Trans Glossary: A Word about Words
A Word About Words.
The power of language to shape our perceptions of other people is immense. Precise use of terms in regards to gender can have a significant impact on demystifying many of the misperceptions associated with gender. However, the vocabulary of gender continues to evolve and there is not universal agreement about the definitions of many terms. Nonetheless, here are some working definitions and examples of frequently used (and misused) terms.
A socially constructed system of classification that ascribes qualities of masculinity and femininity to people. Gender characteristics can change over time and are different between cultures. Gender is often used synonymously with sex, but this is inaccurate because sex refers to physical/biological characteristics and gender refers to social and emotional attributes.
The physical structure of one’s reproductive organs that is used to assign sex at birth. Biological sex includes chromosomes (XX for assigned females; XY for assigned males); hormones (estrogen/progesterone for assigned females, testosterone for assigned males); and internal and external genitalia (vulva, clitoris, vagina for assigned females, penis and testicles for assigned males). Given the potential variation in all of these, biological sex must be seen as a spectrum or range of possibilities rather than a binary set of two options (see “Intersex”).
One’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Individuals become conscious of this between the ages 18 months and 3 years. Most people develop a gender identity that matches their biological sex. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their biological or assigned sex. Some of these individuals choose to socially, hormonally and/or surgically change their physical appearance to more fully match their gender identity.
Refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, and other forms of presentation. Gender expression also works the other way as people assign gender to others based on their appearance, mannerisms, and other gendered characteristics. Sometimes, transgender people seek to match their physical expression with their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex. Gender expression should not be viewed as an indication of sexual orientation.
This is the set of roles, activities, expectations and behaviors assigned to females and males by society. Our culture recognizes two basic gender roles: Masculine (having the qualities attributed to males) and feminine (having the qualities attributed to females). People who step out of their socially assigned gender roles are sometimes referred to as transgender. Other cultures have three or more gender roles.
Sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More narrowly defined, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth gender. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific gender.) Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc.
Describes an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to another person. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would identify as a straight woman.
This term represents a blurring of the lines around gender identity and sexual orientation. Genderqueer individuals typically reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and sexual orientation. This term is typically assigned an adult identifier and not used in reference to pre-adolescent children.
Refers to people whose sex assignment at birth corresponds to their gender identity and expression (Cis- from Latin meaning “on the same side [as]” or “on this side [of]”).A more widely understood way to describe people who are not transgender is simply to say non-transgender people.
Gender nonconforming/Gender variant.
Refers to individuals whose behaviors and/or interests fall outside what is considered typical for their assigned sex at birth. Someone who identifies as “gender nonconforming” is not necessarily transgender. While their expression of gender may fall outside of those considered typical for their assigned birth gender, they may identify as that gender nonetheless. Some distinguish between these two terms by how an individual is perceived. That is, a “gender nonconforming” individual may have their atypical expression experienced by others either neutrally or even positively. “Gender variant” might be used to identify an individual whose gender expression is viewed negatively by others.
While anyone may wear clothes associated with a different sex, the term cross-dresser is typically used to refer to heterosexual men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women. This activity is a form of gender expression, and not done for entertainment purposes. Cross-dressers do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. Replaces the term “transvestite.”
PLEASE NOTE: Transgender women are not cross-dressers or drag queens. Drag queens are men, typically gay men, who dress like women for the purpose of entertainment. Be aware of the differences between transgender women, cross-dressers, and drag queens. Use the term preferred by the individual. Do not use the word “transvestite” at all, unless someone specifically self-identifies that way.
Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with interests and behaviors that may change, even from day to day. Gender fluid children do not feel confined by restrictive boundaries of stereotypical expectations of girls or boys. In other words, a child may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or a combination, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately.
Disorders/Differences of Sexual Development. About 1% of children are born with chromosomes, hormones, genitalia and/or other sex characteristics that are not exclusively male or female as defined by the medical establishment in our society. In most cases, these children are at no medical risk, but most are assigned a biological sex (male or female) by their doctors and/or families.
FtM (Female to Male)/Transgender man
People who were assigned female at birth but identify and live as a man may use this term to describe themselves. They may shorten it to trans man. (Note: trans man, not “transman.”) Some may also use FTM, an abbreviation for female-to-male. Some may prefer to simply be calledmen, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.
MtF (Male to Female)/Transgender woman
People who were assigned male at birth but identify and live as a woman may use this term to describe themselves. They may shorten to trans woman. (Note: trans woman, not “transwoman.”) Some may also use MTF, an abbreviation for male-to-female. Some may prefer to simply be called women, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) which replaced the outdated entry “Gender Identity Disorder” with Gender Dysphoria, and changed the criteria for diagnosis. The necessity of a psychiatric diagnosis remains controversial, as both psychiatric and medical authorities recommend individualized medical treatment through hormones and/or surgeries to treat gender dysphoria. Some transgender advocates believe the inclusion of Gender Dysphoria in the DSM is necessary in order to advocate for health insurance that covers the medically necessary treatment recommended for transgender people.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms – including transgender. Some of those terms are defined below. Use the descriptive term preferred by the individual. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.
