New Study Highlights the Complexity of Transgender Identities

New study on the diversity of transgender identity labels.

Posted Sep 15, 2011

This month my graduate student Laura Kuper and I published a new study in the Journal of Sex Research that reports on data we collected from an online sample of transgender individuals. Laura is serving as a guest blogger to describe what was found in this study.

Within the last 15 to 20 years, transgender has expanded to become an umbrella term applied to a diverse group of individuals whose gender identity or expression differs from what is culturally associated with one's sex and gender. While an increasing number of researchers, organizations, and individuals are using the term, its exact definition and usage remains unclear. In order to collect more information, we asked individuals who identified with a gender identity other than, or in addition to, the gender associated with their birth sex to indicate how they self-identify. We also asked questions about participant's birth sex, age, and desire for hormones or sexual reassignment surgery.

As predicted, our results highlighted the diversity and complexity of identity within the transgender umbrella. While transgender, male, and female gender identities were common, genderqueer was the most frequently endorsed (55% of the sample). In total, 24 gender identities were endorsed by 2 or more participants. Identifying with more than one gender identity (e.g., as both transgender and male) was common. Out of a total of 20 sexual orientation identities endorsed, pansexual and queer were the most common. Individuals born female were more likely than those born male to retain their birth sex as a current identity, and were also more likely to identify as genderqueer and queer, but less like to identify as transsexual or straight. Individuals in the oldest age group (35+) were more likely to identify as a crossdresser and less likely to identify as genderqueer in comparison to younger age groups. More individuals born female took the survey (61%), and male born participants were an average of 13 years older (mean age of 23 vs. 36). Although much variation existed, most participants either did not desire or were unsure of their desire to take hormones or undergo sexual reassignment surgery (also known as sex affirmation or gender confirmation surgery). Of these procedures, the greatest number reported being currently on hormones (20%), while having undergone 'bottom surgery' was rare (2%). Those born male reported greater interest in 'bottom surgery' and other procedures (e.g., laser hair removal, facial feminization).

These results add to a growing number of studies highlighting shifts in how transgender individuals identify themselves and relate to their physical self.1,2 In particular, previous research has suggested that individuals identifying as genderqueer view their identity as reflection of the complexity of gender embodiment and expression and as a way to challenge to the male/female gender binary.3, 4 Similarly, transgender individuals may be likely to represent their sexual orientation in non-binary ways such as queer and pansexual given these labels don't reference their own sex or gender, which may be in transition, fluid, or not fully captured by gay, lesbian, or heterosexual identity labels. We suggest that the increasing availability of information and support for transgender individuals (e.g., growth of the internet) has been a major influence in such shifts. In addition, transgender mental health professionals have made efforts to reduce the barriers imposed by the screening process that occurs prior transition and to make this process more client focused.

However, these possibilities appear more limited for those born male, as our society is less tolerant of feminine expression and physical transition and passing is typically more difficult. Widespread discrimination and harassment also remains an unfortunate reality for many transgender individuals, as documented in a recent, national survey of transgender discrimination, health, and healthcare conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. This groundbreaking survey is the largest ever conducted, with over 7,000 respondents ( Taken together, it is important to find ways to acknowledge and respect the transgender individuals' unique experiences of gender and sexuality, particularly within the larger society where they are often remain misunderstood or silenced.

Several limitations of this study are important to note. Given the data was collected online using social networking websites and list serves, these participants may represent a unique subgroup of transgender individuals. While individuals from urban, suburban, and rural areas throughout the country participated, most were white and reported higher levels of education than the general population.

A great introductory video on these topics of transgender identity produced by The Gender Identity Project of the LGBT Community Center of NYC is below. 

Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program . You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook.


Link to our article:

1.  Bockting, W. O. (2008). Psychotherapy and the real-life experience: From gender dichotomy to gender diversity. Sexologies, 7(4), 211-224. doi:10.1016=j.sexol.2008.08.001

2.  Diamond, L. M., & Butterworth, M. (2008). Questioning gender and sexual identity: Dynamic links over time. Sex Roles, 59, 365- 376. doi:10.1007=s11199-008-9425-3

3.  Davidson, M. (2007). Seeking refuge under the umbrella: Inclusion, exclusion, and organizing within the category transgender. Sexu- ality Research & Social Policy: A Journal of the NSRC, 4(4), 60-80. doi:10.1525=srsp.2007.4.4.60

4.  Hansbury, G. (2005). The middle men: An introduction to the transmasculine identities. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 6, 241-264. doi:10.1080=15240650609349276