Challenges for transgender and non binary people and how language can be a form of empowerment

At Madame Dahlia part of our mission is to empower all people with their sexuality. As a part of my studies as a sexologist I have looked at the role that language plays in empowering the transgender and non binary community, the limitations to health care for the transgender community and how social media can be a very empowering platform for transgender people to connect with others and use their voice for empowerment and education.

In my studies it has highlighted how strongly language plays in being restrictive and conversely also freeing people with their gender and sexuality. For example, language plays such a large role to the extent that some people do not even like the name ‘non-binary’ because the description of their gender freedom comes from a negative of binary. In a way it can reinforce that there is a binary. It can also define them as not being normal. This affirms one of my main learnings and largest messages and questions to constantly ask ‘what is normal?’’


Although non-binary terminology may feel negative for some alternatively the term may help some individuals and assist the transition from coming out: perhaps even freeing or absolving them from a gender. Being non-binary is as much about gender as it is actively removing oneself from an ingrained system.


Language can deeply help shape our experiences and ready us with the tools in society to express this. I have learnt that it is important to ask questions with curiosity, like people’s preferred pronouns and descriptors to have a more inclusive community where people are made to feel comfortable and accepted.


In listening and speaking with people from the transgender community, it has brought to light many of the feelings, processes and struggles such as mental health issues that people going through a transition to non-binary/transgender must face. They emphasise how the reactions and acceptance of friends, loved ones and professional therapists can support this process. These discussions encouraged me to give careful thought about the importance of being curious, non-judgemental and using appropriate language within the community.


I have come to an understanding that people like to present in certain ways. Gender is not essentially ‘real’, but rather an internal feeling of identity. It seems that society has created these constructs attached to male and female biological sex in which our behaviour and identity is assumed to correlate. However, this may not always be the case for everyone.


I can now reflect critically on the value of choice and self-expression and affirm my belief that all humans should have the right to express themselves freely.





Despite the signs of acceptance of transgender people in today’s culture as a result of the transgender activist movement and the introduction and rise of social media over the past two decades many transgender, non-binary and gender fluid people still face significant challenges


The role of language

The transgender community are more visible in society today and this has created new linguistic challenges (Zimman, 2017). A large part of the struggles transgender people face is the discourse that is used in society that can be related to transphobia, genderism and gender bias. (Robson et al., 2019). Recent studies indicate that cis gender people often view themselves as inclusive and non-discriminatory, however upon further studies their use of language showed “less inclusive beliefs” (Robson et al., 2019, p. 916). There is a nuance in how one uses language and the way one constructs language for a new transgender discourse and this language can relay internal attitudes and beliefs. Furthermore, the use of heteronormative language plays a large part in creating barries and gender bias for transgender people. For example, in one study a young cis gender individual uses the words “something is wrong” when referring to someone who is biologically one gender but is dressed in what would correlate with the opposite gender (Robson et al., 2019).


The 1990’s were a decade in which transgender identity became more mainstream and it is said that the 2010’s were a decade of transgender activism. A large part of this activism supported the use of ‘trans inclusive language’ (Zimman, 2017, p. 85). Transgender people are vulnerable in many ways within the community. They can experience discrimination, verbal and physical abuse and difficulty gaining access to appropriate health care; therefore, it is important to recognise the role that language plays in liberating transgender individuals (Zimman, 2017). Asking people which pronouns they identify with and encouraging the mainstream use of these pronouns is one of the ways that language can help the transgender community relay their identity or sense of self. 


Non-binary has also been a term coined that is now used to describe an individual who does not identify with either female or male gender (Monro, 2019). Non-Binary is a term that is freeing for the transgender community. Indeed, identity is constructed with dialogue and therefore the way one represents themselves linguistically also needs to be understood and conveyed by others. Heteronormative language or cisgender language can create struggles for transgender and non-binary people, conversely creating a new dialogue that is gender inclusive has a significant impact on normalising gender fluidity (Zimman, 2017).


Transgender people and the link to mental health issues

A significant struggle that transgender teens experience is an increased risk of mental health issues as opposed to the general youth. (Claes et al., 2015). In particular transgender (TGE) adolescents experience mental health issues such as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), low self-esteem and suicidal ideation. (Leon et al., 2021). “Risk factors for NSSI among TGE individuals include social stigma, minority stress, transphobia, and the challenges of social transition” (Leon et al., 2021, p. 44). Feeling safe at school and experiencing parent connectedness and family acceptance also impacts the mental health of transgender adolescents (Leon et al., 2021). In one study that examines trans-inclusive practices at a school/education-based level states that there is a correlation between transgender youths who lack social support and experiences of “anxiety, depression, suicidality, and substance use as well as higher risk sexual behaviours, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)” (Tordoff et al., 2020, p. 2).


Transgender adolescents experience a higher rate of bullying in school and less acceptance from their peers. The need for support to create resilience amongst transgender youth plays a large part in reducing the high rate of mental health issues in these communities. One study suggests that using a Transgender Congruence Scale can “reflect the complex and nonlinear ways that individuals can express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their gender identities’’ (Martin-Storey et al., 2021, p. 24). The Transgender Congruence Scale is used to guide an informed decision for the right medical treatment and therapy and can create resilience amongst such individuals. (Martin-Storey et al., 2021)


Furthermore, the link between appearance and identity is central and associated to good mental health and well-being in transgender adolescents (Martin-Storey et al., 2021, p. 23). The struggle for transgender people in their self-discovery and their transitioning period can be a battle between identity and physical apparency. However, resolving such discrepancies and creating self-acceptance through broader access to health care providers can lead to better psychological health and wellbeing. (Martin-Storey et al., 2021).


Social media and its positive role in giving transgender people a voice

Today’s signs that we are entering a more hopeful era for transgender people are flourishing and can be seen largely in social media. A recent study in the U.S completed on transgender youths aged 14-22 revealed that the internet offered a space to escape stigma, feel a sense of belonging and build confidence amongst the community that was otherwise not felt in their lives offline. (Austin et al., 2020)


For many of the transgender community the use of technology and in particular social media can offer an important set of resources and give LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) people a voice for education as well as a space to explore and document gender identity (Hanckel et al., 2019). As discussed, social media can offer a positive space for young transgender individuals which in turn can lead to positive wellbeing.  Up to 80% of LGBTQIA+ people have access to social media platforms like Facebook and they are widely used amongst a young demographic (Selkie et al., 2020). Another qualitative study of transgender adolescents supports this statement, after interviewing 25 transgender/ non binary individuals it concluded that “Social media platforms represent hubs of community for transgender adolescents. These communities provide emotional, appraisal, and informational support that transgender youth may not otherwise be able to access” (Selkie et al., 2020, p. 275). Social support in the form of social media can positively impact self-esteem and wellbeing for transgender, non-binary and gender fluid individuals (Selkie et al., 2020). Nevertheless, by contrast, social media has it’s set of risks that can impact transgender people negatively. For example, transgender people can be exposed to cyber bullying leading to mental health issues and feelings of social isolation (Best et al., 2014).


The transgender community face many challenges in today’s society, specifically creating a new non-gendered based inclusive dialogue and the education of others in this dialogue. This discourse needs to be ingrained in a new culture that is inclusive of transgender people, including the gender fluid and non-binary. Transgender people also face higher incidences of mental health struggles and have less access to appropriate professional health care. 

Recent evidence indicates that transgender people find social media a positive space of empowerment, to use their voices for education, building self-esteem and connection to others.


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