Language supporting gender diversity
“[I]t is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.”
— Epictetus, “Discourses”, book II, chapter 17
If you're not someone who's trans/gender-divergent (TGD), trying to navigate the various language issues related to sex and gender can be bewildering. This piece is an attempt to note some language that's currently often considered problematic, and to provide some language and alternatives that are more likely to be appropriate.
In addition to sections discussing “Problematic language” and “Better language”, i've also included some more general information:
- An “About me” section, to give a sense of my ‘qualifications’ (so to speak) on this topic.
- A section about “The words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’”. In my experience, there are widespread misunderstandings around these words and concepts, exacerbated by the fact that the word ‘gender’ can refer to several different things.
- A couple of sections addressing some issues people regularly raise: “Why do TGD people get so worked up about language?” and “Why is the ‘right’ language always changing?”
- A “Further reading” section, containing links mentioned elsewhere in this document.
i acknowledge that there's a lot here, and a lot to take in, which is why i've structured this piece as i have: i hope it makes it easier to process things in small chunks (e.g. to start by reading only the headings). i feel a significant part of the issue is that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are typically so fundamental to people's perceptions of the world - even more so than (say) ideas around monogamy in humans being ‘natural’ and/or ‘correct’ - that it can be difficult to discuss the issues around related language without discussing issues around the words and concepts themselves.
Finally, as a general point, note that individuals are ‘divergent’, groups are ‘diverse’. So it's not correct to describe a particular person as ‘gender diverse’ (possibly unless they're a system/plurality, as in Dissociative Identity Disorder).
As a general guide, avoid language that associates a particular gender with particular anatomy. If you're talking about people with particular anatomy, refer to the anatomy, rather than trying to use euphemistic gender-based language.
These acronyms, which expand to ‘Female To Male’ and ‘Male To Female’, aren't necessarily considered offensive, but their use is increasingly discouraged. There are a few reasons for this, including that they can “keep someone in a state of transition” by referencing how they were assigned at birth, in addition to their actual gender. You probably want ‘trans man’ (instead of ‘FTM’) or ‘trans woman’ (instead of ‘MTF’) - see below.
‘gender reassignment surgery’, ‘sex reassignment surgery’
A person's gender is not necessarily determined by their physical characteristics (nor their chromosomes). So changing someone's physical characteristics via doesn't necessarily imply any change(s) to their gender. This is why a better phrase is ‘gender confirmation surgery’ - see below.
‘Sex reassignment surgery’ is problematic because it can result in a focus on complex arguments about what ‘really’ constitutes ‘sex’ (external physical characteristics? chromosomes? hormone levels?) rather than a focus on the critical issue: a TGD person having a body that reflects their sense of their own gender, the lack of which can have a severely negative impact on their mental health.
This word is generally considered inappropriate; the word you're more likely to want is ‘intersex’. See below.
‘opposite gender’, ‘opposite sex’
This assumes gender and sex are binary, whereas neither is binary (even if most people fit into one of two categories). Refer to the section about “The words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’” for further information.
Not all TGD people want surgery, get surgery, or can even have surgery, for various reasons - refer to the “‘woman-bodied’ ...’ entry below. Avoid these terms unless you're referring to a TGD person who's made it clear they're happy for the terms to be used to describe them.
Primarily a porn term, and not necessarily something that a trans woman self-labels with.
Some people self-label with this, but it shouldn't be used to describe someone unless they invite you to do so; otherwise, it can be as similarly offensive as a white person using the word ‘nigger’.
My experience is that this is rarely used nowadays, though some people do self-label as ‘transsexual’. Again, it's best not to use it by default. It's very misleading due to the existence of words like ‘heterosexual’, ‘homosexual’, ‘bisexual’: people quite reasonably assume it's about someone's sexuality, which it's not. As a result, it leads to the situations where i've been asked if i'm ‘straight’, ‘gay/lesbian’ or ‘trans’, which is analogous to being asked “Are you Australian, or a woman?”
This is usually applied to trans women, but i'm not sure i've ever known a trans woman who self-labels with this word. The reference is to a trans woman ‘passing’ as a cis woman, until you find out they have a penis: it was a ‘trap’. There are very real-world consequences related to this conceptualisation: trans women, usually trans women of colour, can get physically assaulted and killed by straight men whose ‘masculinity’ is threatened in these situations, as in the cases of Gwen Araujo and Jennifer Laudo in the “Further reading” section.
