The employee filling out my information got to a page about gender. There were four options: “Male,” “Female,” “Male Impersonator,” and “Female Impersonator.”
If it were not for my fear of the NSA, I might have pointed out to this person that, for a governmental body as intent on intelligence collection as this one, it was certainly going to have trouble gathering accurate information with those four options.
I certainly hope that everyone reading this article knows that trans people are not “impersonating” anyone.
However, many well-intentioned people simply don’t know the language that we use for ourselves. They want to treat us with respect, but they often fail because they don’t know the practicalities of how to do it.
Some may have heard that the trans community is very “sensitive” about words and are extra nervous about this as a result.
I say, though, that we aren’t “too sensitive.” That label is used to dismiss the concerns of oppressed people time and again.
Society has built a language and mentality that does not accommodate trans people or allow us to exist. We have created new language and reshaped old words to build a place for ourselves in the world.
These words work to reframe an entire language that is focused on cis supremacy. Of course, using the right language is not everything (check out Jess Ide’s article here for a more in-depth analysis of this).
Language is not a replacement for tangible support of the trans community. But shifting our words is an important step in shifting our ideas and actions.
These words are not the wailing of a “sensitive” community. They are tools that can bring us all closer to gender-based freedom.
Just to be clear, when I use the word “trans,” I am using it as an umbrella term for everyone who doesn’t completely identify as cis. When I use “non-binary,” I am using it as an umbrella term for everyone who doesn’t solely identify as male and female. This may not apply to intersex individuals, their lived experience of possessing sex characteristics not generally accepted as male or female can preclude them from a cis identity.
I know that many people’s experiences and identities are more complicated, but I’m using those words as shorthand in this introductory article.
I also want to acknowledge that I am only one person in the trans community. I cannot speak for everyone. In particular, I want to acknowledge that my race and class privilege has likely influenced this piece, although I’ve tried to mitigate it.
I’ve done my best to make this list inclusive, but many others might have more to add or say differently on these issues. And I absolutely welcome you to comment and engage with others on this topic.
Language changes over time, space, and culture/subculture, and although I have done my best to gather as much information as I can, this list is definitely not the last word on this topic. If you are trans and have more to add, please let me know!
1. Stop Non-Consensually Gendering People
Examples: “Sir,” “ma’am,” “that gentleman over there,” “ladies,” and so on.
You actually have no idea what someone else’s gender is. And it generally isn’t your business. Besides, it’s likely that treating someone based on your assumptions about their gender will have bad results.
You run the risk of misgendering someone, using sexism to justify your gender judgments, enacting sexism by interacting with someone based on their (a)gender identity, and generally being rude — because it’s rude to assume that you know someone else better than they themselves do.
Try This Instead:
Ask “What are your pronouns?” to everyone. It’s not even a bad idea to check in with people you’ve known a long time, just to be sure. Use gendered words only when you know what words someone uses and it’s needed or relevant. Otherwise, use words like “person/people.”
Don’t only ask someone when you’re “not sure” what their pronouns are. You should be unsure about any and everyone’s pronouns.
This is because you never can tell someone’s gender identity based on the messed-up mental math we’ve been trained to do since babyhood: “Five o’ clock shadow here, breastline there, wearing a dress and a bowtie… Must be a—” Bodies and gender expression do not determine gender identity.
Talking about gender is important, and gender is important to many people. But we use gendered words way more than is necessary.
There are many ways that we enact oppression based on other identities—and I am not trying to say that these examples are equivalent. But most people would find it reprehensible to say “Good morning, blacks and whites” or “Good morning, rich and poor people.” Yet, “good morning, boys and girls” is a common greeting for students across the United States.
Referencing gender this regularly in our language makes it more deeply invade all aspects of our lives. When you do this, you are assuming that gender is a system that is of utmost importance to the identities of everyone around you — and you are indirectly supporting the hierarchies that our gender systems enact.
Yes, we’re feminists. Yes, we talk about gender all the time. This is precisely why we need to be intentional about when, where, and how we talk about gender.
2. Stop Pretending Gender Is Solely About Identity
Examples: “Male-identified,” “self-identified women,” and so on.
As this comic puts it, trans women are women. Trans men are men. They don’t just “identify” as their genders.
We don’t ask cis people “Since when have you started identifying as female?” or “Are you a self-identified man?”
Non-binary people, too, don’t solely have identities — we have genders. Except, of course, for agender people, who don’t have a gender at all.
Try This Instead:
Use whichever gender/non-gender you’re talking about: men, women, genderqueer, agender, and so on.
If, for example, you really do mean people who somewhat identify with maleness, but who may not be male, specify that.
3. Stop Assigning Gender to Sex
Examples: “Biologically female,” “Female body,” and so on.
Sex is not objective science—its borders are politically determined. Sex is a cultural construction. The idea that gender equals sex harms everyone — particularly trans and intersex people. It also especially harms cis women, who also often lobby against being reduced to their bodies.
Instead of arbitrarily assigning genders to all primary and secondary sex characteristics, we should allow everyone to determine what their bodies mean to them. All women have female bodies. All men have male bodies. All non-binary people have non-binary bodies.
Allowing self-determination of our bodies is a basic feminist principle. It should remain a basic feminist principle when talking about trans bodies.
Additionally, stop conflating issues cis women face as issues all women face, and issues that people who menstruate face as issues solely (and, by implication, only “true”) women deal with.
