There are two core concepts that help in understanding transgender people and their experiences. A recent article in The Guardian suggests some guidelines for writing about transgender people.
“First, gender and sex are distinct in this context: sex = biology, ie sex assigned at birth; gender = one’s innate sense of self. Thus, transgender (where the Latin trans means “on the other side of”) signifies someone whose gender differs from their assigned sex.
“Second, while transgender refers in the broadest sense to someone whose sex and gender do not match, cisgender (from the Latin “on this side of”, ie the antonym of trans) refers to those whose sex and gender do match. In other words, anyone not trans is cis.
“If that sounds like a strange or even offensive concept, you are probably cis. We hope it doesn’t make you feel embarrassed or ashamed. If so, consider yourself endowed with a new level of empathy for your trans brothers and sisters. But rest assured it’s only meant as a helpful linguistic signpost for understanding gender diversity.
“With that in mind, here are some proposed guidelines. Transgender should be used as an adjective, shortened to trans after first use: transgender person, trans person. Never “transgendered person” or “a transgender”. (In the case of trans*, the asterisk represents a wildcard, ie any gender minority. Stick to transgender or trans in formal contexts.)
“Now stop and consider whether it is actually relevant to state that this person is transgender. If so, always use the correct pronouns – how they present themselves publicly – and stick to neutral terms such as man or woman. Always use a person’s chosen name. Do not mention previous names without explicit permission and again, ask yourself whether it is absolutely relevant to the story.
“Whether discussing a person’s past, present or future, only use the correct pronouns for their gender. A person’s gender generally does not change. Public presentation may change in transition and secondary sex characteristics may change with the aid of hormones and/or surgery, but one’s sense of being either male or female is, in most cases, constant throughout life.
“Transition refers to the process by which someone alters their public presentation to match their gender identity. Everyone’s transition is different. Some consider transition to have a definite end point while others do not. Some live stealth (where their trans status is unknown to most people), others identify openly as trans their entire lives, and others fall somewhere in between. As with gender itself, transition exists on a broad spectrum. Trans woman refers broadly to a someone assigned male at birth who identifies as female and vice versa for trans man. MtF means male to female, referring to transition, and FtM vice versa. As with much of thislanguage, such terms are a matter of personal preference rather than objective definition. Where possible, ask an individual how they identify and in most cases stick to woman and man. Genderqueer, genderfluid and other related terms also come under the transgender umbrella. In simple terms, they signify those who do not identify with the male/female binary but somewhere in between or outside it. Some use neutral pronouns, such as “them” and “they”. Transsexual (adjective) is a medical definition, not a synonym for transgender, and should be avoided unless specifically discussing medical terminology and/or surgical treatment. It is (somewhat controversially) used to describe someone who undergoes sex reassignment surgery. There are many varied and discrete surgical procedures. A person may opt for none, several or many. None of this is relevant to their gender identity, public life or, in fact, anyone besides the person they may or may not be in bed with. The irrelevance of medical procedures renders terms such as “pre-op” and “post-op” equally irrelevant and offensive. The diversity of treatment and individual choices render the term “sex change” utterly nonsensical. It is also offensive and generally used purely to sensationalise. Though a distinct subject, it is worth mentioning that intersex refers to someone whose biological sex is ambiguous. An intersex person may or may not identify as transgender; however, the two terms are not interchangeable or indeed interrelated. “Hermaphrodite” is outdated and offensive.
” The following are also offensive and should never be used unless in direct quotation: “tranny” (whether as a contraction of transsexual or transvestite), “shim”, “he-she”, “she-male”, “gender-bender”, “transsexual” as a noun and similar epithets. Never use terms such as deception, masquerading, fooling, or pretending. Finally, if you are cis, remember this advice: do not worry about not understanding or relating to trans people. As a trans person, I can assure you that the feeling is mutual. Just ask and, most importantly, listen. While asking, stay within the bounds of plain old discretion and respect. Would you ask a cis person about their medical history, sexual practices or genitalia? If not, don’t ask – or even ask if you can ask – someone who is trans. There’s nothing to it. Many thanks to GLAAD and Trans Media Watch for their indispensable, and far more in depth, resources.”