‘woman-bodied’, ‘man-bodied’, ‘female-bodied’, ‘male-bodied’ etc.
These sort of terms are problematic; usually, what they're trying to convey can instead by conveyed by alternatives such as ‘person with a vulva’ - see below.
To use a phrase like ‘woman-bodied’ to mean “someone with a vulva and vagina” implies that i'm not a woman, since i have a penis: my gender dysphoria manifests as feeling that i should have a vulva and a vagina as well as a penis, rather than instead of a penis. However, many TGD people, myself included, can't access surgery for a variety of reasons, including the significant costs involved, lack of authorisations from the relevant health professionals (typically referred to as ‘gatekeepers’), medical issues that might make surgery particularly risky, and so on.
One might ask, “Okay, I can accept you're a woman with a penis, but why can't I then say you're ‘male-bodied’?” Well, as a result of being on hormones, i have ‘female’ breasts, in addition to a penis. So if you refer to people who are ‘male-bodied’, or people who are ‘female-bodied’, am i included in both cases, or neither?
i use the word ‘better’ here for two reasons:
- The language in this section is more likely to be appropriate, but isn't necessarily best for all TGD people: we're a very diverse group, and i myself am constantly learning how to be more inclusive of the variety of TGD people's lives and experiences.
- Even though language in general is constantly evolving, TGD-related language is evolving particularly quickly; refer to the “Why is the ‘right’ language always changing?” section.
These are abbreviations for ‘Assigned Female/Male At Birth’. This is a way of describing the sex/gender one was labelled with when one was born: “It's a boy”, "It's a girl”. However, it does not inherently imply anything about a given person's current sense of gender, gender identity, or gender presentation. i'm AMAB - i was assumed to be a boy growing up - but i'm a woman. In particular, these are not words to use to try to describe how someone _looks_. There are many AMAB people who totally ‘pass’ as a woman (i.e. people don't read them as anything other than a woman).
This is making use of the Latin prefix ‘cis-’, “on the same side as”, as the ‘opposite’ of the ‘trans-’ prefix. It's also used in words like ‘cisalpine’ (“this side of the Alps”) and ‘cislunar’ (“between the Earth and the Moon”). It basically refers to people who feel that their internal sense of their own gender matches the sex/gender they were assigned at birth.
However, note that refusing the ‘traditional’ presentations and roles deemed ‘appropriate’ for your assigned sex/gender (cf. ‘AFAB’/‘AMAB’) does not automatically mean you aren't cisgender, just as it's sexist to jokingly or seriously claim that a woman is “really a man” because she prefers wearing pants. Similarly, it would be sexist to say that a woman who's interested in maths/science, or cricket, is “really a man”. So if you're AMAB, and you seriously say "Oh I must be a woman, I like wearing dresses and sewing”, that's (a) sexist, and (b) no indication as to whether or not you're actually a woman. You might indeed be a woman, but these things are not arguments for that.
Some of my main interests are maths, computing, and cricket - all traditionally ‘male’ interests. But i say i'm a man as well as a woman not because of these things, but simply because, after many years of introspection, i know myself to be both a woman and a man, whatever my interests and regardless of how i dress. (Similarly, these interests are not part of my ‘male side’, nor is wearing dresses part of my ‘female’ side; i don't have a ‘male side’ and a ‘female side’).
‘Cis’ is not inherently an insult; in my experience, it's overwhelmingly intended purely descriptively. The abbreviation ‘cissy’ is more likely to be used negatively, in a similar way to how some queer people use the word ‘straight’ disparagingly, or how some kinky people similarly use the word ‘vanilla’. i certainly never use the word ‘cissy’ myself, not least because the word ‘sissy’ was part of the harrassment i was subjected to when growing up in rural Victoria.
‘gender confirmation surgery’
Prefer this to phrases like ‘gender reassignment surgery’ and ‘sex reassignment surgery’ - refer to the relevant entry above for details about why these are problematic. The surgery doesn't change someone's gender, it provides them with physical characteristics which they feel reflect the gender _they actually are_.
