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trans-words

October 23, 2009

Erik asked me today whether "transman" meant someone who identifies as male or as female.  And it was brought up that the terminology is confusing, and often it’s hard to ask because you get you head bitten off for asking wrong.  And I thought maybe it would be good to talk a bit about what the terms mean.

DISCLAIMER:  I’m not an expert.  No one could get all these terms right, because people disagree as to the definitions.  If I insult someone with how I word something, I apologize in advance.  Leave a comment and I’ll do my best to fix it.

For instance, a transman is someone who identifies as a man.  A transwoman is then, a woman.  Trans meaning they are either transgender or transexual, and man or woman identifying which side of the fence they identify as.

As for transgender vs. transexual.  Transgender is not totally well defined, but is usually used as an umbrella term, i.e. transgender includes transexual and genderqueer and a lot of other identities.  I tend to define it like this: a person is transgender if 1. the gender they identify as is different than the one society gives to their birth genitals and 2. they feel the need to identify as such.  I add in point 2 because by the first point, depending on how you define things, I’ve only known a few ciswomen in my life.   Transgender can mean you just don’t fit well with the group you’re ‘supposed’ to be in, or you like to break rules, or a whole host of things.

Transexual is more specific.  It’s a person who feels they identify mostly or completely as the opposite gender from what their birth genitals proclaim.  Most transexuals will transition, meaning that they go through some or all of the following steps: hormones, facial hair removal (for transwomen), top surgery to gain or remove breasts, bottom surgery of various degrees to change the genitals, changing their sex/gender on important documents, and changing their name.  (there are other things too, in transitioning for some.  These are examples)  An important point though: no single one of these things ‘makes’ you transexual.  You can be completely ‘no-op’ and still be transexual.  You can not take hormones and still be transexual.  People have good reasons for not wanting invasive surgeries and possibly dangerous hormones.  The body doesn’t make the person.

With the exception of Eddie Izzard and a few others, transvestite is often taken as an offensive term.  When it isn’t used offensively, it’s usually addressed at cross dressers, meaning people that prefer to dress as the opposite sex for fun, sexual fulfillment, or any other of a variety of reasons.  If you’re not sure, I’d recommend just calling someone "trans" or "transgender" – less likely to offend.  To be clear, most cross dressers identify as cisgender…but not all.  It’s whatever box they choose.  Also, ‘tranny’ is sometimes offensive.  But randomly so.  Just like gays can get away with calling each other fags but straights aren’t generally allowed to say it, err on the side of caution about this one.

Cis is the opposite of trans.  Meaning your gender identity matches your sex.  Meaning most of the world.  For you chemists out there, yes, it’s the same Latin that is used for double bonds.  That’s how I figured out what the heck a cis-person was.  Cis was coined because otherwise you have trans-people and normal-people…and that means trans-people are abnormal, and that’s not so cool.

MtF/FtM (also used with the number 2 instead of the T) are abbreviations for Male-to-Female and Female-to-Male.  So someone who identifies as FtM would also be a transman.  Just different words.

Then there’s genderqueer/genderfuck.  The first usually refers to people who can’t pick a box.  I like it.  The second refers to people who purposefully refuse a box.  I alternately like it and annoyed by it.

Then there’s the pronoun game.  ‘Hir’ and ‘ze’ often get a lot of laughs, but can be really useful.  Better than using ‘they’ as a singular, in a lot of ways.  But more seriously, for some people, picking a box is traumatic (including me on some days).  For some people, they simply don’t fit into ‘him’ or ‘her’.  As for the majority of people, use the pronoun they use to refer to themselves.  If someone tells you they are MtF, use feminine pronouns unless told otherwise.  If someone is obviously attempting to pass as a certain gender, use the prounouns appropriate to the one they’re choosing to present.

Speaking of passing, that means getting people to see you as your chosen gender.  Actually, broadly, it means fitting in as something your not.  In Jim Crow America, blacks with light skin would pass as white.  In the seventies and eighties most queers did their best to pass as straight.  And today it’s very important for the safety and well being of most transpeople to pass completely as their chosen gender.

As for orientation, transpeople can be gay or straight or anything else.  Sexual identity and gender identity are not at all the same thing.  They are orthogonal axes, for the nerds out there.  Just as both men and women can be gay, straight, and bi, transpeople of every stripe can have every identity.

Intersex…is not trans.  Intersex means that your birth genitals refused to pick a box *laughs*.  That’s a horridly crude way of putting it.  An intersex person is someone who’s body at birth does not neatly fit into either male or female.  They can identify as they choose, and often play in the trans community because that’s a close fit.  But it’s not the same thing.

This is a lot of words.  And I’m not even being that long-winded.  It’s confusing, I know.  Please comment if something didn’t make sense, or if there’s something I didn’t cover.  My final lesson is this: a transperson is ‘really’ whoever and whatever the heck they say they are.  A transwomen is not ‘really’ a man.  She is really exactly who she says she is: a woman.  Say that she is male bodied, or was born male, or has transitioned.  It’s incredibly offensive to say that she is really a man.  Don’t ever tell anyone you know better than they do what box they belong in.  Trans issues are incredibly complicated, and you’ve gotta have a diagnosis from a shrink to even approach most medical and legal aspects of transitioning, so trust me, a transperson knows better than you who they ‘really’ are.  They have spent incredible amounts of time contemplating aspects of sex and gender, and have decided for themselves who they are.  Many have been abused by others, and have pretty terrible depression, because of their identity.  Respect their own self identification.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009 11:12 pm

    Thanks for that. It was nice to have things laid out to make sure I never make mistakes.
    Personally, I rather wish I didn’t have to be male or female. I’d rather just be neither. But there is no word for that in sentences other than “it”, which sounds awful.
    I think if I had been raised slightly differently and wasn’t in a hetero relationship…I’d really be happy to dress very androgynously. I already dress pretty darn androgunously, and act VERY androgynous. I really am not a girl, but neither am I a guy. My body is female. My mind is my own. I hate that we have two categories and that we have to put ourselves in one or the other. I don’t enjoy being thought of as a girl, but don’t want to be thought of as a guy, either. I just want to be thought of as me.
    Man. How is it that I always manage to choose the things that don’t fit? Yay for androgynous asexuals? Lol, actually, I’m guessing that asexuals as a whole probably have one of the highest group percentages of people who wish they didn’t have to be considered either gender.
    I guess the current PC word for me would be non-gendered? I don’t really even know, lol. That one seems to make the most sense to me, though. Personally I’d have no problem with “androgynous”, but since I’m not in the community, I don’t really know if that is considered offensive.

  2. October 29, 2009 7:13 am

    Oh heck there’s a pile of options there. I just didn’t want to go in to TOO excessively much detail in the original post.
    People who don’t like the binary sometimes call themselves androgynous. I don’t like it only ’cause I have a hard time spelling it…yeah. That’s generally a person who doesn’t feel they fit in either box. The opposite end, sorta, is people who feel they have a foot in each box, which is usually bi-gendered.
    Genderqueer is also a popular one. It basically just says not in the binary, not otherwise specified. There’s a lot of expressions to it. I’ve also seen non-binary batted around online some, though not as much.
    What I find interesting is that a lot of transexuals are forty, where a lot of the less well defined terms are twenty. It seems that there’s something of a split, where people who were raised with less rigidly defined gender roles feel less affinity for one box or the other.
    But yes, I like androgynous. Or genderqueer. Or something. *laughs* I haven’t managed to really pick something other than “transgender” because it’s too confusing. But it’s fun to poke around online and find people who are as radical as I am about gender. Makes me happy.

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