The Top 11 Myths About Transgender Identity

Questioning, Gender FluidNatalie Egan
Illustration by Paige Mehrer

Illustration by Paige Mehrer

According to a commonly cited study out of UCLA (from 2011), approximately 0.3% of adults in the United States identify as transgender. That’s nearly 1 million people, which is more than the number of people living in the city of Boston!

While this is the most commonly talked about study, it’s ironically not terribly recent; more than likely, this number has increased significantly in the past five years. Thankfully, the National Center for Trans Equality is just finishing the most comprehensive study yet…

Fortunately, we’re living in a time where there is greater awareness around what identifying as transgender or gender non-binary really means.

Yet there are still many pervasive myths about being transgender or experiencing what is known as “gender dysphoria”—being born with a discomfort around one’s assigned gender. The experience of gender dysphoria includes trans people, and also folks who identify and gender non-binary, a term that broadly (but imperfectly) refers to those who don’t identity as man or woman.

Note: some non-binary folks don’t identify as trans, and some people who don’t identify as a man or a woman don’t like to use the term “non-binary” at all. Above all,  the idea of “the trans community” is a bit of a reductive myth in itself, as there is incomprehensible diversity among those of us born with a sense of self that challenges the status quo of a normatively cisgender world.

Much of the time, ignorance is hard to remedy, as many people who are confused about the meaning of the word transgender don’t know what questions to ask, or are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

We’re here to help. Here are the top 11 myths about transgender people that it’s time to debunk.

1. Being transgender means you transition.

Not so fast. As mentioned, many people that identify as trans don’t identify as either male or female, despite feeling discomfort with identifying with their biological sex. Some may identify as gender non-binary or gender non-conforming, or even non-declarative, a term that seeks to remove the emphasis on gender from the equation. Once again, many of these folks don’t even identify as transgender as an umbrella term to begin with. So the even more general myth to dispel may be that all individuals who disidentify with their biological sex are transgender.

2. Being transgender means you’re gay.

Let’s set this one straight: being transgender has nothing to do with being gay. Many trans people retain their sexual desires even after undergoing hormonal therapy or gender reassignment surgery.

Sure, some people may find that as a result of identifying in a new way, sexual experimentation is appealing. But gender identity and sexual orientation are completely different things. One is about what gender we see ourselves as being, and the other is about what gender we find ourselves attracted to.

3. Transgender people “choose” to be trans.

Recently, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “When did you make this decision?” Well, I didn’t make a decision, and a lot of people don’t even make a choice when to come out and are outed…

Bottom line? Being transgender is not a choice. Trans people internally identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex; transitioning is simply an act of telling the world who we really are.

4. Transgender people are most likely dealing with mental illness.

Many trans people experience “gender dysphoria,” which can be defined as emotional distress with one’s biological sex. Because we live in a patriarchal, heteronormative and cisnormative society, identifying as transgender presents a sense of exclusion, and is often a cause of acute anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness.

5. Drag queens and drag king(s) are transgender.

More often than not, drag queens and drag kings are not transgender; “drag” refers to the act of performing the gender of the opposite gender, most often for the purposes of comedy and entertainment—and as a profession (e.g. for money!). Drag is done with the viewer in mind, while a trans woman wearing a dress is not cross-dressing. She is just wearing woman’s clothes because she is a woman.

6. There’s always a set “end point” to the journey of transitioning.

Even some people who seem to be more aware of the nuances of transgender identity often think that there is a destination to the journey of transitioning. Most often, people think of hormonal therapy and gender reassignment surgery as the end points—the final cherry on top of a “successful” transition.

But this is not the case for everyone by any means. Transitioning can be a lifelong process, that develops and adapts in non-linear ways along the way. Plus, some transgender people identify as gender non-conforming, and interested in occupying a more fluid identity that exists outside the gender binary—and that, by definition, eludes the possibility of an “end point.”

Even in the cases of a cisgender woman or man, there is always a constantly evolving process of curating one’s identity. In a way, this is also how it is for trans folk. Sure, for some people, passing is the goal—and can be seen as an end point. But at the end of the day, the process of figuring out an authentic self-expression is still a life long journey.

7. All transgender people get surgery.

Similarly, not all transgender people get, or even want, surgery. And even some of those who want it may not be able to afford it (or simply don’t get it for some other reason). For many, this may come as a surprise, as our society tends to equate gender and biological sex. But believe it or not, only 1 in 30,000 males in the U.S. experience a magnitude of gender dysphoria that results in them having gender confirmation surgery.

That said, it is equally important to recognize that some people’s lives are saved as a result of surgery. A 2014 study out of the Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide found that 46% of trans men and 42% of trans women have attempted suicide. Relatedly, medically transitioning can really alleviate life-threatening depression and gender dysphoria for many people, and help them feel more “at home” in their bodies.

8. All transgender people want to pass as either male or female.

The bottom line is that being transgender refers to not identifying with your biological sex. For some, that may mean identifying as the other gender within the binary system of man vs. woman. But even still, not everyone is interested in passing—the word that is used for one’s ability to be regarded as a cisgender man or cisgender woman.

Beyond that, many transgender people may identify as gender non-comforming, and prefer to present in a more androgynous way or use pronouns such as they/them/theirs or even Ze. The idea of being, and being identified as, a man or woman is not the goal.

9. Children are too young to know whether or not they are transgender.

This one has been the site of controversy, but according to a recent study by the Trans Youth Project showed that children as young as five engaged with and responded to gender-association psychological tests. Many trans adults report having “always known” about being transgender—which is not to be taken lightly.

10. Transgender people are all super-liberals.

Being transgender is not automatically related to one’s politics or religious beliefs. Sure, it’s true that most transgender people want to change the “system” and therefore adopt less traditional beliefs about the way society should operate. But it’s not fair to assume that all transgender people are radical, or that they completely want to flee from the status quo of mainstream society.

11. All transgender people are alike.

Often, people make reference to “the trans community,” as if it were one big and homogenous happy family of transgender people. But in fact, transgender people comprise a sprawling world of different kinds of individuals, like any group of people that exists. Transgender people come from all sorts of backgrounds—racial, religious, ethnic, socioeconomic and more. It’s important not to essentialize trans people, and to treat everyone like an individual with unique life experiences, personalities, challenges and more.

Certainly there are many more myths to dispel, and more information to pursue and disseminate. But knowledge is power, and knowing the basics is the most important thing to begin our empowerment.