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June 2014
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The Transgender Community

"Transgender community" is a term used to describe the diverse people who experience incongruence between the sex they were assigned at birth and their internal gender identity, who experience binary gender as restrictive or inaccurate, who do not conform to cultural expectations of binary gender, or who love someone who is transgender (e.g., partner, family member, loved one).

The community includes transgender people of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds and also comprises a wide variety of gender-related experiences. Some transgender people identify very strongly as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, while others identify as being beyond, between, or a combination of genders.

Due to media (mis)portrayals and a general lack of education about transgender people, false stereotypes and assumptions persist. For example, some believe that to "be transgender" someone must medically transition (i.e., hormones and/or gender reassignment surgeries). This is untrue. Transgender identity is not defined by a person's desire for medical interventions but on their experience that their gender identity is incongruent with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

Another inaccurate assumption about transgender people is believing that all transgender individuals "feel trapped in the wrong body," seek medical transitions from one gender to another, and/or want to change their legal documentation to a new name and gender. This is true for some within the community, but it is not true for all.

The largest subset of the transgender community is made up of mostly non-transgender people referred to as "SOFFAs" (significant others, friends, family, and allies). These people can be subject to the same prejudices, curiosity, discrimination, and even violence as their transgender loved ones. Because each transgender person has dozens of SOFFAs, they make up the largest part of the community. Exhibit 1 illustrates the likely proportions within the transgender community who have particular identities or who have made particular choices.

Exhibit 1. The Community

Exhibit 1 illustrates the transgender community: SOFFAs, individuals with no or little legal or medical changes, those with some legal or medical changes, and those with all legal and medical changes.

The term "transgender community" can be misleading. As with every other community, only a fraction of transgender people are actively involved in community activities or are connected to other transgender people. Like everyone else, transgender people belong to a veritable cornucopia of communities in which they may or may not be active—their child's school, the religion in which they were raised, their cultural and ethnic communities, their neighborhood watch, a professional networking group, and so forth. Just as a devoted Girl Scout when age 10 may have no ongoing involvement with the organization at age 35, some transgender people view their gender identity as an issue for which they once sought support, but which no longer has much day-to-day relevance. Others actively shun the transgender community, afraid that being seen with other transgender people will draw unwanted attention to themselves.

Those who are active within organized transgender events, organizations, or the transgender or LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community can be broadly divided into three groups:

  1. Information seekers. Probably the largest portion of transgender people consists of those who are new to organized transgender communities. These individuals may have thought about their own gender identity for decades, but have only recently decided to take action, get more information, and connect with other transgender people. They may seek this information through the Internet, books, in-person groups, social service providers, LGBT community centers, or mental health professionals. Information seekers often spend several years involved in transgender groups, especially if they decide to transition (to move from living as one gender to living as another). They rely on their information sources for ongoing advice and support. Then, when their new lives are better established, they may move on to other issues and activities.
  2. Long-term engagers. These are people for whom a transgender identity remains an important part of who they are or who value the continued connection with other transgender individuals. Some lost their prior support circle during gender transition and/or feel most comfortable surrounded by other transgender people who have had similar experiences. People who cannot complete a gender transition due to family, work, medical conditions, or other reasons often spend years participating in the same groups and activities as a way of coping with those challenges. People in this category may maintain active involvement in social support groups, attending drag or performance events, regularly posting on blogs or interacting with others via listservs, and attending balls or other organized activities.
  3. Activists. These are the people who work for social change and who want to ease the way for newer transgender people through mentoring, training professionals, participating in public education efforts, or organizing social or political events.

There is also great diversity among transgender support groups, which are designed to provide information, advice, and peer role models. Some of these groups, however, are aimed at just one segment of the transgender community. Groups may cater only to male-to-female (MTF) or to female-to-male (FTM) transgender people, for instance, while others may welcome only cross-dressers or only those who have had genital surgery. Very large communities may have separate groups based on race or another demographic variable, such as gender non-conforming poets or transgender individuals involved in the sex trade. Some include SOFFAs, while others are for transgender people only. Some localities have transgender organizations with a specific focus, such as advocating for transgender health services or sponsoring an annual conference.

Not all transgender individuals meet in person, which could be due to personal preference or because no transgender group is available in the area. The Internet has vastly improved the ability of transgender individuals and SOFFAs to access key information and connections through a nearly infinite number of listservs, chat rooms, social media, blogs, and other virtual gatherings. Many of these have a narrow focus, such as transgender parents or heterosexual female partners of FTMs. Some are locality-based and serve as the primary communication channel for transgender and SOFFA individuals in a given area or state.

Some transgender and SOFFA individuals participate in structured and informal social activities with others in the transgender community in addition to, or instead of, attending support groups. People who participate in these activities may know each other from in-person meetings or from online venues, or they may attend more anonymous social events like drag balls. Often, people want to enjoy traditional forms of entertainment (e.g., dining, sporting events, theater, coffee, lectures) and prefer to do so in a group of other transgender and SOFFA individuals.