In this post I am hoping to share some of my views on the usage of the word “transgender,” and the thorny issue of when it is appropriate to use. Granted, I have been influenced by others who post online in discussion forums, written articles and blog posts, and people in transgender support groups I attend, so I approach this topic from a hopefully informed perspective, but I will fully admit that my own personal views and feelings will enter into what I write.
There are a wide range of issues that pop up when you see the word “transgender.” What is its linguistic status: is it a noun, verb, or adjective? Along with this you will find that most transgender persons do not want it used as noun when they are the referent. I find issues with it being used as a verb in the case of “transgendered.” Another area of contention is whether or not people should use “transgenderism.” Also meriting attention is the use of “trans” as a shorted version of “transgender,” the use of conjunctions, such as “transman” or “transwomen,” and how inclusive of a term is it—who falls under it. One final issue I am aware of is when is it appropriate to even to refer to someone as a transgender person?
Okay, so let’s look at some of the dictionary definitions. Google’s dictionary says the word “transgender” is an adjective and is defined as ‘denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.” In addition it also has “transgendered” as an alternative form. Dictionary.com has this as entry: “adjective 1. noting or relating to a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s sex assigned at birth: 2. noting or relating to a person who does not conform to societal gender norms or roles. noun 3. Usually Offensive. a person who is transgender.” (dictionary italics) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has it as an adjective and a noun. I am not quoting the entry because I have issues with it, and rather lengthy. (see – https://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/247649).
I am not certain, but I think Google only defines it as an adjective because of its offensive nature as a noun as the dictionary.com entry states. It is the offensive nature that I wish to discuss for now. This is because when you use it as a noun it objectifies the person. Grammatically, I suppose it is correct to use it as a noun, especially considering the OED’s listing of it as a noun. But, this is about more than just grammar. It is about respect. Objectifying a person negates that person as a person. The word “human” requires that it be used as an adjective too, although like “transgender” it has morphed into a noun. It is commonly used before “being.” Get the point—a being when used with “human” is according that person personhood. That is an exact comparison to using “transgender” as a noun. It denies that person’s personhood.
Google’s alternative as “transgendered” brings up one my qualms. How do you even use it with a noun. “She is a transgendered woman?” My issue is it makes it appear as I have been made a transgender person by some other entity—(e.g. god, doctor, parents, DNA). First I deny god’s existence so the first option is not possible. Did a doctor turn me into a woman? Doctors (this includes therapists) diagnose people with gender dysphoria (often for gatekeeping purposes), but no action of a medical profession made me a woman. My parents most certainly did not make me a transgender woman. Finally, while there seems to be a genetic causal factor, it is doubtful whether or not that is the sole determinator.
You will find there are some that speak of “transgenderism” as a phenomenon or as a subject of academic study (mostly in the sociology of gender). I feel it is disrespectful to use as a stand-in in viewing it as a phenomenon or social fact. You don’t speak of other groups in the same manner (e.g. blindnessism). Wikipedia has this on the use of the suffix ‘-ism”: it “is often used to describe philosophies, theories, religions, social movements, artistic movements, and behaviors” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/-ism). It would be odd as a philosophy, although it could be that there are theories of transgender identity; it is certainly not a religion; it might be thought of a social movement, such as the drive to gain civil rights, but I have never heard in this way; it is hard to believe that it is artistic movement; and if used as a behavior that would be odd and demeaning—she has transgenderism. I would claim that none of these usages are appropriate when discussing transgender issues.
The use of “trans” as a substitute for “transgender” is common. But, again a large portion of the transgender population finds this offensive because it shows a disrespect for the whole person. I almost always write “transgender” instead of “trans.” I find that it is no more of an effort. When I am speaking to a non-transgender or mixed population I also use transgender. I will admit I find that there is somewhat of a double standard that could be involved here. There are many transgender individuals that use “trans.” However, I most note usage this within the transgender population in video support groups I attend. Almost everyone there says “trans.” I believe that is best to use “transgender” in almost all instances. I feel this should be so within group settings too. Although, I have no plans to try to change this in group behavior.
As common to find the use of “trans” in compound words, like “transwoman” and transman.” The same basic critique applies here as in the use of “trans” by itself. One critique I have heard is you don’t use “tallwomen” or “shortwomen.” It is not used for other groups, such as “blackwomen” or “whitewomen.” In these cases you use “black women” or “white women.”
So, who should “transgender” be used as a indicator of a person’s gender identity? The above definition is – “noting or relating to a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s sex assigned at birth.” Okay, it seems pretty sound to use it for persons who are either a transgender woman or a transgender man. However, when you move away from the gender binary it is not so simple. It certainly seems appropriate for people who are often considered themselves as having a non-binary gender. Some of these individuals take exception to being label as non-binary or transgender. Although the definition would fit them, the main issue is many of these individuals want to break away from the gender binary altogether. It is best if you can ask the individual if they accept the labels “transgender” or “non-binary,” and if not what what would they prefer. Always yield to a persons wishes. There are also those that can be call agender; this is they don’t identify with any gender at any time. Non-binary on the other hand my include any manner of mixed gender.
My final issue is when would it even be appropriate to call someone a transgender person in the first place. If you refer to me as a transgender woman, and my assigned sex at birth is irrelevant, I would be offended. Yes, I fit the definition, but I first and foremost consider myself as a woman. Unless there is a need to reference me as a transgender woman, I believe it is wrong to use it.† As for others I feel they would on a whole want to just be seen as a woman. Yes, I am proud of being a transgender woman and so are others. I don’t even mind being seen as a transgender woman as long as you see me as a woman first and give me respect.
As you can see there is a good deal of controversary surrounding the use of “transgender” and its derivatives. I don’t see this changing any time soon, especially when there is so many people who would deny our existence, and frankly do not give a damn about hurting our feelings. I would also note that language is fluid. What was used in the past may no longer be used today, and what is used today may not be used in the future. That is why the OED carefully sets out the usage of “transgender.” The OED is not meant to be prescriptive, so the definitions you find there still may not be acceptable to all. I close with the advice to always yield to the individual transgender person.
† This can only be done when everyone knows of the transgender person’s gender status as you never out a transgender person without their permission first.