Radical Copyeditor

Update to Transgender Style Guide: Avoiding Invalidating Language Traps

Full image description

Today I made a third major update to The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People to add four sections on how to avoid writing or talking about trans people in ways that are invalidating or otherwise harmful. (Remember that context is everything, and that all trans people have a right to describe themselves in whatever language feels best to them.)

I also updated section 1.4 and the note that follows it to reflect better language that has emerged for instances when you want to be clear that when you say trans you aren’t referring only to trans women and men but also non-binary people, as well as the recent trend in trans communities to perceive trans and transgender as having separate meanings.

See below for these new sections or click through for the updated style guide.

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; Zed is an agender young adult

Avoid: women and trans women; normal people; real men; biological women
Avoid: Nogales resident Maria, who identifies as a woman; students who consider themselves “non-binary”; Zed identifies 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. Ashley Dejean’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. 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.

⇒ 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.

2.11. 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. As a (feminist) radical copyeditor, I reject the idea that there is anything radical or feminist about this violent perspective, so I don’t use the term “TERF.”

Read the whole guide: “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People

If you find my work useful, please consider making a donation to support me!