Let me start by getting one thing straight: transphobia is in the very air we breathe.
Existing in a society where transphobia is the norm means that everyone, transgender and cisgender alike, ends up absorbing and internalizing some amount of harmful ideas about transness. This also means that everyone is on a journey of unlearning that transphobia; it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s not a judgment of one’s moral character, but it is necessary work. As a trans person with a lot of cisgender (non-trans) loved ones, one of the biggest barriers I’ve encountered to feeling loved and supported by my cis family and friends is the reaction I sometimes get when I suggest that we unpack transphobic preconceived notions together. When I say, “That’s transphobic and it hurts my feelings,” my cis friends’ knee-jerk reaction is often something along the lines of, “How dare you accuse me of transphobia? I’m an ally!” While such “cis fragility” is understandable to some extent, this reaction effectively shuts down the conversation, or at least radically reorients it to be about my cis friends’ hurt feelings. When I call out transphobia, it is never intended to be a judgment of whether my loved ones are good or bad people. It is merely to register that I am being treated in a way that is hurtful and that I no longer wish to experience.
This article is aimed at those well meaning cis people who are in the process of unpacking some of the transphobic ideas that we’ve all absorbed from society. Dear reader, I want to hold your hand and gently guide you towards an understanding that some of your preconceived notions about transness are incorrect or harmful, not through any fault of your own, but simply because you are a person who exists in a transphobic world. Furthermore, I want to do this without condescension, without judgment, without scorn, and without shame. But this can only be effective if I can convince you to let go of any instinctive defensiveness you might hold, and to be genuinely willing to reevaluate your beliefs. The ultimate goal of this piece is to help you better understand your trans and nonbinary loved ones, so that together you can build healthy relationships based on mutual respect. So, then: let’s embark on this journey together.
Myth #1: Biologically, there are only two genders
You may be familiar with the phrase, “Gender is what’s in your heart, sex is what’s in your pants.” Differentiating between gender (as a feeling, an identity, or a sense of self) and sex (as a biological reality) might be a good place to start for a beginner’s understanding of transness. However, I’ve found this simplistic framework to be limiting at best and confusing or outright transphobic at worst when engaging with adults who have a more complex understanding of sex and gender. It inevitably seems to lead to statements from well meaning cis people along the lines of, “Sure, you can identify as nonbinary or transgender, but the biological reality of your body dictates that you are either a man or a woman.” (Read: “I can humor your little gender delusion, but know that at the end of the day the only thing that’s real is the gender you were assigned at birth.”) And this simply isn’t true! Biological sex, as much as gender, is socially constructed. So let’s move a bit beyond “basic biology” and into advanced biology, shall we?
“Biological sex” is a catch-all term for three different aspects of the human body: karyotype, primary sex characteristics, and secondary sex characteristics. Karyotype refers to the set of chromosomes in a person’s body; two of these chromosomes (“sex chromosomes”) play a large role in determining the primary and secondary sex characteristics an individual has. The most common combinations of sex chromosomes are XX (associated with people assigned female at birth) and XY (associated with people assigned male at birth), but there are other combinations such as XO (a single X chromosome without a second sex chromosome), XXY, XXXY, and XXXXY. Many intersex people (individuals born with sexual characteristics that don’t neatly fit into “male” or “female” categorization) have some cells with XX chromosomes and some cells with XY chromosomes. Already, at this first component of biological sex, the idea of a strict male/female binary within human anatomy begins to break down– the bodies of many intersex people, such as those with both ovarian and testicular tissue, do not fall naturally within our socially-constructed understandings of “male” and “female.” When doctors, parents, and society at large assign intersex people to one of our two binary gender categories, we are actively participating in the social construction of the gender binary. (Invasive and harmful surgeries performed on intersex babies who are not yet able to consent is a serious issue which I am not qualified to speak on; I recommend that readers check out the work of the organization interACT.)
