Note: This style guide is regularly updated; the last revision was made May 18, 2021. You can also download this guide as a PDF and show your gratitude by making a donation!
Introduction (Read This First)
A style guide for writing about transgender people is practically an oxymoron. Style guides are designed to create absolutes—bringing rules and order to a meandering and contradictory patchwork quilt of a language. Yet there are no absolutes when it comes to gender. That’s why this is a radical copyeditor’s style guide. Radical copyediting isn’t about absolutes; it’s about context and care.
There are profound reasons for why the language that trans people use to describe ourselves and our communities changes and evolves so quickly. In many cultures, non-trans people have for centuries created the language that describes us, and this language has long labeled us as deviant, criminal, pathological, unwell, and/or unreal.
As trans people have fought for survival, we have also fought for the right to describe ourselves in our own language and to reject language that criminalizes, pathologizes, or invisibilizes us. Just as there is no monolithic trans community, there is also no one “correct” way to speak or write about trans people.
How to use this guide:
- Treat it as general guidance, not concrete rules.
- Focus on how to practice care toward people whose experience of gender is different from yours.
- Consider context. Language choices completely depend on context: medical environments versus online dating, young children versus elders, USA versus Australia, and so on. Recognize, in particular, that the language used within trans cultural contexts can be far more nuanced than the language outsiders use to describe trans people and trans experiences.
How not to use this guide:
- Do not use this guide to harshly police or shame others’ language choices.
- Do not use this guide to tell trans people that they are using incorrect language, regardless of whether you yourself are trans or not. A general best practice should never supersede a trans person’s right to use whatever language feels best to them.
- Do not care more about words than you do about people.
The purpose of this guide is to help all people practice more care toward those on the margins. Trans people must be understood as the authorities on ourselves and the language used to describe us. Not only does this mean that cisgender (non-trans) people need to practice humility and care toward trans people, but it also means that trans people—particularly those with educational, financial, and/or racial privilege—need to practice humility and care toward other trans people—particularly those who are folks of color, low-income, less educated, and/or elders.
If you are trans, I highly recommend inoculating yourself against the temptation to police other trans people’s language by reading “words don’t kill people, people kill words” and the glossary introduction “there is no perfect word,” both by Julia Serano, as well as “I Was Recently Informed I’m Not a Transsexual,” by Riki Wilchins.
Note: Like all style guides, what follows is about language usage, not definitions. For a glossary of transgender-related terminology, check out this one from Julia Serano or the one at the end of the Trans Journalists Association’s style guide.
Also note: This guide was written in a U.S. context (and it cites U.S. data). Although the general guidance in it is broadly applicable, the specifics may differ in other countries.
Transgender Style Guide
Section 1. Correct/current usage of transgender-related language
1.1. Transgender is an adjective.
Use: transgender people; a transgender person; transgender issues
Avoid: transgenders; the transgendered; writing about transgender
1.2. Transgender is not a sexual orientation.
Correct terms in a trans context: gender; gender identity and expression
Incorrect terms in a trans context: sexual identity; sexuality
Avoid: Are you straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (pick one)?
1.3. Transition is the correct word for the social and/or medical process of publicly living into one’s true gender or absence of gender.
Use: Chris transitioned at age 32; the transition process
Avoid: Chris is transgendering; Chris had a sex change; Chris had “the surgery”; Chris became a woman; Chris changed genders
There is no single “correct” or most common path that trans people take to living into their true sense of self. Some desire medical interventions such as hormone replacement therapy and surgery; many do not. Some change their names and/or pronouns and/or appearance; others don’t. Some express themselves in different ways in different contexts depending on a variety of factors including safety, resources, and/or a fluid or changing sense of self. For some, transition is a finite process; for others, it’s a lifelong journey; and for still others, transitioning isn’t something they need at all—so phrases like “fully transition” or “finish transitioning” don’t speak to many people’s experiences. A transition is not required in order for a person to be trans, for a trans woman to be a woman, for a trans man to be a man, or for a non-binary person to be non-binary.
1.4. Transgender does not refer only to binary-identified trans women and men. Many trans people (35%) are non-binary.*
Use: transgender people; people of all genders
Avoid (in reference to all trans people): transgender women and men
In popular culture, transgender is often exclusively used to refer to binary-identified trans women and men (those who were assigned male at birth and identify as female, or vice versa). Yet transgender actually refers to all those whose gender identities or internal sense of self do not align, according to societal expectations, with their birth-assigned sex. This includes non-binary people—those who do not identify (exclusively or at all) as women or men.
Out of respect for the fact that the word transgender is so often used in ways that (incorrectly) do not include non-binary people, many people say trans and non-binary people when referring to all those whose gender identities (or absence thereof) are different than what might be expected based on their birth-assigned sex. But because this phrasing reinforces the idea that trans does not inherently include non-binary people, other options include “trans/non-binary people”; “binary and non-binary trans people”; “trans people, binary and non-binary alike”; “trans women, trans men, and non-binary people”; and “people who are trans and/or non-binary.” See also 1.6 regarding trans as a description, not an identity.
⇒ Does trans have a different meaning from transgender? Yes and no. In formal writing, trans is considered simply an abbreviation of transgender, but in trans contexts, trans has been increasingly taking on a unique meaning for many folks, one that is more inclusive of all whose sense of self differs from their birth-assigned sex. The variants trans* and trans+ have also been used to serve this purpose. Trans* came about in the 1990s and had a huge but brief spurt of popularity in the early 2010s. Trans+ is a recent variant that plays on the trend of adding a plus sign to terms like LGBTQ to denote greater inclusion.
In an international context, according to UK-based oatc: “trans is equally used as an abbreviation of transsexual, transgressive, transexuale, transexuelle, travestie, etc., and to encompass all those, and the thousands of other, equally valid, and often much valued, terms used across the world’s cultures, where transgender can sometimes be a culturally imperialist term.”
1.5. The terms gender nonconforming and non-binary are not synonyms.
Gender nonconforming generally refers to a person whose gender expression (by way of dress, mannerisms, roles, career, and/or lots of other things) does not conform to stereotypical gender expectations for someone of their gender. Examples of gender nonconforming people might include masculine women, feminine men, women pilots, male ballet dancers, and young girls with short hair.
Non-binary refers to a person whose sense of self is not exclusively woman/female or man/male. Some non-binary people identify as both woman and man (e.g., bigender people), some identify as a different gender entirely (e.g., genderqueer people), and some understand themselves as not having any gender at all (e.g., agender people).
Many people are non-binary in terms of identity and also gender nonconforming in terms of expression, but plenty of people are only one or the other. It’s important not to use these terms interchangeably.
⇒ A note on gender variant, gender expansive, gender creative, gender diverse, gender fabulous, etc.: Many terms have sprung up over the years as umbrella terms for trans women, trans men, non-binary folks, and/or gender nonconforming people (or various combinations of these groups). Best practices include avoiding terms that carry a negative connotation (e.g., gender deviant) and avoiding using terms inaccurately (e.g., gender diverse person). No single term works well in all contexts. It’s often best to use more words and be descriptive and clear regarding which populations you’re discussing. See the post “Ask a Radical Copyeditor: What’s the Best Way to Refer to Everyone Who Isn’t Cis?” for more.
1.6. Transgender is a descriptive term, not (usually) a gender and not always an identity.
Use: transgender people; transgender history or identity
Avoid: people who identify as transgender; Are you a man, a woman, or transgender (pick one)?
Transgender means having a gender identity (or absence of identity) that does not align, according to societal expectations, with one’s birth-assigned sex. Cisgender means having a gender identity that does align with one’s birth-assigned sex. Just as cisgender is a descriptive term, not a gender itself, so too is transgender a descriptive term. Some identities include woman, man, genderqueer, Two Spirit, agender, demigirl, demiboy, and bigender, for example. Transgender is not, for the vast majority of people, a gender, and while some people identify as trans, or as trans women or trans men, others do not consider being trans a part of their identity, and identify solely as genderqueer, or women, or men, for example. Some people describe themselves as a “woman of transsexual experience” or a “man with a history of gender transition,” as additional examples. The wonderful term “gender modality,” coined by Florence Ashley Paré, speaks to this nuance.
Section 2. Bias-free and respectful language in reference to transgender people
2.1. Avoid language that reduces people to their birth-assigned sex or their (assumed) biology.
Use: birth-assigned sex; sex assigned at birth; gender associated with one’s sex assigned at birth
Use (with care): assigned female at birth; assigned male at birth; raised as a boy; raised as a girl
Avoid: birth gender; birth sex; natal sex; born a woman; born a man; biologically female; biologically male; genetically female; genetically male; pre-op; post-op
The theory that there are fundamental, biologically based differences between girls/women and boys/men is a feature of many white, Eurocentric cultures. Under this theory (called “gender essentialism”), your gender is determined by your genitals, or your chromosomes, or your hormone levels (there’s no consensus regarding which biological sex characteristic matters most). Because the lived experiences of intersex people, trans women, trans men, and non-binary people disprove this understanding of the world, many people quite literally don’t believe we exist. (See also 2.12.)
This is why it’s vital to use language in ways that don’t play into longstanding voyeuristic curiosity about trans people’s bodies. Many people claim that the biological sex characteristics a person presumably had at birth determine who they “really” are. Just as problematic are those who ascribe to the view that it is only if a person “fully transitions” (that is, pursues every possible medical intervention) that they can be considered a “real” woman or man. Neither is true.
In addition to the words used to discuss people’s birth-assigned sex, it’s just as important to employ care when deciding whether or not to discuss this topic to begin with. Because of cultural norms, many people feel entitled to know someone’s birth-assigned sex or (presumed) anatomy. They are not. Calling attention to someone’s birth-assigned sex often undermines their true self.
2.2. Avoid treating transgender people as though we have “a condition.”
Use: Monique is transgender; being transgender is not a crime
Use: gender dysphoria
Avoid: Monique has transgenderism; transsexualism/transsexuality is a sin
Avoid: gender disordered; gender identity disorder (outdated); gender confused
Throughout history, in order to gain access to medical interventions such as gender-affirming hormones and surgery, many trans people have been forced to prove they have a psychiatric and/or medical condition that requires treatment, which has often meant using the language of the medical field regardless of whether that language feels authentic. For decades, being trans was classified as a disorder by the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association, but in recent years diagnostic guidelines have been revised in a signal that the WHO, the APA, and the science related to mental health now understand that being trans is not, in itself, a disorder.
2.3. Avoid language that puts more value on being or appearing cisgender (not trans), or that carries judgments or biases around how public a person is about being trans.
