Transgender terminology: Top tips for inclusive writing

December 01, 2016

As a communications pro, you know language matters. As an LGBTQ ally, you want to make sure everything you produce is respectful and inclusive.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet to make sure you stay on-message and respectful when writing about transgender people or the issues facing the LGBTQ community:

Do Use:

  1. Gender Identity (n.)
    A person’s internal, personal sense of being a man, woman, or someone outside of that binary. This is different from sexual orientation! Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, or anything else.
  2. Gender expression (n.)
    How a person expresses their gender identity – think clothing, hairstyle, speech patterns, and body language.
  3. Transgender (adj.)
    A term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
  4. Non-binary, queer, genderqueer, genderfluid…(adj.)
    These are examples of terms besides “transgender” that people who aren’t entirely male or female may use to describe their gender identity. These can mean different things to different people, but always use the terms people use for themselves.
  5. Transition (n.)
    The complex and personal process of altering one’s birth sex and/or coming out as transgender. This could include telling one’s friends and family, using a different name and pronouns, or undergoing hormone therapy. No two transitions are identical and there is no “right way” to be transgender.

Don’t Use:

  1. “Transgendered”; “A Transgender”; “Transgenderism”
    “Transgender” is an adjective, not a noun. If you would feel uncomfortable replacing “transgender” in your sentence with “gay” or “black” (e.g., “Tony is a transgender.”), you’re probably using it wrong!
  2. “Sex change”; “Pre-operative”
    Transitions can happen any number of ways – and none of them require surgery or hormone therapy. These terms needlessly reduce people to medical procedures.
  3. “Born a man/woman”; “Man trapped in a woman’s body”; “Biologically female”
    These phrases over-simplify the very complex concept of sex and gender, and they make a lot of inappropriate assumptions. Many transgender people do feel like they’re at odds with their bodies – but many love the bodies they were born with and would be insulted to hear you describe them as “trapped.

Remember: The easiest way to avoid mistakes is to ask people which terms and pronouns they want you to use. You don’t have to walk on eggshells if preferred language is established upfront.

Check out the GLAAD Media Reference Guide for a comprehensive set of tools to tell LGBTQ people’s stories.

Don’t forget: The Hatcher Group can help with navigating all your communications. Get in touch.