Primary sex characteristics are the external genitalia and internal sex organs that make reproduction possible, such as the testes, ovaries, penis, and vagina. Secondary sex characteristics, on the other hand, are the traits that tend to develop at puberty and vary between genders, such as body hair, breast growth, muscle mass, presence of an Adam’s apple, and fat distribution. We tend to group people into gender categories based on the idea that these characteristics show up the same way in all men, and show up completely differently in all women. For example, we define the category “male” as encompassing those with large amounts of body hair and muscle mass, no breast growth, and an Adam’s apple, who carry most of their body fat in their abdomen. We contrast that with the category “female,” which we define as encompassing those with small amounts of body hair and muscle mass, breast growth, and no Adam’s apple, who carry most of their body fat in their hips and thighs.
The thing is, these traits exist on a spectrum; even ignoring the existence of trans people, primary and secondary sex characteristics vary wildly within genders. Between forty and sixty-five percent of cisgender men experience gynecomastia, the development of breast tissue in men. Much more rarely, some cisgender women are born with an underdeveloped or absent uterus or vaginal canal. Much of this naturally occurring variation isn’t even categorized as a medical condition– how many of us know men who just aren’t muscular, or women with deep voices? Even the “Adam’s apple” is a name given to thyroid cartilage which every person has regardless of gender; the presence of testosterone in the body makes it more prominent, whereas body fat tends to hide it. As a result, many thin cisgender women have a visible Adam’s apple while many heavier cis guys do not.
The simple fact is, human bodies are incredibly diverse and consistently fail to fall neatly into “male,” and “female” categories. So, we approximate: we say, “This person with a high voice, some breast tissue, body hair, testes, and a penis is a man, even though he does not have every characteristic we have decided is male.” (Generally, at least in the West, primary sex characteristics are seen as the deciding factor in gender categorization.) For most people, this approximation serves them, but nonetheless there is nothing biologically natural about the rigid enforcement of this gender binary. This is what biologists, doctors, and social scientists mean when they say that biological sex is socially constructed: a clear divide between the physical characteristics of men and those of women does not naturally exist. We have created this divide, and by assigning gender we strictly enforce it.
So yes, the idea that “biologically speaking, there are only two genders,” is false. Furthermore, it should be fairly obvious to most readers that a fervent belief in the “biological reality” of manhood and womanhood serves to uphold some pretty racist and misogynistic ideas. The idea that all women have a uterus, for instance, defines women by their ability to carry children much in the same way that abortion bans do. This view of womanhood easily lends itself to a conservative and rather backwards view of women as “biologically inclined towards motherhood.” Such rhetoric can easily be built upon to justify anti-choice policy or the belief that a woman’s place is in the house. Personally, I find the idea that all women have small amounts of body hair to be a particularly telling indicator that the “biological reality” of the gender binary is anything but real. I grew up around a great number of female family members who regularly talked about plucking chin hairs and waxing upper lips. The idea that the existence of this facial hair would exclude the cis women in my family from “authentic” womanhood is blatant misogyny.
Such definitions also uphold Eurocentric beauty standards which value hairlessness, high voices, and slender builds in women. These racist beauty standards don’t just happen to exclude many (although not all) women of color; they were developed specifically to devalue and dehumanize people of color and particularly Black women. In this manner, the idea that all women share specific biological traits distinct from the shared biological traits of men reproduces racist understandings of gender which serve to gatekeep women of color from womanhood. This logic is evident in the outcome of World Athletics’ decision to institute a ban on female athletes with testosterone levels over a certain threshold. Although the policy was intended to target trans women, it banned three Black cis women from competing at the Olympics. Clearly, statements like, “It is a biological reality that all women have X hormone levels” are not only demonstrably false but also will always harm women of color.
