A transgender individual is a person with a gender identity which is not consistent with his or her assigned gender; in a classic example, someone with the genetic makeup of a man may feel that she is truly a woman.
A wide spectrum of people are transgendered, and there is some dispute as to when someone should be considered a transgender individual, and when another label might be more appropriate. A transgender individual may also be referred to as “trans,” but the term “trannie” is generally deemed offensive.
It is important to distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation, because some people confuse the two. Gender identity has to do with someone’s perceived gender. Historically, gender identity has generally been confined to the binary of male and female, but in the 20th century, activists increasingly began to promote the idea that there are other ways of viewing gender, and that in fact biological gender is more of a continuum than a binary system. Sexual orientation involves sexual attraction, and is independent of gender identity.
While transsexuals are perhaps the most well-known examples of transgender individuals, other groups may also be considered transgender. For example, some people identify as a third or “other” gender beyond the familiar continuum, and they may also consider themselves to be transgendered. A person with a gender identity that agrees with his or her physical gender is known as “cisgendered,” taken from the Latin “cis,” which means “on the same side.”
Cross-dressing is also sometimes considered a transgender behavior, because it involves an exploration of gender and traditional gender roles. However, many cross-dressers do have a gender identity which conforms with their assigned gender, so they could not technically be considered transgender.
Like men and women, transgendered individuals can take on a variety of appearances. Some transsexual individuals work very hard to pass as members of the gender they identify with, for example. Some may struggle with their gender identity for some time before finding therapy, support groups, and advocacy organizations to help them. Others may be outspoken advocates for transgender issues, promoting things like unisex bathrooms and anti-discrimination policies for the workplace, while some may prefer to keep their transgender identity quiet. Fears of discrimination and prejudice often lead transpeople to keep their identities under wraps.
In all probability, you have interacted with a transgender individual without even being aware of it. In the event that you do interact with a transgender individual who is open about a transgendered status, try to remember to be polite. Genuine curiosity can be very offensive or hurtful to some transgendered people, and while many out transpeople are happy to educate people, topics like genitalia are usually considered to be taboo. It is also good form to follow a transgendered individual’s example when using pronouns and other terms to describe gender and identity.