Gender: the labels and language of transition


In Netflix’s hugely successful prison drama Orange Is the New Black, the trans actress Laverne Cox plays a prominent role as the transgender hairstylist inmate Sophia Burset — a role that has brought not just fame to Cox but also an insight for many of us into the transgender world, which until Orange hit our screens wasn’t much to be found in mainstream popular culture. Last week our horizons were broadened further when Amazon Studios gave us its new transgender comedy-drama series, Transparent, which is raking in rave reviews and ravenous binge-watchers around the world.

As we learn and understand more about the trans experience and community — thanks in part to this developing profile and popularity on our entertainment screens — let’s take a look at the language etiquette of gender transition. It’s an area of terminology that is still in a state of flux and sensitivity, and that evolving state itself both reflects and makes us examine the complicated social, psychological and biological factors that determine what defines, describes or identifies a transgender person. Has transgender replaced transexual, or is one an umbrella term that embraces the other? Does the latter refer only to those who have had gender-reassignment surgery, or is it simply an outdated term that has been superseded? Is trans acceptable as an abbreviation? Is transgender both an adjective and a noun, and should it be capitalized? Is cisgender simply the opposite of transgender? A lot of these questions don’t have simple answers.

In the August 4 issue of the New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg wrote a fascinating article called “What is a Woman?” That specific question we won’t try and answer here, but an important part of that discussion is in the terminology of gender identification and reassignment, as Goldberg explains in her piece: “The very word “transgender,” which first came into wide use in the nineteen-nineties, encompasses far more people than the term “transsexual” did. It includes not just the small number of people who seek gender-reassignment surgery … but also those who take hormones, or who simply identify with the opposite gender, or, in some cases, with both or with neither. … The elasticity of the term “transgender” has forced a rethinking of what sex and gender mean; at least in progressive circles, what’s determinative isn’t people’s chromosomes or their genitals or the way that they were brought up but how they see themselves.”

The Trans Awareness Project‘s web site further explains this subtle distinction between the two terms, and their continuing fluidity (and subjectivity) in meaning: “Sometimes transsexual is used to imply that a person has or desires to have some sort of gender affirmative surgery, while transgender is sometimes used as an umbrella term in the same way that trans is used on this website. Like many other words, the specific meanings transgender and transsexual vary with time, location, and the individual. … The argument has been made that the difference between transgender and transsexual lies in making a distinction between gender (culture/performance) and sex (bodies/biology). On the contrary, Transgender rights activist and lawyer Dylan Vade claims there is no “meaningful difference” between sex and gender and any definition “that pit biology against psychology or the body against the mind…denigrates transgender peoples self-identified genders.”

Below are dictionary definitions for transgender and transexual as they stand today, as well as GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide and the National Center for Transgender Equality on the suggested proper usage for these and other transgender terms (and the related field of cross-dressing). A potted history of the term transgender from Wikipedia (also below) adds further insight into this still evolving word. (See Glossophilia’s earlier post on another similarly changing word, queer.) Then we come to cisgender, effectively transgender‘s antonym. A recent article in The Atlantic asked “Will “cisgender” survive?” Paula Blank introduces her piece with the comment that “the linguistic complement to “transgender” has achieved some popularity, but it faces social and political obstacles to dictionary coronation.”

For the armchair linguists and language pedants among us, there’s an additional burning question: what part of speech is transgender? Is it an adjective and/or a noun, and can it even be used as a verb and turned into a participle? GLAAD answers these usage questions by prescribing the following: “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.” 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. For example, it is grammatically incorrect to turn transgender into a participle, as it is an adjective, not a verb, and only verbs can be used as participles by adding an “-ed” suffix.” (The National Center for Transgender Equality goes further in suggesting that the use of transgender as a noun can be regarded as disrespectful.)

Coming back to Amazon’s Transparent series, with which the world seems to be falling in love, series creator Jill Soloway sums up what Transparent means to her — and in so doing she captures something of the growing richness of vocabulary and language that both describes and propels the move away from the traditionally binary concept of gender: “Transparent stands for gender freedom for all, and within that freedom we can find grays and muddled purples and pinks, chakras that bridge the heart and mind, sexiness that depends on a masochistic love or a sweeping soul dominance. In particular, Transparent wants to invent worlds that bridge the binary: Genderqueer, Boygirl, Girlboy, Macho Princess, and Officer Sweet Slutty Bear Captain are just a few incredibly confusing, gender-fucking concepts that come to mind.”

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, transsexual has two meanings: a person who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex, and a person who has undergone treatment in order to acquire the physical characteristics of the opposite sex. Transgender seems to have a looser and more “psychological” definition; the same dictionary defines it as “denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender”. Cisgender, according to Oxford Dictionaries, denotes or relates to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.

