Usually, kids don't think too much about their gender. It feels normal and natural for many girls to be female and for many boys to be male. But that's not true for everyone. Transgender people who are born as boys feel they should be female, and those who are born as girls feel they should be male.
People who are transgender feel like they're living inside a body that's all wrong for them. They often say they feel "trapped in someone else's body."
What Being Transgender Means
When we think of ourselves as male or female, it's called gender identity. Everyone has a gender identity — the inborn sense of ourselves as being male or female.
Most people's gender identity matches their anatomy. But those who are transgender feel different from their physical appearances.
What society expects of men, women, boys, and girls also affects what we feel about ourselves. Every culture has "rules" about what is expected for men and what is expected for women. These expectations can include things like hairstyles, clothing, and jobs — and how people should act or behave.
Society doesn't have to state these rules because we see them all over. So most people grow up believing men should act a certain way and women should act a certain way without thinking about it much. Transgender people, though, have a very different sense of themselves.
Some transgender people know they feel "different" from the time they're young children. Others start sensing it around puberty or even later. When people who are transgender become aware that they feel mismatched with their bodies, they may feel confused and emotionally conflicted.
Some decide to physically change their bodies — through surgery or taking hormones — to match the gender they feel they really are. Physically becoming the opposite gender can be a long, complicated, and expensive process.
Not all transgender people decide to get surgery or hormones, though. Some are most comfortable keeping their physical anatomy but dressing as the opposite gender. Some aren't completely sure what they want yet, but may start by asking to be called a new name and use the pronouns that go with that name (such as "Amanda" instead of "Anthony" and "she" instead of "he").
Once transgender people start living their lives as the opposite gender, many issues may come up — like how to fill out forms that require checking "female" or "male," and even which public bathrooms to use.
As with any group, not all transgender people want or think the same things. It all depends on what that particular person needs to feel most comfortable in both body and mind.
The word transgender doesn't only mean that a person identifies with the opposite gender. It also can be used by people who don't feel like they're either completely male or completely female.
In addition to transgender, people use other words to describe feeling different from the gender they were born with, such as gender variant, MTF (for male to female), or FTM (for female to male). Some don't want to be called by any of the terms typically used to describe people who are questioning their gender. They just want to be known as who they are, unique in their own special way.
Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation
Being transgender is not the same thing as being gay. Being transgender is about gender identity — the way people see themselves and the gender they identify with. Being gay or lesbian is about sexual orientation — the gender someone is attracted to.
Gay men are attracted to other men and lesbian women are attracted to other women. And most of the time, they're comfortable with the gender they are.
Because sexual orientation is different from gender identity, a transgender teen can be straight, gay, or bisexual — just like other teens can.
What Is Cross-Dressing?
People who dress in clothes usually associated with a different gender are sometimes called cross-dressers. Not all people who dress as the opposite sex are transgender. Some are, but many are making a clothing choice for fun, comfort, or as a way to express their personal style — not because they see themselves as the other gender.
What Causes People to Be Transgender?
Many health experts believe that being transgender isn't caused by any one thing. What makes a person comfortable or uncomfortable with his or her anatomy is unclear, but they believe it's the result of a complex mixture of biology, psychology, and environmental factors — and not simply a matter of choice.
Helping Transgender Teens
The idea that people can feel that they're in the wrong gender bodies is something that many people have never heard of or don't understand. Being transgender is something some people feel uncomfortable thinking or talking about.
For some parents, learning that their son wants to be a girl (or their daughter wants to be a boy) can be shocking. In the beginning, parents may feel a range of emotions, including disappointment and a sense of loss. Some parents, though, may have already suspected it and are not really surprised.
Even when the news is unexpected or difficult to hear, it's important for parents to react with love and understanding. Experts say that even a slightly accepting attitude is helpful. Since gender identity is not a choice, trying to force a child to change his or her gender identity is not helpful and can lead to problems.
If your teen is transgender and you are having difficulty understanding and accepting what it all means, consider meeting with a psychologist who specializes in supporting transgender people. Talking through your reactions and receiving guidance can help you understand what is happening and identify ways you can best support your child.
For people who are transgender, the realization that they feel different from others also can be very difficult. They may face rejection, discrimination, and even anger from people who don't understand transgender identity, and it can be a challenge to deal with others' reactions. Not everyone is tolerant or accepting, and transgender teens can face situations that can feel hostile and be unfair. This may lead to feelings of depression and isolation.
Advocacy groups and a growing number of health professionals can help transgender people find acceptance, support, rights, and appropriate medical care. Many expert medical centers are available to help transgender people —and their families — address the complex physical and emotional issues they might face.
Like everyone, transgender people want to feel accepted, understood, and supported.
Reviewed by: Nadia Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014