WASHINGTON — On National Coming Out Day (October 11), LGBT advocates across the country will celebrate honesty, openness and acceptance. You may be one of those advocates yourself. But do you really understand the "T" in LGBT?
So much attention is focused on the "L," G" and "B" that the "T" is often ignored or cast aside - perhaps because it's harder to understand. Judy Hoff, transgender coordinator for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, answered some frequently-asked questions about transgender (that's the "T"!) that will help you be a more supportive friend and community member.
- Is it transgender, transgendered, trangenderism, trans...?
According to Hoff, the most widely accepted term is "transgender," which can be used as a noun or adjective.
- What does it mean to be transgender?
Transgender is a blanket term for someone who does not identify with their birth gender. Many other labels fall under this umbrella, including transsexual, transvestite, drag queen/king and gender queer. Hoff added that a transgender is not necessarily male-to-female or female-to-male.
"A transgender person is just someone who does not fit the mold of their birth gender," Hoff said. "It could be someone who cross-dresses occasionally. It could be someone who is a drag queen or king ... It also includes transsexuals. It's a very large category."
- What is the difference between transgender people and transsexual people?
Transsexual is a more specific term than transgender, referring to someone who has permanently switched from their birth gender - but not necessarily through a medical procedure.
"Many individuals choose not to do surgery," Hoff said. "Some are on hormone therapy, some wear the clothes of the opposite sex, and some do none of the above but still consider themselves opposite."
The point, Hoff said, is that a transsexual has made a lasting decision. She also said it is important to remember that many - if not most - transgender people have not yet reached this point.
"Some individuals consider themselves to be somewhere in between, because it's definitely a process," she said. "It's difficult to put a label on someone who is in transition."
- How many people are transgender?
There are no concrete statistics on the size of the transgender population, but Hoff said gender variance - at least in some form - is quite common.
"Transgender individuals are everywhere," she said. "I don't fit the gender norm for women for a lot of people, because I wear boys' shoes. But for a lot of other people I look just like a woman."
- Are transgender people gay?
Gender identity and sexuality are unrelated. Just as a biologically male or female person can be gay, straight or bi, a transgender person can be any of the above as well.
"The person that one is attracted to is totally distinct from their own gender identity," Hoff said. "It's kind of like trying to equate eye color and hair color and saying that if I have blue eyes, I must have blue hair."
So how do you figure out who a transgender person is interested in sexually?
"To figure out if a transgender person is gay, you would determine if in their chosen sex they are more attracted to the same gender or the opposite gender," Hoff said. "If they're attracted to someone of the opposite gender that would make them straight."
- What causes someone to be transgender?
There is very little research on transgender individuals and issues. Why? Hoff said it's a matter of demand.
"For one thing, it's very dangerous to admit to being transgender," Hoff said. "So if no one's asking the questions, how do you get the details and statistics?"
But Hoff added that this is beginning to change.
"A lot of advocacy goes on when transgender folk feel like they're not being supported," she said. "They work toward change. They ask, 'How come we don't have a bathroom we can use without getting beaten up? Why can't I get my hormones at the health clinic?' Soon they'll demand more research."
- How do I know what to call someone whose gender identity isn't quite clear?
Echoing the theme of this year's National Coming Out Day, Hoff said you should "Talk About It."
"I always just ask," Hoff said. "If I have any questions, I will take a person aside and say, 'I'm not sure if I should refer to you as him or her. What's your preference?' If a person shows up in high heels and skirt, that's a clear signal that you should refer to her as 'her.'
"The person is probably going to be relieved that you've asked instead of making an assumption. It's kind of a compliment. But I wouldn't do it in front of a large room of people."
- How do I know if I am transgender?
Many transgenders experience gender identity confusion early in their lives. They often feel "trapped in the wrong body." If you have these feelings at any point, Hoff recommends that you seek support immediately (see below for resources).
Hoff added that transgenders often don't know what these feelings mean.
"I went through quite a learning curve," she said. "I had no idea that there was such a thing as a trans person."
She stressed, however, that choosing one gender or the other should not necessarily be your goal.
"It's not at all important that you choose boy or girl," Hoff said. "Just be who you are."
- How can we combat hatred toward transgenders?
"It's a matter of ignorance," Hoff said. "Just getting educated about the issue is probably the first step and the most important one, particularly for friends and family of transgenders."
Hoff said PFLAG has an online network of parents, friends and relatives of transgender individuals who are more than willing to share their experiences.
- What are some resources for transgenders?
"Transgender Warriors" by Leslie Feinberg
"She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders" by Jennifer Finney Boylan
"Transgender Nation" by Gordene Olga Mackenzie
— Megan Doughty Medill News Service
||Photo: Getty Images