Use: openly transgender; not openly transgender; perceived as cisgender
Avoid: passes; stealth; you’d never be able to tell
Although some trans people use the terms stealth and passing, it’s not appropriate for cisgender people to use this language unless they are explicitly asked to by a trans person. As Janet Mock has eloquently spoken to, terms like these imply that trans people who are perceived as cisgender are engaging in deception simply by being themselves. See also 2.10.
⇒ A note on out and closeted: Coming out is the process of becoming aware of your true identity and/or sharing that identity with others. A trans man who has transitioned is fully out as a man; whether or not he chooses to share his gender history with others is irrelevant. Being closeted means denying one’s identity to oneself and/or others, but if one’s identity is man and one is living life fully as a man, one is out. When a person shares that they have a history of gender transition, that is a disclosure, not an act of coming out.
2.4. Names, pronouns, and titles
2.4.1. Always use a person’s correct name, pronouns (or lack thereof), and title/honorific (if any). Always.
Use: Avery dyed zir hair; Lynn loves their grandson; Monica is her own best advocate; Marcus drove gher car with care; Xander tied hir shoes; Sam ate lunch at Sam’s apartment
Avoid: Mr., Ms., Mrs., Miss, Mx. (pick one)
The first and foremost way to respect and honor a trans person’s personhood is to respect the language they use to refer to themself. Trans people have been forced to forge new paths in language in order to carve out space for our very existence. Some of us choose new names for ourselves; these aren’t “false,” “nicknames,” “aliases,” or “preferred” names—they are our real names even if we don’t have the resources or ability to make them our legal names.
Also, because there are more than two, three, four, or five genders in the world, there are more than two, three, four, or five pronouns, and all are equally valid—including some people’s choice to be referred to using no pronouns at all. Similarly, titles (such as Ms., Mr., Mx., and Dr.) are meant to be a form of respect—but they only communicate respect if they match how people want to be addressed. Many people prefer no title at all; many others use lesser-known titles such as Ind., Misc., Mre., Pr., Xr., and Zr. (More on Mx. and other titles.)
2.4.2. Using a trans person’s birth name or former pronouns without permission (even when talking about them in the past) is a form of violence.
Use: Bridget knew from the age of 3 that she was a girl.
Avoid: At the age of 3, Bob announced that he was a girl. After transitioning, Bob—now Bridget—threw out her old clothes.
Some trans people do use a different name and/or pronouns to talk about themselves prior to transition, but this is rare. Unless you are told differently by a trans person themself, only use the person’s true/current name and pronouns, even when writing about them in the past.
2.4.3. Pronouns are simply pronouns. They aren’t “preferred” and they aren’t inherently tied to gender identity or biology.
Use: pronouns; personal pronouns; she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/theirs; ze/zir/zirs; Sam/Sam/Sam (and any other pronoun or combination)
Avoid: preferred pronouns; masculine pronouns; feminine pronouns; male pronouns; female pronouns; non-binary pronouns
As J. Mase III once succinctly put it, “my pronouns aren’t preferred; they’re required.” A person’s correct pronouns are not a preference; neither are pronouns inherently masculine, feminine, male, female, or non-binary: for example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers, a female person could use they/them/theirs, and a non-binary person could use he/him/his.
2.4.4. Respect singular they as a personal pronoun and use it appropriately.
Use: Elizabeth loves their cat; they are a big cat lover; they did something nice for themself yesterday
They/them/theirs has shot up in popularity in recent years as a personal pronoun for non-binary people. Despite what your third-grade English teacher might have told you, there is nothing incorrect about using they singularly. In fact, they is taking off in a way that ze or per or co or any of the hundreds of other invented pronouns never did precisely because of its existing “off-label” use as a singular pronoun (see 3.1).
All major U.S. style guides and many dictionaries have now endorsed or mandated this use. Such dictionaries include Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary; the American Dialect Society voted singular they 2015 word of the year; and Merriam-Webster crowned it its top 2019 word of the year. In spring 2017 both AP Style and Chicago Style got on board, and, in the most exciting development yet, APA Style announced in October 2019 that the 7th edition of its manual more than allows singular they—it requires it, in both personal and generic contexts (see 3.1).
When using singular they, verb conjugations follow the same rules as those for singular you: they did, they are, themself / you did, you are, yourself.
Note that although many non-binary people go by they/them/theirs, many others go by different pronouns (see 2.4.1). If a non-binary person goes by ze/zir/zirs, for example, referring to zir using they/them/theirs is still an act of mispronouning. Note also that binary people’s potential discomfort with new word usage must not take priority over the pain non-binary people experience when we are mispronouned and/or misgendered. See Grammarly for more.
2.5. Respect the diversity of language that people use to describe themselves.
It is a human tendency to try to make sense of the world by categorizing things, including people—but gender, in its true diversity, defies categorization. Biology is incredibly varied, and the meaning we draw from it is even more so. As noted in the introduction to this guide, trans people must be understood as the ultimate authorities on ourselves and the language used to describe us, even when doing so goes against things like style guides (this one or any other). When writing or talking about an individual person, this means finding out what language that person uses to describe themself and never assuming what language is correct or best without asking. Something as seemingly small as the difference between trans man and transman can have enormous significance to a person.
2.6. Practice particular sensitivity around culture-specific language related to gender identity and expression.
Gender is culturally constructed, which means that there isn’t a set, finite number of gendered experiences that transcend language; rather, cultural context is everything when it comes to gender. For example, Two Spirit is a beautifully complex term that doesn’t entirely translate outside of North American Indigenous cultures; just as terms like hijra, māhū, fa’afafine, and many others aren’t fully translatable outside their cultural contexts. Similarly, terms like stud and aggressive are terms that are specific to Black culture.
Historical context is also important. For example, it’s undeniable that Joan of Arc did not conform to the gender norms of her day, but describing her as transgender isn’t accurate, because today’s cultural understanding of what transgender means can’t be applied to people from a different era without knowing how they understood themselves in their own context.
2.7. Practice particular sensitivity around bodies and anatomy.
Avoid: female-bodied; male-bodied; biologically female/male; female/male organs
Some trans people refer to themselves as being female-bodied or male-bodied, but this is never appropriate language for cisgender people to use. Trans folks employ all sorts of wonderfully creative language to refer to our body parts, and it is important that others—particularly our loved ones and medical providers—respect and mirror that language.
This isn’t just about respect. For people with gender dysphoria, referring to our anatomy—particularly reproductive anatomy—using language that we don’t associate ourselves with can be deeply triggering and traumatic.
So, when referring to trans people, if you are someone (like a medical provider) who needs to refer to our anatomy, find out what language we use and/or use generic and broad terminology (e.g., genitals, reproductive organs, and chest) instead of gender-loaded words (e.g., vagina, penis, and breasts). See 3.4 for more on sensitivity around anatomy-related language, and if you are a medical provider, check out these ten tips and standards of care from RAD Remedy for more.
2.8. Affirm that trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary.
Use: all women, including trans women; cis and trans men; cisgender people
Use: Maria, a woman from Nogales; non-binary students; agender young adults
Avoid: women and trans women; normal people; real men; biological women; genetic men
Avoid: Nogales resident Maria, who identifies as a woman; students who consider themselves “non-binary”; young adults who choose to identify as agender
A consistent way that trans people’s identities are invalidated is when trans women and men are treated separately, linguistically, than cisgender women and men and when language is used to describe trans people’s genders, names, or pronouns that undermines them or calls them into question. Oliver-Ash Kleine’s article “How Journalists Fail Trans People” powerfully speaks to this.
As an example, a cis woman would never be described with the language “Mary Beth identifies as a woman” (one would just say “Mary Beth is a woman”), so using this language for a trans woman marks her as different and undermines her gender. (A helpful tip from the Trans Journalists Association is: “Avoid the phrase ‘identifies as’ to write about a trans person’s gender when replacing it with ‘is’ doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.”)
Another example of invalidating language treatment is the use of “scare quotes” to set off the words trans folks use to describe ourselves.
2.9. Don’t sensationalize or nonconsensually disclose a trans person’s gender history.
For the majority of modern history, mainstream forces have treated (and written about) trans and gender nonconforming people as freakish, deviant, mentally unwell, and criminal. The media has been the primary source of sensationalizing and nonconsensually disclosed information about us. This context is vitally important.
Many trans people simply want to be able to live their lives as men, women, or non-binary people. If a person’s gender history isn’t relevant, don’t mention it (unless they want you to). And never disclose details related to a trans person’s gender history (such as their birth name or the sex they were assigned at birth) without consent. Doing so is at best gossip and at worse violence, and communicates that the person isn’t really who they are presenting themself as today.
2.10. Never use language that paints trans people as deceptive for living as our authentic selves.
Avoid: her secret was discovered; he disguised himself as a woman; she fooled everyone; no one knew the truth; the lie was exposed
Not only is there a long and storied history of trans people being perceived as deceitful simply for living our lives and being ourselves, but the choice to not disclose details of one’s past or anatomy has been used as justification for brutality toward and murder of trans folks (see: the infamous “trans panic” defense), so it is extra important to avoid any language that gives the impression that a trans person who chooses to keep details of their gender history private is lying, deceptive, or false, as Gwendolyn Ann Smith has powerfully written about.
Instead of secret or truth, try history or past. Instead of closeted or disguised, try private or nondisclosure. See also 2.3. regarding passing and stealth, as well as the note that follows about out and closeted.
2.11. Don’t perpetuate or validate trans-exclusionary hate or prejudice.
This should go without saying, but just in case it’s not clear, there aren’t two balanced sides to the story of whether or not trans people have the right to exist in public, in the words of Laverne Cox. Anyone writing about trans people has a moral obligation to do no harm, and this includes not perpetuating or validating perspectives that are harmful to trans people. For example, in discussing anti-trans legislation, writers often repeat prejudiced language (such as “bathroom bill”) or try to present “both sides” in ways that ultimately lend credence to hate, intolerance, or ignorance. Don’t do this. Trans lives and dignity are not up for debate.
⇒ A note on “TERF”: TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and refers to people (most of whom are older, white, cis women) who believe that trans women are actually men. I personally don’t like referring to such folks as radical feminists because to me the brand of gender essentialism and violence they represent is antithetical to radical feminism, but it is vital to name them as anti-trans or trans-exclusionary. They refer to themselves as “gender critical” feminists, which is a harmful euphemism that should only be used in quotes.
