Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #9: “Transgendered”

Welcome again to Social Justice Synonyms, your friendly column at The Talon that encourages reflection on specific words and phrases we use and hear every day, and why they may be problematic. See our first week’s SJS article for wonderful suggestions on how to think about language.

This week’s term is transgendered.

You may have seen or heard transgendered used in media and literature, by organizations and institutions, or even by a friend. Some may wonder, what does this term mean and where did it come from? For a little Trans 101, the term transgender, sometimes conjugated as transgendered, was originally an umbrella term meant to encompass the histories, identities, and experiences of folks who did not conform to the gender roles associated with their sex assigned at birth. This term combines the prefix trans, meaning across, and the word gender, and originally included drag queens and crossdressers.

Currently, Transgender is used almost exclusively* to refer to trans men and women – people who identify as a sex or gender different or opposite from the one they were assigned at birth. Thus a trans man is often someone who is assigned female at birth (FAAB), but now identifies as a man and likely lives as one. Vice versa, a trans woman is often male assigned at birth (MAAB), but identifies as a woman. The language of ‘sex assigned at birth’ is an acknowledgement that people are often born with a sex assigned to them based on the presentation of their genitalia, without considering how a person may self-identify later in life. It is also recognition that for most people, gender roles are enforced from birth based on this assignment.

Back to the term ‘transgendered’. As a trans woman of colour, I cringe whenever I come across it. Here’s why – transgenderED would grammatically imply an action done unto a person, or a condition. Think about the terms gay and lesbian: they typically describe attributes of people, and you would never say someone is ‘gayed’. Similarly, transgender is correctly used as an adjective and not usually as a verb or noun; I may self-identify as transgender, but I am not ‘a transgender,’ and we are not ‘transgenders’ (unless we claim it in the spirit of self-identification). This is because most transgender people do not want to be reduced to or defined by society’s perceptions of gender and body norms; a noun is defining, while an adjective is describing.

All these distinctions may seem small, but they are incredibly important to the dignity and agency of transgender people. Unfortunately, society continues to ‘other’ transgender populations and individuals. When trans people are othered for embodying a breaking of gender norms, they are often dehumanized, and treated with less respect and dignity. Countering this othering process is partially why the terms ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ were developed to describe people whose experiences of their gender match the sex assigned to them at birth. Cis is the Latin-derived prefix meaning ‘on the same side of’, and is meant to complement the prefix trans, meaning ‘across from.’ This language is useful for identifying divergent experiences of cis and trans people, as well as their degrees of social privilege and disprivilege. At the same time, this language puts people on the same plane of understanding (where cisgender experiences are not automatically centred as the norm), being only different based on whether their gender identity matched the sex they were assigned at birth.

The persistent othering of trans people by society raises concerns around simply accepting ‘transgendered’ as a default term for describing trans people. As described above, the use of the word entrenches trans individuals firstly as ‘transgendered’, secondly as a person. This allows trans people little room to navigate how they want to define themselves. For example, a person may acknowledge that they have a history of cross-gender identification, yet not identify as transgender. Another person may actively identify as trans/transgender because they want to increase the visibility of a marginalized population. Both of these pathways to self-identification are minimized when people are labelled as ‘transgendered’.

So if you had ever used transgendered before, do not fret and be happy to know that there are alternatives! Besides transgender, you can also use ‘trans’; it is shorter and rolls off the tongue better, and allows for greater self-definition outside the gender binary. Preferences aside, below are some Talon-approved alternatives:

Use/Context Alternatives
“We provide services to women (including transgendered women).” “We provide services to all self-identified women.”
“Sexual Orientation –
Gay □ Lesbian □ Bisexual □ Transgendered □”
Just, no. ‘Transgendered’ is not a sexual orientation. I have actually seen this on a survey put out by an organization focussed on diversity… Do yo research!
“I love transgendered people! They are like, so brave!” “I love and admire trans people for who they are!”
“Laverne Cox is hot, for a transgendered man.” Laverne Cox identifies and presents as female. Therefore she is a woman, not a man. (You can also skip the trans or transgender qualifier unless it is relevant.) Alternative – “Laverne Cox is a beautiful possibility model for trans people everywhere.”
“I am transgendered” The Talon is not in the business of policing identity unless it is highly problematic, and you should not be either, so this is fine. An example of something problematic would be non-indigenous people identifying as Two-Spirit, as it is appropriating a term that is culturally meaningful to many Aboriginal groups.

Tara Chee is a local trans and queer activist, and board member of Our City of Colours. She enjoys writing long-winded Facebook rants on her free time, in hopes that it can help make the world a better place.

*Footnote: It is important to note that the terms trans (generally a short form for transgender) is evolving in many communities to be inclusive of those who are non-binary (people who do not strictly identify as male or female) as well as those who are transmasculine or transfeminine. This includes people who identify with both or neither gender, or those who identify more to one side of the gender spectrum, but may not desire to adopt some of the physical traits or social roles attributed to men and women. How a trans person sees their body and their relationship to it is not strictly tied to the gender we see performed every day in society.

  • vee

    careful with conflating sex and gender… it erases intersex people.

    • Tara Chee

      Thanks for your feedback! Yes, there is one part where I write “the language of ‘gender or sex assigned at birth’ is…”. Largely it was intended to provide a primer for the language that is out there. I totally see why it would have been read differently, and I will ask the editors to make the change. Personally I feel that it is sex, not gender that is assigned at birth, though I see why people would think gender is as well considering how tied gender and sex are in our society. I tried to remain consistent elsewhere by only saying ‘sex assigned at birth’, though I did note two parts where it reads ‘gender assigned at birth’ instead. I swore I had remained consistent in my language but I may be mistaken. It is possible though that the editors may have changed them to gender instead of sex assigned at birth, thinking that would somehow be more correct because gender is referenced in both those sentences. Either that, or it was my subconscious bias towards describing things in terms of gender for readers. Either way, it escaped my attention before publishing, so thank you for pointing that out.

      • K.

        Hi vee, this is Kay. I’m an editor at The Talon and oversee the Social Justice Synonyms column. I was the liaison with Tara for this piece. I appreciate what Tara has articulated in her reply and echo her gratitude to you for bringing up our collective oversight. We have made the appropriate edits.