Transgender identities are among the least understood of underrepresented minorities. To help the UNM community gain insight into the issues and challenges faced by transgender people, the UNM Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Resource Center hosted "Transgender Cultural Competency: Transgender 101," a presentation by Adrien Lawyer, executive director, Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.

Lawyer talked about the differences between gender and sexuality. He said sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are four distinct concepts.

"Gender identity and gender expression not always congruent," he said. A person might identify as one gender while presenting the clothes and mannerisms associated with another gender.

Sexuality is also not limited by gender identity. "Every orientation is represented in the trans population. Every everything is represented in the trans population," Lawyer said.

Lawyer noted that even outside of transgender identities, gender doesn't break down into a simple binary. Masculine and feminine are defined differently in different contexts.

Lawyer said the "gender binary" – the assumption that gender must be exclusively either masculine or feminine – "plays out in really dangerous and cruel ways." He said on average, one transgender person is murdered every month.

Transgender is an umbrella term that encompasses many identities.

"Younger people are starting to embrace words like genderqueer and gender fluid," Lawyer said. Those terms express gender ambiguity.

Others have unambiguous identities. Those identifying as female-to-male or transman typically use masculine pronouns and present as or transition to male. Those with male-to-female or transwoman identities commonly use feminine pronouns and present as or transition to female.

Transgender people may choose to transition – that is, to adopt outward signs of their gender identities through medical, legal or social means. Transitioning can include surgery, hormone treatments, electrolysis, a name change, legally changing gender, or changes in dress, voice or manner.

However, not every transgender person wants to or can transition, Lawyer said.

Medical solutions can be painful and are accompanied by high costs and the risk of side effects. Those transitioning only legally or socially still face the risk of losing employment and loved ones.

Lawyer said when people transition, it's because "they have to… For a lot of people it truly is life or death."

He said transgender expression isn't just about how a person is perceived by others. "It's about being able to love my own body," he said. "I'm not tricking anyone into thinking I'm a guy. I'm a guy and everyone can finally see it."

Lawyer offered some tips for treating transgender people – and all people – with respect:

  • Always call people by the name and pronoun they give you. When unsure, ask how person wants to be addressed.

  • If you err, apologize briefly and move on. Dwelling on the mistake only adds to the discomfort.

  • Remember that misreading gender can happen to anyone – transgendered or not.

  • Don't initiate questions about "the surgery." "You can't just go up and ask about somebody's genitals," Lawyer said.

  • Don't sensationalize or sexualize transgender bodies.

  • Never out someone as transgender without their permission.

  • Don't police public restrooms.

TRCNM offers an online resource list, support groups and educational programs – including "Transgender 101." Lawyer said the educational component has about 40 presenters, including transgender people and family of transgender people.