The ways in which transgender people are talked about in popular culture, academia, and science are constantly changing, particularly as individuals’ awareness, knowledge, and openness about transgender people and their experiences grow. Gender is a spectrum, not a binary.
Transgender – or ‘trans’ – is a term for people whose gender identity or gender expression doesn’t conform to the sex (male or female) they were born as. Gender identity is someone’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else, while gender expression refers to the way they express their gender via clothing, voice, body characteristics or behaviour. However, not everyone who has a gender-nonconforming appearance or behaviour will identify as a transgender.
Sex vs gender
Sex is what you’re assigned with at birth, so you’re technically male or female. In really rare cases, some babies are intersex (or hermaphrodite) with an anatomy that doesn’t fit definitions of male or female. They can appear male on the outside, but have mostly female-typical anatomy on the inside, or vice versa.
Gender is more of a social construct – attributes like behaviour, clothing, and roles are given by society, so you’ll be influenced by these aspects based on what your society says. So if you’re a boy, you’re typically influenced to pick GI Joe over Barbie, or prefer blue over pink.
Categories of transgender
Transsexual: This term refers to those whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex, and they often alter or wish to alter their bodies through hormones, surgery, or other means to reflect their gender identities. Those who’ve undergone reassignment are referred to as transsexuals – like ‘transmen’ (for female to male) and ‘transwoman’ (for male to female). However, they would prefer to be referred to as a man or woman rather than transgender.
Sex-reassignment surgery has been legal (and performed) in Singapore since the 70s, and post-operative transsexual people can change the legal gender on their identity cards but not their birth certificates.
Cross-dressing: Those who are comfortable with their assigned sex but want to appear as the opposite gender do so by cross-dressing, which is a form of gender expression that doesn’t necessarily have to do with sexual orientation. A subcategory involves drag – ‘drag queens’ refer to men who dress as women for purposes of entertainment, while ‘drag kings’ refer to women who dress as men for the same purpose.
Genderqueer: This refers to whose who identify their gender as falling outside of ‘male’ and ‘female’. They may be somewhere between male and female, or totally different; they may prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns like ‘zie’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ and ‘hir’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’. Some genderqueer people don’t identify as transgender.
Others: There are many categories of transgender, including androgynous, multigendered, gender fluid, third gender, and two-spirit people. These terms often include a sense of blending or alternating genders.
Gender identity and sexual orientation
Someone’s gender identity doesn’t necessarily relate to their sexual orientation, which refers to a person’s physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person. Transgender people may be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual; transmen and transwomen usually remain attached to loved ones after transition.
Is being transgender a mental disorder?
A mental disorder involves significant stress or disability, and many transgender people don’t experience either of those, which implies that identifying as transgender doesn’t constitute a mental disorder.
For these individuals, their significant problem is finding affordable resources – like counselling or social support – and lack of acceptance within society, which may lead to discrimination, ridicule or assault. Subtle forms of discrimination include glances of disapproval and uncomfortable questions about their body parts. These experiences are usually what lead many transgender people to suffer from anxiety, depression, or related disorders at higher rates than nontransgender folk.