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What does transgender mean?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- November is usually known for two holidays: Thanksgiving and Veteran's Day. And while it's important to celebrate what we have to be thankful for as well as to honor our veterans for their duty and the sacrifices they've made for us, there's another important holiday this month that you probably haven't heard of.

November 20 is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a memorial holiday that honors murder victims whose deaths were a result of anti-transgender violence. Transgender woman, writer and advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith started it in 1999.

Smith arranged a vigil to honor the death of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered in 1998, as well as others who lost their lives due to transphobic hate crimes. From there, the day of remembrance for innocent victims of heinous hate crimes took off, and it's on this day we recognize their suffering and pay our respects to them and their memory.

Transgender people (primarily transgender women) face the highest levels of violence and discrimination in the LGBT community. However, it should be noted that not all victims of transphobic hate crimes are transgender themselves, but, as noted on the holiday's official website, www.transgenderdor.org, all acts of violence committed towards the individuals stemmed from bias against transgender people.

You might be wondering what exactly being transgender means. While plenty of people appear to have a basic understanding of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, the "T" of LGBT seems to go widely unnoticed.

People aren't as informed as they should be, and this isn't just a problem outside of the LGBT community. As a gay male, I'm still not as aware about the transgender community as I should be.

The summaries and explanations I'm about to give you are as basic as they possibly can be, and I highly encourage you to research these terms yourself. As society slowly makes progress towards becoming more accepting of LGBT individuals, it's important to understand the LGBT community, regardless of whether or not you are a member.

Transgender is basically an umbrella term covering many different things relating to gender identity. Gender identity is the way someone personally perceives his or her own gender, whether it's in or outside of the gender binary. (We'll talk about the binary in a minute).

Transgender people are those whose gender identity is the opposite of the gender they were born. As such, they seek to live their lives in what they believe to be the correct way and may undergo sexual reassignment (gender affirmation) surgery or take hormones. However, a person does not have to undergo surgery or hormone therapy to be transgender.

You might have also heard the terms "transvestite" and "cross-dresser." (It should be noted that cross-dresser rather than transvestite is the preferred term by the cross-dressing community.) Cross-dressing does not designate sexual orientation. A cross-dresser is simply someone who dresses in clothing of the opposite gender; doing so doesn't mean he or she identifies as that opposite gender. 

People who cross-dress can be cisgender -- that is, their gender identity aligns with the gender they were born. Many heterosexual, cisgender males cross-dress.

People cross-dress for different reasons. Individuals who do it for entertainment and performance purposes are referred to as "drag queens" and "drag kings," when speaking of males and females, respectively.

Since I only have so much room, the last thing I want to discuss is being genderqueer (though there are more transgender identities than the three I've spoken of). Genderqueer is another umbrella term that deals with people whose gender identity falls outside the gender binary.

Think of the gender binary as a straight line, with one end being male/masculine and the other being female/feminine. Those outside the gender binary can identity as having two or more genders, having no gender, having a gender that fluctuates and more.

Remember that the terms "gender" and "sex" do not mean the same thing. The easiest way to describe this is by saying that sex refers to the genitals you were born with, while gender is the way you personally perceive yourself in (or outside of) the gender binary.

Lastly, it's important to note that being transgender does not designate a sexual orientation. People who are transgender can be heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or of another sexual orientation like pansexual (being attracted to others regardless of their sex or gender identity) or asexual (having no/very low sexual attraction to any sex or gender).

Now that you have a basic grasp of the transgender community, I encourage you to participate in the holiday and help raise awareness of it. A single act of violence is one act too many, and many acts are the result of ignorance and hatred.

Educate yourself and others on transgender culture, and remember to always keep both your mind and heart open when it comes to accepting others -- even if you don't fully understand them.

For more information, visit the GLAAD Media Reference Guide at www.glaad.org/reference/transgender or the National Center for Transgender Equality at www.transequality.org/index.html.


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