13 things you always wanted to know about being transgender but were afraid to ask

A growing number of people are identifying as transgender — changing the gender they were assigned when they were born.

And while many people are now educated about what it means to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, there's now lots to learn about what it means to be transgender. 

Ash Arsenault is an Islander who transitioned a few years ago from female to male.

In the name of education, the 25-year-old young professional — he works at Veterans Affairs Canada while finishing up a master's degree in physics — good-naturedly agreed to help answer some politically-incorrect questions about what it means to be transgender.

1. What does being transgender mean — is it in any way the same as transvestite? 

Ha! No they're very different. That's one of the common misconceptions — the term transvestite refers to somebody who changes their gender expression usually for entertainment purposes. You know, drag for example. Whereas identifying as transgender implies an actual incongruence between your gender identity and the sex you were assigned at birth, which can cause deep distress. 

2. Is using the term 'tranny' a no-no? 

Yes that's hugely offensive to most trans people. It has a huge negative connotation and historical ties to violence, so as a general rule it's best to just avoid that word.

Even the word transgendered, with an "ed," while less derogatory, that can still be offensive to some people, because it implies that trans-ness is something that "happens to you" as opposed to just being who you are and always have been. 

For example, you wouldn't call a person of colour "blackened."

3. Are more people identifying as transgender now — is it 'trendy?'

Ha ha! I definitely think more people are coming out as trans now, but I don't think it's necessarily because of a trend. I think it's just more acceptable to do so now because we've come a long way and we've progressed as a society. And after repressing it for so long, we have more and more cases crop up. 

There's more visibility now, and it's easier to put together [figure out] as somebody who's maybe struggling with their gender identity. 

As it becomes more visible, it also becomes harder to deny or oppress it, when you see that it's a possibility and a valid thing.

Trans or third-gender people have been recorded in almost all cultures across human history. We wouldn't actively choose to have a life of harsh judgement and violence and high suicide rates, difficult heath care … because it's "cool."

4. What age do you think most trans people know [they're trans]?

It's hugely different from one person to the next … there's a lot of people who come out and transition later in life. I know somebody who came out and started transitioning at 72! 

I think most people have some sense of something being different or something wrong at a very early age, even if they can't put it into words right away. 

I kind of felt that feeling when I was probably three or four — as early as I can remember. But I didn't put it into words until I was in my late teens, early 20s. 

5. Why is using a trans person's old name or 'dead' name a no-no?

It can bring up a lot of dysphoria in people, as people remember how they felt before while using that name — so it can bring up a lot of negative feelings. They never identified with that name. 

My case is unique — I changed my middle name [from Nicole to Cole] — but I kept my birth name which is Ashley because it's a unisex name and I have no issue with it. But I think that's uncommon. I'm a huge creature of habit! 

6. You transitioned a few years ago from a girl to a boy. What's the gender transition process? 

It's different for everyone. Some people only transition socially and not medically. 

My experience is, it was absolutely vital and I wouldn't be here without it — and also very enlightening. I find the way that I'm treated is very different when I'm perceived as male as opposed to female. So it really opened my eyes, big-time, as to why we need feminism. People trust what I have to say a lot more — they just trust blindly.

On the medical side of things, I started hormones three of four years ago. I'm on them for life.

I had top surgery [to remove my breasts] two years and a bit ago. It's healed very nicely.

I'm not sure what else will be in my near future — I'm just taking it as it comes. 

[Ash documented his transition online, with post-surgical photos and personal observations — find it on Tumblr.]

7. How rude is it to ask what surgery a trans person has had?  

Some people are perfectly fine talking about it, others not so much. I'd say it's best to ask nicely beforehand whether somebody's comfortable talking about it. It's probably safest to assume it's too personal. 

8. Gender identity has nothing to do with sexual preference, right? 

Right. You can be a trans man and prefer men or women. 

9. How hard is it for trans people to find love?

I'm not going to lie, there are challenges associated with dating as a trans person. But it's definitely doable. 

We aren't undesirable people: in fact, trans people very often have a confident sense of who they are and plus, being socialized as more than one gender has its perks in my opinion! It kind of gives us a broader understanding … having those different perspectives is kind of a cool thing, I've really embraced that part of it. 

10. What does cis or cisgender mean?

That's just the term that's used to refer to somebody who identifies with the sex with which they were born.

11. Transgender people are the T in LGBT, and some people add Q for queer — what does queer actually mean? 

Everybody has a slightly different definition, but I sum it up as somebody who doesn't really fit into society's gender norms. So, anybody whose gender might be not what it was assigned at birth, or gender-fluid or people who dates anybody … who lies outside the hetero-normative idea. Basically it encompasses all of us who don't really fit into society's gender norms. 

I associate it with a community too, because it is really a great community of people.

12. Non-binary is another term I'm hearing more often these days. What does it mean?

That's somebody who doesn't really necessarily identify with being male or female. Their gender kind of lies outside the realm of gender, or somewhere in the middle, or maybe fluctuates from one end to the other. It's just like the whole trans movement in general — It's probably going to become more and more accepted as we're becoming more open-minded to that sort of thing.

First we had gay rights, now we have trans issues and I think non-binary people will become more visible as well. 

13. Do you think people on P.E.I. are becoming more accepting of the trans community? 

Definitely. I think society is, as a whole. I feel that positive shift for sure. 

- MORE P.E.I. NEWS I Kitchen closed for 6 months at P.E.I.'s culinary institute

- MORE P.E.I. NEWS I No down side to plain cigarette packaging, Cancer Society says