Understanding and Respecting Transgendered People

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #101, Spring 2003.

Maine Gender Resource and Support Service

Jean Vermette, Director (207) 862-2063

PO BOX 1894, BANGOR, ME 04402-1894




Over time, our culture has built up certain stereotypes about how boys and girls are supposed to think and act and feel and about what they should be allowed to do in life.

In recent generations, some of those stereotypes have been erased because we now realize that they really make no sense, that they are harmful to people, and that they keep people from realizing their full human potential.

For example, girls can now become doctors and construction workers, and boys can become nurses and dancers. Anyone can wear earrings, or have their hair long or short or spiky, or color their hair blue or green. None of that hurts anybody, and nobody cares. The ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl have shifted. Now we know that what we used to think of as ?masculine? and ?feminine? traits are really just ?human? traits, and anyone can have any of them. Everyone can more easily honor his or her individual traits, even if, in the past, stereotypes said some of them were not ?suitable? for a boy or girl.

But some gender stereotypes still remain. One of the worst ones that still exists is the idea that if someone doesn?t fit one or two gender stereotypes, that?s OK, but if someone doesn?t fit a lot of gender stereotypes, that?s not OK and that somehow that person is bad or unworthy of respect.

The fact is, some people NEED to not fit a lot of gender stereotypes. They NEED to step outside those old confining roles, and to express more masculinity or femininity than you might expect them to, so that they can be truthful with themselves and with others, so that they can realize their full human potential, and so that they can become productive members of society. Not fitting a lot of gender stereotypes doesn?t hurt anyone, any more than not fitting a few stereotypes does, and no one should care if it happens.

People who need to step outside the average gender stereotypes are called ?transgendered.? The term ?transgendered? is actually an umbrella term that covers a lot of different levels and means different things to different people. Trans people, both young and old, express their gender (their own personal mix of masculine and feminine traits) differently than society would expect them to, given the sex they were born with. Some trans people identify as the opposite gender (i.e., they were born female but internally identify as masculine/boy/man or they were born male but internally identify as feminine/girl/woman). For other trans people, their masculine/feminine gender identity is more fluid: neither masculine, or feminine, or both, or either on any given day or even moment!

Most people think that being transgendered has something to do with a person?s sexual orientation, but it doesn?t. It only has to do with how someone expresses their own particular
balance of so-called ?masculine? and ?feminine? traits. Heterosexual people could be transgendered, gay people could be transgendered, lesbian people could be transgendered, and bisexual people could be transgendered.

Although transgendered people live and work in all walks of life, many non-transgendered folks still don?t know how to act with a trans person. Here are some points to keep in mind.

First, because some harmful gender stereotypes still remain in our culture, it?s not unusual for transgendered people to suffer unnecessary and undeserved discrimination. If they?re not harming you, then you have no reason to be harming or harassing them. Be an ally, and support their right to be who they are just as you would want others to support your right to be who you are.

One thing you can do to become a better ally is to educate yourself about the transgendered community, about the difficulties that trans people have in our culture, and about the contributions they make to it. Another thing you can do is to think about your own mix of masculine and feminine traits, about your own expression of gender, and recognize that, whatever that mix is, it provides you with certain privileges and responsibilities in society. Everyone has an individual mix of privileges and responsibilities that come about because of his or her gender expression. No one?s mix is better than another person?s, they?re just different.

Second, respect the fact that gender identities can evolve. It takes time for people to learn anything in life, whether it?s math, how to build a boat, or how to speak another language. It also takes time for people to learn about themselves and about what their individual mix of masculine and feminine traits are. Because of that, some people may express their gender mix differently over time while they?re experimenting and trying to figure it out. Be patient with trans folks just like you would want other people to be patient with you as you learn about your own traits.

Finally, don?t make assumptions about which pronouns you should use with a transgendered person. Some trans people want to be referred to as ?she,? others as ?he.? Some trans
people don?t care one way or the other. Remember, this is NOT about sexual orientation, it?s about gender expression. In our society, it?s simply considered polite and respectful to refer to someone in the way that they would like to be referred to. If you aren?t sure how a trans acquaintance would like to be addressed, then ask them. They?ll tell you. Then, just be polite and use the name and pronoun that they ask you to. It won?t hurt you, and it will make them feel very good.

This information was produced by MeGReSS with the help of the transgendered youth members of Portland, Maine OUTRIGHT.