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.
If you are a medical provider, check out these ten tips and standards of care from RAD Remedy for more.
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.
Read the whole guide: “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People“
4 thoughts on “Update to Transgender Style Guide: Bodies and Anatomy”
“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).”
I think I hear what you’re saying about sex-linked anatomical terms carrying gender-loading whether the speaker intends that or not, but I wonder what to do when broad terminology doesn’t serve the purpose (and say it’s not a one-on-one conversation to ask). For example if someone’s writing a public health pamphlet about doing testicular self-exams. They might think to say “Hey everyone who has testicles, please set up a reminder to do this quick thing once a month” etc. Parts of the text could go generic (“cancer of these body parts”), but at some point it wants to define who the audience is.
Would an expression like “external gonads” be helpful, to specify without naming? You’d need to check that it isn’t obscure to test readers, too.
Survey what people call their own, and (with permission) include those terms as “Hey everyone who has testicles / DifferentName / OtherName”? Is that generally helpful or would the presence of “testicles” (and first, there) be problematic?
I’m not a medical provider, just interested in what works for people.
Fantastic question, Caraway! Thanks for asking.
I came up against this situation about five years ago when I served as a consultant for Fenway Health, a Boston community health center that’s nationally recognized for its longtime focus on serving LGBTQ communities, on a project of theirs to create a pamphlet about HPV aimed at transmasculine folks. You can see the end result here.
Some of the (cisgender) people writing the pamphlet were insisting on using “anatomically correct” language, and it took a lot to convince them that if they used “the v-word” the majority of trans men would get triggered, close the pamphlet at that point, and not get the info. After finally succeeding in getting them to understand this, the question became what word(s) to use instead that were clear yet not triggering. I polled a lot of trans folks who do sex education and work with medical providers and ended up doing a snowball-sample survey of transmasculine people re: words that work and don’t work (just like you wondered about doing in your comment). Eventually the terminology that was used was “frontal pelvic opening” and “internal canal”; not perfect but clear enough and relatively non-triggering. It’s important to point out that this was for use specifically with trans populations, not a general audience.
Hope this is a useful response/example!
The language in your pamphlet is (to my eyes) great. For issues where I’m talking about health of reproductive organs, I might have to use that as my guide. Thanks for sharing it! (I do much better with concepts that can seem abstract when I have a real example to see the principles in use.)
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Personally, I tend to use “female-bodied” or “biologically female” to refer to myself (though I will not use it to refer to trans people who are assigned female in general) because it allows me to talk about my body without triggering dysphoria. It is more abstract than referring to my specific body parts, so I can talk about my body without hyperfocusing on them. However, I find too many people trying to police the words transgender people use, including some blogs I used to follow intending to be transgender support blogs. One blog often refused to publish asks that had those terms or criticized the asker’s language if they were published, and I was pretty pissed that blogger did not support trans peoples’ right to use whatever language they see fit. I eventually unfollowed because I felt that they were excluding trans people who experienced transness similarly to me.
I am very pleased to see a blog that gives general guidelines, but also supports marginalized peoples’ rights to use the language that fits them. I’ve seen too many activists that condemn the use of wording that deviates from what they deem “correct”.
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