Transgender: Using Words Wisely

Transgender words matter

As a transgender woman navigating the world I have encountered a lot of misconception on what word to use and what to avoid. Also, as an inclusive leadership coach and working on unconscious bias issues, I know wording is key. Oftentimes using, albeit unintentionally, wrong nouns, names and pronouns is cause for a lot of pain and grief. It generally leaves the receiver with feeling actively excluded, intentionally hurt, and especially disrespected.

The Definition of Transgender

Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. An adjective means that the word expresses an attribute or quality of a noun. E.g. “the red apple” where “red” is the adjective, giving us information of the noun “apple”. In this case it is an indication of color.

In other words: “a transgender” doesn’t exist, “a transgender person” on the contrary does.

Therefore, “transgender” refers to a specific quality where the gender identity and/or expression are experienced differently that what was assigned initially. The prefix “trans-” comes from latin and means as much as: “across, on the far side, beyond” . The antonym being “cis-“, meaning “on this side of” in Latin. So “non-transgender” is the same as “cisgender”. It is worth while noting that cisgender is less used, and seldom promoted, since it tends to (1) reinforce the dichotomy (us vs them) and (2) it forgoes the essence of intersex people.

Furthermore, “transgender” is used as an umbrella term covering all aspects and variants of gender identity and expression. Among these variations we count genderqueer, gender non-binary, gender-fluid, third-gender, transsexual, etc.

Oftentimes “transgender” is abbreviated to “trans” and as such commonly accepted.

One word of caution: transgender women are not cross-dressers or drag queens. The two latter are men who dress like women either for their own ease and pleasure or for the purpose of entertainment. In short, cross-dressers and drag queens are men “performing” as women. Also, do not use the term transvestite, which is perceived as defamatory, unless someone specifically self-identifies that way. In this sense I follow the guidelines as proposed by GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)

Transwoman vs. Trans Woman

Transwomen do not exist; trans women do. In that single space, that one breath of air, lies a world of recognition and inclusion.

When we fuse the adjective (trans, which is short for transgender) with the subject (in this case: woman), we reduce it to only the adjective. The subject becomes its characteristic or quality. It alienates them from an assumed norm: “real” women. That has a dehumanizing effect.

With the words “transwoman” and “transman” we create a new subject, a new species of primates: the homo transgender. Which is dangerously easy to confuse with the homo sapiens (*).

We know better.

A Celebration of Life

With transgender women – or for convenience’s sake: trans women – we mean women. Admittedly with a transgender past or a transgender experience, but nonetheless women. Dito with men of course. Trans men are real men with a transgender quality. With the space between trans and woman (or man) we recognise and give a token of appreciation for the full scope and diversity of the human experience.

With the space we recognise that being a woman or a man is not levelled off to a univocal or one-dimensional lived experience. We learn to accept that being a man or a woman does not have to coincide with the gender that we have been assigned as children. We see that our womanhood or manhood is not determined by what our genitals look like and that is has nothing to do with our choice of stepping into father- or motherhood.

Within the space lies freedom. The freedom to be yourself and to express the fullness of your being. The freedom to celebrate life and being a part of mankind.

Being Mindful with Words

Often, when I work with leaders around inclusive leadership and navigating our diverse world, I am reminded of one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements. The one agreement that stands out for me is: “be impeccable with your word”. Using the appropriate words is key to create a harmonious society. Not knowing which word is ok, one can (and should) always ask.

For convenience’s sake, here is a list of words to use and to avoid. I borrowed these from GLAAD. With their 30 years of experience of dealing with the media, I trust their take on this.

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In case you have any further questions, do not hesitate to contact me. Also, when you want to discuss this in another language such as Dutch (Nederlands), French (Français) or Italian (Italiano), let me know. I’m fluent in all 3.


(*) I encountered this idea in a great article by Olave Nduwanje on One World: “Transvrouwen bestaan niet, trans vrouwen wel” An article on which I leaned heavily in developing this line of thought.

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