2.12. Avoid conflating trans and intersex populations and invisibilizing intersex people.
Intersex refers to people whose biological sex characteristics (such as reproductive anatomy, hormones, and genes) don’t align with what’s considered typical for females and males, whereas transgender refers to people whose sense of self doesn’t match what was expected of them based on their birth-assigned sex. Intersex and trans people are separate but overlapping populations, since some (but not all) intersex people have a gender identity (or absence of identity) that differs from the gender associated with their birth-assigned sex. Learn more from the intersex advocacy organization InterACT.
Intersex and trans people have some common experiences, such as facing discrimination based on gender identity and expression and barriers in accessing appropriate medical care, but in other ways their needs are very different—for example, legal gender recognition is a central issue to trans people, but not to intersex people. When writing about a topic that relates to trans people, take the time to understand the needs and experiences of intersex people relative to that topic as well. Avoid rendering intersex people invisible or simply tacking on the word “intersex” without any effort.
Section 3. Sensitive and inclusive broader language
3.1. Recognize that there are more than two genders. Use singular they in a generic sense and avoid the language of gender opposites.
Use: Honor each person’s truth about their identity; each student must complete their homework; everyone; people of all/no genders; siblings; kindred
Avoid: Honor each person’s truth about his or her identity; each student must complete his/her/their homework; men and women; the opposite sex; both genders; brothers and sisters; ladies and gentlemen; Are you female or male (pick one)?
Using they/them/theirs to refer to a person whose gender is unknown has a long and fairly consistent history in the English language, and many different people have documented how using they in both singular and plural fashion is grammatically correct, just as you can be used in both singular and plural fashion. Doing so is an essential way to create linguistic space for the existence of non-binary people. (For a fascinating take on the evolution of you and its roots in class hierarchy, check out “How Using ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun Can Change the World” by Davey Shlasko.)
Major dictionaries now explicitly recognize this use, including Merriam-Webster, and the 2020 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association now mandates using they when referring to a generic individual person. APA Style no longer allows the use of constructions such as “he or she” in such instances. Furthermore, the constructions “he/she/they” and “his/her/their” don’t make sense because (a) not all non-binary people use they as a personal pronoun (see 2.4.4) and (b) it’s completely unnecessary—just use “they” or “their” instead.
3.2. Do not use LGBTQ or its many variants (LGBT, LGBTQIA+, etc.) as a synonym for gay.
Use: LGBTQ people versus non-LGBTQ people
Avoid: LGBTQ people versus straight people
If you’re using an acronym that includes trans people, it’s important to actually include trans people in the context of what you are writing about. For example, if you’re only writing about people in same-sex relationships, or if you’re trying to refer to everyone with a marginalized sexuality, don’t use LGBTQ. Some trans people (15%) are straight.* LGBTQ and straight/heterosexual are not, therefore, opposites, and should never be treated as such.
3.3. Recognize queer as a valid sexual orientation.
More trans people identify as queer (21%) than any other sexual orientation.* Although many mainstream style guides and dictionaries have refused to recognize the evolution of this word, writing sensitively about trans people requires honoring the language we use to describe not only our genders but also our sexualities. Queer is a complex word with many different definitions, and in the context of trans communities, it must be recognized as a valid identity term.
3.4. Decouple anatomy from identity.
Contrary to popular belief, anatomy is not inherently female or male. First, intersex people exist; between 1 in 100 and 1 in 50 bodies differ biologically from what is considered standard for females and males. Second, because of the existence of trans people, there are plenty of men who can get pregnant and women who need prostate exams (as just two examples).
What this means is that words like women and men do not speak to universal truths about bodies or experiences. Using women as shorthand for all people who can menstruate or get pregnant, or MSM (“men who have sex with men”) as a population at risk for many sexually transmitted infections, as two examples, is neither accurate nor inclusive of trans people.
When language inextricably links anatomy and identity, it does harm to those whose bodies don’t align with norms and assumptions. In the examples above, promoting prenatal care exclusively to women keeps pregnant men and non-binary people from accessing care, and lumping trans women into the “MSM” category (and keeping trans men out of it) creates a barrier for vital trans-inclusive HIV research, prevention, and services.
Being mindful about not linking identity and anatomy doesn’t mean stripping identity from our language entirely. It just means keeping trans people (binary and non-binary) in mind when considering who you are actually talking about and how to refer to them. Context is everything, and determines whether you should say “trans and cis women,” “women and trans people,” or “pregnant people,” for example (more on this context).
⇒ Sex versus gender? Some folks have advocated for a hard line between the language of biological sex (female, male, intersex) and gender identity (girl, woman, boy, man, agender, genderqueer, etc.), saying that “sex” is hardwired and immutable and “gender” is culturally constructed. Unfortunately this argument leads to the false idea that a trans woman’s sex is “male” and her gender is “woman” (see 2.1), or the myth that only trans people have gender identities and are seeking to do away with protections based on sex. (Nope.)
In fact, sex is culturally constructed (see Riley Dennis’s great video “Male and Female Are Binary, but People Aren’t“), and female and woman are unquestionably widely understood as interchangeable words. In my own work I teach that biology, expression, and identity are three major independent but related components of gender. Sex and gender aren’t separate; rather, biology is one of the aspects that inform our understanding of gender.
So there’s no need to tie yourself in knots in order to avoid using female and male sparingly in phrases that “female students” and “male infants,” when warranted, but it’s a best practice to not use these words as nouns to describe humans. Instead of “females,” say “women,” “girls,” “women and girls,” “young women,” etc.
In legal contexts, it’s important to use as many terms as possible, given the varying interpretations of language that may be used over time; in nondiscrimination legislation, for example, naming sex, sex characteristics, gender, gender identity, and gender expression helps ensure adequate protections, despite the seeming redundancy.
3.5. Embrace the fact that language can evolve quickly.
The language of gender identity and expression is evolving at lightning speed. This can easily feel overwhelming to some people and results in every sort of reaction, from knuckling down and resisting language changes to throwing up one’s hands in despair to becoming judgmental or dismissive of new (or old) words and the people who use them.
There’s another way. Choose to celebrate this rapid evolution of language because of what it means: that people who have been marginalized for centuries are finding ways of reclaiming agency and legitimacy; that those of us who have been written out of existence are finding ways to rewrite reality to make room for our true selves. The purpose of language is to communicate, not to regulate.
A final note
A style guide can never serve as a replacement for being in relationship with the real people you are writing about. If you are writing about trans people—whether you yourself are trans or not—always do so from a place of relationship. Don’t assume; ask. Always bring in additional trans perspectives on what you’ve written—across lines of gender, age, race, class, ability, and sexuality. Never fall for the trap of thinking that a single trans person can represent or speak for the breathtaking diversity of all of those who are encompassed by the word transgender. If you do nothing else, this one thing will always steer you right.
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You can also download this guide as a PDF.
Want more resources? Check out the Trans Journalists Association’s style guide for essential additional considerations for journalists, as well as GLAAD’s transgender media reference guide and “Covering the Transgender Community” by Sara Morrison. Helpful glossaries are included in TJA’s and GLAAD’s guides.
*Note: Data from The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016).
**Last updated May 18, 2021. Grateful thanks to all those who have offered edits to this style guide, including Teo Drake, Cianán Russell, Danni Green, Lex Townsend, Lyndon Cudlitz, oatc, and The Heathen Urge.
98 thoughts on “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People”
thank you for this — so greatly appreciated! xo
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Reblogged this on LivePrayLove and commented:
Brilliant. Thanks Alex Kapitan!
Reblogged this on lilfyrhorse and commented:
Looking forward to a day when this guide is obsolete and redundant.
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One thing I would add is try to avoid the acronyms AFAB and AMAB. I find that once these come up people start using them in the present tense. My birth assignment is not a thing that I am, it is an event that happened. In the past. Please keep it there.
Great point! Thank you for this addition!
Great point. It contains a more general point too – that whilst some have a static identity, or term they feel appropriately acceptable, other vary, evolve, or just move on, for their own reasons, or because their alignment with terminology has changed. A way that was used by/for someone in the past/in the clippings file, may no longer be right.
Some use transgender as a cradle-to-grave term, or coming out-to-grave, whilst others may strongly identify solely with one gender and hate being tied to having been at first wrongly seen as another by that label; “xxxx with a trans medical history” is an example of a narrative that might be used by such people. Obviously using transgender as an over-arching label over all people, including those, would be highly disrespectful.
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Hi, I’m really good to see work toward a comprehensive style guide here, but there’s one thing I’d recommend complicating a bit more in it. You seem to use “trans” and “transgender” fairly freely as synonyms. A lot of people who identify with “trans” consider it an umbrella term, containing but explicitly not identical to the meaning of “transgender,” and would take exception to the characterization of “trans” as a simple abbreviation of “transgender” in your first callout.
Personally I would recommend a style rule of preferring the bare “trans” in all cases when speaking generically, avoiding any expansion except in more specific cases. Either way I would recommend expanding that callout a bit to note the existence of the umbrella term school of thought, and to note that trans* is often considered mildly offensive these days.
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Thanks for sharing, Daniel! I appreciate your input.
You are right that I use “trans” and “transgender” as synonyms in this guide, which was a choice that I gave some serious thought to. As you point out, there is indeed a school of thought that “trans” has a unique (and more inclusive) meaning from “transgender” (which I do give a nod to in that call-out you mention: I don’t just say that “trans” is an abbreviation, I say that it’s used as an abbreviation and/or a way to more explicitly communicate inclusion).
That said, to the best of my knowledge this school of thought is in the minority, and I have to admit that I don’t personally endorse the idea that “trans” is more inclusive than “transgender.” I’m open to persuasion, though! Can you help me understand what the definition of “transgender” is under this school of thought, and how “trans” carries a broader one?
I also think that characterizing “trans*” as “offensive” might be a little extreme. It feels outdated at this point, having had its moment in the sun but ultimately having been shown to not work particularly well to communicate what it was trying to communicate, but that doesn’t make it offensive. Unless there’s something I’m missing, in which case please illuminate me!
For the trans vs transgender bit, I’m afraid can’t articulate it well enough myself to get through the nuances of that school of thought. Sorry.
With respect to trans*, the main thing I mean by it being mildly offensive is precisely that it’s just outdated, but like, in a strong sense. Like a definite article where none is needed, there’s nothing necessarily *intrinsically* wrong with it, but it’s a sign that the speaker hasn’t updated their dictionary in long enough to read to many as odiously “checked-out”.
There’s also the reasons it fell so quickly out of vogue in the first place, though. The first of those is that adding an additional “plus others” mark was seen as backhanded, erasing the pre-existing usage of bare trans as inclusive. The other was that in the internetty parlance it came out of (or collided with?), “trans*” reads “any word starting with trans” and most of the identities it’s meant to embrace actually don’t, so it wasn’t received as a very well thought out term.