I also want to touch on the idea that trans people can change their genders, but that biological sex remains immutable. Anyone who is familiar with gender affirming healthcare can debunk this one pretty quickly; through hormones and surgery, trans people very much can change their biological sex. For example, as a transmasculine person on testosterone, I have the testosterone levels of a cisgender man. As a result, I have many of the secondary sex characteristics of a cis guy too– increased body hair, more muscle mass, a lowered voice, and (unfortunately for me) a slowly-receding hairline. I’ve even experienced fat redistribution which has narrowed my hips. Every trans person thinks about their body differently, but personally I revel in the ways in which my body defies biological binaries– I have genitals that are neither recognizably “male” nor “female,” “feminine” thick thighs with a “masculine” carpet of body hair, and an androgynous voice, and I have never felt more at peace with the body I live in.
My own experiences existing in the world as a nonbinary person with a fantastic rack and a little mustache also counter the narrative that “no matter what you do, people will either view you as a man or a woman.” Although I’m not in the habit of wearing pronoun pins or pride flags, I often am addressed by strangers using they/them pronouns. This is sometimes because people guess that I’m neither male nor female, and sometimes simply because people don’t know what I am; regardless, I am often viewed by others as not a man or a woman but a secret third thing, so to speak. At this point in my transition I’ve been on the receiving end of a whole range of confusion about my gender, from the polite inquiry, “What are your pronouns?” to the much less polite demand, “Are you a man or a woman?” to the uncomfortable and frankly baffling, “I-am-asking-your-pronouns-but-staring-unwaveringly-at-your-junk-to-make-it-clear-that-I’m-really-asking-if-you-have-a-penis.” All of my trans friends who are at least a few months into hormonal transition (and some who aren’t) have similar stories. All this is to say that when we gender and are gendered by others, we are all just making guesses about strangers’ genders based on their gender presentation. Through a bit of gender nonconformity, it is much easier than one might think to be read as neither male nor female.
Myth #2: Gender affirming healthcare is experimental, unsafe, or entailing high rates of regret
A lot of cis people know very little about gender affirming healthcare, and it makes sense that they may feel anxious or apprehensive about the safety of a loved one undergoing surgery or hormone replacement therapy (HRT). But fear not! HRT and gender affirming surgeries have both been around for quite a while, and the same can be said for hormonal “puberty blockers” taken by trans youth. This section is just a brief look into the history and safety of gender affirming care.
The existence of sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone were first discovered in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the 1930s, Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for the Sexual Sciences in Germany became the first organization to prescribe hormone replacement therapy to trans people. The Institute for the Sexual Sciences also performed the first gender affirming surgery on a trans woman named Dora Richter in 1931, using the same techniques that modern vaginoplasty still employs today. HRT was first mass produced in the United States for cisgender women experiencing menopause in the 1940s. By the 1950s, endocrinologist Harry Benjamin had brought HRT as a means of medical transition for transgender patients to the US, after studying with Hirschfeld in Germany. In the 1960s, university-funded “gender clinics” offered both HRT and gender affirming surgery to trans patients.
Thus, far from being experimental, HRT and surgery have been around for nearly a century. Furthermore, studies continually show that these health interventions are low risk and overwhelmingly safe. (Yes, I linked to three different studies just to drive this point home. HRT is also shown to improve mental health in transgender patients.) In fact, most gender affirming care (all HRT, some surgeries like mastectomies and orchiectomies, and all puberty blockers) was initially developed for cisgender people. (Cis women are by far the largest consumers of estrogenic hormone treatments, far outpacing transfeminine people.) Gender affirming treatments also have shockingly low rates of regret among trans patients– a 2021 meta-analysis of 27 different studies found a regret rate of less than 1 percent among trans patients who underwent gender affirming surgeries. This was confirmed in a 2023 study which put the rate of regret for gender affirming surgery at 0.3 percent. To put that in context, knee replacement surgery has a regret rate of six to thirty percent, while a 2023 meta-analysis of 889 studies found a general surgical regret rate of fourteen percent. Satisfaction with gender affirming surgeries is crazy high!
