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The umbrella term transgender describes any person or persons whose outward expression and/or gender identity is variant beyond the boundaries of conventional binary gender or heteronormative expression and identity. These boundaries can often be vague and are highly subjective. The conditions of usage and implied meaning of this term may vary widely. Caveat lector ("reader beware").

The term transgender is most often used by transsexuals, crossdressers, drag queens, female impersonators, and transvestites. Intersex, androgynous, genderqueer or gender fluid individuals may self-identify with the term, but it should not be assumed that everyone embraces this term. It is always highly recommended that before addressing any transgender issue, an individual educates themself ^ on the various terms listed above. Glossaries are available online.



Transgender history stretches back into historical record for thousands of years with incidences of crossdressing, gender fence-hopping, and even sex reassignment surgery throughout the ages in every social class, ethnicity and geographical area. More recently, transgenderism has had a renaissance, primarily advanced through the advent of the internet, and the transgender rights movement has been shadowing the gay and lesbian movement, following anywhere from 10 to 50 years behind in their footsteps of rights advancement.

Western Culture

Western society generally treats transgenderism with a certain level of respect, due to the sanctity of freedom of expression. However true feelings can range from rural areas where it is dangerous for a transgender person to even set foot, to urban areas where some public places have gender neutral bathrooms. Generally the average position on transgenderism in western society is that it is tolerated as a form of limited expression, but is difficult for people to deal with when applied to everyday life.

Nevertheless western society maintains the sociological and stereotypical labels for some transgender people as comedic relief or sexual objects. Much of television and film reflects the concept of transgender people as comedic in nature (except for tragic films), and America and Europe is rife with the sexualized objectification of transgender people, especially and obviously in the pornographic industry.

Still, there are many cases of successful transgender people, living out average and even extraordinary lives. For instance, Lynn Conway's website specifically documents the successes of transsexual women.

Non-Western Cultures

Hijras (born male, but living as women) in India are a common example of non-western transgenderism. While they are accepted to a certain extent in Indian culture, they are also shunned. Hijras are known to be sacred when present at a birth or wedding, yet they are commonly ostracized from communities and driven away at any other time. This relegates most hijras to making a living through prostitution, often with the same kind of men who might kill them if they are in the wrong part of town at the wrong time of night. For this reason many hijras travel together and live together in their own miniature subculture.

The Kathoeys (also born male, but living as women) of Thailand are similar to Hijras in that they are commonly seen as a sexualized symbol, but they are generally not seen in a spiritual light and enjoy slightly more safe cultural conditions in less religiously strict Thailand.

The Bugi people of South Sulawesi in Indonesia have a standardized cultural system that includes five genders, despite the prevalence of Islam in the area. The three middle genders are effeminate men, strictly in-betweens, and masculine women. While this allows more expressive room for transgender individuals, it is still a very strict and spiritual-based gender system. To be a member of any one of the five genders requires the individual to stay strictly bound within the cultural norms that codify that gender.

Native American two-spirits are similar in nature and function to the second and fourth genders of the Bugis in that some were effeminate men and others were masculine women. There are some instances recorded of full transsexual transition from one gender to the other, or people who were wholly in-between, but this was rare among a kind of person that was rare among Native Americans to begin with. It should be noted that for every tribe that accepted and revered two-spirits for their sacred and spiritual value, there were other tribes that ostracized, exiled and even killed people for such deviant expressions and activity. The matter is highly subjective based on the tribe and the individuals involved.


Most traditional old religions look down on transgenderism, some with explicit statements like in Deuteronomy 22:5. In many cases, theocratic societies often condemn transgender individuals to death, stoning, or harsher punishments, especially when sourced from Abrahamaic traditions. Hinduism, despite many references to transgender activity by the gods in the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures and mythology, tends to foster a culture that does little to support the Hijras and transgender people. In China and Japen, even with more progressive religions like eastern philosophy religions and Buddhism, transgenderism appears for many as echoing the negative aspects of duality and attachment, rather than transcending them.


While violence against transgender individuals is difficult to track, for many years in the last decade, the Transgender Day of Remembrance has been compiling and keeping track of data of transgender people killed with a brief summary of the circumstances.

Much of the violence perpetrated on transgender individuals goes unreported, especially in early developmental years. Transgender people often tend to grow up with difficult childhoods, facing constant teasing, ostracization, bullying, and beatings. If such issues continue into adulthood, some transgender individuals face peers who don't simply bully, but commit violent hate crimes against the person, even as far as gruesome murders. In one extreme instance, a transgender person in Buffalo, New York in 2001 was "beaten with beer bottles, sexually assaulted with a broom handle, strangled with an electrical cord and then drowned in a bathtub. His body was later set on fire in a trash can behind a church."

Rights Issues

Transgender people face a host of rights concerns including, but not limited to: hate crime laws inclusion, equal rights in housing, employment non-discrimination, bathroom use, changing name and gender on public documents, marriage rights, medical insurance, and financial assistance. There are a number of initiatives out on all of these, and transgender people find allies from a variety of backgrounds.

There have been some issues where the gay and lesbian community, generally a widely outspoken advocate of transgender rights, has been viewed by the transgender community as unsupportive and exclusive of transgender issues. Some of the most notable instances include the exclusion of transgender people in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, and the often bitter tension and misunderstandings between male to female transsexuals (MTF) and feminists.

Nevertheless, transgender people have a strong presence in the legal world with two major organizations existing solely for transgender legal purposes in addition to Lambda Legal's support (a wider LGBT organization). These two organizations are: the Transgender Law Center and the Transgender Law & Policy Institute.


In psychology transgender people, especially transsexuals, face a battle of definitions. The Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association currently lists the term "Gender Identity Disorder." This term is considered antiquated by many, and the question of whether it is a "disorder" at all is raised. Further questions are raised about conflicts of interest within the DSM-V Sexual & Gender Identity Disorders Workgroup, wherein two primary members of the workgroup have published controversial theories on autogynephilia, a term generally dismissed by many transsexuals, including well-spoken psychologists.

Transgender people often deal with so much social stigma and physical brutality that mental health services are a common need for many. Such services can be few and far between when seeking someone sympathetic of and knowledgeable about their condition.


The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA) Standards of Care determine medical treatment for what is still considered by some as a purely psychological "disorder." Since both the medical and psychological communities are more and more leaning in favor of transsexualism as a medical condition, doctors are beginning to take on larger roles in the process of transition for transsexuals.

Procedures that transsexuals seek out may or may not include any of the following: hormone replacement therapy (HRT), electrolysis, adam's apple surgery, tracheal shave, hair restoration, facial feminization surgery (FFS), facial masculinization surgery (FMS), breast augmentation, orchiectomy, mastectomy, vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, sex reassignment surgery (SRS), or other procedures. In the future, gene therapy may be included in this list, based on recent genetic studies by the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR).

The medical community has also been involved in studying the neurological etiology of transsexualism. A hallmark study that is most often cited is Zhou, Hofman, Gooren and Swaab (1997) A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality. This now out-dated study provides data suggesting microscopically visible structures in the brain that may determine mental gender outside of physical sex. However the data requires taking gauged considerations about the study. Dr. Madeline Wyndzan discusses these considerations on her website.

^ The plural use of the gender neutral pronoun set "they, them, their, theirs, themselves" is one popular set of many proposed for general usage in substitution of the standard set: "he/she, him/her, his/her, his/hers, himself/herself."


All sources last accessed and verified: June 14, 2010.


Author: Ora Uzel