Ask a Radical Copyeditor: What’s the Best Way to Refer to Everyone Who Isn’t Cis?

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A few months back I got a great question from some fellow trans writers who run a project that offers free support to other trans writers. They shared that they often struggle with what terms to use to let people know who can participate, and they asked if there is a single best term for everyone who isn’t cisgender.

The short answer was a big fat nope, but a longer answer feels worthwhile, because the question of how to best refer to everyone whose identities don’t conform to mainstream gender expectations/norms is a super challenging and multilayered topic. Language around gender is quickly evolving, so knowing which terms are most current and ensuring basic understanding across lines of difference is a real challenge.

Lots of terms have been used over the years, including gender deviant, gender variant, gender expansive, gender creative, gender diverse, trans*, trans+, trans and gender nonconforming, GQNBT, marginalized genders, gender minorities, and trans/non-binary. At the end of the day, none of them are completely clear on their own or work in every context, and all of them have problems or limits.

So if you’re interested in a deep dive into these various umbrella terms, why trans doesn’t usually cut it, and how to be radically inclusive with your language, read on!

Different umbrella terms for everyone who’s not cisgender

Gender deviant and gender variant both came into use in the 1960s to refer to everyone whose gender identities and/or expressions don’t conform to gender norms. They are used quite a bit within medical and gender studies contexts, and both continue to be used today, although gender variant is more widespread. Both carry a negative connotation for many people because they are often experienced as implying abnormality.

Trans and gender non-conforming, or TGNC, has probably been the most widespread term used within trans communities for longest. Up until a few years ago, we didn’t have great language to distinguish between (a) people who aren’t exclusively women or men and (b) people whose gender expression isn’t stereotypically feminine or masculine—so gender non-conforming was often used to mean both. When non-binary took off, it was a relief to finally have a distinguishing term, but it also rendered TGNC less clear and current. Some people still use GNC as a gender identity term, but in general gender non-conforming is increasingly used to refer to gender expression, not identity—meaning the term sometimes includes cisgender men and women who don’t conform to gender norms.

Trans* and trans+ are both terms that were coined in an attempt to communicate inclusion of people who aren’t cis but don’t feel like the word trans describes them. Trans* came about in the 1990s and had a huge but brief spurt of popularity in the early 2010s. It went out of favor because it didn’t really work well for what it was meant to communicate. Trans+ is a more recent variant that plays on the trend of adding a plus sign to terms like LGBTQ to denote greater inclusion, but it hasn’t enjoyed widespread use.

Gender diverse was first used in the 1990s to talk about environments and policies that include women as well as men. Around 2010 it started to take off as an umbrella term to refer to everyone who isn’t cis, and it is in increasingly widespread use by people in the Global South and in international contexts. One of its benefits is that it avoids prioritizing country- or culture-specific language (like transgender). But it’s important to keep in mind that the word diverse is usually best used to mean “varying” rather than “non-normative.” Gender diversity describes humanity as a whole, and gender diverse should generally be used with plural or group nouns and never to describe an individual (unless they use it for themself).

Gender expansive, gender creative, and gender independent are lovely terms that have taken off in recent years to describe children and youth whose gender identities and/or gender expressions don’t conform to gender norms. These terms are particularly helpful for this population because young folks don’t always have the language to define their gender identities, but using them to describe adults is a different matter. They also don’t work well for binary-identified trans people, of any age, because plenty of trans girls/women and trans boys/men completely conform to the gender norms associated with their true gender. (For a great discussion of how a number of trans/non-binary people feel about gender expansive being used as an umbrella term for adults, check out this 2019 Facebook thread.)

Marginalized genders and gender minorities are terms that get used a lot in academic contexts. Like many other terms on this list, you can see the logic behind them but they often get used in a euphemistic way that impedes full understanding. “People with marginalized genders” makes most sense to describe everyone other than cis men, because cis women are marginalized on the basis of gender too. But trans men aren’t technically marginalized due to their gender (i.e., being a man) but rather due to being trans, and agender people are marginalized due to not having a gender. Gender minorities is a messy term to begin with, because in many contexts (like tech), women constitute a minority, and in other contexts (like nursing), men do. Defining people based solely on numerical representation (rather than power) isn’t the best or clearest way to go.