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I’m not the original commenter, but I can speak to how “trans*” can be (mildly) offensive! The asterisk in trans* is meant to be a way of signaling the inclusion of non-binary people in the term, but it winds up actually othering us. Particularly when someone differentiates between trans and trans*, it relegates non-binary folks an apparent footnote or symbolic afterthought, rather than allowing us to me just as trans as trans women and men.
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Thank you both! I 100% agree with you about “trans*” — well stated! I think the reason I myself would not characterize the term as “offensive” is largely because most of the people I see continuing to use it are trans folks — some of them older non-binary people. Outdated language can definitely be offensive (see hermaphrodite), but in this case I’d encourage us all to be gentle with people who continue to use “trans*” — after all, it hasn’t been all that long since it fell out of fashion.
I’ll note I use trans* as an umbrella term to include non-binary people and also people who know they aren’t cis but don’t have a name for their gender (for example, I still can’t find a word that “fits” for me, and my ex settled on non-binary but doesn’t feel it’s 100% accurate, either). That would be in the sense of saying, “trans* people.”
Saying “trans” without the asterisk or plus seems to be read as “trans men or women” without including non-binary people. So, the part of the community I’m in actually uses that marker for the reason Kasey mentions — to *explicitly* include non-binary individuals, not as an afterthought.
If there’s an alternate term that’s being used elsewhere, I’d be curious to know. Trying to find something that is explicitly inclusive of both trans and non-binary individuals that’s short has always been a problem.
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You explicitly do say “A note on trans, trans*, and trans+: All three of these terms are used as abbreviations of transgender and/or as ways to more explicitly communicate inclusion of the full breadth of people whose gender identities are something other than was expected of them at birth.”
Incidentally, you omit “gender expression” in that paragraph too; not all trans people identify as a different gender to that imposed as birth. When we fight for rights and protections for trans we don’t exclude them, do we?
If this guide is only what you, personally, endorse, then it should be labelled as personal opinion.
You omit that trans is equally used as an abbreviation of transsexual, transgressive, transexuale, transexuelle, travestie, etc., and to encompass all those, and the thousands of other, equally valid, and often much valued, terms used used across the worlds cultures, where transgender can sometimes be culturally imperialist term.
Transsexualism (not -sexuality), & its linguistic translations, is the globally recognised medical diagnosis for the need for medical services (hormones and/or surgery) to change the body to match gender identity. It is the only standard definition enabling medical research, although obviously there are different directions of transition, and different needs. For some for whom accessing those medical services is paramount, it can provide their preferred label, or adjective, and sometimes identity, perhaps temporally, since, if they are lucky enough to access the medical services they need, & the outcomes are satisfactory, they may no longer be in need of services to further match their identity. It is thus not necessarily a permanent term, although some, abusively, try to use it that way too, implying people can never truly be the gender of their identity. Others, sometimes those not needing the same medical services, see transsexual(ism) as “pathologizing” or other pejorative terms.
We have a problem that imperialist corporations use guides such as this to justify their computer algorithms automatically classifying people, or translating terms, erasing vital identities.
You don’t explicitly state the geographical limits of this guide – although there seems an implicit statement that is restricted to English – but you use statistics that seem US-only, without noting that they may not apply elsewhere.
Another small reason trans* and trans+ aren’t used is that Twitter excludes * & + from hashtags.
For people who have universally suffered others trying to impose identities, or rules upon us, trans people are shamefully prone to attempting to impose identity rules upon each other. It causes huge resentment and division. One might think that it would be immediately obvious that there would be resistance from people who have already resisted or overthrown so much. It is useful to note that there are many, equal, trans diversities, who may have little understanding of each other, having different experiences, histories, needs, narratives.
My apologies if I’m seeming to lecture, but I’ve been learning, and campaigning on this stuff for half a century, and there is a whole lot of background.
Thank you so much for this very helpful feedback, oatc! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
1. You are 100% right that I am not clear that the context in which I wrote the guide is a U.S. context. I need to add that and I will do so right away. I had no idea when I wrote it that this guide would go viral internationally. Thank you. U.S. imperialism is the worst and I don’t want to contribute to it!
2. I’m a little perplexed by the idea that trans / trans* / trans+ relate to gender expression in addition to gender identity, and that not all trans people identify as a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth. As far as I’ve seen, this is not the case — but maybe it’s different in the UK? The only category of trans people I can think of whose genders DO align with their birth-assigned sex are cross-dressers (in general), and it’s long been true (at least in the U.S.) that the inclusion of cross-dressers under the “trans umbrella” is a very tricky and nuanced thing.
3. Thanks for your point about “transsexualism” in (generally non-U.S.) medical contexts. I will say that the medical field has never really been a leader in terms of sensitive and inclusive language — it tends to lag far behind — but it’s certainly true that the language of the medical field has long been wrapped up in people’s ability to access medical services. I may add a note to that section in the style guide around what you pointed out.
4. AMEN to what you said about how prone trans people are to impose identity rules on each other and police each other’s language. It is a tragedy. That’s why I belabored that point so much in the intro to this guide. If there’s more you think I can do to drive that home please let me know.
Thank you again!! Looking forward to your further thoughts, if any. Huge appreciation to you.
Thank you, this is great! Another example is when talking about things that you might assume only “women” or “men” experience. My women’s group was putting together a flier to collect menstrual pads for people experiencing homelessness who need them. We had “women” all over the flier, and someone kindly pointed out that they were for “people who menstruate.” There are trans men who menstruate… and they need these products, too! It felt awkward at first, but once we adjusted our language accordingly it was so much more inclusive and accurate. It has helped me think about language I use in many other contexts. Thanks for the great guide!
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Wonderful addition! Thank you for this!
WMNMiami, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve added a new section to the guide thanks to your helpful comment! See the new section 3.4: Decouple anatomy from identity in your language. Thanks again!
Thank you. This is an essential resource for all editors.
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Excellent resource, thoughtful, inclusive, evolving. Thank you.
On an unrelated topic, what software did you use to generate the markup? Acrobat w. proofreaders’ stamps? It’s clear and elegant, just what I need for electronic editing.
Your question made me laugh — I actually marked up the graphic for this post in Paintbrush (the Mac version of Microsoft Paint). Sorry to disappoint! 🙂
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Hahaha! I’m not as put out as my clients will be when I mark up their PDFs with Paintbrush instead of Acrobat, which isn’t designed for extensive changes. Meanwhile, designers can barely decipher proofreaders’ marks, much less input changes error-free. Too bad. It looks über-professional, like the cleanest handwritten markup ever.
*grinning* — thank you!
Gender non-conforming should not be considered in reference to birth assigned sex but in reference to socially ascribed gender.
When I paint my nails and grow my hair long and wear earrings, I am conforming to the stereotypical expectations of my birth assigned sex. As a trans man, these are gender non-conforming behaviours. I am gender non conforming and trans.
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You are so right, AboutHalfThree! A friend pointed out this error to me last night and I hadn’t yet had a chance to correct it. Thank you for your excellent copyedit!
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Absolutely right. The same, very importantly, applies in some other common mis-uses of “gender” which equally mis-identify, or mis-locate the person’s gender. “Gender non-conforming” children are usually seeking to match (conform to) their gender of identity and the usage implies their gender of identity is not real. Obviously “gender identity disorder” and “gender confused” implied our gender was disordered or confused, and are now beyond the pale. “Gender transition”, “gender reassignment”, “gender development”, “change gender/gender change”, “cross-gender”, “to another gender”, “birth gender” all at least imply our gender is not original, perhaps inborn. It isn’t the experience of everyone that they were being wrongly gendered from the earliest, but it cannot be routinely assumed to not have been without doing massive erasure.
Sometimes writers are simply forgetting to use “gender role”, “assigned gender”, “registered gender”, or “legal gender” and inadvertently imply all are the same.
Well, I thought I had invented the term bigender to describe myself. It’s nice to see it in print.
Such a wonderful guide, I teach multimedia journalism (www.immj-ma.org) and am including a link to your guide in our student resources, as I’m currently building a ‘best practices page’ for reporting diversity. May I have permission to repost the picture along with the link? Thanks again, I’ve been reading up on language and best practices but this guide really added some new insights and It couldn’t be more timely, as I have 2 students working on a documentary about transgender individuals in China. In case you haven’t all seen it – this is another one of the most useful things I read http://niemanreports.org/articles/covering-the-transgender-community/
Thank you! You may absolutely repost the picture along with the link, so long as you include the credit “Copyright (c) 2017 by Alex Kapitan, radicalcopyeditor.com.” And thanks also for sharing that stellar article — wonderful! I think I’ll add a link to it in my “more references” note above. Much appreciated!
Hi, this is fantastic, thank you! A few things I was wondering about:
1. Is it worth having a section on deadnaming and why you shouldn’t do it?
2. Would “trans and/or non-binary” work? As in “disabled and/or neurodivergent”? It’s a similar situation: some but not all disabled people are neurodivergent, some but not all neurodivergent people call themselves disabled.
3. I could swear I saw a typo, an “s” on the end of the word that shouldn’t have been there, but I’m a poor proofreader for disability reasons, and I can’t find it again. I think it was somewhere in the middle and the word ended in -o.
4. Your discussion of the grammatical correctness of singular they, and the links included, is nice but it’s for a completely different usage of singular they. You and they were writing about generic singular they, whereas with non-binary people we are talking about the use of singular they for a named individual. “Everyone clapped their hands” vs. “Alex clapped their hands”. Using they for a named individual is indeed new, but it’s a very slight shift in usage, so slight that many people don’t notice it until you draw their attention to it. We need to be arguing for this new usage, that language shifts all the time and here are some other examples of it shifting, and mentioning that it’s close to historic use of generic singular they as a side issue.
Although that said, I think blasting transphobes with details on the historic use of generic singular they quite often shuts them up with their wails of “but it’s not grammatical!” because they don’t spot the difference either. Still, I think it’s worth doing this right.
(Apologies if I’ve accidentally commented three times. The first two vanished into the ether, then I commented on another post and it put it up together with “Your comment is awaiting moderation”, so I suspect the first two comments here got eaten and am trying again.)
Thank you for your questions! And I’m sorry you had trouble commenting — your first two attempts did not show up on my end. How annoying!
1. Section 2.4.2 addresses deadnaming. Are you recommending something more detailed?
2. Yes, “trans and/or non-binary” is a good option, and whether one uses “trans and non-binary” or “trans and/or non-binary” would depend on context. For example, if you are talking about a hypothetical individual person, saying “a person who is trans and/or non-binary” would be correct. If you are talking about all non-cisgender people, “trans and non-binary people” would be correct. But be sure to keep in mind section 1.4 and the fact that “trans” is not actually exclusive of non-binary people.
