When working with transgender students, it is extremely important to understand the differences between terminology that relates to sexual orientation and terminology that relates to gender identity. Many trans students will already be familiarized with these terms, while others may be confused or unaware of their existence. While it is not necessarily your job to educate students about the intricacies between the vocabulary, you should have an understanding of the vocabulary to ensure not only the transmission of correct information, but also an accurate way to assess what a student is referring to in conversation.
The first important distinction to understand is the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. To put it simply, sexual orientation is who you like/love/are attracted to, whereas gender identity is who you are. Despite many beliefs, recent research shows that there is no direct link between a variance of gender identity and sexual orientation, but if anything, they are “weakly correlated constructs” (Jacobson & Joel, p. 2407).
For instance, a person assigned male at birth (AMAB) whose actual gender identity is female may be attracted to girls. While presenting to the world as male, they would be classified as heterosexual. Upon transition, she would begin living as female but might still be attracted to women. Therefore, she would now identify as lesbian – a woman attracted to other women. The sexual orientation has remained the same; while the gender identity, now fully expressed to the world at large, has outwardly changed. Similarly, a person assigned female at birth (AFAB) whose actual gender identity is male may be attracted to boys. While presenting to the world as female, they would be classified as heterosexual. Upon transition, he would begin living as male but might still be attracted to men. Therefore, he would now identify as gay – a man attracted to other men.
This can be confused with gender expression, a term that describes how one presents, or expresses, their gender identity to the world. Some men or women who do not identify as trans may wish to express their gender in ways that defy the traditional male/female binary. Consider that the Beatles adopted long hair styles that were considered feminine by many during the 1960s. These men identified as heterosexual men but interrupted the gender binary by simply changing their hair. Later, David Bowie explored varied ways of applying makeup for the stage, which pushed boundaries even further, but he continued to identify as male. In the 21st century, we now see some men who break the boundaries even more by wearing makeup, earrings, or skirts. Others may mix and match traditionally feminine and masculine items in order to express their gender.
This is important to understand as many assume that all transgender individuals are simply confused gay, lesbian, or bisexual people. While they may identify with one of those sexual orientations, it is not uncommon for trans people to identify as straight/heterosexual. Confusing sexual orientation and gender identity while in a discussion with a transgender student will not only discourage them, but it may prevent them from feeling comfortable talking to you about their needs or issues in the future.
So, what exactly does transgender mean? How does it differ from transsexual? Transgender, commonly abbreviated trans , is an umbrella term that refers to an individual whose gender identity in some way or form doesn’t line up with their assigned sex at birth (ASAB). It is also common to see the term gender non-conforming, commonly abbreviated GNC. Cisgender, commonly abbreviated cis, is its direct antonym, referring to an individual whose gender identity and ASAB align.
Transgender differs from other “trans” words such as transsexual, transvestite, etc. as it is used as an umbrella term. This means that it encompasses myriad identities and attempts to include all within its umbrella. While transgender can consist of almost limitless identities, I find explanation easier by examining a few of the more common identities. This is in no way an attempt to be exclusionary, but rather help to understand its usage as an umbrella term. A friend of mine recently noted that the word “transgender” is like the word “automobile.” You understand the reference, but there are so many various kinds of cars, vans, busses, etc. that it is only from the term can you begin to narrow it down.
Some, but not all, transgender individuals decide to undergo a medical transition of some kind in order to better align their assigned sex at birth with their gender identity. In the past, the medical field has referred to these people as transsexual. However, language often changes in the LGBTQ+ community, sometimes at an alarmingly fast rate. The usage of the word transsexual is now hotly debated. Some prefer to use it and claim it as it refers to their medical transition with clarity. Abrams (2019) observed, “Some transgender people find the word transsexual to be offensive and stigmatizing. This is because of its history and roots in the professional fields of medicine and psychology, which used this term to incorrectly label all transgender people as mentally ill or sexually deviant.” (para. 22)
Many people simply stick with transgender, or even just the abbreviation, trans, as a way of identification. “Transgender tends to be more inclusive and affirming than transsexual because it includes the experiences of those who pursue medical changes to affirm gender as well as those who do not.” (Abrams, 2019, para. 28) For safest practice, the word is best avoided when writing about or discussing transgender people, unless somebody who identifies as transsexual specifically refers to themself that way.
The question then emerges, do people who decide to undergo medical transition have something they preferred to be called? The answer, like most things in the trans community, is contextual and differs depending on the individual. Many identifying in the feminine spectrum, utilize Transwoman/Transgirl, while those in the masculine spectrum may prefer Transman or Transboy. MTF (Male to Female) and FTM (Female to Male) are other popular descriptors of someone’s identity. The first letter signifies the individual’s assigned sex at birth, while the second represents their gender identity or the sex that have transitioned/are transitioning to. Some in the community avoid the MTF and FTM descriptors altogether as they never truly identified with the first letter at all.
People who medically transition have a cornucopia of possible steps they employ in their transition. Every individual’s transition is unique to them, and there are many who do not engage in a medical transition due to personal preference, financial deficits, or health concerns. A medical transition does not equate to validity. Transfeminine (assigned male at birth who identify with femininity more than masculinity) and Transmasculine (assigned female at birth who identify with masculinity more than femininity) individuals may or may not engage in some form of medical transition. Many alter their gender expression to feel more comfortable, and is typically considered medically necessary. (Cole & Han, 2011)
Individuals who identify as FTM or transmasculine commonly alter their expression via binding to minimize the appearance of breast tissue. Binding can be accomplished in numerous ways. Some people use ACE wrap bandages, tape, or other material. Others will purchase or make their own “binders." Binders can have a detrimental effect on physiological functions used while singing (Peitzmeier, Gardner, Weinand, Corbet, & Acevedo, 2017). More on this can be found in the "Choral Considerations" section of this website. Binding is oftentimes a short-term solution until surgery can be completed, if so desired.
Altering gender expression does not have to simply happen with clothing, jewelry, or accessories. An individual may alter other mannerisms as well, by raising or lowering the larynx to manipulate vocal pitch. These manipulations can affect vocal production. Other people may alter how they walk or carry themselves physically to express a designated identity.
Some individuals identify as non-binary (NB, also pronounced "Enby") or genderqueer (both used to identify as somewhere outside of the normal gender binary), agender (used to identify as having no gender), and the list goes on. While it is beyond the scope of this website to examine the in-depth similarities and differences of every identity, it is important to note that many transgender youth who identify with a label have more than likely spent time understanding the basics of a definition. When in doubt over any other terminology used, a quick Google search can go a long way to making you feel a little bit “more in-the-know.
 The abbreviation trans has occasionally been written with an asterisk after it, trans*, deriving from a wildcard specifier search function in computer programming, as it was an attempt to include individuals who weren’t medically transitioning. Recently, the community has moved away from using the asterisk as the word transgender already encompasses all identities, and because the asterisk adds a hyper-focus on the medical aspects of someone’s physiology or transition. (TSER, 2020)
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