The different approaches to transitioning
Transitioning is defined as a process in which a person begins to live according to their gender identity, rather than the gender they were thought to be at birth. Contrary to popular belief, it does not always (or even typically) involve surgery or hormone treatment.
Social transitioning means a person makes changes in their name, pronouns, and/or appearance. For example, a child might begin to wear clothing typically worn by the gender they identify with; trans women might grow their hair out and wear makeup; trans men may ‘bind’ or compress the breasts. By transitioning socially, transgender people are able to express themselves and relate to others in ways that more closely align with their gender identity.
Legal transitioning includes changing names and/or sex/gender categories on legal documents. These documents can include an updated driver’s license, social security card, and birth certificate. Other changes might involve changing government, work, school, bank and other institutional records. This can be a time-consuming and daunting process, with procedures varying greatly from state to state. In many instances, a transgender person seeking to change their legal identity will have to visit multiple agencies, each time needing to explain their situation.
Medical transitioning may involve hormone therapy (taking hormones of a different sex). For example, transgender men may take testosterone. Some individuals choose to undergo gender confirmation surgery as part of their transition process, which may involve augmenting or removing breast tissue and/or altering genitalia.
A person’s gender identity does not depend on any particular transition. In other words, an individual does not need to transition in order to lay claim to their gender identity. In fact, there are many transgender people who don’t transition at all, or who transition selectively—that is, they only express their gender identity openly in situations where they feel it is safe to do so.
This publication from the US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs describes transitioning and the many choices a transgender person may make. Read this article for another overview of transitioning.
Cornell University. (n.d.). What does the scholarly research say about the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being? What We Know: The Public Policy Portal. https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-...
Office for Victims of Crime. (2014, June). Responding to transgender victims of sexual assault. https://ovc.gov/pubs/forge/transgender_choices.html