3. You are right! There was a typo in section 2.5 when first published. A kind reader emailed me about it this morning and I fixed it.
4. Absolutely. There are two equally important ways to use singular they: as a generic pronoun for a person whose gender is unknown, and as a personal pronoun for a non-binary person who goes by they/them. Section 3.1 addresses “they” as a generic pronoun, and 2.4.1 addresses “they” as a personal pronoun, but only in the example. Your observation makes me think perhaps I should add an additional subsection specifically on they/them as a personal pronoun because of how many cis people struggle with it. Thank you!
Update: Just wanted you to know that thanks to your feedback I did add a new section specifically on “singular they” as a personal pronoun: 2.4.4. Thanks again!
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Alex, a colleague of mine compiled and maintains a Google Doc with links to articles and blog posts about the use of singular “they.”
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THANK YOU!!! I am so bookmarking this, like, yesterday (if I could). I keep running into this with older people, especially, who are often “but but but it’s not how *I* grew up learning English!” It frustrates me to no end. I may well link this to the MIL as she made a comment about not understanding it, and maybe this will help explain it to her. I can hope; she honestly seemed confused and embarrassed about not knowing how to use the language, so maybe…? *crossing fingers*
I feel this is going to be a much-used reference in the future. Again, thank you for sharing (and please feel free to pass on to your colleague for compiling it!).
Your discussion of the grammatical correctness of singular they, and the links included, is nice but it’s for a completely different usage of singular they.
Your point is well-taken, but for those of us brought up as grammar purists and trained in AP style, the singular “they” has always grated like sand between the teeth.
It is good to know it is appropriate in both situations, and I think that will make it easier for some folks to use properly.
I’ve run into problems in the past when I describe myself as an agender woman. Some people, including some trans folks, see it as contradictory. I prefer to use the term ‘agender woman’ over ‘agender, assigned female at birth’ because I conform to female gender stereotypes, except for my gender-neutral clothing choices. I don’t have the time or the medical freedom not to conform.
Many people assume that because I conform to female gender stereotypes, I should be addressed with she/her pronouns. I prefer them/they. I gave up on correcting people a couple of years ago. Hopefully, it won’t be long before my pronouns are not considered a nuisance.
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I’m so sorry that you’ve had trouble having your self-identity language and your pronouns respected, Emma. I know you know this already, but you are 100% justified in claiming whatever language feels best to describe your gender. The fact that you are an agender woman makes tons of sense to me! And I wish we could all mount a collective campaign to get folks to understand that pronouns do not have to be tied to gender expression. Stay strong and true!
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Thank you so much for this. As always, you are expert at providing thoughtful, compassionate guidance.
I particularly appreciate your suggestion to ask, rather than assuming, what language individuals prefer be used in speaking and writing about them—but the introvert in me is also aware of how tokenizing and “on-the-spot-putting” that question can feel to the recipient. Other than the obvious “communication is hard,” do you have any wisdom regarding how cis folks can most gently “ask, not assume,” particularly when dealing with new acquaintances?
Thanks, and blessings,
Thank you, David! Both for your kind words and for your excellent question.
How one asks a person what language they prefer, and what types of language one asks about, obviously depends completely on context. The first questions to ask yourself in such a situation are, “What do I need to know in order to best respect this person?” and “What do I NOT need to know to best respect this person?”
If you are a journalist writing about a trans person, you have a responsibility to ask the person directly what language they prefer, in terms of identity, gender experience, and pronouns, and ideally you’ll actually pass your piece by the subject before it’s published so they can correct anything that doesn’t feel right.
If you are simply meeting a person for the first time, perhaps at the gym or at church or at a social gathering, you probably don’t need to know a whole lot about that person in order to be respectful of them. For example, if you never anticipate having to refer to the person in the third person, you probably don’t need to know their pronouns. However, if you play for a multi-gender sports team and a new person joins, you will definitely need to know their pronouns — but you probably don’t need to know what self-identity terms they use, unless you are in a position to advocate for them with your other teammates who may or may not be respecting their gender.
In such a situation, you could say something like, “Hey, my name is David and my pronouns are he and him,” which opens up space for them to share their pronouns too, if they want to. Or you could say, “Hey, I’m trying this new thing of asking people I meet what their pronouns are, so that I don’t make assumptions. Do you mind me asking what pronouns you use?”
The best thing you can do is to listen carefully to how a person refers to themself, mirror that language, and actively keep yourself from filling in language of your own based on assumptions. The key is to focus on respecting the person in question, rather than giving in to your own curiosity or discomfort with unknowing. I hope this advice helps! Let me know if it brings up more questions.
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Brilliant. Thanks so much, Alex. You’re a wise and generous resource. 🙂
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Oh, this is brilliant, thank you. One question, the details of which may I think get slowly hammered out in public as more ‘big names’ publicly transition: how do you deal sensitively with the issue of dead names if someone has an existing career under their wrong-gender name? eg in your copy above: let’s say Sue McTrans also happens to have had a busy writing career under the name Bill McTrans, and let’s also say for the sake of argument that she’s not famous enough that her publishers aren’t going to pulp and reprint all her books. If I’m writing about her with the purpose of alerting readers to her excellent back catalogue, what’s the least-worst way to handle that? (I have generally gone with variants on ‘Sue McTrans, then published under the name Bill McTrans, wrote her first book in 1967’ etc)
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Great question, Jay! Thanks for asking. This is definitely a sticky issue and unfortunately there is no one correct way to handle it, because it’s something that varies based on personal preference.
If the author in question is living, the best thing you can do is dig around to find out if they personally have addressed this question, perhaps on their website, for example, and if you can’t figure it out definitively, write to them and ask them what they prefer.
If the author is deceased and finding out their preference isn’t an option, the least-worst way to handle it is probably what you offered as an example, treating the former name much in the way one would treat a pseudonym. However, if their past publications are easily findable under their current name, it would be best to avoid their previous name. For example, Jack Halberstam’s first book, Skin Shows, was published under Jack’s former name and available books still carry that name, but Jack’s publisher, Duke University Press, has updated the book’s page on their website so that the author is named as Jack Halberstam, and has also gotten online retailers to do the same. So there’s no need to provide any name other than Jack Halberstam when referring to that book. (Note: Jack is thankfully not deceased, this was just a good illustration of what I’m talking about.)
Hope this helps!
If I may point out as an example, although this is coming in late, Billy Martin, fka Poppy Z. Brite, continues to sell books and publish under that name despite having transitioned several years ago simply because of the name recognition. He has a lot of other stuff going on in his RL as well (that he talks about openly), and hasn’t actively written for several years due to health issues (again, public info). So, because he’s still got those books in print, wants to make money on them, and doesn’t have the spoons to completely re-brand himself, he’s considering it a pen name.
Not everyone is going to handle it that way, but it is one example of how a relatively well-known author (at least in horror and sf field) has chosen to handle the issue. 🙂
(These are not common occurrences that I have seen, so since I have a data point, I am providing it, esp as it is public info found if googled.)
Thanks for this additional example, Elial! A fantastic illustration (when taken along with the one I provided) for why there can be no one rule that works in these situations. It completely depends on the author.
Hello. Thank you for this fantastic article. I was wondering if you have recommendations for academic writing ? for example a white middle class lecturer “correcting” the singular use of they. you mention that language evolves very uickly in this group, so how can we incorporate it into academia to prove that it’s legitimate? If there are no sources, the supervisors/lecturers etc don’t believe you!
I am not an academic but there is a metric ton of writing of all kinds on singular they and plenty of other things that show up in this style guide. If you do some thorough research I would be surprised if you don’t uncover a good number of sources.
(Apologies if this is wonky, too much, unclear. My brain is still recovering from a sensory overload issue and too much in-person human contact, so I know I’m not in prime writing space.)
Been working on some writing about cancer that sent me in search of how to talk about reproductive organs in a way that’s inclusive to people who are transgender or non-binary (other than myself, because I only know how I think of myself, and that’s a bit too limited a sample…and because I know that, in spite of not identifying as a cisgender person, I’m still learning to use language in a respectful and correct way).
On the one hand….
1. It seems that it would pass the “would people understand what I mean” test that I often employ as a writer/editor in sticky situations not covered by a style guide if I were to talk about “female reproductive organs” or “male reproductive organs.”
2. I also try (because one of the kinds of writing I do is tech writing) to keep things from being unnecessarily wordy (not that you can tell from much of my non-tech writing), so I like the shortness of a phrase with just three words in a sentence like “If you’re a person with female reproductive organs, pap smears and pelvic exams are important preventative measures.”
On the other hand…
1. I’m aware that the topic of biological sex isn’t as binary or straight-forward as many still believe. Therefore, it seems like the same might be true of continuing to designate particular reproductive organs (or even secondary sex characteristics) as male or female.
2. I’m thinking of the Eddie Izzard bit where he contends that he’s not wearing “women’s dresses.” They are his dresses; he bought them. Dresses have no gender or biological sex themselves, and the modifier we apply (if for some reason we apply one at all) should indicate who owns them. Even for people who cling to biological sex, since an intersex person can have, for instance, testicles and/or a vagina, can we really call either of those female or male reproductive organs? If a transgender male has a cervix, and that is his cervix, do we still rightly call it a female reproductive organ? (Am I over-thinking this?)
I’m autistic and often find myself writing about or talking about the differences in the way autism presents depending on whether one is a girl/woman or a boy/man. This is a really important topic (and personally relevant to my journey to realise I’m autistic), because girls/women can present very differently (and there’s starting to be more writing and research on the topic). You can imagine this can be a bit of a sticky topic to talk about respectfully/correctly/in a way that makes sure the people to whom it would be relevant understand it’s information for them. And it’s even more important to hash out given that, per some studies I’ve read, autistic people are more likely, in terms of percentages, to identify as somehow genderqueer/transgender/non-binary. (I’m not, unfortunately, aware of studies that look into whether the differences of autistic presentation are just applicable to “people who appear to be biologically female at birth”)
So, it’s necessary to note that presentation varies based on apparent biological sex, as that seems to be a reality and one that impacts the lives of people who are girls/women.
