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.
4 thoughts on “Why you should always use “transgender” instead of “transgendered””
As a trans woman and someone who knows quite a bit about English, I’m going to vehemently disagree with this article. The distinction between transgendered and transgender is so trivial that making a big deal out of it is the equivalent of saying “You have to say ‘toh may toh’ not ‘toh mah toh.'” Except that no one really cares about how to pronounce tomato, but so many people get riled up and sometimes kind of belligerent about “transgendered” that it’s so not funny, it borders on perverse.
Every argument that is made in favor of transgender against transgendered in this article are either false or just poor arguments. In sequential order:
A) There is no grammatical reason for transgender to be an adjective. In fact it’s counter-intuitive that gender is a noun but transgender isn’t. Affixing an adjective (trans) to a noun does not make it an adjective (no more than joining “pale” to “color” would make an adjective “palecolor”). The terms transgender and even trans* are adjectives only because they are somewhat agreed to be so through usage, and making an argument based on usage does not a great argument make. (I would not, for instance, be very convinced by someone saying we MUST use “good” as an adverb because most people say “I am good.”)
B) The transgendered is similar to colored argument breaks down because “colored” in this context is an inherently loaded term meaning “not-white”: both are social constructs that are used to privilege one group over another. Transgendered on the other hand was meant to point to a reality: that we are not like most people in that we do not have a neat match between identity, bodies, and desired expression. When we came up with a term for people who do experience that match (cis), transgendered simply became the counterpart to cisgendered.
C) Transgendered is not a verb, it’s a past participle, a verbal form that is actually an adjective.
In general, present participles are adjectives that would seem to imply acting and past participles are adjectives that would seem to imply an action done to the subject. For eg, “they are loving” would seem to imply that they love someone and “they are loved” would seem to imply someone loves them. This might be what is tripping up some folks because they assume that “they are transgendered” implies that someone transgenders (fake word) them. But the “would seem” is key—because this rule doesn’t really work. For eg. Someone can be loving without loving anyone in particular at all. On the other hand, when someone is “done” there is no one “doing” anything to them; they are the doer. Basically it really depends on the verb.
In the case of “gendered,” which is a root of “transgendered,” the case is even more complicated because gender isn’t even a verb in most people’s vocabularies, which is why “gendering” isn’t really a thing unless you’re an author or you’re assigning gender to inanimate objects (like to ships and cars): essentially, assigning gender artificially. No one says “I gendered this dog” because the dog just is gendered. Did you see what I did there? I am gendered and my dog is gendered, but no one gendered us. It’s a past-participle with absolutely no tangible subject that basically means “x has a gender.” The word “transgendered” then means “x has a transgender” (assuming in this case that “transgender” is a noun).
D) the argument about length is inane. Some words are longer than others.
E) Lesbian was never a verb; gender once was. Lesbianed doesn’t exist in any dictionary. Gendered does.
My point isn’t that transgendered is a better word than transgender, it’s that when people use say transgendered, they generally mean the same thing: “Nicola has a transgender.” You can quibble with it if you want, but the basic spirit is innocuous. They are not saying “someone must have transgendered Nicola.” They don’t mean something like “Nicola is colored,” and to them transgender functions as a noun (which for all extents and purposes it can).
At this point the last argument has to do with critical usage, that is, usage by the people who matter, which tends to be trans* people who are also advocates (thus eliminating the many trans* people who think “tranny” and “shemale” are appropriate labels). Basically this argument runs that the people who are affected the most and have the biggest vested interest should be allowed to choose their vocabulary. It’s an argument that i think has a lot of merit, as long as it doesn’t become an absolute. That is, within reason, minority groups should be allowed to dictate the language about them.
But at some point that right can becomes abused. What if, for instance, Malaysians decided they wanted to be called “The people who are better than Singaporeans?” it’s absurd, yes, but it shows that there are limits to minorities rights to define themselves.
When it comes to “transgendered,” I think this article and arguments like it push the limits of that right. Essentially, when you say “never say transgendered” you’re saying “Some of us have, without good reason, decided that this word is bad, and so we will ignore the spirit in which it is said and treat those who say it like pariahs.” And who says transgendered? For the most part, allies and people who are themselves trans*.
Essentially, by insisting on “transgender” the community is, for no good reason , creating a point of division. A shibboleth test if you will, that shows who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Basically we’re risking alienating allies and members of our own community and for what? Toh-may-toh?
There is so much worse that needs to be addressed. We are still being harassed, persecuted, insulted, kept from jobs, thrown out of homes, bullied, beaten, raped, and killed in extraordinary numbers. Do we really have time to piss off people on the basis of fake semantics?
Thank you for the comment Nicola, I will be more than happy to post a counter argument if you’d like to write one.
Discussion is the key for any subject and Ill always approve and encourage genuine comments like these
Sorry for the delay. For some reason I didn’t get the notification that you had replied (and was really busy). I’d be happy to write a counter argument! As you say, good dialogue is a really important thing!
Contacting me via email will probably get the fastest response.
Excellent comment and post Nicola – thank you for that. I’d like to post it in the main page if I may?