Thanks to great feedback from readers, it quickly became clear that The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People was missing vital guidance on writing about bodies and anatomy in ways that are sensitive and inclusive.
So today I made the second major update to the style guide by adding two sections: one on practicing sensitivity around trans people’s bodies and anatomy in particular, and one on decoupling anatomy from identity when referring to people in general.
See below for these new sections or click through for the updated style guide.
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.
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.