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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Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.