GQNBT and the lesser-used variant TGQNB, both acronyms for genderqueer, non-binary, and/or trans, are used regionally, such as within a number of college communities on the U.S. West Coast. They might seem a bit redundant because genderqueer is one of many non-binary identities, but as before, non-binary is a recently established term and genderqueer, like gender non-conforming, was previously sometimes used as an umbrella term for people who weren’t exclusively women or men, so the two have distinct meanings. A complication here is that most non-binary folks avoid NB as an abbreviation for non-binary because this acronym is already used in communities of color to mean non-Black (as in “non-Black people of color”).

Trans/non-binary and trans and/or non-binary are relatively recent trends for referring to everyone who isn’t cis, and work fairly well in many contexts, at least in the United States. The use of a slash or “and/or” is nice because it somewhat avoids implying that trans and non-binary are mutually exclusive terms (which they aren’t).

Why can’t we just use trans?

The word trans is far and away the most effective umbrella term we have (at least in the United States). The general consensus today is that trans means having a gender identity (or absence of one) that doesn’t align, according to mainstream expectations, with one’s birth-assigned sex. Trans scholar Julia Serano defines transgender as “the most commonly accepted umbrella term for people who transgress gender norms or defy traditional gender categories in some way.”

So why can’t we just say trans when we want to talk about everyone who isn’t cis? There are at least four major reasons this word is usually inadequate:

#1. Trans and cis isn’t a binary. There are plenty of people who consider themselves somewhat cis, or have a gender identity that sometimes or somewhat aligns with their birth-assigned sex. Others are actively questioning their gender or express themselves in gender non-conforming ways but don’t have the language to describe their identities to themselves or others. 

#2. Trans is first and foremost a descriptive term and is not always an identity term. It describes the relationship between your gender identity (or absence of one) and your birth-assigned sex. Trans thus describes a lot of people who don’t actively identify with the word (just like cis). Lots of people who were assigned female at birth identify as men (not as trans men) and lots of people who were assigned male at birth identify as women (not trans women); other folks identify as genderqueer, agender, or Two Spirit, for example, and similarly don’t use the word trans as an identity.

#3. Dominant culture will always, always, take words coined by people on the oppressed margins and twist them to suit the worldview of people in the privileged center. When transgender first started being used within trans communities as distinct from transsexual, instead of taking the time to understand the nuances of this distinction and the ways in which the word trans is designed to break down gendered boxes and compost them, purveyors of dominant culture (such as mainstream media) eagerly maintained these boxes by painting transgender as simply the new term for transsexual and presenting all trans people as binary-identified trans women and men. Trans, therefore, has become synonymous in many people’s minds with the mainstream-peddled narrative of what it means to be trans, meaning (to them) anyone who isn’t Caitlyn Jenner isn’t trans. (Ugh.)

#4. Gatekeeping is basically a community-wide experience of trauma, between the decades-long practice of medical providers serving as gatekeepers of whether people are “trans enough” to access the gender-affirming care they need and the fact that so many of us have experienced being told (by cis people, trans people, and/or the voices in our own heads) that we aren’t “trans enough” or “non-binary enough” or “___ enough” to be our true selves. Almost all of us go through a period of comparing ourselves to mainstream representations of what trans means and questioning whether we belong. 

How to be radically inclusive with your language

Given the landscape described above, how can we use language in ways that ensure that the people who read or hear our words will understand who we mean?

1. Consider context.

Different contexts require different language. If you’re talking about children and youth, “trans and gender creative” is a great way to refer to all young people who identify or express themselves in ways that don’t line up with gender binary norms—but if you’re talking about adults, this is not the best language to use. If you are part of a college community where GQNBT is widespread and well-understood, using that term would be the right choice. Among many communities of color, “trans and gender non-conforming” or TGNC is the dominant language used.

In Whitehorse, Canada, the trans, Two Spirit, and non-binary community is synonymous with All Genders Yukon Society, a local organization, so people in Whitehorse say “members of the All Genders community” to refer to everyone who isn’t cis. These differing contexts show that it’s impossible for there to be a single best term or phrase across the board. 

