Thinking about what it means to be transgender

Yesterday in my college classes, we talked about gender.  I went to some pains to make sure that our conversation about gender was not confused with a conversation about sex – which refers to the anatomic gender that is generally assigned at birth.  Most toddlers are well aware of their sex by about 18 months and can clearly say that they are either a boy or a girl.

Our technical definition of gender is “a psychological awareness or sense of being male or being female and is one of the most obvious and important aspects of our self-concepts.”  This sense of gender identity is generally well established by 3 years old.  This understanding is much more nuanced, and reflects an understanding of typical societally approved gender roles, including clothing choices, career choices, and a wide range of gender-specific emotional and social interactions.  Most young children are aware of the approved gender dynamics in their society regardless of whether their parents work against these stereotypes.

We also talked about what it means when a person feels that their gender and sex don’t match.  Most of my students have some awareness of what it means to be transgender – but only in the broadest outlines and most without any actual personal experience with people who identify as transgender.  I would love to have a panel of people who are transgender come in to tell their stories and answer questions, but so far I haven’t been able to realize this goal.  So I’ve tried a variety of approaches to help my students understand what it means to be transgender a little bit better.  This semester, I played the following recent clips from the Dr. Oz show.  I particularly like them because the transgender people highlighted in them are children.  There is a simplicity to children and their approach to many things – including gender – that I think allows my students to be less skeptical about the feelings and motivations of people who identify as transgender.

One point that my students always have questions about – but that is only briefly addressed in these clips – is that gender, in the technical way we have defined it, is not linked to sexual orientation.  The terms relating to sexual orientation that we are used to hearing – gay and straight or heterosexual and homosexual – are difficult to use in specific conversations about what it means to be transgender.  Instead, the technical terms androphilia (being sexually attracted to men) and gynephilia (being sexually attracted to women).  These terms can be used effectively regardless of the person’s gender, which makes them quite handy once we venture out of the realm of binary gender.

But this still doesn’t take us a long way towards understanding exactly what’s going on.  We can address the reality that these children – and transgender adults – are living in by letting them express themselves and identify their gender in whatever way feels most natural to them.  But what about a deeper understanding of why this come about?  What twists or turns sent these individuals off on this track that is so different from the majority?  There are some indications that genetic factors and prenatal hormone levels may be associated with being transgender.  There are also some indications that home life, family of origin, and other social factors may be associated with being transgender.  As with most parts of being human, it is probably a complex interaction between biology and sociological factors.

My classroom conversations generally end here.  Or rather, this is where my explanation ends.  After this point we talk as a class, so that the students are able to hear each others’ thoughts and reactions to what is generally a new and often challenging topic.

I have found, however, that the explanation doesn’t satisfy me personally.  There seems to be something much deeper at work within individuals who identify as transgendered than can be explained by “a complex interaction between biology and sociological factors.”  So some time ago I turned to philosophers to see what they had to say on the matter.  I didn’t find much, but one explanation has stuck with me and continues to at least partially inform my understanding of what it means to be transgender.

Rudolf Steiner, who wrote and thought about many topics and issues, said that each person has two parts: an earthly body and a heavenly body.  The earthly body is each person’s physical body that we know and are well acquainted with.  Steiner went on to say that the heavenly body and the earthly body are of opposite genders, and that this balances us out as individuals.  Steiner does not delve into theorizing further about what it means to be transgender, but I will take his thesis and apply it.  Perhaps this well organized scheme occasionally gets a bit mixed up – and the heavenly body and the earthly body are accidentally the same gender.  Because we do not have access to our heavenly body, we work on changing our earthly body so that we come back into balance.

I am not saying that Steiner’s ideas are correct – but that I like the metaphor or the image of a gendered balance in each person, and when that balance is thrown off, the attempts to set it right.

I’m interested to hear if others have deeper, philosophical explanations or understandings about the human reality of being the other gender than the sex one was assigned at birth?  I’d love to hear about it!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. We have a couple friends that we know are transgender (I say “know” because there could be others that are transgender and we are not close enough to them to share). Neither of these friends know each other, or are really likely to meet. One is a brilliant engineer who is currently living with monks in Nepal. The other is a teacher and ex-army. One is with a man and the other often dates women. I feel privileged to know both of these wonderful ladies!

    However, recently, I noticed what a deep sense of relief I feel that both of my young children so strongly identify with their biological gender. I know that there can often be some “gender confusion” with toddlers that turn out to be transgender. It seems to me more of a physical disorder than a psychological one. Something that requires surgery to fix.

    I decided not to feel guilty in my relief that my children do not exhibit symptoms of this. I am relieved that they don’t have a whole host of possible life altering, or serious conditions. I am glad that there are treatments for those who are not the gender that their body suggests. It goes back to the old adage: You can’t judge a book by it’s cover. Just because someone looks like a man or a woman, doesn’t mean that they actually are that. And, yes, gender identity does not seem to me to be that strongly connected to sexual attraction.

