When a child is born, a doctor says, “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl.”
At birth, people are assigned a specific sex based on their physical characteristics and biology – the X or Y chromosomes they possess.
But one’s gender identity – what gender he or she feels most comfortable expressing and identifying with — doesn’t always align with the biological sex he or she was given at birth.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the word “transgender,” also referred to as “trans,” is an umbrella term for people whose identity is different than the one that was given to them at birth.
From parents to coworkers to siblings and neighbors, transgender people come from all walks of life, representing all racial, ethnic and faith backgrounds.
Despite the increased visibility of transgender issues with celebrities like Laverne Cox, a trans woman who plays the character of Sophia on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”, and reality TV personality and retired Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete, Caitlyn Jenner, there’s still a considerable lack of understanding of gender identity.
Someone’s gender identity and his or her sexual identity are two different things.
The American Psychological Association defines gender identity as a “person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else,” while someone’s sexual identity is how a person thinks of oneself in terms of who is romantically or sexually attractive.
Just like anyone, transgender people can be straight, gay, bisexual, asexual or attracted to a traditionally undefined gender.
Despite common misconception, trans people aren’t cross dressers or drag queens. The National Center for Transgender Equality explains cross-dressing as an old term for “people who dress in clothing traditionally worn by the other sex, but who generally have no intent to live full-time as the other gender.”
The term “drag queen” refers to men who, often for entertainment purposes, dress up as women.
“Drag is really making fun of identity,” RuPaul explained while on the talk show “The Real.” “Transgender people take identity very seriously – their identity is who they are.” RuPaul is a world-famous drag artist known for his show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”.
Some people who identify as transgender feel like they were born into the wrong bodies, but not all those in the community want to undergo physical transformation.
Transitioning is more than just surgery.
As described by The National Center for Transgender Equality, transitioning is “the time when a person begins living as the gender with which they identify rather than the gender they were assigned at birth.”
Everyone’s transition experience differs depending on what they feel is best fit for them.
The process of transitioning can range from wearing clothes typically worn by those with that gender identity (also known as gender expression), to using certain pronouns, to changing one’s name to better represent how he or she feels.
While transgender visibility is increasing in popular culture, those within the community still face huge disparities in nearly every aspect of society.
According to Vincent White, Cadena and Transfer Center coordinator at Fullerton College, those within the trans community face discrimination in employment, housing, medical and other services. He mentioned they are targets for violent hate crimes and that some even endure the loss of support from friends and family.
The Williams Institute at UCLA found that between 2003 and 2007 “9.2 percent of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people reportedly lost a job, and 38.2 percent were harassed at work due to their sexual orientation.”
The struggles do not stop there.
“The statistics are heartbreaking,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College. “Eighty percent of trans students have felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression.”
Balma went on to explain that in a 2007 survey, 49 percent of trans people reported physical abuse, 50 percent have been raped or assaulted by a romantic partner, 30 percent of trans women have been incarcerated – often on suspicion of being prostitutes simply because they are transgender and that 41 percent have attempted suicide.
Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl who lived in Ohio, died in December of 2014 after taking to Tumblr to explain that she felt alone when her parents demanded she act like a “perfect little straight Christian boy.”
A study published by Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that transgender people have a 4.6 percent higher rate of attempted suicide than those who have in the general U.S. population.
“Transgender equality is vitally important because everyone deserves basic human rights,” Balma said.
Though, LGBTQ advocates are making progress.
In January, President Barack Obama became the first president in history to mention trans people in a State of the Union. Facebook now allows its users to choose their own gender identity on their profiles, providing more than 50 different options.
While there have been some advancements, there’s still a long way to go for trans equality. More people can help by becoming an ally.
GLAAD, previously known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a strong force behind LGBTQ+ equality, outlined tips for allies of transgender people.
The outline gives general guidelines on how to respect transgender individuals in terms of assuming, pronouns and how to respectfully go about finding out and what not to ask.
More importantly, GLAAD explains that each person is different and there is no “right” answer to everything and that it is necessary to understand each transgender person’s preferences.