The transgender and non-binary community experiences significant violence, harassment, and discrimination every day. Murder and violence against transgender folks occurs frequently, with as many as half of transgender students reporting sexually harassment as well as homelessness, poverty, and unemployment at higher rates than the non-transgender community.[i] There is a direct connection between lack of awareness of the transgender community and the discrimination and violence transgender people face every day. This post aims to tackle this knowledge gap by raising awareness of who transgender folks are, breaking down some common myths, and providing some tips for engaging respectfully with the trans community.
Who Is The Transgender And Non-Binary Community?
Trans and Non-Binary are umbrella terms for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term transgender commonly referred to as trans, or non-binary, is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, or physical anatomy.
What Is Gender Identity?
Gender identity is a socially constructed reflection of how you see yourself. It is an internal and individual experience of gender and how you express it. People use these experiences, along with any cultural or social expectations one has about how people who look like themselves are supposed to behave, to see which identity fits best with them.
Traditionally, many people believe in being gender binary, which means simply that only two genders exist: men and women. However, human beings are very complex and cannot be neatly divided into two categories of gender identities. Today, gender is better understood as a spectrum where people are not limited to the confines of only being men or women. One can identify as non-binary, which can mean both gender identities, neither, a mixture, or a separate gender identity altogether.
As our understanding of the complexity of gender has rapidly evolved, more people have come to discover that that strict categories and descriptors of men and women don’t work for them and their identity. Communities of transgender, non-binary or other gender-non-conforming folks are growing to provide a place where everyone is respected, understood, and supported regardless of gender identity.
Deconstructing Common Myths About Trans People
Myth 1: Biological Sex And Gender Identity Are The Same Things
- Biological sex is assigned at birth based on various physiological factors, including hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia. By observing these factors, we often consider ourselves to be male or female because the presence of primary and secondary sex characteristics (anatomical features like breasts, genitals, etc.) are often the most outwardly obvious aspects. Furthermore, cultural expectations of the sexes allow for the internalization of gender roles. Masculinity and femininity are equated with the physical attributes and the social connotations we expect. We assume someone to be a man or woman based on the degree to which these attributes are present. Gender identity does not always conform to our biology and our cultural expectations. It is important to treat these two topics as separate and allow people to be free to identify as they please, without the fear of not conforming with these established social norms.
Myth 2: Knowing Someone’s Gender Identity Tells You What Their Sexual Orientation Is
- Even though gender identity and sexual orientation are huge aspects of our identity, they are mutually exclusive from one another. Gender identity is how we perceive ourselves, while sexual orientation is about those that we are attracted to. Whether someone identifies as a man, woman, or non-binary person, we shouldn’t make any assumptions about who they’re sexually interested in. How someone expresses their gender may have nothing to do with who they are attracted to.
Myth 3: How Someone Expresses Their Gender Always Matches Their Gender Identity
- Outward expression is the way one shows their gender to others. Given the gender binary, people often face social pressures to express their gender with how society views them. This leads to the perpetuation of rigid and narrow expectations of how ‘men’ and ‘women’ are supposed to look like and express themselves in our community. For individuals who fit well into expected gender roles and gender expression, there is little to worry about, but those that do not fit these social norms are subjected to judgment, prejudice, and discrimination. Trans and non-binary folks might express themselves in ways that contradict these expectations and often experience discrimination because of that. You cannot conclusively determine one’s identity through how they look. In the same vein, what someone wears, how they move, talk, or express themselves cannot tell us what their gender identity is.
Why Is It Important To Learn About the Transgender and Non-Binary Community?
With gender identity being such a personal topic, why is it important to discuss? If gender identity is individually defined, why should it concern others? The truth is, we all know that gender identity is also a social identity and helps us to understand ourselves in relation to others. By learning about trans and non-binary folks we can distance ourselves from negative stereotyping of individuals that may not fit this gender binary. By understanding that all gender identities are unique and completely normal, we can combat prejudices held against an otherwise universally human characteristic. Unfortunately, there are many barriers that prevent society from viewing diverse gender identities as equal. This discrimination occurs when a person experiences negative treatment because of the way they identify or the way they express themselves. It often happens on a systemic level, such as organizational rules or policies that exclude trans or non-binary people. Individuals who identify differently may also be subjected to inappropriate harassment, such as sexually explicit or demeaning questions and comments. These attacks are often based on harmful stereotypes that perpetuate within our community. In all, it is important to be respectful of gender, because everyone has the right to define who they are without fear. The duty to accommodate and be respectful of others is a shared responsibility.
Help create a respectful and inclusive community for trans and non-binary folks by using some of the tips below.
- Educate yourself about the trans and non-binary community and issues facing trans and non-binary people. You’ve taken the first step reading our blog here today!
But we need to recognize this is an ongoing learning process. The LGBTQ+ community is rapidly changing and society’s understanding and acceptance of trans and non-binary people is changing along with it. The key is to be open to learning and to take active steps to understand how to support other people.[iii] Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
However, it would be a good idea not to ask a whole bunch of invasive questions of the trans and non-binary people in your life and do a little bit of research yourself beforehand. Try starting with some internet searches or other research before asking a question that to you may think is innocent, but to someone else might be considered highly personal. Each of us has a responsibility to take ownership of our own education, and not rely on others to spoon-feed us all the answers.
- Stand up for trans and non-binary people against hate. Hate speech, misgendering and other forms of transphobia contribute to a culture of ignorance and fear that allows for violence and hatred towards trans and non-binary people to exist. Even when trans and non-binary people are not around, that type of speech has a lasting negative impact. If someone expresses a hurtful opinion on your social media or makes a transphobic comment in a social situation, engage with them to help them understand that what they said was harmful.
- Respecting our community’s pronouns and gender identities. In everyday life, our brains subconsciously try to take shortcuts in our ways of thinking to make things simpler.
When meeting new people, we are quick to observe their gender expression (what they look like) and assume what their gender identity is (man, woman, non-binary, etc.). However, many people’s gender expression does not actually correspond to what their gender identity is, or they may have a non-gender specific expression/identity. Therefore, it is important to always check in with someone when you’re meeting them to make sure that you’re using the correct pronouns (he / him / his, she / her / hers, they / them / theirs, etc.) to refer to them.
Using the correct pronouns when referring to someone shows them respect and acknowledges their gender identity as valid. An easy way to do this is to tell someone your name and the pronouns you use when you introduce yourself. For example: “Hello, my name is John. I use the pronouns he / him. What’s your name and the pronouns you use?”
If you’ve told someone your pronouns, they are very likely to return the favor!
For more information contact:
Vice President Equity
[i] Egale Canada. “The Numbers Say It All.” Egale.ca. June 20, 2021.
[ii] Herman, Joanne. “Transgender or Transgendered?.” Huffington Post. May 11, 2010.
[iii] Bishop, Anne. “Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression.” Fernwood Publishing. September 30, 2009. Pg. 91