I’ve done some googling and thinking and etc. And I’m sure preferences for how to reply to both these situations vary (and that I’m asking about topics that are relevant beyond transgender people, so perhaps this is too broad a question for this style guide). But I like to know good rules for writing and for being polite (like I said, I’m a tech writer and autistic, so rules are my friends!), and hoped I might get some good thoughts aside from my own on this 🙂
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Wonderful thoughts and questions, Amber! And extra points for citing Eddie Izzard! I can’t believe I forgot to include a section in Section 3 of the guide about anatomy and bodies and such along the lines of your inquiry. I will rectify this asap. I will also respond in greater detail to your excellent thoughts and questions soon (which is not to discourage others from adding their thoughts as well). Thanks very much!
Hi Amber, I was interested to read your comments about the differences in the presentation of ASD in different genders. My son, who was assigned female at birth, was diagnosed with high functioning aspergers about a year ago, at the age of fifteen. His clinical psychologist told me that diagnosing individuals who are assigned female at birth often happens later, and is more difficult, as they are far better at hiding the more obvious traits. (She used a particular phrase to describe it, which has completely escaped me just now….so frustrating!)
I wasn’t diagnosed until…3 years ago now. I made it into adulthood without anyone realising I was more than just quirky or weird. There’s loads of great info out there on the differences, which might also be useful in understanding things that (if you’re thinking of what you know about autistic boys/men…and here, you see, is why I’m thinking about how best to talk about gender in this context!) you wouldn’t expect might be part of your son’s autistic experience. If you want a steady stream, the Autism Women’s Network (which has a website and a Facebook page) is one I love. But my experience and my traits are just different enough compared to my autistic friends who were assigned male at birth that I was surprised at things that were explained. I hope, like me, your son is finding the diagnoses useful for self-knowledge, self-compassion, and maybe even a little less crap from other people.
The phrase she used might have been “mirroring,” by the way. At least according to things I’ve read, girls develop verbal and other communication skills before they’re even a year old (earlier than boys). Especially if there’s a higher IQ, autistic girls, therefore, quickly realise they’re different and that different isn’t desirable (ugh!). So, like all babies and humans, we mirror others. But we turn that mirroring up to 11, if you will. Even now, even though I love myself and am not shy about my autism and don’t try to appear normal at all, I still have one station in my head (cos it’s like a lot of noisy TV and radios in there most the time) that monitors how normal I’m pretending to be (to a ridiculously granular level) any time there’s even the possibility another person might see me. But if you remember the term and it wasn’t “mirroring,” I’d love to know. Collecting knowledge about things I am is one of my hobbies. Haha!
WordPress doesn’t allow a reply to your comment further down in this thread, so excuse this being out of sequence, please…
“At least according to things I’ve read, girls develop verbal and other communication skills before they’re even a year old (earlier than boys). Especially if there’s a higher IQ, autistic girls, therefore, quickly realise they’re different and that different isn’t desirable (ugh!). So, like all babies and humans, we mirror others. But we turn that mirroring up to 11, if you will.”
It might be that some trans girls are just as other autistic girls, in that respect.
The hypothesis emanating from Cambridge that autism is “an extreme male brain”, leads to much misunderstanding, aside from being incredibly disrespectful to girls on the autism spectrum. Papers with authors linked to that seem associated with raised number of referrals to paediatric gender identity clinics.
A couple of general notes on your reply. I don’t know your context, so I’ll keep it short and simple:
There are a good many of us on the spectrum, especially those of us involved in autism advocacy, who would caution you against talking about someone being more or less autistic. I don’t have time to play educator, so I’ll leave it to you to google why that’s offensive and incorrect.
To answer your implied statement, as autism is a spectrum with much variation (and I have a link handy for this, so can tell you to look at http://theoraah.tumblr.com/post/142300214156/understanding-the-spectrum to understand how the word “spectrum” applies to autism), it is absolutely possible for a trans girl to have similar spectrum position as a girl who isn’t trans. Nobody has said otherwise. There’s a lack of study. I’m asking about words to use to honour the reality we *do* know. (In fact, one might find that a particular autistic girl might be just like a particular autistic boy. So I’d assert that your “it might be” isn’t really a relevant point here.)
Also, a great many of us who are women/girls of some sort on the spectrum side with the many who criticise the extreme male brain hypothesis. It’s not “from Cambridge;” it’s the theory of a man called Baron-Cohen. I definitely didn’t mention it in my question because I definitely think it’s irresponsible rubbish. But, again, I don’t see how it adds clarity to my question about using proper gender in the context of talking about autism diagnosis differences and being respectful of non-cis gender people.
The note in my original post that there do seem to be more of us on the spectrum who identify as trans or non-binary isn’t rooted in that broken hypothesis. The sites I’ve read about that on have tended to explicitly note in once location or another that the hypothesis isn’t good.
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Hi again, Amber: I’m loving the conversation on this thread, and I just wanted to let you know that I’ve added two new sections to the guide thanks to your helpful comment! See the new 2.7: Practice particular sensitivity around bodies and anatomy, and 3.4: Decouple anatomy from identity in your language. Let me know what you think, and thank you!
Thanks, Alex! Those definitely help in at least confirming that I’m not over-thinking in my concern.
It sounds like, for my first concern, the answer is to go ahead and use a longer phrase (e.g. “If you have a uterus, a pap smear and cervical exam…”).
And it sounds like, until more research is done around autism and how things might vary for trans/non-binary people, I just have to note there’s a gap and do my best to acknowledge it whilst otherwise using the sort of respectful language you’ve outlined.
Does that sound about right?
(Sorry. Habit from the day job to say things back at a SME if the answer as it applies to me/my situation might not be explicitly stated.)
You’re definitely not over-thinking it, Amber! Really important stuff here. And yep, your take on those two things is spot-on. You might also be interested in a related comment thread that started over at my blog post about this update: https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2017/09/12/update-to-transgender-style-guide-bodies-and-anatomy/#comments
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Thank you so much for this! I’m already thinking about the people I want to send it to. I’m curious about your views on the best way to talk about genitalia? I mostly think just using anatomically correct language (penis, vagina, etc.) is best, but there are some circumstances where that doesn’t seem so perfect (maybe this is my issue but it can feel impolite or unprofessional). I certainly don’t want to say something like “a female bodied person”. What words or phrases do you think are the best?
Thanks for pointing out this glaring omission from this style guide, Larkin! What an oversight! I will add a section along the lines of your inquiry asap. Stay tuned!
Hi again, Larkin: I’ve added two new sections to the guide thanks to your helpful comment! See the new 2.7: Practice particular sensitivity around bodies and anatomy, and 3.4: Decouple anatomy from identity in your language.
I’ll add that “anatomically correct” language is all well and good until and unless that language is gender-loaded. So, for example, “cervix” and “prostate” are generally okay, but “penis” and “vagina” are really not (in reference to trans people’s anatomy). Those words are so loaded that they can cause trans people to disassociate. The words that are best really depend on the context: whether you are talking about all people in general, trans people in particular, or a specific trans person. Let me know if this brings up more questions!
Would you have any advice for those of us who work on materials for the general public — but who want to do what we can to include everyone as much as possible? Almost all of my work in healthcare editing is for a general audience, and my organization has been committed to plain language for many years. Sometimes editing something to be not so overtly biased is easy — by removing a reference to a woman’s sexuality, for example, and just talking about sexuality or a person’s sexuality. But terms like penis and vagina can get pretty hard to avoid if you need to explain how a treatment may affect anatomy. And for the moment at least, talking about people who menstruate or pregnant people (to pull from other examples) is confusing for many. Five years from now it may not be, but what about in the “now”? Is it impossible in 2017 to create an inclusive public health resource for a general audience?
Alex, you may be interested to learn that the World Association of Medical Editors (aka WAME), an association of editors of peer-reviewed medical journals around the world, included a link to your style guide in its most recent internal newsletter.
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Holy moly that’s so cool! Thanks for sharing!
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You say transgender is an adjective and contrast is with transgendered, as if transgendered were not also an adjective. It is an adjective. The -ed means it’s a past participle kind of adjective. I am prepared for school. I am gendered. I am transgendered.
I’m a transgendered person. I am. I’m not making that up to make a point. I’m transgendered and that’s the term I use. Transgender as an adjective looks like it’s missing its ending.
You are totally right, Rilian: “transgendered” is indeed an adjective! Good eye. And you absolutely get to refer to yourself as a transgendered person — that is your right! Most trans folks find “transgendered” to be awkward in much the same way that you find “transgender” to be awkward, and many have pointed out that one isn’t “gayed” or “lesbianed” so one shouldn’t be “transgendered” either. Therefore, the general best guidance, especially for cisgender people, is to use “transgender,” not “transgendered,” unless someone like you requests something different.
I’m a copyeditor, not a linguist, but I also believe that “gendered” means to ascribe gender-based meaning to something, whereas “transgender” linguistically means “to cross gender” (“trans” is a Latin prefix meaning “to cross”), so “transgendered” would probably mean something along the lines of “ascribing cross gender to something or someone,” which I don’t think really communicates what you’re going for. But that shouldn’t keep you from using whatever language feels most right to you. There are many, many trans and non-binary people in the world, so consensus on language is simply not possible.
Trans, from latin, is a preposition, not a verb. It means across or beyond. Therefore I consider “transgendered” to mean “being gendered across from or beyond that which you were assigned at birth”.
However, knowing that most people prefer transgender, I use that or the abbreviation trans when talking about random other people.
Not all adjectives end in -ed, that is true; and gay and lesbian are like that. But the adjective form of “gender” is “gendered” and things like that generally carry over when a prefix is added. That’s why I use transgendered.
Your logic makes a lot of sense to me, Rilian! Thank you for sharing it. And thanks for setting me right regarding the linguistics of “trans” (I find linguistics fascinating but it’s not my area of expertise). Much appreciated!
From the perspective of a cis grammar geek, I’ve always seen the resistance to “transgenderED” as a statement against the idea that one “changes gender” over the course of one’s life—along the lines of “became a woman,” “had a sex change,” etc.
“Transgender” is (the theory goes) something one is, not something that happen(ED) to someone.
FWIW. Thanks so much for getting this conversation started, Alex!
Reblogged this on Pouring Into Myself and commented:
Very useful information…
Very thoughtful guide. One question: I refer to myself as queer, but do so with an awareness that, in particular, many older gay men still find the term extremely offensive. I have a dear friend (cis gay male) who finds it much more triggering than the f-word, which doesn’t bother him at all. What are your feelings on being sensitive to the older generation’s feelings on words like queer? I ask not because I have an answer, but rather because I very much don’t.
Thank you for asking this thoughtful question, Dan. Super important. “Queer” is obviously a very tricky word because of the fact that many people (most but not all of whom are older) find it painful thanks to its longtime use as a slur. I have a couple of thoughts on it (okay, a lot of thoughts, but I’ll try to concisely share the top ones).
