This is a 101 blog post on terminology within the transgender community. This post is meant to be a baseline of knowledge to build upon. Take the time to educate yourself so that you can support a community that is often marginalized. When in doubt research how best to support the transgender members of your community and listen to trans people when they speak.
By Miles Leonard
Transgender people are gaining visibility in society. As more people openly identify as transgender it becomes important to educate ourselves so that we can treat them with the kindness and respect they deserve. It can be confusing and you will make mistakes, but don’t let missteps discourage you from continuing to learn. Trans people aren’t responsible for educating others about their community and the struggles they face. So we have compiled a guide of beginning knowledge related to the transgender community. This is just the basics. We strongly encourage you to (respectfully) talk with the trans folks in your life- if you have none, think about why that is. Talk about their experience and how you can better support them. Additionally, we have provided a few resources below for you to learn more.
It’s also important to note that this subject is difficult for those within the transgender community in the same way that it can be difficult for you. It can be incredibly frustrating and uncomfortable to explain your identity repeatedly; however, by educating yourself you help relieve that burden from the transgender community. Below we have listed some common terminology within the community and information related to it. It is important to acknowledge that this is a very basic beginner’s introduction to the T in the LGBT acronym.
In recent culture, this umbrella term refers to someone who identifies as a gender they were not assigned at birth. Trans, as a prefix, means across, through, to the other side, similar to the word transformation. If you don’t know whether or not someone identifies with the word transgender, do not call them transgender. Not everyone uses this terminology. Regardless of what terms someone identifies with it is important for you to treat them with respect.
This is a shorthand term for transgender. The term is typically used for the same meaning as transgender but again, please ask before referring to someone with this term.
Transvestite and transsexual are outdated terms once used to refer to individuals within the trans community. Some older community members still identify with the term and use it for themselves. Never refer to someone with this term unless they have asked you to use it.
A person’s gender identity is their internal sense of their own gender. For transgender people, this internal sense of gender does not match the one given to them at birth. Someone’s gender identity may fall somewhere between strictly male or female (see non-binary/genderqueer below).
A person’s gender expression is how they express their gender through their pronouns, clothing, haircuts, and behavior. Just because someone’s gender expression doesn’t align with their birth designation does not necessarily mean they are transgender.
Being intersex is a natural biological variation in the sex characteristics of human beings. Intersex people are often grouped with the trans community however not all intersex people identify as trans.
Transitioning is the process by which a trans person may distance themselves from their birth gender. Some transgender people may choose to work with a doctor to help their bodies physically align with their gender identity. Surgeries and/or hormones may be used to complete this change. Some transgender people elect not to undergo physical changes in relation to their identity. Whether or not someone chooses to transition physically is solely up to that individual and what they feel is best for them. Asking transgender people about what surgeries they have had without invitation is very rude and invasive. It is important to remember that transgender identity exists regardless of physical appearance. Not all trans people will go through all types of transition, and a trans person can choose to transition in many ways. One such way is by socially transitioning. When someone socially transitions they do things such as ask those around them to refer to them with different pronouns and/or a different name. Socially transitioning may also mean coming out as trans to family, friends or even in a professional setting. Another way to transition is physical. Physically transitioning is when a trans person works closely with a doctor to receive medical treatments to alter their body to match their gender identity. Some forms of physical transition would be taking hormones, or receiving surgeries.
Genderqueer and or non-binary
These terms are used by individuals whose gender identities fall outside of the definers of male or female.These individuals may find their identity falls between male and female or is completely outside of those gender markers. A term like transgender should not be used to identify someone without their consent. The individual defines their own identity and that is not something you can do for them.
Cis or Cisgender
Cis or Cisgender refers to someone who identifies with the same gender identity they were assigned at birth.
A pronoun is a word that acts like a noun in reference to others mentioned in the conversation. The most common English personal pronouns are gendered using she/her/hers for women, he/him/his for men, and they/them/theirs for groups of people or as a gender neutral option. Their are also many pronouns that are used by different people to feel affirmed within their gender. To learn more about pronouns and practice using pronouns you may not be familiar with check out this website. You should ALWAYS (whether they are in the room or not) refer to an individual with the pronouns they have asked you to use for them. The only time it is okay to use the wrong pronouns for an individual is if they ask you to for safety reasons. A good way to be an ally to the community is to ask pronouns people go by when meeting anyone for the first time regardless of if you think they are trans or not. Also including your pronouns in your email signature is a simple way to normalize giving pronouns during introductions. Pronouns are incredibly important, they express a person’s gender identity in conversation. We have been trained as a society to assume someone’s pronouns based on their appearance however for many trans people their pronouns do not align with their appearance fully. Using someone’s correct pronouns affirms to them that you care, and respect them as a human being. Its okay if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns, simply correct yourself and move on. Do not make a big deal of the mistake as it may make the other person uncomfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, as long as you are trying your hardest its okay!
Now that you are familiar with some of the terminology let’s talk some more. You should know by now that how a person identifies is up to them to decide but did you also know that language is constantly evolving? Just because you may not have heard of an identity before that does not mean it is not a valid identifier. People with these identities have always existed however there may not have been words to express themselves. If you meet someone with an identity you are unfamiliar with try to research the identity yourself, the internet is an amazing resource. If you and this person are close enough you may also respectfully and privately ask them to tell you more about their identity so you can learn. Listen fully and do not try to argue with them, this is something very personal they are choosing to share with you. Additionally, this is their life experience, not yours, just because you cannot relate does not make their life experience any less valid or true than yours.
For additional information check out the sites below!
(Miles Leonard is an intern for Iowa Coalition for Collective Change. He is a Multimedia Journalism student as Simpson College. On campus Miles is a Sexual Assault Response Advocate involved in many organizations on campus including Pride, Simpson Feminists, Latinos Unidos, Theatre, and Kappa Theta Psi. You can follow Miles on Instagram, Twitter or on his website.)