Someone whose gender isn't simply either ‘woman’/‘girl’ or ‘man’/‘boy’. This includes people who are agender (i.e. feel that they don't have a gender) and pangender (i.e. feel they're multiple genders).
Someone whose internal sense of gender differs from that assigned to them at birth.
‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’
Note the spaces between the words: the words ‘transman’ and ‘transwoman’ are often discouraged because they can result in what's called ‘third-gendering’: “not a man, or a woman, but a transman”. But a trans man is a (type of) man, and a trans woman is a (type of) woman, in the same way e.g. a ‘black man’ and a ‘black woman’ are a type of man and a type of woman, respectively.
‘person/people with a vulva’, ‘vulva-bodied’, ‘person/people with a penis’, ‘penis-bodied’, etc.
These are usually the more appropriate phrases to use when one is wanting to use problematic phrases like ‘woman-bodied’ etc. - refer to the relevant entry above.
i don't ever recall a case where a specific type of anatomy is relevant, but where it would be appropriate to use ‘cisgender’ rather than these terms. For example, if you're wanting to run a workshop on menstruation, that's clearly going to be suitable for some people and not others. i'm a trans woman, and don't have a uterus and so don't menstruate; and of course there are cis women who don't have a uterus and don't menstruate (e.g. because they've had a hysterectomy). But say that, instead of stating that it's for “people with a uterus/womb”, you say it's for ‘cisgender women’. Well, you're up-front excluding trans men; why? On what grounds? i assume that there are probably some valid cases where a specific type of anatomy is involved and that it's reasonable to exclude trans people (e.g. specific types of research), but in my experience, this is very rarely the case.
These sort of terms are still not perfect, because, for example, a number of trans women will refer to their ‘clit’. This might seem ridiculous on the face of it, but biologically, a penis and a clitoris are ‘homologous’ structures - they're essentially the same structure that has developed in different ways. So even though i'm happy to be labelled a ‘person with a penis’ (well, i much prefer the word ‘cock’, but that's just because i find the word ‘penis’ too clinical), others might be less so. Unfortunately, i'm not yet aware of any alternative terms or phrasing that are more inclusive (though i'm always on the lookout for them).
i attended uni in the early-to-mid 90s, majoring in Women's Studies (what would probably now be called ‘gender studies’), although i also did language/linguistics and science units as well. i transitioned to living publicly as a transgenderqueer woman in the early 00s, when trans people were significantly less accepted than we are now (and obviously we're still not broadly accepted). During the last few decades, i've been pretty much constantly involved in discussions and debates around gender and sexuality, and have heard a wide variety of non-cisgender people's experiences.
So, what i present here is a perspective based on all that: an understanding based on having various ideas about gender, but continually revising that as i take on board non-cisgender people's lived experiences, even - perhaps particularly! - when they significantly differ from my own. This means my perspective is not necessarily shared by academic ‘experts’ on gender, but it does have the advantage of being inclusive of more (but surely not all) TGD people's actual lived experiences, regardless of whether those experiences fit a particular theoretical model. My own experience is that people whose experiences don't fit certain theoretical models - from across the political compass - tend to get erased and/or invalidated, which is disrespectful, invalidating, and harmful to people's mental health. (One example: the “Gender Accelerationist Manifesto” asserts that trans people are saying ‘no’ to gender, as though the authors can speak for how all trans people relate to this topic.)
The words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’
Contrary to how it often seems to be presented, ‘gender’ is not simply a Politically Correct replacement term for ‘(biological) sex’. ‘Gender’ and ‘sex’ are actually two distinct - but, of course, related - things. Talking of “gender reveal” parties for newborns is ridiculous, because although it might be reasonable to assume a newborn's gender based on their physical characteristics, you don't know someone's gender for certain until they actually _tell you_.
The general concept of ‘gender’ was actually derived from the linguistic concept of gender, in which various languages have a grammar that categorises certain words as having a particular ‘gender’: ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, etc.. A word's grammatical gender isn't necessarily related to biological sex: for example, the Spanish word ‘mapa’, ‘map’, is grammatically ‘masculine’, though most Spanish nouns ending in ‘-a’ are grammatically ‘feminine’. The idea was to use the word to talk about social/cultural/political stuff such as “the roles expected of people with certain physical characteristics” (e.g. “a woman is expected to be a mother”) and “how people with certain physical characteristics are expected to look” (e.g. “men are expected to not wear dresses”). This was summed up in the phrase “gender is a social construct”.
