Wow, Trish. You have raised a lot of questions here, and they are not stupid! Thanks for doubling back on some issues I could have been more clear about.
Cisgender means that a person identifies their gender via the anatomy which which they were born. So if I was born with female genitalia and I identify as female, then I am cisgender (which I am). If I were born with female genitalia but feel myself in actuality to be a male, then I am transgender. I may or may not actually go through gender affirmation surgery to change the anatomy to fit with my gender identity, and that is dependent on a lot of factors. So according to Rick’s statistics, 0.4% of the population is transgender, and the other 99.6% of the population (you and me, presumably) are cisgender. On a very simplistic level, cisgender is to transgender as straight is to gay–they are opposites. But as Rick has also pointed out, many people in younger generations are also identifying as “non-binary” or “gender non-conforming.” Folks who support a non-binary perspective may focus on the fact that we all have some masculine characteristics and some feminine characteristics, and it is a “false dichotomy” to consider male and female to be opposites, with no gray area in between. Most transgender people I have met are very clear that they are not the gender they were born into, and in fact they were born into the “wrong” gender. They generally don’t change their name to something androgynous, and are not trying to trick people. But people who are non-binary may change pronouns from one day to the next, based on which gender they are feeling more connected to. Or they ask that we use “they, theirs, them,” not because they are more than one person, but because they are neither exclusively male or exclusively female, and a “genderless” pronoun feels more appropriate. The only other genderless pronoun we have in our current vocabulary is “it,” and that is dehumanizing, for sure. So taking the plural, which is also genderless, feels better to people who do not identify either as exclusively female or exclusively male. Plus, it is in our vocabulary already, so presumably it is easier for cis people to get used to than new “made-up” pronouns.
(An interesting aside, in my feminist theology class way back in the 1990s, in a Baptist seminary, we had a discussion about changing the pronouns for God. I HATE that we use only masculine pronouns for God–how limiting! So we actually played around with making up new pronouns that might work for God…)
Gender identity is a different animal than sexual orientation. Gender identity is who you feel yourself to be, deep within yourself–male, female, or something else. Sexual orientation is about who you are romantically attracted to–the same gender, the opposite gender, both genders, everyone, no one, etc. So I can be straight and cis–meaning I feel myself to be a woman, which matches the anatomy I was born with, AND that I am attracted to the opposite sex. Or I can be straight and trans, meaning I feel strongly that I was born in the wrong gender. So even though I was born with male genitalia, I feel myself to be a woman, and am attracted to males, which is the opposite sex. Or I can be gay and cis. Or I can be gay and trans. or +++++
And, getting the pronouns right matters–a lot! Just like it is an insult to girls who are tomboys, or who don’t like frilly dresses, to get mistaken for boys, it is considered insulting and disrespectful to use the wrong pronouns for trans people. It’s OK to ask them which pronouns they prefer. And usually their preferred name (maybe not the one on their DL, though) will be a big hint in the right direction. You are certainly right that people often do not identify this personal information on intake forms–sometimes for safety reasons, but also because our forms are not set up to accommodate people who are outside our carefully constructed check-boxes, so we never know these important aspects of who a person is.
And, just to mix things up a little more, every year 1 in 2000 babies are born with a set of characteristics that cannot easily be identified as male or female. This is known as “intersex.” While it is not the same thing as transgender, I raise this because many people of faith state that gender is not fluid, that God gave you a gender and you are supposed to stick with it, embrace who you are, etc. But the fact that people are born with both sets of characteristics, or missing essential elements that would confirm one gender or the other, reminds me that even in the “natural, God-ordained” order of things, anomalies and gray areas abound.
One more thing to consider. In some indigenous communities, gay and/or trans individuals have been recognized for years as being “two-spirit” peoples, who have been held in high esteem for their spiritual gifts. That’s quite a different take than what we have in mainstream America right now! I’ve included an excerpt on this below, in addition to some more terms that might help distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation.
Hope this helps. I do more than anything want this to be a safe place for respectful dialogue!
An inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.</p>
One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.
External appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.
The process by which some people strive to more closely align their internal knowledge of gender with its outward appearance. Some people socially transition, whereby they might begin dressing, using names and pronouns and/or be socially recognized as another gender. Others undergo physical transitions in which they modify their bodies through medical interventions. Read more.
Clinically significant distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the term – which replaces Gender Identity Disorder – “is intended to better characterize the experiences of affected children, adolescents, and adults.”
Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as “two-spirit” people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred to as “berdache” by early French explorers in North America, who adapted a Persian word “bardaj”, meaning an intimate male friend. Because these androgynous males were commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache had a clear homosexual connotation. Both the Spanish settlers in Latin America and the English colonists in North America condemned them as “sodomites”.
Rather than emphasising the homosexuality of these persons, however, many Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. American Indian traditionalists, even today, tend to see a person’s basic character as a reflection of their spirit. Since everything that exists is thought to come from the spirit world, androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman. Thus, they are honoured for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.
Therefore, many Native American religions, rather than stigmatising such persons, often looked to them as religious leaders and teachers. Quite similar religious traditions existed among the native peoples of Siberia and many parts of Central and southeast Asia. Since the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia over 20,000 years ago, and since reports of highly respected androgynous persons have been noted among indigenous Americans from Alaska to Chile, androgyny seems to be quite ancient among humans.