All of this is to say, if you have a loved one starting gender affirming care, worry not. As long as they are in communication with a medical professional who can oversee their care, they are almost certainly safe. Consider sharing in their joy and excitement as they embark along this process! For me, the process of medical transition via HRT strengthened my relationships with many of my cisgender loved ones, and alienated me from others. The individuals who not only begrudgingly tolerated my physical changes, but celebrated the fact that I was finally able to inhabit a body that felt like mine, were the people who made me feel the most loved and valued. Being able to offer the same support to other trans people in my life has been one of my greatest honors– trans joy is beautiful, and I truly pity those who are too busy “mourning” the “loss” of their transitioning family member to partake.
Myth #3: People transition out of social pressure
No, your trans loved one did not transition to try to fit in with their cool trans roommates, friends, classmates, or partners. This theory is called the Social Contagion Hypothesis, and from the name alone you might be clued into the transphobic fear-mongering it entails. (“Oh God, the transgender virus, it’s infecting our kids! It’s highly contagious!”) Proponents of the Social Contagion Hypothesis posit that people– particularly young people– identify as transgender out of a desire to fit in with trans peers. These transphobes, most of them parents of trans teens, claim that their kids developed “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) around puberty as a result of their trans peers, much in the way one catches an illness or disease.
“Rapid onset gender dysphoria” and the Social Contagion Hypothesis have been roundly debunked by scientists. A 2022 study concluded that transness is not spread by social contagion, citing a decrease in the number of adolescents identifying as transgender between 2017 and 2019 not congruent with the Social Contagion Hypothesis. Noted transphobe Dr. Lisa Littman’s 2018 paper, which first coined the term “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” was retracted by the journal shortly after publication. Researchers criticized its wildly unethical and unscientific methodology– Littman consistently misrepresented her data, and the people she interviewed were all recruited from transphobic parent forums like Mumsnet. In other words, Littman was only able to find evidence for ROGD (a term she made up) by exclusively talking with transphobic parents whom she found on websites explicitly dedicated to transphobia. Furthermore, the claim that kids identify as trans in order to “fit in” and “be popular or accepted” is rather counterintuitive, seeing as CDC data shows that trans kids experience higher rates of bullying, harassment, and violence from their peers.
Psychologists and social scientists point out that teens developing so-called “rapid onset gender dysphoria” around puberty can be explained by the fact that most people only begin developing secondary sex characteristics around puberty. This means that puberty is often the first time that trans youth begin to experience dysphoria around physical traits like breast growth or voice deepening. It isn’t their cool trans friends brainwashing them into the Cult of Transgenderism after all.
Even so, I think that to many well meaning cis people, watching their trans loved ones suffer from social dysphoria in particular can look a lot like conforming to social pressure by “worrying too much about how other people view you.” When I explain that I am hurt by being misgendered, it’s not uncommon to hear in reply, “Just care less about what others think!” or even, “I’m a cis woman, and I wouldn’t care if someone called me ‘he.’” I’ve struggled with how to explain to cis people the experience of social dysphoria, the feeling of discomfort or incongruence that results from the gendered way in which others perceive or treat you. Sometimes I’ve compared my discomfort being in public without a chest binder to how a cis man might feel walking around with breasts, knowing that others perceive his chest as feminine. Other times I’ve explained that being constantly misgendered is not akin to a cis woman being called “he” a single time. It’s more like if, from birth, every person you knew insisted you were a man to the point where you started to wonder if it was true yourself. Even as you began to assert yourself as a woman, to present and act in a way that felt most comfortable and right to you, someone would occasionally sneeringly drop a “he” (or even “it”) into conversation to remind you that they not only don’t see you as a woman, but they barely see you as a human being.
