Being Transgender; the Words That Hurt

Finneus is a female to male transgender person who identifies as a he, and lives in the Georgia area. He volunteered to be interviewed for a series of articles on what its like to be transgender and to answer some questions about how he feels about Caitlyn Jenner's recent transition. This is the first in a series of articles on Being Transgender, and the people who care about them.

Vanity Fair's recent photo spread in the July issue shows the new Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, with a cover photo of Caitlyn after facial surgery clearly identifying as a female. She is currently all the rage.

I asked Finneus and other transitioning people to talk about their life and how they feel about some of the issues that Caitlyn might be experiencing and what it is like to be transgender in our country today. I also interviewed the people that love them, work to empower them or counsel them. I have learned that the prejudice and bias around transgender is wide spread and can be hateful, yet it is also subtle, even among those of us who want to be empathetic. In order to debunk some of the myths and answer some of the bigger questions, I interviewed Finneus, and several other transgender people and I talked to other experts, the people who are living the struggles every day, and those that help them, and love them.

In the Vanity Fair article, Jenner describes her her transition, and says that winning the gold medal,

"...was a good day, but the last couple of days were better. . . This shoot was about my life and who I am as a person. It's not about the fanfare, it's not about people cheering in the stadium, it's not about going down the street and everybody giving you 'that a boy, Bruce,' pat on the back, O.K. This is about your life."

As a psychotherapist and sexologist (and nontrans or cisgender) writing this series I realized I knew much less than I thought about these issues. I found that many of my initial questions were offensive, including things like, what name do you want to use in the article? Which caused one interviewee to write me a lengthy and frustrated response about the names we choose to use versus real names and how many transgender folks don't have the choices the rest of us have, and that all names are real, aren't they? Or are they? I was unclear. Since then I have found myself more sensitive to the questions about what pronouns to use in the articles, and how to refer respectfully to names about identity, gender and sex and I tread more carefully in all matters related to choice.

From the Guide to Being a Trans Ally published by the PFLAG National's Straight For Equality Project the following definitions are a direct quote and may help:

Sex refers to the biological, genetic or physical characteristics that define males and females. These can include genitalia, hormone levels and secondary sex characteristics (the things we often "read" as male or female, like body hair or body shape). Nearly everyone is assigned a sex at birth, and it tends to be one of two choices: Male or female.

Gender most often refers to a set of social, psychological and emotional traits, often influenced by societal expectations that classify an individual as feminine or masculine. We hear about gender all the time -- traditional stereotypes about gender (e.g., women are nurturing while men are protective) and how they've traditionally influenced life choices (the nurturing woman goes into teaching, while the protective man garners a high-powered job to care for his family).

Sexual Orientation is an individual's emotional, romantic or sexual feelings toward other people. People who are straight experience these feelings primarily for people of the opposite sex. People who are gay and lesbian experience these feelings primarily for people of the same sex. People who are bisexual experience feelings for people of both sexes.

Gender Identity is the term that is used to describe a person's deeply held personal, internal sense of being male, female, some of both or maybe even neither. Here's the important part: A person's gender identity may not always correspond to their assigned biological sex. While an individual, at birth, may be assigned the term male based on biological characteristics, that person might not necessarily feel as though they are male, or were intended to be male.

A lot of experts in the field believe that awareness of gender identity is experienced in infancy, solidifies around age three and then gets reinforced in adolescence through how we teach youth about who boys and girls are expected to be.

Cisgender people identify with (or are on the same side of) the gender assigned to them at birth. For example, a cisgender woman is an individual who was assigned female at birth, and also identifies as female.

Transgender is a term often used to describe an individual whose gender identity does not necessarily match the sex assigned to them at birth. So we have transgender women (individuals who were assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female) and we have transgender men (individuals who were assigned female at birth, but whose internal sense of their gender identity is male).

Some terms that you may hear are alternate ways of talking about being trans, while others might refer to specific identities that expand our understanding of what gender nonconformity:

Genderqueer. Gender nonconforming. Trans*. Transsexual. Bigender. Third sex. Female-tomale (FTM). Male-to-female (MTF). Gender-creative. Gender-colorful. Gender-expansive.

Transitioning refers to the process one goes through to discover and/or affirm their gender identity. The process can be a long journey and can take years.

Social transition: Change of name, pronoun selection, cosmetic modifications to appearance, dress, changes to an individual's vocal tone, etc. For many people, this will also entail legal changes to their name and gender marker on identification documents like driver's licenses and passports.

Medical transition: The introduction of hormones (testosterone for trans men, estrogen and testosterone blockers for trans women) into the body. For some people, it will also involve surgical procedures that align the physical body with one's gender identification. These may include top surgery, bottom surgery, and, for trans women, facial feminization.

