Everything You Need to Know About Trans Terminology

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There are an estimated 700,000 people who identify as transgender in the United States. Despite the country making progress in LGBT rights over the past few years, life can still be very difficult for people who fall under the “T” part of the acronym. Trans people, particularly those who are people of color, are disproportionately targets of discrimination and crime. In the media, speculation that someone might be transgender is often accompanied with misinformation about what that even means. Using the correct terminology when you're talking to or about trans people is a way to show you respect them, as well as just being the right thing to do. So here are some frequently asked questions - and answers! - about trans terminology.


What does “transgender” mean?

According to GLAAD, transgender is “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.” “Trans” is the shortened version of “transgender.” The trans community includes people who identify as men or women as well as people who identify as both genders, neither gender, or a different one altogether. Trans people have existed in many cultures throughout history with different names: two-spirit, mukhannathun, okule/agule, mudang, gallae, hijra. Anyone who thinks being trans is some new fad the kids are doing is wrong.

What’s the difference between “transgender” and “transgendered?” Which one should I use?

“Transgendered” isn’t technically a word. It’s an adjective, not a noun or verb. You wouldn’t say a short person is “shortened,” right? Same diff.

It’s also important to note that you would call someone “a transgender person,” not “a transgender.” Again: Adjective, not noun.

What’s the difference between transgender and transsexual? Are they the same thing?


They are not the same thing. “Transsexual” is an older term for a trans person that originated in the medical community. It’s a less inclusive term than transgender. Unless someone tells you they want you to refer to them as transsexual (and some people do!), avoid it.

What about “tranny?”

NOPE. Don’t use the word “tranny.” It’s right up there with the n-word on the list of offensive slurs you should write out of your vocabulary. Saying someone “looks like a tranny” is also really rude - you’re saying that being trans means looking strange or ugly. Same with “he-she” or “it” or “shim” or calling someone a “Pat.”


Can I use “transvestite” instead?

No. That’s an outdated, kind of offensive term. “Cross-dresser” is the right word to use when you’re talking about someone who wears the opposite sex’s clothing, but doesn’t want to take hormones or permanently change their body in any way.


Alex Newell joined Alicia Menendez to discuss his role on "Glee" as a transgender teenager and how he likes to wear women's clothing on the red carpet and in his personal life.

So are drag queens cross-dressers or transgender people?

Drag queens are typically gay men who like to dress up as flamboyant women for performances. Once the show is over, they wear men’s clothing and live their lives as men. That makes them cross-dressers. RuPaul is an example of a drag queen cross-dresser.


Sometimes, a trans person will do drag as a way of exploring another gender identity, and then they’ll ultimately choose to transition. Carmen Carrera appeared on “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” as a man doing drag, but after the show ended, she came out as a transgender woman. She told Alicia Menendez gender doesn't matter when you do drag.

"When you perform in a drag show, I don’t think your gender really matters or your sexual orientation. … It’s more about the show, your performance, what you’re expressing."


What does “cisgender” mean?

A cisgender person is the opposite of a trans person. It’s someone who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth. So for instance, if when you were born, the doctor told your parents, “It’s a girl!” and you identify as a woman, you are a cisgender person.


Fiona Dawson, created and host of "TransMilitary" and a member of the Board of Directors for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, said in an article for the Huffington Post that "People who are not transgender, who do indeed identify with their sex assigned at birth, are known as cisgender."

Are all transgender people gay?

No. Being trans is about your gender identity and expression – what gender you are and how you present it to the world. Being gay is your sexual orientation – which genders you’re sexually attracted to. Trans people may be gay, or straight, or bisexual.


Is a person only really transgender when they’ve had a sex change? How do I ask if someone is pre-op or post-op?

A person is transgender when they say they are. Transitioning is a process that can involve legal, medical, professional, and social steps. Not every trans person can afford (or even wants) a sex change operation. Whether someone has had an operation or not is their personal medical history, AKA none of your beeswax. If a person says they are trans, take them at their word. There’s no reason they should have to “prove” they’re really transgender.


Laverne Cox addressed the issue of asking about a trans person's genitalia when she appeared on Katie Couric's show.

"I feel like the preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people. … And then we don't really get the lived experiences and reality of trans people's lives. So often we're the targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average — if you're a person of color, it's four times the national average. The homicide rate in the LQBT community is highest among trans women and when we focus on transition, we don't actually get to talk about those things."


Carmen Carrera told VICE she was sick of being asked about what was between her legs.

"It's getting to the point where I don't think that's relevant. … Like, I wouldn't sit here and ask you about your genitalia. It's indecent! Don't be concerned about if I've had the snip or not, because it's between me and my intimate partner."