constructed by Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (or TERFs) to try and encourage transphobic views. In reality, the number of cases of cis men dressing up as women to get into ladies bathrooms is very, very low, whereas the number of cases of ordinary trans people just wanting to use the bathroom they feel comfortable in is very, very high.

“I don’t think children should be allowed to alter their bodies at a young age, before they truly know who they are and what they want.”

The idea that trans kids can get life-changing surgery is false – trans people can’t get gender-affirming surgery before the age of 18 in the UK. For a trans teenager, the process of medical transition begins with several months of appointments with a multidisciplinary Gender Identity Development team (including a clinical psychologist, child psychotherapist, child and adolescent psychiatrist, family therapist, and social worker). After this, the teen may be approved to take hormone blockers, which pause the physical effects of puberty (like breast development and facial hair growth), and which are reversible. Only after being on hormone blockers for a year can a young trans person begin to take gender-affirming hormones which cause bodily changes that are harder to reverse. The waiting lists for NHS gender services are currently extremely long, with many people waiting years for a first appointment – so there’s no chance that a trans kid could possibly rush through the process.

“They/them pronouns? That doesn’t work grammatically. It’s hard to learn and I’d rather just refer to people with the pronouns I’m used to.”

Actually, while it might seem odd to refer to someone with the singular “they” pronoun, it is grammatically correct and it’s been in common use since the 1400s. You probably use it all the time without realising, any time you refer to someone without specifying their gender. For example: “My friend’s running late but they’ll be here soon.”; “Look, they’ve got the same car as you.”; “I’ll ask the person at the desk if they can change my tickets, unless you want to ask them.’” It can feel pretty weird at first to start referring to someone you think of as “she” or “he” as “they”, but once you get used to it, it feels fine. And if someone asks you to use those pronouns, it means it’s really important to them. Try, get it wrong a few times, correct yourself, keep trying, and soon you won’t be thinking twice about it.

Some Helpful Terms

A Few More Words to Know

  • Non-binary – a term to describe someone who doesn’t identify as a man or a woman. Non-binary people might see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or somewhere between male and female. While many non-binary people identify as transgender, not all do. Non-binary people often (but not always) adopt gender-neutral pronouns, most commonly they/them.
  • Intersex – a term to describe someone born with biological attributes that don’t fit into either the male or female sex category. Intersex people are often forcibly assigned a sex at birth through surgery, but this practice has become more and more controversial as intersex adults have spoken out against it. In the past, intersex people might have been known as hermaphrodites, but this term is now outdated and derogatory.
  • Gender dysphoria – the feeling of discomfort and distress caused by the mismatch between someone’s gender identity and the gender they were assigned at birth. (Not to be confused with body dysmorphia, an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look.) Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness or distortion of perception, but a true and justified feeling that your body does not match up to your inner identity.
  • TERF – Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist – a transphobic feminist, who might be connected to the radical feminist movement. TERF beliefs tend to manifest around gender essentialism: the scientifically incorrect idea that biological sex is binary and fixed and determines gender, which suggests that trans people don’t exist. In particular, TERFs argue that trans women aren’t real women and shouldn’t be allowed in “women-only” spaces – but this argument is completely flawed, and is primarily used, along with the phrase “women-only space,” to exclude and demonise trans women.
  • Dead name – the birthname of a trans person which they no longer use. To deadname someone is to use this former name rather than the person’s chosen name, something which often causes the person discomfort and pain (and may put them in a precarious position if it outs them to others who didn’t know that they were trans).
  • Misgender – some pronouns in English are gendered, indicating the gender of the person they refer to: he/him indicates male, she/her indicates female, and recently, they/them has been used to indicate non-binary genders. Trans people often change their pronouns to fit their gender identity (e.g. a trans man who used to be “she” is now “he”). To misgender someone is to use the wrong pronouns for them, or refer to them as the wrong gender – something which, like deadnaming, can cause the person discomfort and pain. If you make a mistake with pronouns or names, it’s best not to make a huge deal out of it and just correct yourself, apologise and move on, so that the person doesn’t have to linger on it. It helps after getting it wrong to try and use the right name/pronoun three times in a row, to lodge it in your head, e.g. “Jay has a great smile; Jay was my first mate at work; I love hanging out with Jay”, or “It was lovely of Robin to invite me to their house tonight; I’ll invite them to mine next week; we could watch that show they suggested.”
  • Trans* – a written form of “trans” with an asterisk to signal the inclusion of gender nonconforming and non-binary people under the transgender umbrella.