  2. I think this is a common feeling, Keely. But I also know that you would love and care for and support your children regardless of what their gender identity was – just as you will regardless of what their sexual orientation is. We can be glad that our children are so long as we remember to love and accept and support them just as much because of the areas where they struggle as the places where they are easy going.

  3. Anatomical sex is sometimes ambiguous at birth: intersexuality is not all that uncommon. It makes sense to me that if there are people whose external genitalia are ambiguous, then there are also people whose gender is ambiguous on the inside, or whose insides don’t match their outsides. It’s all a part of human variation.

    I myself am both anatomically and psychologically female and attracted to men; however, I have long struggled with feeling that I am not feminine enough because I have absolutely no, zero, zilch interest in fashion/makeup/jewelry/hairstyles. Fashion magazines make me run screaming. I’m not interested in sports or cars either so I can’t even be a tomboy!

  4. Fabulous post and conversation, Karen. And, interestingly, I felt the opposite of Keely; I was and continue to be so grateful that my two girls are NOT strongly identified with the cultural gender identity. I don’t know if I could have stood it, if they wanted the pink skirts and frilly girly stuffy … I tried to stay out of the way, but they were both happy to be dressed in sturdy, practical clothes, often from the boys’ racks at the stores.

    My youngest daughter seems to have more testosterone than most men I know, combined! Disconcerting, at times, but I just watch, and try and stay out of the way.

    Regarding the Steiner concept, I don’t particularly resonate with it as a true explanation. I’ve come to simply accept the transgender experience as part of the Mystery of life … all things cannot be knowable. A wonderful former boyfriend of mine is now a girlfriend of mine! To watch her transformation has been amazing and mysterious as well.

    I’d love to see more comments on this topic.

  5. Alice, I hope you soon let yourself stop struggling with feeling that you are not “feminine” enough. You are whole, complete, wonderfully complex, and perfect as you are. I hope your intimate partner treasures this in you. I know it will be good for your girls to see you confident in this rich aspect of yourself as they grow up.

  6. LOL Ruth! I’m not saying my 2 fit into societal gender roles! They just love being their gender. My daughter has developed a preference for dresses and pink, but that is probably because I always wear dresses and all her little boyfriends Love pink (it’s such a wonderful color!) My son also loves pink–especially his sister’s striped, pink tights! If you ask him, he will tell you he is a boy. He often tells me some of his stuffed animals have penises because they are boys too! 🙂

  7. Transgenderism has always been a tough one for me, but I did find this article about Hawaiian transsexuals fascinating.

    UH student chronicles the history of Hawaiian transsexuals in her thesis


    Jamie “N?oi” Tabag stands with her h?nai mother and the subject of her research, “Aunty Charmaine” Lee Anderson, after her presentation on m?h?wahine at the Hawaiian Studies Building.

    When Jamie “N?oi” Tabag began her undergraduate work for Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i at M?noa, she noticed something missing from her history lessons.

    It was the history of the m?h?, and Tabag dedicated her thesis, “M?h?wahine, Hawaiian Transsexual Experience,” to their stories.

  8. hello there are new videos posted.

    the Dr. Oz clips with Spanish subtitles.

    the Tyra Banks Show with one of the children from the Dr. Oz (Josie) a 7 year old trans-boy (Kennedy) their family’s and some adult experts including Kim Pearson of Trans Youth Family Allies (TYFA) an advocacy organization for trans-gendered youth, and Dr. Marci Bowers.

    at the end of the clip “Tyra part 3 Transgender children and their parents speak out” there is an interaction between the 2 trans children that is genuine and priceless.

  9. I just found your website via a FB friend. I’ve been reading back and love what you have to say!

    I would encourage you to use the term “transgender” instead of “transgendered”. Think of it like this- would you say “he’s gayed”? Being transgender is not something that happens to someone, it is who they are.

    On another note, there are other video clips on the TransActive Education & Advocacy website with transgender identified children.

    The great thing for these kids about having a supportive family is that there will be less of a NEED for them to have any surgery in their futures. With early hormone blockers, then cross hormones as a teen, they will only go through puberty once, and avoid secondary sex characteristics (facial hair, lower voice, breasts, etc) that often are surgically altered when a person transitions later in life.

  10. Thanks for your comments, Janelle! You know, at the time I wrote this post I initially wrote transgender, but my spell corrected me and encouraged me to say transgendered instead. Rather than trusting what I knew to be true or even properly looking it up, as I should have, I just went with spell check. But I’ve gone back now and corrected the post.

    And thank you also for the great resources!

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