Sex and gender identity are quite complex issues, and the terminology can be quite confusing. The key point to bear in mind is that for the great majority of people, the sex (physical features) they were born with matches the way they think about themselves. For some, however, there’s a conflict: people develop as male or female in their heads and in their character, but their body is saying the opposite. This conflict may be due to hormonal events during their time in the womb (it should be made clear that these events are not the responsibility of the mother; they just happen sometimes). The conflict can become evident in early years, around 4 or 5, and can build into a very stressful situation around and after puberty. This condition is called “gender dysphoria” and people who are born with it are called “transgender”. It is rare and affects around one per 10,000 or 20,000. Some people are born with ambigous reproductive organs – this is often known as “intersex” rather than “hermaphrodite” which has been used historically and is used in relation to species which do not have seperate male and female sexes.
Once gender dysphoria is medically diagnosed, most transgender people choose to live in their true gender. As part of transitioning, people may or may not undertake medical intervention (“sex change”) in the form of hormone therapy, physical surgery, or both.
When someone has finished transitioning and is living fully in their true gender. Many prefer to identify as “formerly transgender” rather than continue to identify as transgender, since they are now living fully as a man or woman. Or they may simply identify as male or female. Nowadays the term transgender is being used far more than transsexual.
Transgender people have legal protection against discrimination from the moment that they announce they intend to transition. Once people have transitioned they must be allowed to live their lives in their true gender without having to refer back to how they were previously. Schedule 3 Part 7 (28) of the Equality Act does allow a service provider to discriminate (for example, exclude) someone on grounds of gender reassignment in relation to the provision of same-sex services where this is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. For example, it may be reasonable to exclude a trans woman who still has male sex appearance from accessing women’s shared facilities if it could put those women at a disadvantage.
Some people prefer not to identify as either male or female or shift freely between the two: they may define as “non-binary”, “gender fluid” or “third sex”, or with some other term that they feel comfortable with. People who wish to live a non-binary life will usually make this clear, and will suggest appropriate pronouns to use in reference to them (e.g. some suggest we use “their” instead of “his” or “hers”). In the UK, non-binary people do not at the moment have the same legal protections for their gender identity that transgender people have, so it is a matter of social responsibility for others to set good standards for being inclusive and positive.
Transvestites are not necessarily transgender; there are many people who do not have a gender-conflict but nevertheless enjoy dressing or living for a while as the opposite sex, as part of their erotic life, or just for pleasure and fun.
The general term “Trans” is often used to positively include all those who are or were transgender, as well as those who are transvestite, non-binary or gender-variant of any kind.
It should not be assumed that Trans people are necessarily without child-rearing responsibilities. Trans people are often parents, either as a result of previous relationships or as adopters or fosterers. The same can apply to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
For more information and guidance on ensuring access for Trans people, please see our LGBT Toolkit for Excellence.