Update to Transgender Style Guide: “Sex Versus Gender,” Intersex Considerations, Talking About Transition, and More!

Sex vs. gender? Speech bubbles contrast between the approach of the hard-liner vs. the radical copyeditor
Full image description

Today I made a fourth major update to The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People.

This update reflects a comprehensive revision to bring the guide up to date on language trends that have progressed in the three years since I first wrote it, expand a number of sections to provide additional guidance, and add a new section on intersex considerations and new guidance on the nuances of what is often referred to as “sex versus gender.”

See below for details on the biggest updates or click through for the updated style guide.

I added explanatory text to section 1.3, which previously only shared what language to use and what language not to use to describe trans people’s transitions:

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.

I added explanatory text to section 2.1 that offers additional guidance on why (and how) it’s important to avoid language that reduces people to their birth-assigned sex or their (assumed) biology:

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.

I updated section 2.2 in celebration of the fact that since I first wrote this guide, the World Health Organization has ceased describing being trans as a psychiatric disorder. The ICD-11, published last year, no longer includes “gender identity disorders” under “mental disorders”—instead, it lists “gender incongruence” in a chapter on sexual health, a move that mirrors the 2012 revision to the DSM.

I expanded section 2.4.1 to provide additional explanatory text around always using a person’s correct name and title (if any), in addition to pronouns:

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. …

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.)

I added a new section all about intersex considerations!

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 lack thereof) 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.

Finally, I added a new box to section 3.4 on the subject of sex versus gender:

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 like “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.

Big thanks to Cianán Russell for vital help with this revision—particularly with helping me check my U.S. lens and practice accountability to intersex and international rights considerations.

p.s. I’m not the only comprehensive style guide on the block any more! Don’t miss the new Trans Journalists Association and their fabulous style guide, published in June, that is specifically geared toward news media.  

A paragraph of text that's been corrected to be more respectful of trans peopleRead the whole guide: “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People





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