An estimated 1.4 million adults in the United States identify as transgender, according to recent data from The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Even if you don’t personally know someone who is transgender, there's much greater awareness for gender identity than there used to be, thanks in part to public figures like Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Jazz Jennings from the TLC reality show I Am Jazz. But still, many misconceptions about what it means to be transgender persist. Below, Jay Wu, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, clears up five of the most pervasive myths.
The myth: There’s only one way to be transgender
People who are transgender do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. But exactly how that’s expressed can be different for everyone. It doesn't necessarily mean a transgender person has had gender reassignment surgery—although it could. When someone is transitioning, they're in the process of living according to their gender identity. This may include asking to be called by a different name, or requesting a different set of pronouns (whether it's he/him, she/her, or they/them), officially changing their name, dressing differently, or undergoing medical procedures (such as gender reassignment surgery, or hormone therapy).
"For some people, they don’t necessarily need medical care to live fully as themselves; others find it’s incredibly important," Wu explains. He adds that there are many others who would like to undergo a medical transition but are unable to do so due to financial reasons, or because they don't live near a medical provider that offers it.
The myth: It's offensive to mess up your pronouns
If someone you've known for many years comes out as transgender, you'll probably wonder how you should refer to them. The best course of action, Wu says, is simply to ask. "This is something a lot of people feel awkward asking about, but it’s 100% okay to do so," he explains. "They’d rather you ask than make the wrong assumption." And if you do accidentally let an old pronoun slip, don’t worry—it’s understandable. Instead of apologizing too profusely (which can take over the entire conversation), Wu recommends casually saying, "Oh, I meant to say 'he,'" and then moving on.
The myth: Transgender people are trying to get attention
"Yes, transgender people do get attention—but that attention can come in the form of extreme harassment and violence," says Wu. As they begin the process of transitioning, transgender people need to overcome fear and doubt about whether they'll be supported by their family, friends, and community. And sadly, these fears are often legitimate. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 46% of transgender people reported being verbally harassed in the previous year, while 9% said they were physically attacked due to their identity. In school-age children, these numbers are even higher: 77% of transgender students said they received some form of mistreatment, 54% were verbally harassed, and 24% were physically attacked.
"I don’t think anyone would fake it so that they’d have a higher chance of being assaulted by a stranger," Wu says.
The myth: Being transgender is a mental illness
At one point, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) included gender identity disorder as a psychiatric illness. But today the DSM-V lists gender dysphoria, which is when someone is experiencing extreme emotional distress about their gender identity versus assigned gender.
"That’s when someone is having such a strong disconnect with their body that it interferes with their day-to-day life,” Wu says. "It’s the distress coming from being trans and living in a society that’s telling you you’re not supposed to be this way.”
While a therapist may be able to help someone with gender dysphoria work through this distress, being transgender itself is not the problem. "It’s the world around them that’s the problem," Wu says.
The myth: Transgender people are a threat to bathroom safety
Although supporters of the controversial bills that seek to prevent transgender students from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity often point to public safety as the main concern, opponents maintain there's no correlation between anti-discrimination bills and a rise in crime.
"This is a major myth that has been debunked by sexual assault and domestic violence groups," says Wu.
Many LGBQT advocates point out that anti-discrimination laws have existed for years, and there isn't any evidence that they have contributed to an increase of attacks on women in public bathrooms. Last year, the National Task Force to End Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Against Women released a statement giving their full support to equal bathroom access for the transgender community.
Mind & Body – Health.com