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Wikipedia offers us an interesting potted history of the term transgender. “Writing for health professionals in the second edition of his reference work Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965, psychiatrist John F. Oliven of Columbia University used the lexical compound trans+gender in the Transexualism section of “Primary Transvestism,” noting “‘transgenderism’ is what is meant, because sexuality is not a major factor in primary transvestism.”  Crossdressing pioneer Virginia Charles Prince used the compound in the December 1969 issue of Transvestia, a national magazine for cross dressers founded by Prince. In the mid-1970s both trans-gender and trans people were in use as umbrella terms. ‘Transgenderist’ was used to describe people who wanted to live cross-gender without sex reassignment surgery. By 1976, transgenderist was abbreviated as TG in educational materials. In 1979, Christine Jorgensen publicly rejected transsexual and instead identified herself in newsprint as a trans-gender saying, “gender doesn’t have to do with bed partners, it has to do with identity.” By 1984, the concept of a “transgender community” had developed, in which transgender was used as an umbrella term. In 1985, Richard Elkins established the “Trans-Gender Archive” at the University of Ulster. By 1992, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy defined transgender as an expansive umbrella term including “transsexuals, transgenderists, cross dressers” and anyone transitioning.”

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GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide:


An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. … Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

Transsexual (also Transexual)
An older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities. While some transsexual people still prefer to use the term to describe themselves, many transgender people prefer the term transgender to transsexual. Unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.

Transvestite, or cross-dresser?
Transvestite is a derogatory term.
Cross-Dressing: To occasionally wear clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex. Cross-dressers are usually comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it. “Cross-dresser” should NOT be used to describe someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex or who intends to do so in the future. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression and is not necessarily tied to erotic activity. Cross-dressing is not indicative of sexual orientation.

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National Center for Transgender Equality:

Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically
associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and is good for non-transgender
people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for “transgender.” (Note: Transgender is correctly used as an adjective,
not a noun, thus “transgender people” is appropriate but “transgenders” is often viewed as disrespectful.)
Transgender Man: A term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a man (see also “FTM”).
Transgender Woman: A term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a woman (see also “MTF”).
Gender Identity: An individual’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Since gender
identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.
Gender Expression: How a person represents or expresses one’s gender identity to others, often through
behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.
Transsexual: An older term for people whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth who
seeks to transition from male to female or female to male. Many do not prefer this term because it is thought
to sound overly clinical.
Cross-dresser: A term for people who dress in clothing traditionally or stereotypically worn by the other
sex, but who generally have no intent to live full-time as the other gender. The older term “transvestite” is
considered derogatory by many in the United States.
Queer: A term used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and, often also transgender, people. Some use queer
as an alternative to “gay” in an effort to be more inclusive. Depending on the user, the term has either a
derogatory or an affirming connotation, as many have sought to reclaim the term that was once widely used
in a negative way. [See Glossophilia’s earlier post on the word queer]
Genderqueer: A term used by some individuals who identify as neither entirely male nor entirely female.
Gender Non-conforming: A term for individuals whose gender expression is different from societal
expectations related to gender.
Bi-gendered: One who has a significant gender identity that encompasses both genders, male and female
Some may feel that one side or the other is stronger, but both sides are there.
Two-Spirit: A contemporary term that refers to the historical and current First Nations people whose
individuals spirits were a blend of male and female spirits. This term has been reclaimed by some in Native
American LGBT communities in order to honor their heritage and provide an alternative to the Western labels
of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
FTM: A person who transitions from “female-to-male,” meaning a person who was assigned female at birth,
but identifies and lives as a male. Also known as a “transgender man.”
MTF: A person who transitions from “male-to-female,” meaning a person who was assigned male at birth,
but identifies and lives as a female. Also known as a “transgender woman.”
Sex Reassignment Surgery: Surgical procedures that change one’s body to better reflect a person’s gender
identity. This may include different procedures, including those sometimes also referred to as “top surgery”
(breast augmentation or removal) or “bottom surgery” (altering genitals). Contrary to popular belief, there
is not one surgery; in fact there are many different surgeries. These surgeries are medically necessary for
some people, however not all people want, need, or can have surgery as part of their transition. “Sex change
surgery” is considered a derogatory term by many.
Sexual Orientation: A term describing a person’s attraction to members of the same sex and/or a different
sex, usually defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, or asexual.
Transition: The time when a person begins to living as the gender with which they identify rather than
the gender they were assigned at birth, which often includes changing one’s first name and dressing and
grooming differently. Transitioning may or may not also include medical and legal aspects, including taking
hormones, having surgery, or changing identity documents (e.g. driver’s license, Social Security record) to
reflect one’s gender identity. Medical and legal steps are often difficult for people to afford.
Intersex: A term used for people who are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or chromosome
pattern that does not seem to fit typical definitions of male or female. Intersex conditions are also known as
differences of sex development (DSD).
Drag Queen: Used to refer to male performers who dress as women for the purpose of entertaining others
at bars, clubs, or other events. It is also sometimes used in a derogatory manner to refer to transgender
Drag King: Used to refer to female performers who dress as men for the purposes of entertaining others at
bars, clubs, or other events.
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