2. Be accurate.

Part of choosing the best language is considering who you are actually talking about, and what language those people use to describe themselves. Another part is being honest and accurate about who you mean. For example, if you were doing a research study on people who were assigned female at birth, saying that your target population is “women and trans/non-binary people” would be inaccurate; it would be better to say something like “cisgender women, trans men, and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth.”

As another example, if you were calling attention to hate violence against people who aren’t straight and cisgender, it would be off-base to say “LGBTQ and GQNBT people,” because LGBTQ already includes trans people. If you were talking about anti-trans violence, it would be accurate to say that it’s directed at “trans and gender nonconforming people” because the folks who suffer most from anti-trans violence are those who are perceived to be trans (often due to their gender expression), regardless of their identity.

If you’re part of a group, school, clinic, etc. that has historically been women-only and you want to be more inclusive, be sure to consider (a) who you are actually seeking to include (Cis and trans women? All women plus non-binary people who are comfortable being part of a women’s group? Everyone except cisgender men?) and (b) whether your group, school, clinic, etc. is fully prepared to welcome and include all of those folks as part of any change in language. It’s not accurate to say you include non-binary people and then continue to assume that everyone who comes through the doors uses she/her pronouns.

3. Be clear and descriptive.

No matter what language you use, define your terms using the most descriptive language you can.

If you’re writing for a trans audience—perhaps you’re starting a trans group, expanding an existing group to trans people, advertising services to trans people, or doing a survey of trans people, for example—the most important thing to consider is how to be as welcoming and inclusive in your language as possible, and let your target audience know that you are talking to them.

For example, I’m part of a membership organization of trans faith leaders, and because the organization has the word transgender in its name, it’s vital that we say who we mean by that, and who is invited to join. So our website says, “We are trans: we are transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, two spirit, intersex, agender, bigender, third gender, neutrois, transsexual, and/or otherwise marginalized in terms of gender identity.”

As another example, I once included the following demographic question on a survey: “Are you trans, non-binary, or otherwise not cisgender?” (with the options “yes,” “no,” “prefer not to answer,” and “other”). Several respondents later told me that this language helped them feel for the first time like they could select “yes” without worrying that they were claiming language that wasn’t theirs to claim.

If you’re writing for a general audience, the most important thing to consider is how to communicate who you mean as clearly as possible, so that as many people as possible understand you—particularly in published works.

For example, if you use an acronym like TGNC or GQNBT, don’t just spell it out somewhere, be sure to also explain in more words what these terms mean in your context. If you’re writing an article for professionals who work with children and families and you use the phrase “trans and gender expansive children,” be sure to clearly explain at some point what you mean by this phrase and give examples of the different sorts of young people who are included in it.

In conclusion

At the end of the day, language is a tool for communication. For those of us who defy, subvert, or simply don’t fit within patriarchal, heterosexist, racist, classist, ableist gender norms, claiming and naming is deeply powerful, and the more we work to extricate ourselves from those norms, the more ways we will find to describe the infinite galaxies of possibility that have been closed off and left unnamed, undescribed, and unfathomed for so long.

So let’s honor the complexity and diversity of language. Rather than yearning for a single linguistic box or set of labels that will work for everyone, let’s be curious and joyful—and perhaps even gender defiant, gender noncompliant, or gender fabulous—in the abundance of words at our disposal, and use them well.


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6 thoughts on “Ask a Radical Copyeditor: What’s the Best Way to Refer to Everyone Who Isn’t Cis?

  1. I love your analysis of how language works and what functions it serves. A+++ would buy the book and surreptitiously leave it in the office bookshelf.

    Specific question: how and when would you apply a descriptive term to someone for whom it’s not an identity? When not addressed towards them, and it’s relevant? Or other factors to consider?

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    1. Thank you! And that’s a great question. All of the terms discussed in this blog post are used as descriptive terms, and some of them are also used as identities. In general, when talking about an individual human, it’s best to use the words they use for themself. But there are certainly times when there’s a need to use a descriptive term in order to more clearly communicate who they are to someone else.

