The rise of transgender celebrities, like reality star and former pro-athlete Bruce Jenner and Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox, have recently brought transgender identities into brighter view in the world of popular culture. The fashion world has also been taken by storm by transgender beauties like Brazilian supermodel Lea T, who has been featured in Givenchy campaigns and French Vogue, and Parisian bombshell Inès-Loan Rau, who has shot for Oyster, Vogue Italia and Playboy.
Notably, the Oxford English Dictionary recently added the non-gender specific honorific Mx (to be used in place of Mr, Miss or Mrs), which can be used by people who don't identify with a particular gender or who are transgender, signaling that our society as a whole has become more open to including the identities of those who don't conform to traditional gender norms.
However, the nuances of real-world transgender issues are still often sidelined in mainstream culture. So - what should we know about transgender issues, beyond the realm of the Kardashian-Jenners?
Transgender is an umbrella term for people who identify, express or enact their gender in ways that are not typically associated with the sex that they were assigned to at birth, although not everyone who is gender non-conforming necessarily identifies as transgender. The terms covers a wide-range of experiences and expressions of gender, from those who choose to fully 'transition' physically through surgery and hormone therapies (sometimes referred to as transsexual), to those who express their gender identity in a variety of different ways, such as through their dress, beauty aesthetic, behaviours or body modifications.
What's important here is the distinction between sex (the body parts that biologically assign people as male or female) and gender (the way someone performs or identifies with particular characteristics and behaviours that we traditionally associate with being a man or a woman). Our society tends to assume that it's natural for sex and gender to 'match up', but for transpeople and other people across a spectrum of non-binary gender identities, this is not necessarily the case.
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Although the first sex reassignment surgeries didn't occur until the 1930s, forms of non-binary and fluid gender identities have existed in many societies since the beginnings of human history. Often transgender or 'third gender' people have played important spiritual and cultural roles in traditional societies, such as the 'two-spirit' people in indigenous North American culture, the Fa'afafine of Samoa or the hijras of India. Despite a long history of these identities, including in Western culture, and an increasing awareness of the rights of LGBTIQ people, research shows that transpeople still face increased levels of discrimination, mental health problems and physical and sexual violence.
As Dr Dune points out, outright discrimination against transpeople is still a major issue, but a lot of general difficulties stem from the fact that we live in a world that remains solidly binary when it comes to gender - think of every form you have ever filled out that has required to you tick a box next to male or female, or every time you have ever visited a public toilet and had to choose which door to walk through. From birth we assign blue for boys and pink for girls and have pretty concrete expectations on how people will dress, speak and act based on whether they are assigned male or female. Imagine trying to describe your life and your family without resorting to any binary gender language - for example, he or she, mother or father, husband or wife, brother or sister, boyfriend or girlfriend. It's next to impossible.
For transpeople, these everyday experiences of gender binaries make it hard for them to see where their identities fit in, and the binaries are so deeply socially embedded that they can also make many non-trans people have uncomfortable or negative attitudes towards transpeople. Even within the medical community, Dr Dune explains, transpeople still have to identify as having gender identity disorder - a mental illness - before they can qualify for surgery and hormone treatment, furthering the perception that it is somehow 'wrong' to not identify with the gender you were assigned at birth.
Dr Dune believes that both institutions, such as governments, schools and hospitals, as well as the media, have a key role to play in normalizing acceptance of transpeople in society. Just like Bruce Jenner, there are increasing numbers of people in their 40s and 50s in Australia who are only now choosing to transition after leading conventional 'hetero-normative' lives. There is also increasing recognition of transgender issues for children and young people, where the education system obviously has a key role to play in protecting their rights and wellbeing.
Just as homophobia has become increasingly socially unacceptable, with a greater visibility of transpeople throughout society, including in popular culture, we can be hopeful that for future generations a transition like Jenner's will be seen as a totally normal and accepted human experience.
If you are looking for support or would like to learn more about how to support LGBTIQ inclusion, organisations like PFLAG and Pride in Diversity or your organisation's Ally Network could be good places to start.