A few months ago I was filling out an online customer survey. Under "gender," in addition to "male" and "female," there was a third option: "other." I thought that was impressive. Then Facebook came along and added 50. Bravo, Facebook, bravo.
This is huge progress for transgender rights, but it also seems to be a source of confusion for the masses. In the short time since Facebook's announcement, I've had quite a few people say to me, "Jeez, how many types of transgenders are there?" and, "What the hell does 'cisgender' mean?"
While I did transition from female to male, I am by no means an expert on all things transgender.* That said, I thought I'd try to help by clearing up the meanings of some of the terms that, thanks to Facebook, have now gone mainstream.
"Gender identity" is the internal sense of one's gender, regardless of anatomy. For most people, their gender identity matches up with the anatomy they're born with.
"Transgender" is an umbrella term used to encompass people with various gender identities that do not match what they were labeled with at birth. Those who transition from male to female ("MTF") or female to male ("FTM") are included under this umbrella.
"Cisgender" is a word that describes everyone who is not transgender -- that is, people whose gender identity matches up with the sex they were labeled with at birth.
"Gender binary" is the concept that there are only two genders that someone could be: male or female.
People who identify as "genderqueer" reject the gender binary for themselves. Instead they believe their gender lies somewhere on a spectrum. They might express their gender identity as being neither female nor male, or as "gender fluid," a mix of the two.
Now, just because all these options are available on Facebook's drop-down menu doesn't mean every transgender person is going to change the gender identity listed on their profile page. I know I won't, because although I did transition from female to male, I don't identify as transgender -- well, not anymore. I did during my transition stage. I remember sitting in my endocrinologist's office, filling out the paperwork before my first testosterone injection. I stared at the two boxes marked "male" and "female," not sure which one I was technically supposed to check at this stage in the game. Had there been a box labeled "transgender" or "FTM," I probably wouldn't have hesitated. Instead, I looked up at my doctor.
"Should I put down 'male'?"
He smiled. "Isn't that why we're here?"
Now I don't even flinch. I consider myself male. That's it. I'm the man I always knew myself to be. But I certainly don't speak for everyone. There are lots of people out there who identify as "trans man" or "FTM," and that's cool too. To each his (or her, or their) own!
*For a more thorough understanding of all things transgender, I highly recommend picking up the book Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas Teich.