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Gender Identity and Transgender Issues

Topic Overview

Gender identity is your internal sense of whether you are male or female. When you are transgender, this feeling doesn't match your actual sex. Your body is male or female, but inside you feel you are really the opposite sex. You feel "trapped" in the wrong body.

The feeling that something is different may begin early in life. Many adults who are transgender remember noticing a difference as children between what their bodies looked like on the outside and what they felt on the inside. Other transgender people make this discovery as adults.

Sometimes a person feels so strongly that his or her body is incorrect that the person decides to have medical treatment, from hormones to surgery, to make the body match how he or she feels inside. People who have gender reassignment surgery to make these changes may be described as "transsexual."

Sexual orientation and gender identity are related, but they aren't the same thing. For example, a person can be transgender without being homosexual.

Some people use makeup, haircuts, or clothing styles to look like members of the other gender. This is called cross-dressing and is not the same thing as being transgender. Cross-dressers may be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.

Remember: You're not alone

The pressure and stress caused by feeling alone and sad can lead to depression, a very serious problem. Depression can lead to suicide. Teens with depression are at particularly high risk for suicide and suicide attempts.

If you are transgender, it's important to realize that there are lots of people like you. They have the same problems, emotions, and questions that you have, whether you are openly transgender, are still hiding the fact that you are transgender, or have a friend or family member who is transgender.

It can be very comforting and helpful to talk to people who know what you're going through. You can find such people through local or online groups. If you don't know where to find support, ask:

  • Your doctor.
  • Your school counselor or trusted teacher.
  • A therapist or other counselor.
  • Websites and online organizations. You can find a list of such organizations on the GLBT National Help Center website at www.glnh.org.

Why is it important to understand stress and know how to cope with it?

Stress is a fact of life. Most of us have periods of stress at various times in our lives. But extra stress can have a serious effect on your health, especially if it lasts for a long time.

If you are openly transgender, you may be under a lot of extra stress because of discrimination in the community. If you are still in the closet, you may have stress from hiding who you really are. Rejection, discrimination, fear, and confusion cause long-term stress in many transgender people.

Constant stress can be linked to headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping. It can weaken your immune system, so that you have a harder time fighting off disease. If you already have a health problem, stress may make it worse. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Your relationships may suffer, and you may not do well at work or school.

People who are under long-term stress are also more likely to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol heavily, and use other drugs. These habits can lead to serious health problems.

It's important to recognize the effects that stress can have on your life and to learn how to cope with stress to stay healthy. For more information, see the topic Stress Management.

How can you support someone who is transgender or transsexual?

  • Learn all you can about transgender and transsexual issues.
  • Learn to use the right pronouns ("he," "she," "him," "her"). Don't be afraid to ask the person what he or she prefers.
  • If the person is changing his or her name (from Dennis to Denise, for example), use that new name when talking to or about the person.
  • Make sure you get support for yourself. It can be stressful to try to see a transsexual person in a new way. Counseling can help.

For more information, see the topics:

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Social Health Association
P.O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC  27709
Phone: (919) 361-8400
Fax: (919) 361-8425
Web Address: www.ashastd.org
 

The mission of the American Social Health Association is to improve the health of individuals, families, and communities, with a focus on sexual health and preventing sexually transmitted diseases.


Family Equality Council
Web Address: www.familyequality.org

References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Psychological Association (2008). Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx.
  • APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns (2011). Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/transgender.aspx.
  • Biggs WS (2011). Medical human sexuality. In RE Rakel, DP Rakel, eds., Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed., pp. 1000–1012. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Eliason MJ, et al. (2009). LGBTQ Cultures: What Health Care Professionals Need to Know About Sexual and Gender Diversity. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Available online: http://www.nursingcenter.com/upload/Journals/Documents/LGBTQ.htm.
  • Hillman JB, Spigarelli MG (2009). Sexuality: Its development and direction. In WB Carey et al., eds., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 4th ed., pp. 415–425. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Sadock VA (2009). Normal human sexuality and sexual and gender identity disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2027–2060. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Zucker KJ (2011). Gender identity and sexual behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 346–348. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
A. Evan Eyler, MD, MPH - Family Medicine, Psychiatry
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Last Revised October 25, 2012

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