We asked Debra Davis, executive director of the Twin Cities-based Gender Education Center (www.debradavis.org), and Walter Bockting, a psychologist in the University of Minnesota's Program in Human Sexuality, to answer some questions about transgender issues:
Sexual makeup is simple, right? Yes, if you are an earthworm. For the rest of us, sexual identity is more complex. That's because there are many components to our sexual makeup: We have our "biological sex," which is the chromosomes (xy or xx) and body parts we were born with. We have our "gender," which is who we think we are (male/female/or some combination). We have our "sexual orientation," which is who we are romantically attracted to (heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual). And we have "social roles and behaviors," which are how we present ourselves to others in the way we dress, talk and act.
Are transgender and cross-dresser the same thing? No. "Transgender" is an umbrella term that includes anyone who feels different about their gender. A "cross-dresser" falls under that umbrella and describes someone who enjoys dressing in the clothing of the opposite gender, and may or may not be gay.
Do most transgender people have gender-reassignment surgery? No. Most transgender people do not undergo surgery, primarily for health or financial reasons [although some health plans do cover it]. Female-to-male surgery is imperfect, requiring many surgeries at a cost of $50,000 to $200,000. [This may include a hysterectomy, radical mastectomy and chest contouring.] Male-to-female surgery is far better developed and easier. One surgery may be all that is needed, at a cost of $17,000 to $35,000. People who fall under the transgender umbrella who have the desire to have surgery, even if they never do, are called "transsexuals."
So what do they do instead? Some do nothing. Some change their names and clothing and take hormones. Estrogen, for example, creates breasts, softer skin and the loss of body hair, although it does nothing to alter a deep voice. Testosterone creates facial and body hair, a drop in voice, muscle mass and some balding, if there is male-pattern baldness in the family.
Are transgender people gay or lesbian? No. Transgender people are straight, gay, lesbian and bi-sexual. Bockting's research suggests that, among male-to-female transgender people, 27 percent are attracted to men, 35 percent are attracted to women and 38 percent are attracted to men and women. Among female-to-male transgender people, 10 percent are attracted to men, 55 percent are attracted to women and 35 percent are attracted to men and women.
Is life always lonely for people who choose to transition? The fear of being lonely, unlovable and, more practically, unemployed is realistic, mostly at the beginning. Sixty percent of transgender people in one 2006 study were unemployed, for example. Many relationships end during and after transition. Dating can be painful; several people interviewed said it was nearly impossible to find understanding partners. "Very few people are comfortable being in a relationship with a transgender person," Davis said. "It's not us. It's everybody who struggles with people like us. It's lonely. It really is."
But many transgender people do fine over the long term, in life and in love, Bockting said. Keys to success are finding a supportive community and professional help to steer them along. "As people find their comfort zone and begin to date and learn how to be open about who they are," Bockting said, "they actually do very well."