However, what's ended up happening is that there's a lot of ambiguity when people talk about ‘gender’, because depending on context, it can be referring to one or more of:
- one's sense of one's own gender;
- gender identity (which can change without one's sense of one's own gender changing);
- gender roles, and expectations surrounding them;
- gender presentations, and expectations surrounding them.
Over the course of decades my experience has been that using the word ‘gender’ without any qualifiers (as per the above list) often leads to extensive crosstalk, and many unnecessary misunderstandings and arguments. This is not only evident when trying to discuss what is being asserted by the phrase “gender is a social construct”, but also in the phrase “gender is fluid”. For specifics, refer to the relevant blog posts in the “Further Reading” section.
Now you may think, “Okay, but at least ‘biological sex’ is straightforward”. Well, actually, it's much less straightforward than is commonly understood. There's a social component to it, in that we could, for example, define ‘sex’ on the basis of hormone levels, rather than chromosomes. But even when we define it on the basis of chromosomes, it's not simple, because not everyone is either ‘XX’ or ‘XY’. There are people who are ‘intersex’, having a chromosome set such as ‘XXY’. (Horrifically, a number of intersex people are genitally mutilated at birth, in order to force them to look either ‘female’ or ‘male’.) And if you're ‘XXY’, your ‘sex’ can ‘change’ simply by travelling between countries, because some countries define sex on the basis of the number of X chromosomes, and others on the presence of a Y chromosome.
For some further information, refer to the “Biologist Explains Biological Sex” link in the “Further Reading” section.
i also want to draw particular attention to the distinction i make between “one's sense of one's own gender” and “gender identity”. The former is an internal feeling; the latter is the label one uses to try to describe or summarise that feeling. There are various reasons to change one's gender label, and it doesn't mean that one's underlying feeling has changed. For example, when i transitioned, i initially described myself as ‘bi-gendered’, to try to describe that i'm both a woman and a man. But what i found in practice was that a lot of cross-dressing cis men were using it to describe themselves. That's fine, but then that meant it didn't accurately describe me. So i started using the word ‘two-gendered’ instead (not ‘two-spirit’, because i'm not a First Nations person). But had my underlying sense of my gender changed? No.
Why can TGD people get so worked up about language?
TGD people are constantly invalidated. We are daily misrepresented, discriminated against, harrassed, physically assaulted and murdered on the basis of being TGD. As per the link in the “Further reading” section, “News Corp covers trans issues more negatively than other Aussie media”. J.K. Rowling uses her platform to express transphobic politics to literally millions of people, and when she's criticised for it, has the gall to claim she's being ‘cancelled’, whereas many TGD people aren't even given a voice in the first place, let alone have such a huge audience (cf. my blog post “The original cancel cultures”). We still get regularly used as fodder for wedge politics / distraction politics, as happened during the last Federal election, with the former Prime Minister publicly supporting transphobic Liberal candidate Katherine Deves, and which i imagine we're probably going to see happen again in the upcoming Victorian state election with transphobic Liberal candidate Moira Deeming.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the mental health of trans people in Australia is appalling:
Transgender people experience a higher rate of suicide attempts than LGB people, and are nearly eleven times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
Transgender people are nearly three times more likely to have had thoughts of suicide than LGB people combined, and are twelve times more likely to have thoughts about suicide than the general population.
– “Snapshot Of Mental Health And Suicide Prevention Statistics For LGBTI People” 
A recent study from the University of Melbourne found transgender Australians have experienced thoughts of suicide or hurting themselves at disproportionately high rates during the pandemic.
"We've seen a picture that the trans community are not receiving the support that is needed, and they're in a state on the whole of crisis, with significant mental health distress," said co-author Ada Cheung.
"This is significantly higher than the general population.["]
The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 transgender people during the pandemic and found 61 per cent experienced clinically significant symptoms of depression.
More than one in 10 reported feeling unsafe or afraid at home.
