Everything you've always wanted to know about trans issues (but were afraid to ask)

Writing for NS Trans Issues Week, Jennie Kermode outlines the facts about trans issues and language - an area where prejudice and confusion so often get in the way.

1. What is the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual person?

A transsexual person needs a permanent change of gender role, often accompanied by bodily changes, in order to feel comfortable. A transvestite, also called a cross dresser, is a man who dresses in a way usually associated with women, or vice versa. For some transvestites this is just a bit of fun or a way of challenging gender norms; for others it reflects a deep seated need. Some people go through a stage of cross dressing on the way to coming out as transsexual.

2. I've seen people talking about trans* issues. What is the asterisk for?

The asterisk shows that "trans" is being used as an umbrella term, covering not just transsexual people but also transvestites and people who don't identify as male or female.

3. Why do some people in the trans* community find "tranny" problematic?

It's a word that has strong associations wth pornography and it's often shouted at people in the street in an abusive way. This can be accompanied by a threat of violence — sadly not uncommon — so people are reminded of that fear when they encounter the word elsewhere.

4. What happens when a person transitions from one gender to another - what's the process?

There's no one-size-fits-all procedure. The primary process is psychological and social — learning to fit into a different social role and hoping loved ones can adjust to that. Most people take hormones, which can make them feel more mentally relaxed even before starting to change their bodies. Many go on to have surgery.

5. Do all trans people have surgery?

No. Some people are not able to, for medical reasons. For others, intimate changes don't feel necessary as long as their gender is generally accepted — after all, when we meet strangers, we don't usually need to see their genitals to decide what gender we think they are. Many trans men have breasts removed but don't have genital surgery because it carries a risk of urological problems. This means that the notion of "pre-op" and "post-op" trans people is misleading. For many, changing social role is a much bigger deal anyway.

6. What does being genderqueer mean?

This is one of several terms that people use to describe not feeling either male or female. This is different from just not having much sense of gender. For some people, it's a very strong feeling and may lead to them seeking medical assistance to align their bodies with their identities. For others, it's about creating a space in which to escape from the usual expectations of gendered behaviour.

7. I've seen some people call themselves "queer". Is that an OK word for straight people to use?

Because it has a history of being used as a term of abuse, it's best to avoid it in generral discourse. In smaller social circles you may find that people don't mind, but it never hurts to ask.

8. What inaccurate clichés about trans people do you see in the media?

Most transsexual people don't think of themselves as changing sex — they have a consistent sense of gender identity. Rather, they feel that bodily changes are about feeling more comfortable in their own skins and having their gender more easily recognised by others, confirming their existing identities. By and large, they are no more concerned about being manly men or beautiful women than the average person. Some know they will never "pass" very well but passing isn't the point — they hope people will respect the clear signals that they're sending about their gender. The media tends to find these concepts difficult. Likewise, it tends to present people without male or female gender identities as confused (much like the clichés that exist about bisexual people) whereas most have a very clear sense of their gender, it just isn't one that onforms with society's expectations. Finally, there's the notion that all trans people are attention-seekers. In fact, most just want to get on with their lives.

9. Are there more M2F transgendered people than F2M? And if so, why?

We used to think so but gender clinics now tell us they have about equal numbers coming forward to seek help. It's sometimes easier for trans men to stay in the closet because masculine behaviour in women is more socially acceptable than feminine behaviour in men.

10. What does "cis" mean?

It's simply a catch-all term referring to people who are not trans.

11. What kind of problems and challenges do trans people face in everyday life, and in getting treatment?

They are often rejected by family and friends, they can find it difficult to secure employment (especially before getting medical support) and they face high rates of stress-related mental health problems. It is estimated that around 45 per cent of trans people attempt suicide at least once — nine times the rate for the wider population. Trans people are often subjected to verbal abuse and threats from strangers and face a higher than average risk of being assaulted, with this being worse in some areas than others. Getting medical support is a bit of a lottery. There's a new system in Scotland which is very good, but not enough specialist doctors yet to make it work. In England, many people struggle to get taken seriously, face obnoxious treatment from medical profesionals (as exemplified in the recent #transdocfail Twitter thread) and face long waiting lists, while genderqueer people have to pretend to be transsexual if they want to get any treatment at all. This is particularly tough for people who can't afford to go private.

12. What proportion of the population is transgender?

This really depends on how widely you want to cast your net. Around one in five people try cross dressing, even if it's just for fun, and lots of people feel uncomfortable with the roles set out for them as men or women. The number of people who feel a strong need to change roles is much smaller, probably around 0.8 per cent of the population. Of course, that's still a lot of people overall, and the problems they face also affect their friends and families.

If you need to talk to somebody because you think you might be trans, The Gender Trust can help. For young trans people and their parents, Mermaids provides excellent support.

Jennie Kermode is Chair of Trans Media Watch and writes at Eye For Film

A person holds a placard reading "I am the one who decide how I dress and not your standards" as he takes part in the 16th Existrans in France. Photograph: Getty Images

Jennie Kermode is Chair of Trans Media Watch and writes at Eye For Film.

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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.