What's With the "T" in LGBT?

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By Joanna Richards

Olympian Bruce Jenner’s recent transition to Caitlyn Jenner and actor Laverne Cox on “Orange is the New Black” have brought attention to the transgender community – people who say their gender doesn’t match the body they were born with. 

In Northeast Ohio, proposed anti-discrimination measures have sparked public debate. Support groups say they’re are growing. Over the last several months, there have been an art show, film screenings, panel discussions, a speech at the City Club of Cleveland – even a transgender-themed job fair. A play about a well-known transgender Clevelander is now running now at Playhouse Square. 

So in an LGBT world, what does it mean to be T?  We start off with the basics.

Gender Identity Versus Sexual Orientation

Many Americans now know someone who is gay, lesbian or bisexual. But most people have not met a transgender person. It’s a smaller and less-understood minority group.

So, how is being transgender different from being gay?

“One of the ways I often frame it, and it sounds a little crass but it works really well, is that gender identity is who you go to bed as, who you feel you are. Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with,” said pediatric psychologist Vanessa Jensen, echoing an easy explainer that’s often repeated among the trans community and its allies. Jensen is part of a program the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital is developing for transgender care.

The gay rights movement spawned the LGBT acronym – lumping together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and issues. That made some sense politically. But the acronym has contributed to confusion about sexuality versus gender identity.

Jensen said parents of her teen patients often ask things like, “If they transition, are they then gay, or straight, or lesbian…?”

A vocabulary lesson might help clear that up.

Talking About Transgender People

A transgender man is someone born in a female body but who lives as a man. Trans people say: call him a “he.”

If he dates women, he’s straight. If he likes men, call him gay. Just like with any other man. 

The “trans” part of “transgender” points to how a person started out physically in life – it refers to the person’s past. To describe a person now, trans people say: look to the present.

But what about people who feel they’re not strictly male or female? Some use terms like “gender-fluid,” “non-binary,” or “a-gender.”

All of these people are usually considered part of the trans community, too.

“’Transgender’ is really just an umbrella term, it’s a catch-all. There’s a lot of different things or identities that fall into this umbrella, said Shane Morgan, who founded and directs the Columbus-based advocacy group TransOhio.

Generally, though, someone who says he’s a trans man or she’s a trans woman means what most people think: a Bruce to Caitlyn switch. “He” to “she,” or “her” to “him.”

Defining Gender Identity

But when is someone “really” a man or a woman anyway?

First, it’s important to point out trans people say it’s not a temporary state.

“People will confuse trans women for drag queens, or vice-versa,” said Xylindor Freund, a teenager at a high school graduation party in Hudson, Ohio. Half a dozen of the kids identify as transgender, and they explain how they’re different from drag queens.

“They’re performers – they do it as an entertainment act,” said Rose, who didn’t want her last name used, citing the stigma of being transgender.

Keith Freund, Xylindor’s brother, agreed. Drag queens “identify as a man,” he said.

Rose had light, shoulder-length hair and wore a long skirt and t-shirt you’d see on any teenage girl. Her soft, feminine voice, too, made it hard to tell she was born, physically, a boy.

Keith, 17, and the party’s host, was known as Kathryn until just a couple years ago. His deep voice, clearly masculine, short hair, and his shirt and tie, too, left him with few traces of his birth as a girl.

His mom supported his decision to live as a boy, and now his home has become a haven for other trans kids.

These teens are not performers. Most described deep discomfort with the bodies they were born in and want to live their whole lives with another gender identity. The medical term is gender “dysphoria.”

Keith is on hormone therapy and wears a binder, a kind of undershirt that compresses his chest to conceal his breasts. He eventually wants to have them surgically removed.

“I mean, the rest of my body I’m perfectly happy with,” he said. But “that doesn’t make me any less of a trans man.”

Keith says it’s important not to assume what a trans person’s goals or preferences are about their bodies. His mom, Ann Caruso, puts it this way: “just how someone wants to present, how somebody wants the rest of the world to see them.”

Not everyone shares this philosophy. Conservatives on the subject say you can’t escape what’s on your birth certificate.  

And some gender researchers say scant studies mean it’s not yet clear that helping kids change their bodies is always best for them. 

But the trans community’s insistence that gender is based on deep personal intuition is supported by some science.

Early Science on Our Sense of Gender

Josh Safer is a doctor and researcher with Boston University’s medical school. He recently co-authored a paper reviewing the evidence so far that gender identity is hard-wired into our biology.

Safer believes that’s true. One study he points to compared the brains of deceased men and women, using a staining technique to highlight different brain structures. The study included some transgender women.

“And that’s where the surprising finding happened,” Safer said. “Those stained the same as women who’d been living as women their whole lives.”

In other words, the feelings trans people express about their gender may actually be visible in their brains.

Safer said that study had limitations, but it along with others are persuading him that an occasional mismatch between people’s experience of gender versus their physical bodies might just be a natural part of human biological diversity.


More Coverage to Come

Tomorrow, part two in this series will look at the hurdles, both personal and political, for transgender people. And listen to Sound of Ideas Thursday morning for a discussion on this theme, including some of the people featured in this story.

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