Really Awesome Trans 101
Compiled, edited, and revised by Erin Houdini
Introduction and additional contributions by Theodore Schall
Originally based on the GLAAD Media Reference Guide (7th Edition)
Feel free to repost this document, just make sure you credit the author(s).
Hello and welcome. We’re glad you made it here.
The most important thing, as you read through this Trans 101, is to know that no two lives are the same. There is no one “transgender experience.” Everyone’s life is different, so now is a good time to remember that rule you learned in 3rd grade about assumptions making you an ass. That applies again. We’ll return the favor and try to make this an easy way to learn about a topic that might be completely new.
And while the glossary below may look daunting, here’s the punchline: trans people are people. They know themselves as well as anyone does. They have jobs and families. Some are devoutly religious, some love cats too much, and some are dull at parties. They go to school.
They pay taxes.
They ride SEPTA.
Social Etiquette 101
If you make a mistake, accept being corrected gracefully, and move on. You don’t have to be terrified of accidentally offending someone. That just makes things awkward. If you make a mistake and dwell on it, that’s even more awkward. Even worse is starting an argument defending ignorance or assuming you know better than someone with obviously more education and experience on an issue. Being corrected is ok, and it doesn’t make you stupid or insensitive. Just learn, and move on.
Use their chosen name. Often trans people cannot afford a legal name change or are not yet old enough to change their name legally. Never put their name or pronouns in quotes. It’s sarcastically derogatory.
Use the pronoun that is consistent with their gender expression. 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 appropriate for their identity. For example, if the person wears a dress and goes by Susan, feminine pronouns are appropriate.
If you’re really unsure, ask which pronoun they prefer. Don’t be afraid! Simply ask, “What pronoun do you prefer?” Note that many genderqueer people use they/their/them as gender-neutral singular pronouns. Be tactful when asking about pronouns; it’s pretty rude to do so without at least involving yourself a conversation first.
Sex and Gender 101
Gender Identity: One’s actual, internal sense of being male or female, neither of these, both, etc. Everyone has a gender identity, including you. For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their own internal sense of gender identity do not match.
Gender Expression / Presentation: The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc. (typically referred to as masculine or feminine). Most transgender people seek to make their gender expression (how they look) match their gender identity (who they are), rather than their birth-assigned sex.
Sex: The assignment and classification of people as male or female based on physical anatomy at birth. The obsolete idea that there are only two possible genders is referred to as binary gender.
Sexual Orientation: A person’s enduring physical, romantic, emotional and/or spiritual attraction to others. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Trans people can be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, queer, etc. just like anyone else. For example, a trans woman who is primarily attracted to other women would probably identify as lesbian.
Trans Concepts 101
Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex/gender they were assigned at birth, and for those whose gender expression differs from what is culturally expected of them. The term transgender is not indicative of sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.
Transsexual: Similar to transgender in that it indicates a conflict between one’s gender identity and sex assigned at birth, but with implications of hormonal/surgical transition from one binary sex to the other. Unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual.
Trans: Prefix or adjective used as a simultaneous abbreviation of either transgender or transsexual, derived from the Greek word meaning “across from” or “on the other side of.” Because it avoids the political connotations of both those terms, many consider trans to be the most inclusive and useful umbrella term.
Trans Woman / Trans Man: Trans woman refers to a woman of transgender experience. She might actively identify herself as trans, or she might just consider being trans part of her medical history. The same concept applies to trans man. Unless you’re involved in a conversation specifically about trans issues, you should just stick with woman or man.
Transition: The complex process of leaving behind one’s coercively assigned birth sex. Transition can include: coming out to one’s family, friends, and/or co-workers; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) some form of surgery. It’s best not to assume that someone will “complete” this process at any particular time.
Transphobia: Fear, discomfort, distrust, or disdain directed towards trans people or trans concepts. This word is used similarly to homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc.
Cis: Prefix or adjective that means not trans, derived from the Latin word meaning “on the same side.” A cisgender person is not transgender, and a cissexual person is not transsexual. In discussions regarding trans issues, you’d differentiate between women who are trans and women who aren’t by saying trans women and cis women, but this term otherwise probably won’t come up. Cis is not a fake word, not a slur, and is not intended to “label” anyone; consider cis and trans neutral descriptors analogous to a pair of Latin-derived prefixes used in discussing sexuality: homo and hetero.
CAFAB and CAMAB: Acronyms meaning “coercively assigned female/male at birth.” No one, whether cis or trans, gets to choose what gender they’re assigned when they’re born, which is what makes it coercive. In the rare cases when it’s necessary to refer to the birth-assigned sex of a trans person, this is the way to do it.
Genderqueer: A general term for non-binary gender identities. Those who identify as genderqueer may identify as neither male nor female, may see themselves as outside of or in between the binary gender boxes, or may simply feel restricted by gender labels. Genderqueer identities do fall under the “trans umbrella.”
Queer: General term for identities, presentations, and sexual orientations that don’t conform to gender norms or expectations. There’s a lot of overlap between queer and trans, but not all queer people are trans, and not all trans people are queer (many trans people do in fact conform to gender norms and expectations). The word queer is still sometimes used as a hateful slur, so although many have reclaimed it from their oppressors, be careful with its use.
Cross-dressing: The act of dressing and presenting as the “opposite” binary gender. One who considers this an integral part of their identity may identify as a cross-dresser. Transvestite is an obsolete term with the same meaning. Drag queens and drag kings are cross-dressing performers who take on stylized, exaggerated gender presentations. Cross-dressing and drag are forms of gender expression and are not necessarily tied to erotic activity, nor are they indicative of one’s sexual orientation. Do NOT use these terms to describe someone who has transitioned or intends to do so in the future.
Terminology to Avoid
Problematic: MtF, FtM, transgenders, a transgender, a transsexual, a trans
Preferred: trans people, transgender people, trans women, trans men, women, men
The acronyms MtF and FtM are still very common, but their use is being phased out because they make it sound like someone is stuck in transition forever and define trans people by their birth assignments. Trans and its variations are adjectives, not nouns. Using them as nouns strips trans people of their identities and objectifies them. You wouldn’t say “Erin is an MtF,” you’d say “Erin is a woman.”
Problematic: sex change, pre-op, post-op, non-op, female-bodied, male-bodied
Preferred: do not reduce trans people to their bodyparts
Bodyparts are not the defining trait of one’s identity. If you do need to talk about surgical options or techniques, be as medical and specific as possible, e.g. “Erin underwent vaginoplasty in July 2009.” Be tactful and aware when asking trans people about their medical history. It’s usually none of your business.
Problematic: tranny, she-male, he-she, it, hermaphrodite, T-girl, boi
Preferred: do not use these at all
These are all derogatory. “Tranny” is a slur that has been used for decades to degrade feminine spectrum trans people; although many trans people have reclaimed it, it is still a hurtful slur to many others. “She-male” and the like are degrading terms commonly used in pornography. Although “T-girl” and “boi” are somewhat common identities, many trans people feel they imply they are not “real” women and men.
Problematic: real, bio, genetic, natural, born
Trans people are not fake, artificial, or unnatural. Their genetics have the same effect on them that cis people’s do, and they’re born to be who they are just as much as cis people are. Cis is also preferable to “non-trans,” which would unfairly create a labeled group and an unlabeled one.