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 Western culture, 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 transgender 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 people of all gender identities and experiences 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 comprehensive glossary of transgender-related terminology, check out this one from Julia Serano.
Also note: This guide was written in a U.S. context. 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
Avoid: transgenders; transgendered
1.2. Transgender is not a sexual orientation.
Correct terms in a transgender context: gender; gender identity and expression
Incorrect terms in a transgender 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.
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
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 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, it is currently considered a best practice to say transgender and non-binary people when referring to all those whose gender identities are different than what might be expected based on their birth-assigned sex. Yet the word transgender should never be assumed to only refer to binary-identified trans people.
⇒ 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. Trans* came about in the 1990s and had a huge but relatively brief spurt of popularity in the early 2010s. Trans+ is a more 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 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 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, effeminate men, women pilots, male ballet dancers, and young girls with short hair.
Non-binary, or gender non-binary, refers to a person whose internal 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 do not identify with any gender (e.g., agender people).
Many people are non-binary in terms of identity and also gender nonconforming in terms of expression, but plenty of other 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 to refer to the full spectrum of those who are both gender nonconforming and/or non-binary. Best practices include avoiding terms that carry a negative connotation (e.g., gender deviant), and also avoiding using terms inaccurately (e.g., diverse does not mean “different from the norm,” it just means “varied”—therefore, gender diverse should refer to a group of people with varied genders, not a single person or a group of people whose gender is different from the norm).
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; man, woman, or transgender (pick one)
Transgender means having a gender 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 genders include woman, man, genderqueer, two spirit, agender, 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.
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: assigned female at birth; assigned male at birth
Avoid: born a woman; born a man; biologically female; biologically male; genetically female; genetically male; pre-op; post-op
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)
Note that 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. Language around diagnoses, pathologization, and access to health care is complex and differs from country to country.
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
Avoid: passes; stealth; you’d never be able to tell
Although some transgender people use the terms stealth and passing, it’s not appropriate for non-trans 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 (or not trans) are engaging in deception simply by being themselves.
⇒ A note on out and closeted: Coming out is the process of becoming aware of your authentic 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 prefixes
2.4.1. Always use a person’s correct name, pronouns (or lack thereof), and prefix (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 Sam’s lunch at Sam’s apartment
The first and foremost way to respect and honor a transgender person’s personhood is to respect the language they use to refer to themself. Transgender people have been forced to forge new paths in language in order to carve out space for our very existence. 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.
2.4.2. Using a transgender 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 transgender 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, only use a 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
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, or female: for example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers pronouns and a female person could use they/them/theirs pronouns.
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).
Many dictionaries have addressed and/or endorsed this use already, including Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary; the American Dialect Society voted singular they 2015 Word of the Year; and in March 2017 AP style got on board as well.
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, transgender 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
Some trans and non-binary 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 and non-binary 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.
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; everyone; people of all genders; siblings; kindred
Avoid: Honor each person’s truth about his or her identity; men and women; the opposite sex; both genders; brothers and sisters
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.
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 transgender 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 transgender people (15%) identify as 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 transgender people identify as queer (21%) than any other sexual orientation.* Although mainstream style guides and dictionaries have refused to recognize the evolution of this word, writing sensitively about transgender 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 transgender communities, it must be recognized as a valid identity term.
3.4. Decouple anatomy from identity in your language.
Contrary to popular belief, anatomy is not inherently female or male. First, intersex people exist, and the Intersex Society of North America once estimated that as many as 1 in 100 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 plenty of 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 and non-binary people.
When language inextricably links anatomy and identity, it does harm to those whose anatomy doesn’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 and non-binary people 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.
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 transgender 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.
What did I miss? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!
You can also download this style guide as a PDF.
Want more resources? Check out GLAAD’s transgender media reference guide, written specifically for journalists. Journalists can also read “Covering the Transgender Community” by Sara Morrison to learn what it takes to do it well. And as before, if you’re looking for a comprehensive glossary of transgender-related terminology, check out this one from Julia Serano.
*Note: Data from The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016).
**Last updated September 13, 2017. Grateful thanks to all those who have offered edits and additions to this style guide, including Teo Drake, Danni Green, Lex Townsend, Lyndon Cudlitz, and oatc.
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