— “LGBT Australians at higher risk of depression, suicide and poor access to health services during coronavirus pandemic” 
As a result of all this, many of us are constantly ‘on edge’ as we anticipate the next incident that erases us, invalidates us, or harms our mental and/or physical health. Even after many such incidents, we can still get blindsided: making a call to my bank, i was flagged as being a possible fraudster, due to my account listing me as ‘female’ but my voice not sounding ‘female’ enough. i lodged a formal complaint, noting that, as someone who's worked in motor accident claims, i understood the desire to minimise fraud, but that the sound of someone's voice was not an appropriate criterion. Thankfully, the bank was responsive, and ended up issuing a nationwide memo that made my point. But it was time and effort i was not expecting to have to put in.
On top of all this, even those of us who do constantly try to educate people - as i, a transgenderqueer woman with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, have been trying to do for the last couple of decades - nevertheless have to deal with the fact that:
- the mass media mostly fails to share our voices (whether deliberately or carelessly); and
- many non-TGD people seem to only superficially listen (whether literally or metaphorically), and often seem to be much more concerned about having to put in some effort to change their language than about problematic language significantly contributing to TGD people's poor mental health on a daily basis.
For example, in my own case, i've spent so many years trying to get people to stop throwing around the phrase “gender is a social construct” that my health professionals have had to convince me that it has actually become a trigger for me - ‘trigger’ is a word i don't at all use lightly. (And the phrase “gender is fluid” is increasingly heading in that direction as well.)
That said, i'm far less bothered by the ‘person in the street’ using problematic language than i am by academics and sex educators doing so. My guess is that this might be due in part to people getting so used to being an educator that they can fail to recognise situations requiring them to return to being a humble student. Nevertheless, it's their job to continually try to better understand this stuff, and it's frustrating to keep encountering basic issues with their language when i've spent many years making good-faith efforts, at a significant cost to my time and energy, to create and provide informational resources in this regard. It's even more frustrating when people like feminist sex educator Laci Green try to ‘educate’ people with PhDs in sex differentiation: refer to the “Laci Green vs person with a PhD on sex differentiation” image in the “Further reading” section. And this is symptomatic of “the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women”: refer to the relevant link in that same section.
So. All the preceding means that TGD people often have very good reasons, based on ongoing lived experiences, to be very sensitive to issues of language.
That said, i don't claim that every TGD person's behaviour around language is necessarily appropriate; for a concrete example where i felt a TGD person's attitudes and behaviours were actively inappropriate, cf. my “Self-involved egocentric bullshit” blog post.
Why is the ‘right’ language always changing?
Because TGD people are working from a context in which various social, political, religious and cultural systems have - over the course of centuries - actively erased and denied our existence, our experiences, and our voices. As a result, we've only recently started finding our voices, and started trying to find the language that expresses our lives and experiences.
So those of us who are TGD are ourselves trying to work it out as we go along, as we explore the space of possibilities that exist outside the straitjacket of binary and/or dualist ideas about gender. We might initially think that particular language is perfect to describe our sense of our gender, but then over time come to feel that specific language isn't accurate, or is actually actively misleading in some way. So we might then search for more accurate language - and if that language doesn't yet exist, we might have to create it ourselves.
As we do all this, we can find that, although we're using certain language to mean certain things, some people start using that same language to mean different things (particularly when people jump to incorrect conclusions as to what the language ‘obviously’ means). So we then have to find other language to convey what we'd been trying to convey in the first place. But then the same thing can happen to that language. So then the process has to begin again.
A related issue is language being affected by people trying to shoehorn gender diversity into pre-existing concepts and understandings. One example is the ‘male side’ / ‘female side’ conceptualisation mentioned in the ‘cis(gender)’ entry. This is certainly understandable - we often learn most effectively when we're able to connect new ideas to existing existing ideas - but it can also mean that a number of us can constantly need to try to describe our gender in ways that are less amenable to such shoehorning and misrepresentation.
Finally, there are various TGD-negative forces - social, political, religious and cultural - continuing to actively work against recognition of our existence, our experiences, and our voices. Trying to develop and express TGD-positive language in this context is .... challenging, to say the least.
Blog posts of mine