One version of that is talking about “women’s bodies” and “uterus power” as a source of reclaiming stereotypes about menstruation without recognizing that statements like these are inherently cissexist.
Cis women can and should keep talking about issues related to sexism and their bodies; they simply need to stop doing it in a universalizing manner, and simultaneously combat transmisogyny.
Try This Instead:
Use phrases like “assigned fe/male at birth,” “people with ovaries,” “people with penises,” and so on.
Please do not try to shorten this by saying that someone was “born a boy” or “born a girl.” Trans people often identify as having been their actual gender(s) (or lack thereof) for our entire lives. We were forced into our assigned genders — not born as them.
In addition, if you are talking with someone about their body in a more personal or intimate way, please be sure that you use words that person is comfortable with. Not everyone is comfortable using words such as “vagina” or “penis.”
And it really should go without saying, but I hope that you won’t be talking about trans people’s genitalia willy-nilly and/or without their consent!
4. Stop Saying ‘All Genders’ (Unless That’s Actually What You Mean)
I know; it seems like such great shorthand! No need to worry about excluding anyone — that lovely word “all” will bring everyone in nicely, won’t it?
Well, not exactly. Agender people exist. They don’t have genders. There may be a time when you’re talking specifically about everyone with a gender, but that time will be rare.
Try This Instead:
Say “all/no genders.”
Within your writing and conversations, be sure that you recognize that gender-based oppression does not only affect people with genders. This may require some editing and backtracking at first, but it’s important to make the change.
5. Stop Saying ‘Women and Trans People’
Also stop making gratuitous distinctions between cis and trans women.
Some trans people are women. This phrase implies that trans women are not “really” women.
When people do the opposite and make gratuitous distinctions, they may be trying to be inclusive by specifying trans women. But unless a distinction is actually necessary, you again are invalidating these women’s genders.
Only distinguish between cis and trans people when necessary. Only make those linguistic distinctions when you’re actually talking about cisness and transness in some way.
Try This Instead:
You could say “anyone who identifies with one or more of these categories: women, non-binary people, and trans men,” “gender diverse,” “people facing sexism and/or transphobia,” or “all people facing gender-based oppression.”
You also may be looking to be inclusive when referencing a variety of gender-based combinations. You could try out some of these phrasing options if you want to talk about…
- Everyone: Try “people of all and no genders.” (First, consider whether you need to reference gender at all right then!)
- Women: You can say “women,” or depending on who you’re including, “people who are female some or all of the time.”
- People who deal with oppression specifically for their gender identity itself (that is, not men): Try, “people who identify with any, some, or all of these categories: women, non-binary people, and agender people.”
- Everyone who isn’t cis: Try “everyone who identifies as, or could be identified by others as, trans, non-binary, and/or agender” or “everyone who doesn’t identify fully with being cisgender in some way.”
- If you want to include gender non-conforming people as well: You could add “gender non-conforming” to the list, or alternately use “gender diverse,” or “all people facing gender-based oppression.”
Of course, this is a preliminary list and it doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. Feel free to mix and match the above phrasing, as according to common sense. If you’re not sure about your phrasing, it’s best to ask.
6. Stop Reinforcing the Gender Binary
Examples: “Boys and girls,” “he or she,” “men and women,” “ladies and gentlemen,” and so on.
These phrases erase the existence of many non-binary people. Especially because they are so common, they can take a draining, daily toll on non-binary people.
Try This Instead:
You can use “folks,” “students,” “they,” “everyone,” “you all,” and other variations.
While there are many awesome gender-neutral forms of address out there, there aren’t perfect replacements for all situations. The one where I’ve had the most trouble finding an alternative has been with people saying “sir/ma’am” in a customer setting.
Nevertheless, people should still avoid using “sir/ma’am.” It causes a lot of pain! And apart from that, it’s pretty simple to make the switch.
7. Stop Conflating Womanhood and Femininity with ‘All People Facing Gender-Based Oppression’
Examples: “Women” or “women and feminine people” when talking about gender-based oppression in general.
Womanhood is not the only gender that faces oppression, and femininity is not the only gender expression that faces oppression. Non-binary people who do not also identify as women exist, and we face oppression for our genders or the lack thereof.
The range of potential gender expressions is limitless, and it is not only on a masculine/feminine spectrum or binary. Everyone except masculine-presenting people experience oppression and censure for the non-masculinity of their gender expressions.
(Masculine-presenting female-assigned people do experience oppression related to their gender expression, but this is because of gender non-conformity. Masculinity itself is still privileged and valued.)
When you talk or act as if women and feminine people are the only people facing gender-based oppression, you are implying that these struggles do not exist.
Try This Instead:
Consider when you mean what and speak accordingly.
There are tons of times and places when it’s important to talk about the oppression women or feminine people face without talking about everyone.
When you do that, though, ask yourself if what you’re saying also applies to non-binary people and/or people who have non-masculine expressions. If it does, consider what learning or work you need to do to include us in the conversation.
Using trans-inclusive language involves changing your perceptions of gender-based oppression. Use your common sense, and think before you speak or write. After a while, using inclusive language will become more natural.
The effort is worth it. After all, gender justice without trans justice isn’t gender justice at all.
Adrian Ballou is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a genderqueer writer, artist, activist, and educator. They graduated cum laude from Smith College in 2011 and have spent the past several years doing youth development work both inside and outside the classroom. They particularly enjoy developing and delivering curriculum on social justice education and youth organizing. In their free time, they cook lots of food, sing songs, make art, and practice their Spanish, Hindi, and Urdu.