Questions of language are deeply ingrained in the fight for transgender rights and equality. It’s not just a matter of being polite. If someone calls a trans man a woman, it fundamentally cuts against the person’s gender identity.
But there are still big barriers, even among traditionally liberal media outlets, toward getting the basics of trans-inclusive vocabulary right. A recent story in the New Republic referred to trans people as “transgendered,” “transman,” and “transwomen” — all of which are offensive to many trans people.
BuzzFeed LGBT Editor Saeed Jones echoed some of the offense in a recent tweet:
Getting this right isn’t just a matter of being inclusive toward trans people, although that should be reason enough. It can also help readers become familiar with the correct terms.
As New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan explained last week, one of the major challenges for news outlets is that most readers just aren’t familiar with how to correctly refer to people with non-traditional gender identities. And in some cases, referring to someone with the correct terms can be a little confusing — calling Chelsea Manning, a transgender soldier who’s in prison for leaking secret US documents, “she” after years of addressing her in news stories as “he” may have confused some readers, even though using the correct pronoun for Manning is the right editorial call.
Of course, there are ways around this. A writer could explain what the terms mean within a story. News outlets could link readers to clear definitions, similar to what BuzzFeed does with its house style guide. Stories could also point readers to more in-depth glossaries, like the GLAAD Media Reference Guide or UC Berkeley Gender Equity Resource Center’s definition of terms.
Most importantly, media outlets have to first get the terms right for themselves. But two common mistakes persist, as seen in the New Republic’s use of the terms “transgendered,” “transman,” and “transwoman.” Here’s why those terms are not just inaccurate but can cause such great offense when they’re used.
Transgender vs. transgendered
The umbrella term for people who identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth is “transgender” or “trans.” These words are adjectives, not nouns. Additionally, the word “transgendered” is offensive to trans people and unnecessarily confusing.
As trans advocate Joanne Herman noted in the Huffington Post, calling someone transgendered is a bit like calling someone “colored.” “One problem with this label was that it implied something happened to make the person ‘of color,’ which denied the person’s dignity of being born that way,” Herman wrote. Similarly, transgendered suggests that being trans is something that happens to someone, as opposed to an identity someone is born with.
The implication behind transgendered flies in the face of science: people can know their gender identity at a very young age. A recent study from the TransYouth Project found that transgender children as young as five years old respond to psychological gender-association tests, which evaluate how people view themselves within gender roles, as quickly and consistently as those who don’t identify as trans.
Transgendered is also unnecessarily long and confusing. LGBT group GLAAD explained: “The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous ‘-ed’ tacked onto the end. An ‘-ed’ suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. It also brings transgender into alignment with lesbian, gay, and bisexual. You would not say that Elton John is ‘gayed’ or Ellen DeGeneres is ‘lesbianed,’ therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is ‘transgendered.'”
Trans men and trans women vs. transmen and transwomen
A trans man is someone who identifies as a man but was designated female at birth. A trans woman is someone who identifies as a woman but was designated male at birth. Some trans people prefer to leave the word transgender or trans out altogether, since they only identify as a man or woman.
Writers shouldn’t use “transman” or “transwoman.” The word trans is an adjective that helps describe someone’s gender identity, and it should be treated like other adjectives. Merging the adjective and the noun risks suggesting that a trans man or woman is more (or less) than just a man or just a woman, which goes against how many trans people identify themselves.