Can you imagine that? Maybe you can’t; either way, it isn’t a perfect metaphor. Here’s where I’ved landed on this matter: cis people necessarily cannot experience social dysphoria in the way that trans people do, because there are not powerful institutions (the medical industry and the media in particular) and large swathes of the population (transphobes, most conservatives, well meaning but ignorant others) bent on denying your gender and your personhood on a systemic level at every turn. But by and large, trans people aren’t asking cis people to understand what it’s like; all we’re asking for is empathy. You don’t have to know what it feels like to be misgendered, to do your best to use the pronouns of a trans loved one. You don’t have to know what it’s like to want to claw your way out of your body when you feel strangers’ eyes on your chest, to hug your transmasc family tight and tell them that of course you’re so happy for them that they’re pursuing top surgery. Empathy and love cost you so little; why not offer it?
Myth #4: They/them pronouns are grammatically incorrect
“I’m not transphobic, I just can’t gender you correctly because they/them pronouns are never singular,” is a favorite saying of a particular type of obstinate cis person. Luckily for all of my nonbinary siblings who use they/them pronouns, this claim is simply factually incorrect. The singular “they” has been used for centuries; the first use of the singular “they” pronoun was in 1375. (That’s right, they/them pronouns are roughly 400 years older than the United States.) In the 1600s, it was common for medical journals to refer to intersex patients using they/them pronouns. Shakespeare uses singular they/them pronouns in his writing, as well as other literary greats like Austen, Chaucer, and Dickens. More recently, grammatical institutions like The Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford American Dictionary, the American Dialect Society, and Merriam-Webster all recognize singular they/them pronouns as grammatically correct.
While it’s cool to know that they/them pronouns are grammatically correct and have been for thousands of years, it is generally accurate to say that most cis people who suddenly become just so concerned about grammar when their trans loved one comes out don’t really care either way. More frequently, “it’s grammatically incorrect” is shorthand for, “Your gender is made up and I won’t change my behavior to make you feel respected.” The simple fact is, language is always evolving, and humans have been adapting language to best suit our needs since we could talk. Even if they/them pronouns were a newfangled perversion of English (and they’re not), they would be a newfangled perversion which allows nonbinary people to embody their genders. If you prioritize a commitment to grammar rules above your trans loved one’s ability to feel like their personhood and dignity is recognized, I would urge you to fix your heart, to borrow a saying from “Twin Peaks.”
Myth #5: My trans loved ones need me to push back on their identities
Almost every trans person that I know has someone in their life who feels the need to “just ask questions,” “just push back on their assumptions” about their gender identity, or “just poke holes in their arguments” about their transness. Dearest cis reader, I am formally extending to you an invitation not to be That Person.
Consider that your trans loved one already has a lot of people “pushing back” on and “poking holes” in their very right to exist. Consider that as of February 2023 a record 340 anti-LGBT laws, 150 of which are anti-trans, are being legislated at the state level backed by tens of millions of dollars. Consider that the media has ratcheted up transphobic reporting exponentially in the past few years, from the daily anti-trans Fox News segments to the vile bigotry spread in more reputable sources like “The New York Times.” Consider the difficulty of accessing gender affirming care, of experiencing a higher than average risk of violence, and of the daily mental toll of harassment and misgendering. Consider that amidst all this, it is very likely that your visibly trans or gender nonconforming loved one also experiences “pushback” every time they use a public bathroom. Consider, in short, not being one more reason that your trans loved one struggles to get out of bed in the morning.
Research bears out that your support is just as needed as your pushback is unneeded. Studies consistently show that trans people who are supported by their families have higher rates of positive mental health indicators, and lower rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. On the other hand, those whose families are not accepting experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. In short, the data clearly says that “offering pushback” on your trans loved one’s identity does harm. I would urge cis people with trans loved ones not to try to categorize themselves as either “accepting” or “unaccepting” and call it a day. It almost goes without saying that of course most people would like to think of themselves as “not transphobic,” and to do very little introspection beyond that. Instead of asking, “Am I accepting of my trans loved one?” consider asking the following:
Thus concludes my lengthy debunking of common myths about transness; if you made it this far, congratulations! Go forth and hug your trans family and friends. God knows we need it.