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Handouts and Information

What is an Ally? | Developing a Common Language | Gay and Lesbian Identity Development | Heterosexual Questionaire
Heterosexual Privilege | Trans Definitions | Overview of the Transgender World
The Intersexed Condition | What Does the Bible Say About Homosexuality | Choosing a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual-Affirming Therapist


Overview of the Transgender World

When we talk about the concept of gender and how that relates to physical sex, we quickly get into very complex territory. The various combinations of gender identity, physical sex and how the individual chooses to express both of these can result in a vast array of transgender individuals. Our tendency as humans is to want to simplify complex phenomena into easily understandable categories or types – this is probably not an accurate way to describe the transgender experience. You will often find an individual who does not fit one of the clean definitions of one of our transgender groups or categories.

That said, I think it can help sometimes to start with a more simple explanation of what it means to be a transgender person – and to know that we are likely going to have to expand our understanding over time.

So, I’m going to give you a basic framework for understanding what it means to be transgender. One way to think about this is to consider two separate and distinct continuums – one being the continuum of physical sex and the other being the continuum of gender identity – in order to conceptualize the transgender experience. When we talk about the continuum of physical sex, we’re talking about the internal and external physical characteristics that define us as male or female. For some people, it can be a stretch to consider this a continuum – I mean, doesn’t everybody fall into clear categories of male and female? The little known truth is that, no, not everybody has physical characteristics that clearly defines them as male or female. There are a number of medical conditions that result in an individual being “intersexed” – that is, lying somewhere on the continuum between being clearly male or clearly female. We’re going to spend some time talking about intersexuality more in depth later. The second continuum that is helpful in understanding the transgender experience is that of gender identity – that is, what is our internal sense of our gender – from the masculine extreme to the feminine extreme. Most people have little difficulty thinking about this continuum – the word “androgynous” is fairly common – and we all can probably think of people – both male and female – who at least display varying levels of masculinity or femininity. Remember, though, that what we observe as masculine or feminine in a person’s behavior may or may not be an accurate reflection of their internal sense of gender. While outward expressions of gender identity are certainly important, it is this internal sense of gender identity that helps us understand the transgender experience.

In a nutshell, any individual who does not fall at the extremes of both continuums – that is, a physical male with a masculine gender identity, or a physical female with a feminine gender identity – could be said to fall under the umbrella term of “transgender”. Obviously, this includes a lot of people in lots of different circumstances – the combinations are probably limitless. We have several terms that are meant to help us categorize some of these individuals’ experiences – terms such as drag queen, drag king, transvestite, female or male impersonator, she-male, hermaphrodite, transsexual, intersexed, transgenderist, crossdresser. Much of the time, there is little agreement as to what exactly defines each of these terms – there always seems to be individuals that defy any clear-cut category we try to place them in. This is just more evidence that we are talking about a highly complex phenomenon.