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How to Discuss Trans People and Issues

Style Guide

REUTERS (2015) Transgender (adj.): An umbrella adjective to describe people whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex assigned at birth. A transgender man is somebody who was assigned female at birth and lives as a male. A transgender woman was assigned male at birth and lives as a female. Do not use transgender as a noun; no one should be referred to as “a transgender.” Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. We typically only mention that a person is transgender if it is relevant to the story. For example, no need to describe one of three victims of a random car crash as a transgender person. If you are not sure which gender pronoun to use, ask. If you can’t ask, then use the one that is consistent with the way a person presents himself or herself. In some situations confusion may be avoided by not using pronouns. Do not use transgendered.

Basic Definitions*

Massachusetts Legal Definition: In the Massachusetts statewide law An Act Relative to Gender Identity, formally known as An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Rights, gender identity is defined as:

  • “Gender identity” shall mean a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth. Gender-related identity may be shown by providing evidence including, but not limited to, medical history, care or treatment of the gender-related identity, consistent and uniform assertion of the gender-related identity or any other evidence that the gender-related identity is sincerely held, as part of a person’s core identity; provided however, gender-related identity shall not be asserted for any improper purpose.

Sex:  The classification of individuals as male or female. At birth, infants are typically assigned a sex based on the shape of their genitals. Intersex infants are often subjected to surgeries to make their genitals conform to one of the two “typical” sexes.

Gender:  The classification of elements of appearance and/or behavior, according to expectations for persons of different sexes, as either “masculine” or “feminine.” Our society generally expects people assigned male at birth to act masculine, and those assigned female at birth to act feminine. These expectations are frequently enforced, without authority and sometimes violently, upon those who do not conform to them.

Sexual orientation: An individual’s enduring physical, romantic, emotional and/or spiritual attraction to another person. Transgender people can be heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc.

Gender Identity: A person’s internal sense of what their own gender is. Most people do not experience a difference between their assigned sex and their gender identity, which makes them cisgender. Trans folks, however, identify outside the gender that typically corresponds to the sex assigned to them at birth.

Gender Expression: How a person chooses to outwardly exhibit their gender through clothing, speech, mannerisms, etc.

Gender Stereotypes: A culturally defined code of socially acceptable behavior, dress, and/or appearance based on gender stereotypes. Male-assigned people are expected to exhibit masculine gender presentation, behaviors, and social roles at all times, while female-assigned people are expected to exhibit feminine characteristics.

Gender Dysphoria: Discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender roles and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics) (Fisk, 1974; Knudson, De Cuypere, & Bockting, 2010b). Gender dysphoria can in large part be alleviated through treatment (Murad et al., 2010). Avoid using the term Gender Identity Disorder (GID) or refer to being transgender as a mental illness or a fetish.

Standards of Care: The 2012 WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) Standards of Care, which is a clinical guidance set of standards for health professionals to assist transgender and gender nonconforming people with safe and effective pathways to achieving lasting personal comfort with their gendered selves, in order to maximize their overall health, psychological well-being, and self-fulfillment.

Transgender or Trans: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity does not align with the gender assigned to them at birth. A person does not have to transition or exhibit any particular characteristics to be transgender; the only “qualification” is identifying outside their assigned gender. Avoid using the term “transgendered”.

Transsexual:  An older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities, referring to a person who changes, or wishes to change, their assigned sex. Transsexual is not an umbrella term, and many transgender people do not identify as transsexual; as a rule, avoid this word unless a trans person exclusively identifies with it.

Cross-Dressing:  The occasional wearing of clothes traditionally associated with people of the other gender. “Cross-dresser” should NOT be used to describe someone who has transitioned to live full time as the other gender, 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, nor is it indicative of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Avoid using the term “transvestite”: An older term originating in med/psych communities, now considered pejorative, referring to a person who practices cross-dressing.

Transition: The process a person undertakes to live and present as the gender they identify with. This process can look different for everyone. People often change their name and pronouns and modify their outward gender presentation to better represent what they feel inside. Some trans folks pursue hormones and surgeries to change their bodies, although many cannot afford or choose not to do so. Transgender youth or adults do not have to disclose that they are transgender to employers, property owners, school officials, or other institutions in much the same way that all others enjoy a right to privacy with regards medical history, marital status, or religious beliefs.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT):  The taking of hormones, typically estrogen for transfeminine folks and testosterone for transmasculine folks, in order to alter the secondary sex characteristics of a person’s body.  For a transgender person, HRT may or may not be used to aid in the transition process.

Gender Affirmation Surgery / Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) / Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS):  A variety of medical procedures to change the sexual anatomy and/or secondary sex characteristics of an individual. GRS/SRS, when elected, is only one small part of transition. Not all transgender people choose to or can afford to have SRS. Despite improvements in technique, SRS remains a procedure which comes with substantial risk and should not be a requirement for social acceptance. Avoid using the terms “sex change,” and “the surgery.”

Avoid using the phrase “Bathroom Bill”: A derogatory term for transgender non-discrimination legislation coined by opponents of such legislation that should be avoided. Using this phrase to describe non-discrimination bills is effectively disseminating propaganda. It is an unfair characterization that biases the reader’s/viewer’s/listener’s understanding of transgender people and the legal protections non-discrimination legislation would enact. If you are searching for a neutral characterization of transgender non-discrimination legislation, we recommend using the bill number or calling it a non-discrimination bill for transgender people.

Speaking About a Transgender Person

  • Use the name the transgender person uses for themself. Some transgender folks cannot afford a legal name change and they should be afforded the same respect for their chosen name as anyone else who lives by a name other than their birth name.
  • If someone is/was male-to-female (MTF) they most likely identify as a trans woman or transfeminine.
  • If someone is/was female-to-male (FTM) they most likely identify as a trans man or transmasculine.
  • Use the pronoun that the transgender person uses for themself, which is often the pronoun consistent with their gender identity/expression. When in doubt, it’s okay to ask. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not they have taken hormones or had surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns they identify with.
  • If it is not possible to ask the person which pronouns they prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression. For example, if a person wears a dress and uses the name “Susan,” feminine pronouns are probably appropriate. It is also perfectly acceptable and encouraged to use they/them/theirs pronouns as a default until you learn how the person likes to be addressed.
  • It is never appropriate to put quotation marks around either a transgender person’s chosen name or the pronoun that reflects that person’s gender identity.
  • Never disclose birth name, assigned sex, or personal medical information without permission.

Statistics and Reports on the Issues and Experiences Transgender People Face

See also MTPC’s Transgender 101 Glossary and FAQ

* Some of these definitions were adapted from GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.