1. “Queer” has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people. Queer can be a slur, a personal identity term related to sexuality and/or gender, an umbrella word for non-heterosexual people, a radical/transgressive political identity, or, often, a nuanced combination of several of these things. Wowza! As a person of faith, I often compare “queer” to the word “God.” My understanding of queer, or god, does not have to be the same as your understanding of queer, or god. I actually think it’s an incredibly beautiful and powerful thing that we have such different understandings based on our different experiences of the world. So the first thing that’s true is (a) it should never be a goal to agree on a single, universal definition of “queer” (not possible and not helpful), and (b) we should all strive to affirm and honor the many different definitions that exist.
2. I firmly believe that one person’s pain never has a right to supersede another person’s needs or cause new harm. One of my spiritual mentors, Teo Drake, says: “Unhealed historical trauma must not be used to inflict trauma on upcoming generations. For those of us from generations that have lived with harm around the word ‘queer,’ it’s our moral responsibility to work on that harm and our healing in ways that do not create barriers for younger folks to find their own way.” He also points out that that eventually there will come a day for all of us when a younger person or generation uses a word that we loathe (for him, it’s the word “homo” as a positive word claimed by young gay men). So we all have to do work to make sure that our trauma doesn’t some day get in the way of another person’s liberation.
3. Finally, honoring different definitions of “queer” means being mindful about how we use the word, and not using it in a universal or generalized way to refer to people who would not want it applied to them. This means that “queer” can never be a synonym or a stand-in for “LGBTQ+.” Queer means something different and unique. You’ll notice that section 3.3 of the guide does not say “Use ‘queer’! Love it! Use it for everyone!”, it says: “Recognize ‘queer’ as a valid sexual orientation.” Respecting different definitions of “queer” has two equal elements: DON’T use that word for people who don’t use it, and DO use that word for people who do use it. Both practices are equally important.
I hope these thoughts are helpful! I’d love to hear what you think.
Queer is a tricky one! I’m someone who loves the word, who grew up hearing “we’re here; we’re queer; get used to it” as an empowering slogan, who saw queer studies departments lead by people who weren’t straight and/or cis in charge of them. I’ve also seen (and this is just my personal experience) most attacks against the word come from TERFs.
I see lots of argument and discussion on tumblr, where some very smart and well-spoken people pull up the history of the term and, at least to my satisfaction, show that it’s not the horrific thing many of the younger people on the threads think. And where I see people viciously shaming those of us who think it’s a great, flexible term that more readily covers our diverse experiences and facets.
I’m also a big fan of reclaiming words used to shame. A lot of labels I happily apply to myself are ones people have thought were shameful.
That said…if a person isn’t comfortable being called a thing (whether that thing is queer, boyfriend/girlfriend, sweetie, or whatever…with only a few exceptions, but I won’t bring politics in here), don’t call them that. And, if you forget and use the word for them, apologise sincerely when they remind you. Or, like me and swearing, you just don’t do it in front of that person.
But loads of people, now and in decades past, have felt okay with queer, so I wouldn’t feel bad about using it in general.
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We discussed the usage of queer in our L/G newsroom in the 70s, and decided it was a term of high political significance, not to applied generally, or diluted. It later became focused very much the identity that opposed “assimilation”, such as fighting for adoption, civil partnerships, marriage. Those who identified as queer were “traitors” if they talked of such human rights.
I’ve been in huge meetings recently where someone has asserted “as queer people we…” and sparked vast dissent. Its not dissimilar to when people assert “as socialists…”, or “as communists…”. It has meanings some try to hide until it suits them. Others just don’t notice them. Which isn’t to say those meanings are not to be respected, as you say.
Straight trans people, and pre-pubertal children should not be labelled in a way that might be taken as implying same-gender attraction.
I would disagree that is anyone’s duty to “work through” language-linked trauma – something which may only be theoretically possible, and attempting it can be painful, and expensive – in order to enable others to be care-free with language. One might as well suggest this entire guide is redundant and trans people should work through our sensitivities or differences.
This is really great. As a sexual rights activist with a child who is non-binary I’ve been learning a lot. Here’s a question that no one has been able to answer. I wanted to post a picture of them, and say, “This is my……………………..” Before they declared their non-binary identification, the word I would have put there would have been “daughter”. Now, that makes no sense. And we are both opposed to using “kid/child” (infantilizing…they’re an adult), or something scientific sounding like “offspring”. People suggested a lot of “cutesy” terms that turn us both off. A few people suggested “spawn”, but our relationship doesn’t support that kind of off-handed humor. I would love to know of other terms that anyone has to suggest.
Great question! And thanks for being an awesome parent! The best option I’ve found other than “child” is to simply say “eldest” or “youngest” if one of those works — sure, it’s generally an adjective, not a noun, but to most people it translates and makes sense without sounding too awkward.
Can you help me understand the part about not referring to someone having a biological sex? Is it because it’s rude, or do you also think the language is inaccurate?
Or would you say it’s ‘accurate’ based on the way people use language now but it’s an attempt to get people to stop using the words male/female with respect to biological configuration so future use of language will eliminate confusion between biological sex and gender?
Not trying to challenge what you’re saying or be a smartass, I honestly want to understand what the thinking/feeling is behind that one.
Thanks for asking, MeMcgee. First, note that the guide doesn’t say not to refer to someone as having a biological sex. Section 2.1 says “avoid language that reduces people to their birth-assigned sex or their (assumed) biology.” It may seem like a small distinction but it’s an important difference.
Second, yes, it is inaccurate to talk about biological sex as though it is some static, universally true facet of a person. There are so many biological components that are ascribed to sex/gender: hormone levels, gonads, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, genitalia… and contrary to public belief the composite picture these elements paint isn’t some universal Model A or Model B design. Sex is not divided neatly into two options; neither is it static or immutable. Biology is incredibly variable and everyone’s biology — including sex characteristics — changes over the course of their lifetime.
Large numbers of trans people actively change their sex-related biology. A person who undergoes hormone replacement therapy alters multiple components of their biological sex. A person who pursues surgery likewise changes one or more components of their sex. So you simply can’t point to a trans woman and say that she’s male — it’s simply not (necessarily) true. Furthermore, the vast majority of people don’t actually know much about their sex-related biology beyond their genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. I’ve never seen my chromosomes — have you?
Third, yes, it is also rude to emphasize a trans person’s (assumed) biological sex. This is because of the inaccuracy of doing so but also because of the intentional conflation of sex and gender in the wider world. Most cis people, when asked, will say they identify as “female” or “male” (not as “woman” or “man”). A significant number of cis people will also say that your anatomy defines you, not your self-identity. So calling a trans man “female” undermines his identity. Which is not only rude, it’s harmful. Trans folks are constantly faced with the accusation “but what are you REALLY” and there’s no way to talk about biological sex without feeding directly into that harmful essentialist argument.
Biological sex is way more complex and nuanced than we’ve been led to believe. At the end of the day, the biological characteristics associated with sex are just one of the many things that make us who we are and that inform our understandings of ourselves with respect to gender. Attempting to draw a hard line between “sex” (as scientific and hardwired) and “gender” (as cultural and constructed) doesn’t feel particularly useful to me. And it’s definitely not useful or helpful to make assumptions about trans people’s current anatomy/biology based on what a doctor or midwife proclaimed when they were born.
Hope this helps!
Hi! I noticed that you mention that the difference between “trans man” and “transman” can be very meaningful to someone, but you never explicitly addressed the concept. I’ve learned that “trans [man/woman]” is better usage than “trans[man/woman]” and that the latter can be considered offensive, but I’ve also seen trans people use the latter when referencing themselves. I’m guessing it’s an in-group term, but it’s inappropriate for cis people to use. (I’m also using “man/woman” here not to denote a binary but because I’ve never seen the compound of other identities, like transnon-binary or transagender.)
Grammatically, it makes sense to have a space because “trans” is an adjective, but sometimes, it seems like people use “transman” (for example) as a way to “other” trans men from their manhood. Was this topic not included for a reason?
Thanks for the question. My mention of the fact that there is a difference between “trans man” and “transman” was simply meant as an illustration of how important it is to respect the diversity of the language that people use to describe themselves, and to never assume what language is correct or best without asking. (I once found myself in a community needs assessment group for FTMs because multiple people assumed that was how I identified and never clarified beforehand! … I’m not an FTM.)
In general, you are correct that the terms “trans men” and “trans women” are generally considered appropriate and neutral descriptors (in addition to being self-identity terms), and “transman” and “transwoman” are not — these latter words are self-identity terms only, not general descriptors. But the principle still applies that when referring to an individual person one should always ask what language that person uses, rather than calling them a trans man or a trans woman without asking.
I have been thinking about adding an update to this style guide about how trans women are women and trans men are men, and how important it is to not use language in ways that undermine this fact. I’ll let you know if/when I do!
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LOVE this — thank you!!! This kind of resource is much needed.
Brilliant! Thanks for teaching us all to be more respectful. I find it humbling to realize the degree of care and attention to context that you encourage. You have greatly helped me finish my memoir in which I so wanted to be respectful of a previous partner who transitioned after we changed the nature of our relationship and decided to become family instead of partners. Am still getting used to some of the terms. I personally have identified as two spirited, or gender complex but after reading this wonderful offering am considering Gender Creative. Thanks again!
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This type of guideline would also be useful in the legal profession for lawyers and legal professionals writing about child support because those in the legal field assume that custodial parents are always mothers, and that noncustodial parents are always fathers.
The use of gender stereotyped labels by lawyers and legal professionals helps reinforce this type of gender discrimination.
I have a question about the term “women-identified individuals”, which I see very frequently in queer descriptions of events (as in, all women-identified individuals are welcome), but always strikes me as a little bit offensive because, doesn’t “women” already include trans women? Maybe it’s just necessary to specify because trans women often aren’t welcome, but (as a cis person myself) the redundancy of the language always strikes me as a little invalidating. I’m wondering if you can clarify about use of that term?
That’s a fantastic question, Nora. You’re absolutely right on all counts. In an ideal world, we would be able to just say “women” and everyone would know that we are talking about all women, including trans women. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and a huge percentage of the time “women-only space” is not only not inclusive of trans women but is actively exclusive of trans women. So in cases of women-only events that are explicitly inclusive of trans women, the priority has to be to communicate that clearly. “Women-identified individuals” is not the best phrase, but it does clearly communicate the intent. If there is another way to communicate that intent without saying “women-identified individuals,” that would be great. For example, somewhere in the event description it could say, “this event is for women (both cis and trans)” or “all women are encouraged to attend, including trans women.” It depends on the context and what’s true, possible, and clear in that context.
