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What is transgender identity? Transgender 101

What is "gender identity"? What does "gender dysphoria" mean? Who is considered "cisgender"? NBC News answers your 101 questions.
by John Paul Brammer /  / Updated 

Transgender people exist all over the world and come from many different walks of life. But what exactly is transgender identity? And what's the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?

NBC News consulted trusted sources, like GLAAD and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), and spoke with Sarah McBride, a transgender advocate and the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), to get answers to a few 101 questions pertaining to this diverse part of the LGBTQ community.

What is transgender identity?

"Broadly, the definition of 'transgender' is people whose gender identity or deeply held sense of their own gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth," McBride told NBC News.

There are approximately 1.4 million transgender adults in the U.S., according to a recent estimate by the NCTE.

A gender "transition" is the process by which a transgender person seeks to bring their body into alignment with their gender identity. This process does not always involve a surgical procedure.

What does 'cisgender' mean?

"'Cisgender' refers to individuals whose gender identities correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth," McBride said.

What is gender dysphoria?

"Gender dysphoria is the term used in the DSM (the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that classifies the sense of pain and discomfort that arises when one's gender identity is not seen and respected by society," McBride explained.

Not everyone who identities as transgender has a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

What is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?

"Gender identity refers to your own sense of gender, while sexual orientation refers to the gender or genders of individuals who you might find yourself romantically or sexually attracted to," McBride said. "Just like cisgender people can be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer, so too can transgender people."

LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD similarly defines gender identity as "a person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender." For transgender people, GLAAD elaborates, "their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth."

GLAAD defines sexual orientation as "a person's enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person." For example, GLAAD adds, "a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would typically identity as a straight woman."

What does “coming out” as transgender mean?

"There's no one way to come out, and similarly there's no one way to transition," McBride said. "Coming out and living your authentic self can mean sharing your new name and pronouns with people in your life. It can mean adjusting your gender expression to better reflect your sense of gender identity."

Do all transgender people undergo gender-affirmation surgery?

Not all transgender people undergo gender-affirmation surgery, nor is it a pre-requisite for transgender identity.

According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination survey, 61 percent of the more than 6,450 trans and gender nonconforming respondents reported they had medically transitioned. About 14 percent of transgender women and 72 percent of transgender men said they don't ever want full genital construction surgery.

What does it mean to be gender-nonconforming or non-binary?

"Folks who identify as gender-nonconforming or non-binary or genderqueer fall under the transgender umbrella, because they have a difference from their sex assigned at birth," McBride said. "While non-binary identities can mean different things to different people, generally it refers to individuals who do not identify as a man or woman."

Where can someone go to learn more about transgender issues?

People can visit the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD or the National Center for Trans Equality to learn more about transgender identity and issues affecting the community.

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