For more information, please go to the PFLAG National's Straight For Equality Project.

Once I had the terminology down, I asked Finneus how he wanted to be identified. He is Transmasculine, FTM (female to male) and prefers the pronouns he and him. He would prefer to avoid identifying his relationship status. He is 27 years old and has been on hormones for three years, and has not had surgeries, only because he cannot afford them. He identifies as queer, or pansexual.

I wondered what Finneus thought Caitlyn might run into when it came to confusion around pronouns during her transition. What are the correct pronouns to use to call people who are transitioning, what is polite, what is kind, what is insulting? He said,

Basically whatever they identify with. I tend to ask people if I'm uncertain so I try not to make assumptions based on appearances. Generally I say something like; Do you have a set of preferred pronouns? If you're unsure you could always ask someone else or listen to see what others call that person. I would much rather you ask what I prefer in regards to gender than misgender me. It is such a crushing blow to be called by the wrong gender.

I asked Finneus about Caitlyn Jenner's coming out and what he thought she could expect during her transition process. Finneus explained that he was offended by people immediately asking and talking about her genitals. It seems a fascination and perhaps an inappropriate one. Finneus responded,

I hate when people ask me about my genitals. You wouldn't walk up to a cisgender male and start asking him about his ...[genitals] why would you walk up to me and start asking me about mine? O if I like penetration or anal. And these [questions] aren't even from romantic partners, just random people. I heard two people at my office earlier having at least a five minute conversation on ...[whether] Caitlyn grew a vagina.

To understand the struggles that transgender and transitioning folks go through I asked Finneus, as a young transman, his opinion about what interested and allied people could do to help? He was concerned about the conversation that Caitlyn Jenner's privilege as a white, wealthy male to female would bring up in our culture.

I wondered, is Caitlyn a good role model? She can afford the privilege of transitioning, which in some countries is illegal, and in others is punishable by death. But many people in our country, although legal to obtain, don't have access to because of the high cost of transitional surgeries and hormone therapies, and lack the support of family and friends. Would her very public appearances bring hope to young people or would it be discouraging and depressing to those who don't have access to her resources?

"I think that it's important to talk about privilege when discussing Caitlyn," Finneus said.

I want to be clear that I don't think money is the solution to everything. While money does help with hormones and surgeries it does very little to help the social stigma and emotional difficulties of transitioning. I think other people look at her and think, 'oh it is so easy for her, she has the best plastic surgeons and doctors,' but it's still quite hard. So just imagine how hard it is for those without the means for gender affirming surgeries or hormones. I have known a lot of trans people who used sex work to pay for surgeries, as it would get them a lot of money quickly. I know people bust ass at a 9-5 office job and still can't afford surgeries.

I wondered, with the very public appearance of Caitlyn Jenner do you think it will be safer for more people to come out? Including young people?

"On the one hand," Finneus answered,

It's more public now and people say positive things and you see a more positive reaction so you think it's safe. But then you hear people say things that hurt and they don't even know it. Take for example, my day at work today. We had a minor system outage and while we were out a few people started talking about Caitlyn. Some people were polite but others were so very hurtful and rude. People I thought were more open minded than that and some of them were even on the LGB spectrum. It really hurt to hear people I respected say things like that. Most people at work don't know I'm trans though so they had no idea it would come so close to home.

In a country where some people may not be aware of the hurt they cause by being insensitive, more awareness is necessary. In a world where prejudice and hate still effect anyone who is different and stands out in a crowd we need to work together to reduce the shame and the bullying. Today transitioning young people may be threatened, they may experience physical abuse or worse. The suicide rate for trans youth is high in this country, and the homeless rate is skyrocketing.

For Finneus, the advice he has for other people who may be going through these issues?

Stay strong. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Life has struggle and sometimes it seems you may feel hopeless but there is a point where you will find love and work and family and acceptance. There is a thing going around right now -- a hashtag on Twitter -- #RealLifeTransAdult. It started as being encouraging to youth who are struggling but I think it's encouraging to everyone really. Just hang in there. Reach out if you need to. There are people here for you that love you and understand you even if you've never met. I love all my trans brothers and sisters. I love all of you who struggle to be authentic to yourself -- be yourself no matter how you identify.

For more info, pick up the July issue of Vanity Fair Magazine, and watch for more articles on my blog, at Huffington Post/drtammynelson/ or or for more info go to My next posts will be about the partner of a transgender, a transgender advocate in Washington DC and a transgender psychotherapist who is transitioning herself.