Sex, Gender and Bipolarity
In order to understand the difference between someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and someone who is transgender, you need to know the difference between sex and gender. Simply put, sex is polarity of anatomy, gender is polarity of appearance and behavior. As one gains familiarity with transgenderism, these definitions quickly break down, but they serve as a good starting point.
Most people think there are just two sexes, male and female. Such is not the case. People who are intersexed and people who are transgender individuals constitute sexes which are neither exactly male nor exactly female.
Likewise, gender is not a simple case of "either/or." Gender is exhibited by countless signals, from articles of clothing to cosmetics, hairstyles, conversational styles, body language and much more.
Notice, however, that our gender "norms" are not symmetric. Women have won for themselves the right to a wide range of gender expression. Men have not made a corresponding effort. Most men live within a much narrower range of "acceptable" gender.
Though our culture tends to group characteristics into "masculine" and "feminine," many people find some amount of gender transgression exciting, so there is some crossover between the two categories. Ultimately, gender is a "mix and match" mode of self-expression, and people within our culture are ever finding new ways to express their gender, with exciting subtleties and intriguing implications.
In general, it works best to think of all effects - sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual identity, and any others - as varying along a continuous spectrum of self-expression, rather than in just one of two or three ways.
Sexual Orientation vs. Gender Identity vs. Sexual Identity
Sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual identity are independent of each other. A person may express any variation of each of these in any combination. To discourage the free expression of identity and orientation by an individual is to impose a damaging burden of conformity.
Sexual Orientation is which sex you find romantically/erotically attractive: opposite (hetero), same (homo), or both (bi).
Gender Identity is how you see yourself socially: man, woman, or a combination of both. One may have a penis but prefer to relate socially as a woman, or one may have a vagina but prefer to relate as a man. One might prefer to be fluid, relating sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman. Or one might not identify as either one, relating androgynously.
Sexual Identity is how you see yourself physically: male, female, or in between. If someone is born female, but wishes to see their body as male in all respects, their sexual identity is male. It is generally rude to speak of such a person as female, since it denies their right to inhabit the social and physical role of their choosing. We call such a person a transsexual, whether or not they have had any surgery.
Many FTM (female to male) transgender individuals do not undergo genital surgery, often because of disappointing results or extreme cost. As surgical technique improves, this may change. Since it is healthier for these people to live in accord with their wishes and heartfelt need, we call them men, though they may have a vagina where one would expect to find a penis.
The situation for MTF (male to female) transgender individuals is equivalent, except that the surgery produces a much more satisfying result, both cosmetically and functionally. Nonetheless, many MTF transsexuals elect to not have the surgery, most often because of risk, pain, or cost. Those who retain male sexual functioning may refer to themselves as transgenderists, since it is only their gender which is changed. Those that disown all male sexual function (surgery or no) tend to identify as transgender individuals, since they change their sexual function, and therefore their sexual identity.
For more information:
Transgender Academic References
- Carroll, L., Gilroy, P. J., & Ryan, J., (2002). Counseling transgender, transsexual, and gender-variant clients. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80(2), 131-140.
- Korell, S. C., & Lorah, P., (2006). An overview of affirmative psychotherapy and counseling with transgender clients. In K. J. Bieschke, R. M. Perez, and K. A. DeBord (Eds.) The handbook of psychotherapy with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients, 271-288.
- Lev, A. I., (2004). Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic guidelines for working with gender-variant people and their families. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Clinical Practice Press.
- Shaughnessy, T., & Carroll, L. (2007). Coming to terms with gender identity: Counseling transgender students. In J. A. Lippincott and R. B. Lippincott, (Eds.). Special Populations in College Counseling: A handbook for mental health professionals, 49-60.
- Rankin, S. & Weber, G. N., (2007). The lives of transgender people. Presentation at the annual conference of American Counseling Association.
- Wyndzen, M. H. (2004, Spring). A personal and scientific look at a mental illness model of transgenderism. Division 44 Newsletter, 20(1), 3.
- Zamboni, B. D., (2006). Therapeutic Considerations in working with the family, friends, and partners of transgendered individuals. The Family Journal, 14(2), 174-179.
- Body Alchemy by Loren Cameron
- Crossing by Deirdre McCloskey
- Drag King Dreams by Leslie Feinberg
- Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein
- Medical, Legal and WorkPlace Issues for the Transsexual: A Guide for Successful Transformation by Sheila Kirk and Martine Rothblatt
- My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely by Kate Bornstein
- Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
- Sex Changes by Pat Califia
- Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
- Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton by Diane Wood Middlebrook
- The Drag King Book by Del La Grace Volcano and Judith "Jack" Halberstam
- The Last Time I Wore a Dress by Daphne Scholinski
- Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg
- Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue by Leslie Feinberg
- Boys Don't Cry by Kimberly Peirce (1999)
- Just Call Me Kade by Sam Zolten (2002)
- No Dumb Questions: Uncle Bill Is Becoming A Woman. A documentary by Melissa Regan (2001)
- Normal by Jane Anderson and HBO Films (2003)
- Phallacy by Jay Sennett (2001)
- Searching Saul by Lala Endara (2003)
- Sir: Just a Normal Guy by Melanie La Rosa (2002)
- Some Reasons for Living by Jesse Cortez and Harjant Gill (2003)
- The Adventures of Sebastian Cole by Tod Williams (1998)
- Transamerica by Duncan Tucker (2005)
- Transgeneration by Sundance Channel and Logo (2005)
- Unsung Heroes by Ilya Pearlman (2002)
- XX to XY: Fighting to be Jake by Emily Atef (2003)
Transgender Website Resources
- Arlene Istar Lev's Website
- Counselling and Mental Health Care of Transgender Adults and Loved Ones
- International Foundation for Gender Education
- It's Time North Carolina
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- National Transgender Library and Archive
- Trans Alliance Society
- Transgender Academic Resources
- Transgender Health Program
- World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) - Standards of Care (formerly Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association)
- Transfigurations. Art slideshow of Jana Markus