A library client of mine recently asked me to edit a description of a special collection in their archive that’s all about women, because they wanted to make sure it was written in a trans-sensitive way. They were using the term “women-identified individuals.” I changed it to “women” and then later in the description added a new sentence about how the archive is specifically seeking to illuminate the history of marginalized women, including trans women; lesbian, bisexual, and queer women; women of color; and women with disabilities. I could only make this edit because it was true—but given that it was true, it was so much better and clearer to be explicit about it in this way.
I hope this helps! Thanks again for your great question.
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Hopefully this hasn’t been covered already, but I’m still struggling with issues of anatomy being coupled with gender. I do a lot of writing for sexual health clients. In the past, I’ve tried to update the language from referring to symptoms, statistics, etc. as being male or female and instead have relied on focusing on anatomy (“female symptoms” > “vaginal symptoms”) but this style guide suggests I should avoid explicit genital mentions. How can I improve this while still discussing issues as they relate to the vagina, penis, etc?
“MSM” (“men who have sex with men”) was developed by HIV educators, etc, as an alternative to “gay men” since there were many cis men who were having sex with cis and/or non-binary men but did not consider themselves gay or even bi. Any suggestions on how to succinctly communicate this while still being respectful/inclusive of trans+ people?
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Great question, Nina.
First, as you spoke to, the term MSM was created in the HIV field as a way to address the sexual behavior of cis men without regard to their stated sexual orientation. It’s not an alternative to “gay men” so much as a way of talking about behavior rather than identity. “Gay men” groups people based on identity; “men who have sex with men” groups people based on behavior. Obviously men who have sex with men can have any number of different identities, including gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual, same-gender-loving, or even straight. Second, MSM has nothing to do with non-binary people; it was created to speak about cis men who have sex with cis men (not cis men who have sex with cis and/or non-binary men).
It’s important to note that, as I’m sure you know, the term MSM was coined at a time when trans people were not a public health focus and therefore trans people weren’t considered in the original understanding of the term. What this means is that trans women, trans men, and non-binary people have not been counted at all in any meaningful way within the HIV field. Trans women have often been grouped into the MSM category, which is incredibly problematic and harmful. Trans men and non-binary people have generally been invisibilized entirely.
The language you should use in this area completely depends on context. It is not possible to unilaterally replace the term MSM with a different term that is trans-inclusive. In STI contexts, particularly HIV, prevention, risks, and treatment are very different for trans people versus cis people, so lumping these groups together causes harm on multiple levels. (And if you’re not writing/talking about STIs, there’s no reason to use the term MSM at all.)
So, for example, Tonia Poteat, a respected researcher in the global HIV field, uses the term “cis-MSM” to refer to cisgender men who have sex with men (as explicitly compared with trans women) in her research. But this only works because she makes sure that the term cis-MSM, in her context, is 100% accurate. The important thing is for trans people to be taken into account throughout the entire context, and then the language you use should accurately reflect that context. Trans people can’t be treated as an afterthought or tacked onto language in a way that is divorced from the context.
I hope this helps!
When ‘they’ is really accepted as a third-person singular pronoun, it will be used with singular verbs. Like, “he is; she is; they is.” When talking or writing about me, specifically, please use singular verbs with my ‘they/them/their’ pronouns (e.g. “Oshee is an openly nonbinary person, and I respect that, so I tell people they is nonbinary”). It takes a bit of getting used to, but with a little practice it quite quickly starts to feel normal. Try it!
Hi Oshee — with respect, using singular verbs with singular “they” is not a practice that is being advocated for by the vast majority of trans/non-binary people, and it doesn’t make sense in terms of how singular “they” has been used for centuries in a generic sense (e.g. “every student must take care because they are required to maintain a 3.0 GPA”). The evolution of singular “they” is similar to the evolution of singular “you.” Today, “you” is both plural and singular, but back in the day (15th century), “you” was only plural and “thee” was the singular form. Singular “you” does not take singular verbs, so it doesn’t make any sense for singular “they” to take singular verbs either. The exception to this is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in which “they is” and “you is” are used. So unless you’re speaking AAVE, there’s no reason to say “they is” and no benefit to doing so.
This is helpful. Thanks. As you say, language is rapidly evolving so the big point is context and sensitivity. Even more radical, perhaps, is the notion that gender is irrelevant in most contexts. Language should be degendered altogether.
Some people consider themselves one gender or another and would be bothered by being degendered.
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A small request from one queer copyeditor to another:
“Examples of gender nonconforming people might include masculine women, *effeminate* men, women pilots, male ballet dancers, and young girls with short hair.”
Perhaps you’d like to join me in simply saying “feminine” regardless of the subject’s gender, since “effeminate” is a word that exists specifically to denote “inappropriate” femininity, femininity in someone that isn’t supposed to be feminine (a value judgment I think we can all agree should die).
Heck yeah, The Heathen Urge! See, this is exactly why radical copyeditors also need radical copyeditors. I personally identify as effeminate (and femme) myself, which is likely why I’ve never had a negative association with the word effeminate. But of course you’re absolutely right! Die, value judgment, die! Thanks so much for this great edit!
Hi there! This guide is thorough, consistent, and easy to understand. Thanks so much for creating/maintaining it!
A friend and I (both trans writers) run a project that offers free support to BIPOC + Trans writers. When advertising our service, we often struggle with what terms to use to let people know who can participate. I have a few questions that I though you might have faced/answered in your work:
1. Do you know of a commonly used term or acronym that’s used to explicitly include all trans and gender expansive people? We’ve come across GQNBT used by Northwestern Uni., but haven’t seen it elsewhere. I definitely don’t want our use of a term to decrease accessibility! I also fear this acronym might still leave out a group of not cis people who we would like to reach (do our friends who are Bois see themself in this acronym I wonder? Our two-spirit friends?) Maybe there is an amazing acronym in use out there that we don’t know about? (I know I wished for something to accomplish what the acronym WTF accomplishes like a million times and then heard the term and realized it had existed for a long time without me knowing!).
2. On our website we explicitly name who we work with, saying something like “We work with writers who identify as Black, Indigenous/Aboriginal, POC, and/or who are Trans/Non-Binary.” Is it now best practice to scrap the “who identify as” for the identities that come from someone’s background the way that we’ve scrapped it for trans people? (We do have a note already saying something to the effect of “Language is limited…if you don’t see your situation represented here send us an email!”
3. If you’re speaking about a variety of people who aren’t cis, do you consider it an important aspect of language justice to specifically include each group of people each time? We often–as I did at the start of this message–just say BIPOC + Trans in our materials to make sentences easier to read, but I wondered if you’d consider this practice to be not inclusive? We’re open to anything that makes the people we work with feel cared for + supported!
Thank you for considering these questions! Curious to know what you might think about any of these.
This is SUCH a great question, Red! And I was so tickled to see it, because I’ve been in the middle of one of my semi-annual updates to this guide and not twelve hours before you made this comment I was contemplating whether I wanted to add more guidance along the lines of your question! So thanks for confirming the need for this — and also thank you for the work you do because it sounds absolutely fantastic!
I started working on a reply, decided I wanted to turn it into a whole standalone post on the topic, and then got distracted by a project and weeks went by. Lol. But stay tuned for an in-depth treatment of the question of how to sensitively and clearly refer to everyone who isn’t cis! It’s gonna be great.
The super brief answer in the meanwhile is that no, there is no such magical term that will work in all contexts, sadly. The best thing you can do is be super clear on your site about who you work with, using as much detail as possible. I personally find that a long list of identities + “and more!” is very helpful. You can totally say in a prominent place that when you use the phrase “BIPOC + Trans,” this is who you mean — and then you can keep using BIPOC + Trans everywhere, having defined your audience in greater detail somewhere everyone will see it. You may also want to provide that same clarification on your promotional materials if you have the space for it.
In terms of your second question about “identify as,” I’d say that if you’re going to say “people who are trans/non-binary” then yes, consistency dictates “people who are Black, Indigenous/Aboriginal, POC” as well. The new style guide from the new Trans Journalists Association offered this helpful tip on this subject: “Avoid the phrase ‘identifies as’ … when replacing it with ‘is’ doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.”
I hope this helps — thanks again for asking, for your care, and for your work. Stay tuned for the longer treatment soon!
I write and edit stories that include research on pregnant “women” and the children they have. Some long-term studies follow “women” from pregnancy, or even before, and the children as they grow up. What would be the best alternative to “pregnant women” or “moms/mothers and their babies”? I’ve seen “pregnant people” but not much else. Thank you in advance for your help!
Great question, Kelly!
When doing research and writing about research, it’s vitally important to be crystal clear and as specific as possible about who participated in the research. So if the research you are writing and editing stories about did in fact only study women and/or mothers, then it would be less clear to say “pregnant people” or “birth parents” because doing so would introduce the implication that some participants were non-binary people and/or trans men.
It gets trickier when researchers make an assumption that everyone who can get pregnant is a woman (which is, of course, very common), and you are writing about research that you didn’t carry out yourself. In these cases, if you can query the researchers to find out if they actually collected self-identity data and everyone in their study identifies as a woman, do that. If you can’t, the best thing you can do is name somewhere that although the story uses the words “women” and “mothers,” a limitation of the study is that the researchers assumed that all participants identified as women, and it’s possible that some participants were non-binary people, trans men, Two Spirit, or another gender identity.
Hope this helps!
Thank you so much for sharing this insightful and educational article. As a cis female I find it really helpful to find out what language is more acceptable, accurate and less harmful because I am learning and there is always more to learn, you’ve just helped me with that. And thankyou for making the pdf download I have downloaded it and will go over it again.
I was wondering about pronoun forms for people who use “they.” Is “themself” always used, or do some people use “themselves” instead? Reporters at my magazine have started to ask sources what pronouns they use. If a source says, “they,” should the reporter follow up and ask if they use “themself” or “themselves”? Or is it safe to assume that “themself” should be used?
Good question! I feel really strongly, personally, that “themself” should be used with singular they. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trans person write “themselves” in this context. Singular they follows the same rules as singular you, which makes all the sense in the world. Singular you takes “yourself” while plural you takes “yourselves,” so the same logic should apply to singular vs. plural they.
That said, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be extra thorough when asking about a source’s pronouns. If a source’s pronouns were ze/zir, you would definitely want to ask how those are spelled (if it was a verbal interview) and get a sample sentence with all possible pronouns in use, for clarity. So there’s no harm in making sure.