Used as shorthand to mean transgender or transsexual – or sometimes to be inclusive of a wide variety of identities under the transgender umbrella. Because its meaning is not precise or widely understood, be careful when using it with audiences who may not understand what it means. Avoid unless used in a direct quote or in cases where you can clearly explain the term’s meaning in the context of your story.
The process by which a transgender individual strives to have physical presentation more closely align with identity. Transition can occur in three ways: social transition through non-permanent changes in clothing, hairstyle, name and/or pronouns; medical transition through the use of medicines such as hormone “blockers” or cross hormones to promote gender-based body changes; and/or surgical transition in which an individual’s body is modified through the addition or removal of gender-related physical traits.The exact steps involved in transition vary from person to person. Avoid the phrase “sex change.”
Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) Refers to doctor-supervised surgical interventions, and is only one small part of transition (see transition above). Avoid the phrase “sex change operation.” Do not refer to someone as being “pre-op” or “post-op.” Not all transgender people choose to, or can afford to, undergo medical surgeries. Journalists should avoid overemphasizing the role of surgeries in the transition process.
An older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities. Still preferred by some people who have permanently changed – or seek to change – their bodies through medical interventions (including but not limited to hormones and/or surgeries). Unlike transgender,transsexual is not an umbrella term. Many transgender people do not identify as transsexual and prefer the word transgender. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers. If preferred, use as an adjective: transsexual woman or transsexual man.
Individuals who do not identify with their birth-assigned genders and physically alter their bodies surgically and/or hormonally. This physical transition is a complicated, multi-step process that may take years and may include, but is not limited to, sex reassignment surgery.
Fear or hatred of transgender people; transphobia is manifested in a number of ways, including violence, harassment, and discrimination.
TERMS TO AVOID
- Problematic: “transgenders,” “a transgender”
Preferred: transgender people, a transgender person
- Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun. Do not say, “Tony is a transgender,” or “The parade included many transgenders.” Instead say, “Tony is a transgender man,” or “The parade included many transgender people.”
- Problematic: “transgendered”
- The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous “-ed” tacked onto the end. An “-ed” suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. It also brings transgender into alignment with lesbian, gay, and bisexual. You would not say that Elton John is “gayed” or Ellen DeGeneres is “lesbianed,” therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is “transgendered.”
- Problematic: “transgenderism”
- This is not a term commonly used by transgender people. This is a term used by anti-transgender activists to dehumanize transgender people and reduce who they are to “a condition.” Refer to being transgender instead, or refer to the transgender community. You can also refer to the movement for transgender equality.
- Problematic: “sex change,” “pre-operative,” “post-operative”
- Referring to a “sex-change operation,” or using terms such as “pre-operative” or “post-operative,” inaccurately suggests that one must have surgery in order to transition. Avoid overemphasizing surgery when discussing transgender people or the process of transition.
- Problematic: “biologically male,” “biologically female,” “genetically male,” “genetically female,” “born a man,” “born a woman”
Preferred: assigned male at birth, assigned female at birth or designated male at birth, designated female at birth
- Problematic phrases like those above are reductive and overly-simplify a very complex subject. As mentioned above, a person’s sex is determined by a number of factors – not simply genetics – and one’s biology does not “trump” one’s gender identity. Finally, people are born babies – they are not “born a man” or “born a woman.”
- Defamatory: “deceptive,” “fooling,” “pretending,” “posing,” “trap,” or “masquerading”
- Gender identity is an integral part of a person’s identity. Do not characterize transgender people as “deceptive,” as “fooling” or “trapping” others, or as “pretending” to be, “posing” or “masquerading” as a man or a woman. Such descriptions are defamatory and insulting.
- Defamatory: “tranny,” “she-male,” “he/she,” “it,” “shim”
- These words dehumanize transgender people and should not be used in mainstream media. The criteria for using these derogatory terms should be the same as those applied to vulgar epithets used to target other groups: they should not be used except in a direct quote that reveals the bias of the person quoted. So that such words are not given credibility in the media, it is preferred that reporters say, “The person used a derogatory word for a transgender person.” Please note that while some transgender people may use “tranny” to describe themselves, others find it profoundly offensive.
- Defamatory: “bathroom bill”
- A term created and used by far-right extremists to oppose non-discrimination laws that protect transgender people. The term is geared to incite fear and panic at the thought of encountering transgender people in public restrooms. Simply refer to the non-discrimination law/ordinance instead.