According to Trish Boyles, the director of the Pride Center, coming from a place of understanding is essential for creating a safe environment for transgender students, but there are many misconceptions regarding transgender identities.
According to GLAAD, a non-governmental media monitoring organization founded by LGBT individuals, the word transgender is an umbrella adjective that describes people whose gender identity or expression differs from what is generally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Boyles, however, said that one major misconception regarding this term is the idea that transgender individuals must fall into the gender binary, or the concept that there are only two gender identities: male and female.
“That does describe a large part of the transgender community, but there are a lot of individuals that identify as transgender that identify outside of that binary of man-woman,” Boyles said. “That term really refers to a much larger community of gender-non-conforming people.”
GLAAD describes “gender non-conforming” as a term used by individuals who do not identify with the conventional expectations of male and female identities. However, not all gender non-conforming individuals identify as transgender and the term should be used only if an individual self-identifies as such.
Eli Rosenberg, ’17, said that this binary also creates misconceptions and pressure in regards to the portrayal of masculinity and femininity within the transgender community.
“Transgender people are just as human as the next person and a transgender man could even cross dress as a woman and it would be cross dressing, but he’d still be a trans man even if he is displaying femininity,” Rosenberg said. “Gender is a lot more complicated than ‘I am this, I am that.’ It’s part of our identity so of course it’s going to have a lot of different nuances to it.”
Rosenberg said that the gender binary also causes confusion regarding the focused terms “transgender man,” and “transgender woman.” The term transgender man is typically used to describe an individual whose sex or gender was assigned female at birth but who identifies and may live as a man, while the term transgender woman is typically used to describe an individual whose sex or gender was assigned male at birth but who identifies and may live as a woman. However, some individuals may simply identify as a man or woman, and do not prefer to use the “transgender” modifier.
According to Lehigh alumnus Zz Riford, ’14, another misconception is the confusion that occurs regarding the differences between gender identity and sexual identity. According to GLAAD, gender identity is an individual’s sense of their own gender, while sexual identity or orientation describes one’s physical, romantic or emotional attraction to other individuals. Transgender people can identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc., regardless of their gender identity.
“People confuse being transgender with being a sexual identity, and it’s completely different,” Riford said. “You have a sexual identity and you have a gender identity and those two do not relate to each other in any way.”
Evan Boyle, ’15, also mentioned the misconception of transgender identity being a mental illness. Boyle said that people often associate transgender identity with being a mental illness due to requirements from insurance companies. In order to receive coverage for hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery, some insurance companies require that an individual be diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association included an entry in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that classified gender dysphoria, or the concept that an individual is discontent with the gender or sex they were assigned at birth, as a psychiatric diagnosis that can be used to advocate for hormone or surgery “treatment.”
This “treatment,” or the transition process, however, serves as another source for misinformation regarding transgender individuals. According to Riford, the idea of transitioning is not universal for the transgender community.
GLAAD describes transitioning as a complex process that includes a multitude of steps such as coming out, changing one’s name and pronouns, dressing differently, hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery. Riford, however, said that the transition process is different for everyone, and that not every transgender person follows the same path. He said that in many cases, transgender individuals do not decide to peruse hormone therapy or surgery.
“For me personally, I don’t plan to get surgery because I’ve never felt any dysphoria about my body,” Riford said. “So I’ll pass in regular everyday social situation because I’m taking hormones, but I’ve never felt the need to get surgery.”
Riford also said that due to misconceptions regarding transitioning, there is also a misunderstanding that all transgender individuals are out and recognizable as such.
“You’re not always going to be able to tell if someone is transgender,” Riford said. “There’s definitely more trans people at Lehigh than people know. People that transitioned earlier on and just no one would be able to tell. It’s something to think about for people. You never know if you’re talking to someone who is trans, so you have to watch what your saying at all times.”
*Read the full story on Lehigh University’s consideration of the obstacles and resources available for transgender students on campus.