      My partner identifies as a man and refers to himself as a man with a history of gender transition (when it’s relevant). “Trans” is not an identity for him. But if (and only if) his gender history is relevant/important to the conversation and I’m talking to someone who isn’t able to understand the nuances of the language he uses, I’ll describe him as trans so that they are able to understand.

      If a young person clearly doesn’t conform to gender norms in one or more ways—perhaps they insist on a particular haircut, or clothing, or pronouns—but hasn’t claimed a particular identity like “girl,” “boy,” “non-binary,” “agender,” “gender fluid,” etc., the adults in their life will likely need to use descriptive terms like “gender creative” or “gender non-conforming” to be able to communicate important information to others about their needs.

      Another example of when it makes sense to use a descriptive term is when talking about a large group of people who have many different identities. For example, the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey used the words transgender and trans as descriptive terms for the survey population while acknowledging the imperfect nature of doing so. 12% of those who took the survey did not think of themselves as trans, but it was the best descriptive umbrella term for the researchers to use when reporting on the data—as long as they clearly communicated that limitation.

      The most important thing to consider is what the best, most accurate, and most caring language for any given situation is (and I hope this blog post helps contextualize some of that). There’s often a temptation to use fewer words for expediency’s sake when the most caring approach is to use more words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Nonbinary” and “gender nonconforming” have been in use for a long time now. As accepted terms, they are not hyphenated. Writing “Non-binary” and “non-conforming” makes it sound like these identities haven’t been accepted yet.

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    1. Interesting take, Oshee! I’m not a linguist, but my understanding is that the usual progression of open to hyphenated to closed is a concept that applies to compound words, not words formed with prefixes. Whether words formed with prefixes are hyphenated is largely a matter of common usage, style, and one’s dictionary of choice—and my own personal aesthetic preference has always been to hyphenate many words formed with prefixes in my own writing, because I find it easier to understand them that way.

      I will readily admit that most style guides (Chicago and APA, for two) take a spare approach to hyphens and prefer closed words, and my own favorite dictionary, Merriam-Webster, spells the two words in question nonbinary and nonconforming (so of course when I’m editing materials in Chicago or APA style I follow those spellings). But I can’t agree with you that the spellings non-binary and non-conforming make these words sound less real or accepted. If someday nonbinary and/or nonconforming become far and away the most common within-community spellings, I’ll make the change, but for the moment I’m choosing to stick with the spellings that I prefer, as a non-binary and gender non-conforming person myself.

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      1. Thank you for being so willing to engage in open discussion of the evolution of language, Alex.
        Of course I totally respect your personal choice of how you identify you own gender.
        But “nonbinary” and “nonconforming” are already the most common within-community spellings. For example, the soon-to-be published new edition of “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” has adopted “nonbinary” as their standard throughout the book. And “nonconforming” is an established word that all sources (except you) agree is not hyphenated.
        So, it seems to me more than a little irresponsible to prioritize your own personal preferences of hyphenation over common and accepted usage, when so many people use you as a source for the correct terms to use when writing about gender.

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      2. Always, Oshee! Open discussion about the evolution of language is what I live for! I’m glad to pushed on this. You’re absolutely right that I have a responsibility to prioritize common usage over my own preferences when they obviously conflict.

        When I was researching this post, one of the things I did was look into what language different trans-led organizations use, and specifically what language is being used by organizations led by trans people of color. I look to what language is being used in live ways within different segments of our communities. And in the many spaces I’m tapped into, it’s clear that nonbinary, non-binary, nonconforming, and non-conforming are all spellings in common use. In addition, my two favorite glossaries maintained by trans folks, Julia Serano’s and the Trans Journalist Association’s, both use non-binary; Serano uses non-conforming and TJA uses nonconforming.

        It bears noting that it’s essential to me that “common use” not be dictated by news media or the publishing world, because (a) that world is subject to editorial style standards and whether they use non-binary or nonbinary is largely up to the publisher, not the author, and (b) being able to get published has everything to do with access, which has everything to do with power and privilege.

        At the end of the day, I am not invested in there being a single most “correct” spelling for any particular identity-related word; as a radical copyeditor my goal is to help folks practice care and honor nuance and complexity in communication. But like I said, I love having open conversations about all of this and I’m glad you brought this up!

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