Updated December 2015: Last December, the death of Leelah Alcorn brought a tragic focus to the struggles of transgender teens to find acceptance in their families and communities. While the triumph of marriage equality this year was an incredible victory for the larger LGBT community, transgender people still lack basic legal protections in areas like employment and public accommodations. Knowledge about people who are transgender and their experiences remains a persistent barrier to achieving equal treatment under the law.  

All too often, something terrible has to happen for people to notice the plight of others. Sadly, that’s what happened when we heard the news about Leelah Alcorn’s death.

From her suicide, we learned that Leelah wanted, above all, acceptance and love. As a transgender teen in Ohio, she pleaded with others to find common ground and as she wrote in her suicide note posted on social media, “Fix society. Please.”

While the ACLU strives to achieve this lofty goal, one of the first steps in understanding what it means to be transgender is that what we say can make a great difference. This isn’t about being “politically correct,” it’s about respecting what people want to be called in both  public and private settings. It’s about starting at the beginning and taking time to know how you can be supportive of others.

To increase your understanding about LGBT people and issues, visit GLAAD’s “An Ally’s Guide to Terminology".

The first step you can take to be a transgender advocate is to educate yourself. TransOhio has a full guide available on their website that sheds light on what it means to be transgender. Some of the best points include basic definitions, such as:

Transsexual: A person who identifies psychologically as a gender/sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. (This term also is used to describe transgendered people who have or will undergo transition.)

Crossdresser: Individuals who occasionally dress and take on mannerisms of the opposite gender.

Drag Performers: Individuals who dress and act like the “opposite” sex for entertainment.

Intersexed: People who were born with some combination of both female and male physical traits.

The guide also includes other great points.

What Transgender Isn’t:

  1. One’s sexual orientation.
  2. Sex or sexual pleasures.
  3. Gender roles.
  4. A choice.

“Isn’t Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation the Same Thing?”

Of course, not. Sexual orientation is an individual's disposition to experience physical and affection attraction to members of the same, the opposite or both sexes. Gender identity is a person's internal self-awareness of being male or female, man or woman or a feminine man or masculine woman, etc.

To learn more about rights for transgender persons and to see a list of suicide prevention resources, please visit our issue page.