This may be a very basic post for some and if so I invite you to skip it, but it is one of the most frequent search requests that land people on my blog, so I thought I should write a very clear answer to this query. (I wrote previously about the difference between some experiences of gay and transgender people here.)
OK, to begin with let’s define some terms.
‘Gay’, ’Lesbian’ and ‘Bisexual’ refer to sexual orientation, in other words – who you are attracted to. A man who is attracted to other men could identify as ‘Gay’ or ‘Homosexual’.
‘Transgender’ is often used to mean ‘Transsexual’(Transgender refers to a larger group of people than that) has to do with one’s gender identity. Gender Identity is how one identifies in terms of maleness or femaleness. For a transgender or transsexual person one’s gender identity is different from what one might expect given ones natal or biological sex (‘Sex’ here refers to one’s biological sex – how one was born.) Gender is not always the same as one’s sex. ‘Gender Identity’ is how one feels inside, and Sexual Orientation is who one is attracted to vis-à-vis your current gender presentation.
To get back to the question ‘What is the Difference between Gay and Transgender?’ – we see that the difference is one has to do with sexual orientation (who you are attracted to sexually) and the other has to do with gender identity (who you feel yourself to be).
Why then all the confusion?
I think it has to do with the fact that queer folk – (i.e. gay lesbian and bisexual) might have more overlap with gender queerness than other (heteronormative or ‘straight’) folk. In other words – among gay men – there may be a larger percentage of gender fluidity – or those who identify as somewhat more feminine than among straight men and the same with gay women. This is their natural ‘Gender Expression’. Indeed Freud remarked on the biological characteristics of gay men back in the early 1900’s. Therefore it is possible to confuse or conflate sexual orientation with gender identity. In addition, much of the stigma and discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians over the years has more to do with their visible gender non-conformity than with their invisible sexual preference. The world has very little tolerance for gender non-conformity, although the world is changing.
Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.
I’d written previously about internalized-trans-phobia and noted that one reason why this happens is that “trans-folk have been … misunderstood and the object of derision”. The following is unfortunately a good example of this.
(This was taken at a June 27, 2011 press conference with Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum)
…I was with a couple this weekend who live in Vermont, and they have a similar situation up in Vermont… and their second grader has to come home and deal with Transgender Children, who are talking about Transgender Issues in second grade. These are things that are going to have a profound impact on children… when children are going to be forced to be taught about all of these issues that come with the implementation of gay marriage…it’s going to have a devastating impact on our children. It’s going to have a devastating impact on families and it’s going to have a profound impact on religious liberties….
That’s one powerful little second-grader… destabilizing religion in America. (does this mean she doesn’t have to do her homework?)
Putting aside for a moment Senator Santorum’s obfuscation of the issues of Gay Marriage and Transgender Children, the Senator as a respected member of society, is transmitting with his words and even more with his tone, the idea that transgender children are ‘less than’, ‘other’ and objects worthy of derision and ridicule. He is incredulous that a “normal” second-grader would have to associate and learn about his or her gender variant class-mate.
I would say that the Senator gets to be the poster-child for hate this week and can now consider himself to be a contributor to trans-phobia.
There are some people who undergo a gender transition (either fully or to some extent) and then regret having done so and “de-transition”. This post attempts to explore this phenomenon.
Some reasons why this might occur include:
- The person is not transsexual. The person may have found by going through their transition that they are not in fact comfortable living in the other gender and that they feel either gender queer or more closely aligned with the natal gender. Certainly instances of transitions involving surgery might have been prevented if there were a greater attempt to determine this beforehand; however, just like with non-trans issues, we often go ahead with things we think are right for us only to discover that they aren’t. Sometimes the discovery just isn’t possible without trying it out. The ‘real life experience’ (see WPATH’s standards of care) is an attempt to systematize this discovery process before any major surgeries.
- Regardless of whether the person is truly transsexual or not, it’s possible that because of having lived so long with gender dysphoria and accompanying social and physical dissatisfaction, one may think of a full gender transition as a magical ticket to happiness. I have seen this (sometimes unconscious) wish accompanied by other unrealistic expectations such as: the idea that one will have a social community, better social skills, be more popular, etc. When this turns out not to be true, there can be confusion and uncertainty that tends to focus on one’s gender transition. It may be that the gender transition was in the person’s best interest, yet other causes of unhappiness and personal problems had not been sufficiently explored and worked through. Sometimes with gender variant people, work on other problems are delayed because the gender issues tend to take precedence.
- The person encountered too many problems with transition (i.e. dissatisfaction with their post-transition life). These problems could include lack of family support, loss of partner, problems with transition in the workplace, disappointment with the outcome of surgery and problems “passing” as the new gender. Additionally, transitioning is hard. There are many hoops to jump through and one enters into a group of discriminated against people. This can be exceedingly disconcerting for some.
Levels of regret
Certainly a person who has made a gender transition can have certain regrets that are not extreme enough to cause them to wish to de-transition. The WPATH Standards of Care notes that “cases are known of persons who have received hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery who later regretted their inability to parent genetically related children”. Other less extreme regrets can involve loss of certain benefits of privileges commonly associated with one gender or another.
Some research on regret:
Pfafflin F., Junge A. (1992) Sex Reassignment: 30 Years of International Follow-up Studies after SRS: A Comprehensive Review, 1961-1991 [publication online]. Translated from German into American English by Roberta B. Jacobson and Alf B. Meier. IJT Electronic Books.
This study looked at 70 previous studies and reviews on outcomes following sex reassignment surgery. These included 2000 individuals from 1961 to 1991. This doesn’t take into account individuals who transition without surgery. About 70% of MTF individuals were satisfied and 90% of FTM individuals.
Krege S., Bex A., Lummen G., et al. (2001). Male-to-female transsexualism: a technique, results and long-term follow-up in 66 patients. BJU International. 88:396-402.
This study shows little or no regrets possibly due to surgical advances.
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