How to Understand the Basics of Transgender Terminology

Transgender people have been part of society for a long time. However, many terms that they use to describe themselves can be either misunderstood or warped to mock them. By extension, the words are now difficult for many people to comprehend. The article below will help you understand the true definitions in order to be respectful.


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    Know what "transgender" means. Someone who is transgender was assigned a sex at birth (male or female) that doesn't match their actual gender. This can be female or male as well as outside of the gender binary. Cisgender people are people whose assigned sex and gender identity match. Most people are cisgender.
    • Avoid terms such as "biological sex" or "born a _____". They trivialize identities as well as reduce transgender people to their genitals.
    • "Transgender" is an adjective, not a noun or a verb. Don't call someone "transgendered" or "a transgender".
    • "Trans" is short for transgender, and is also an adjective.
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    Understand the definition of non-binary. Someone who is non-binary does not identify within the gender binary of male or female. They may or may not consider themselves transgender, but non-binary is under the umbrella term "transgender".
    • Some of these identities include:
      • Agender, lack of a gender
      • Neutrois, a neutral gender
      • Genderfluid, switching between different genders
      • Bigender or androgyne, generally used to describe someone who is both female and male
      • Culture-specific genders, such as two-spirit Native American or First Nations people [1] or Indian Hijras. These are labels to be used only by people of color whose cultures include such a gender.
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    Learn how to use pronouns. Usually (but not always), transgender people use different pronouns than the one of their assigned sex. Make sure to ask for them whenever possible! Most people only use one set of pronouns, but some genderfluid people switch pronouns. If this is the case, talk with them about how you'll know which one to use.
    • Traditionally, the two pronoun sets are "he/him/his/himself" and "she/her/hers/herself". While often used for binary cisgender and transgender people, many non-binary people do use these pronouns.
    • Other pronouns include "xe (or ze)/hir/hirs/hirself", "they/them/theirs/themselves", "ey/em/eirs/eirself", or "ne/nem/nirs/nemself".
      • While there is no "official", completely grammatically correct neutral singular pronoun as of 2015, it's still considered respectful to use the pronoun that a person says to use for them.
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    Know the difference between gender identity and presentation. Gender presentation is how a person expressed their gender to the world.
    • For example, if someone was wearing makeup, a dress, and high heels, that would be considered a traditionally feminine gender presentation.
    • Never assume someone's gender from their presentation. Both transgender and cisgender people can express their genders differently from their traditional gender roles. The term for this is "gender non-conforming".
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    Understand what "transition" entails. Transition is the process by which transgender people alter their bodies to match what they perceive their gender to be in order to ease gender dysphoria. It can involve hormone therapy (estrogen or testosterone with a hormone blocker for the one produced naturally), changing their legal name, pronouns, or presentation; or having surgery.
    • One doesn't transition from male to female or vice versa. That kind of terminology is considered outdated and implies that all transgender people transition. It also relies on the flawed idea of genitals being what makes someone a certain gender.
    • Try to avoid using terms such as "sex change". The preferred name is "gender (or sex) reassignment surgery", or GRS/SRS. [2]
    • There are special items that some transgender people use to change their presentation temporarily, such as chest binders, breast forms, or packers. These help minimize visible characteristics of their assigned gender.


  • It may be helpful to ask any transgender people you know if they are willing to explain their experience to you. Make sure to be polite about it, though.
  • Transgender people are marginalized in modern Western society, due to the prevalence of gender roles and gender assignment at birth.
  • Education is the first step in activism-try to be an ally to transgender people using this information!


  • Never forcibly misgender someone unless you are protecting their identity—for example, if they aren't out to someone.
  • Never use slurs against transgender people-for example "t****y" or "s*****e". These are derogatory terms for transgender women.
  • Make sure to ask any transgender people you know about the terminology they use—it may be different than the general terms used here.

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Categories: LGBT | Language Nuances