Dispelling common myths about transgender people

May 24, 2021

Photograph by Barcelos_fotos at Pexels

Jamie Aldridge speaks to young people about society’s misconceptions of trans people

Negative beliefs are still widely held about trans people and can prove to be very damaging to their wellbeing, as well as affecting their integration into society.

For example, LGBT charity Stonewall has found that 66% of transgender respondents and 71% of non-binary respondents consider themselves to have a mental health condition, compared to 50% of their cisgender counterparts.

I met with students at Barnet and Southgate College to discuss what it means to be trans, the difficulties young trans people face, and how cisgender people can be good allies for trans loved ones.

These were the five most common myths and stereotypes students identified about trans people:

Myth #1: Trans people are mentally ill
Being trans isn’t a mental illness, but not being able to transition (because of discrimination or lack of health services) has been shown to increase the incidence of mental health issues among trans people.

Stonewall has found that the majority have experienced depression (67%) or anxiety (71%) and 12% have attempted suicide, with a shocking 46% having contemplated suicide.

In the past, medical textbooks have listed being trans as a mental disorder, for example ‘gender identity disorder’ (in America) and ‘gender incongruence’ (in Europe).

However, doctors have mostly stopped using these terms to describe being transgender, in favour of terms such as ‘gender dysphoria’. Using the term ‘dysphoria’ is helpful as it removes some of the stigma associated with the more clinical term ‘disorder’.

Myth #2: Being trans is a modern concept
There’s a rich history of gender-nonconforming people existing throughout the ages, across societies and cultures.

As far back as the 1600s, British people who we would now consider ‘trans’ were being outed or treated unfairly because of their gender identity. For example, in the late 1800s, Charley Wilson (who was assigned female at birth, but lived as a man for over 40 years) was discovered to be transgender when he moved into a nursing home aged 63, and was forced to live as a woman for the rest of his life.

There’s also a long history of ‘third gender’ people existing in other cultures, such as the hijra people in India. Hijra are intersex or transgender people, and are often assigned as male at birth, but identify as women. In 2014, hijra gained full legal recognition as a third gender in India (following similar legislation in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Myth #3: Gender identity and sexual orientation are the same thing
Sexual orientation is about who a person is attracted to; who they’d like to be in a romantic or sexual relationship with.

Gender identity is about how someone perceives their own gender.

One doesn’t determine the other: someone could be a gay trans man, a bisexual non-binary person, an asexual trans woman – or almost any combination of gender identities and sexualities.

Although sexuality is fluid (it can change over time), just because someone is transgender it doesn’t mean their sexuality will necessarily change if they transition.

Myth #4: Gender identity and biological sex are the same thing
Some people believe that someone’s gender is 100% determined by their physical characteristics, and that people will always fit neatly into the definition of ‘man’ or ‘woman’.

However, biological sex is more complicated than that – it’s actually determined by a combination of genitals, gonads, hormones, chromosomes and reproductive organs. In reality, about 1.7% of people have a combination of sexual characteristics that don’t fit neatly into the definitions of ‘male’ and ‘female’. These people could be considered intersex, and having an intersex condition is about as common as having red hair.

Furthermore, a person’s gender identity isn’t determined by the biological sex they were assigned at birth: people whose sex and gender don’t match are often considered transgender. A person’s gender identity could be boy/man, girl/woman, a blend of both, neither, and many more.

Myth #5: All trans people take hormones and have surgery
There’s also a belief that all trans people engage in a full medical transition, meaning they have surgery and take hormones, in order to modify their bodies to more closely align with their gender identity.

It’s true that lots of trans people do pursue some form of medical transition.

However, many don’t want to physically transition. Some people opt for other ways to present as their preferred gender, including:

  • Coming out to family, friends, partners and/or work colleagues
  • Changing the way they dress, their hairstyle, or using make-up
  • Changing their name, either informally or by Deed Poll
  • Asking people to use different pronouns to refer to them, for example calling someone ‘he’ instead of ‘she’
  • Changing their title in official documents, for example, changing your driving license from ‘Miss’ to ‘Mr’, or the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’ (pronounced ‘mix’)
  • Speaking in a different way (with a different tone or intonation) and, in some cases, having Speech and Language Therapy to learn how to speak differently
  • Having counselling or psychological help to support them during their transition

Additionally, some people can’t undergo surgery or take hormones for medical reasons.

Social or financial factors can also prevent someone from transitioning. They may not have access to a Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) where they live, or the waiting lists may be very long (the waiting list for a first appointment at London’s Gender Identity Clinic is currently over three years). If they can’t access public health services, they may not be able to afford private treatment.

I think people need to know the truth about trans people’s experiences before they can be fully supportive allies.

During our discussion we found that most myths identified by the students had very negative connotations, and could serve to alienate the transgender community from the rest of society.

By dispelling myths, it paves the way to celebrate the positive attributes trans people do have.