10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say)
It seems for every letter and every color in the LGBTQI rainbow, there is a specialized language known only to members of that community and some of its allies. Navigating across the spectrum of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as those questioning, queer, and intersex, can be like stepping into a minefield if you don’t know the jargon.
And when it comes to a group as outspoken — and as persecuted — as transgender people, there are many words which carry a negative connotation, or are used to describe actions or events that can be demeaning, condescending, and also triggering.
So, here are 10 of the terrible words used by and about those trans folks assigned male at birth (AMAB) and assigned female at birth (AFAB) as well as the gender-nonconforming — often referred to as GNC, just so you know. For those of us who are trans, perhaps you'll want to send a link to family and friends, to help them better understand you.
"Doxxing" isn't one of the offending words so much as it represents the act of doing something offensive. It's a word used so rarely that it may have escaped your attention. In March 2014, the Economist sought to explain the term, following a report by Newsweek revealing the identity of the man it said was the inventor of the Bitcoin.
"Doxxing" is short for “dropping documents,” a practice begun by hackers more than a decade ago. These hackers would collect and then reveal “personal and private information, including home addresses and national identity numbers," according to The Economist. "The data are often released publicly against a person’s wishes. It is a practice frowned upon by users of Reddit, a popular online forum, and many others.”
Its most trans-related usage was in a lawsuit filed by lawyer and radical feminist activist Cathy Brennan last year against a journalist and the company that owns the AfterEllen website. Brennan claimed to have been defamed by the report, which said she harasses, outs, and “doxxes” transgender women.
"TERF" is an acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and is used to describe those radical feminists, like Brennan, who oppose inclusion of transgender women in spaces they reserve exclusively for women assigned female at birth.
Brennan has refuted claims that this term applies to her and those who actively wage online campaigns against transgender women.
“People socially transition and decide to live as the opposite sex or how they think the opposite sex is. Good for you!” Brennan told The Advocate in July 2015. She continued:
“I think people should live their lives and be happy. The problem is when this conflicts with laws that are in place to protect women and girls.
“I have no interest in telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, and I’m especially not interested in telling women what they should or should not do because we are told what we should or shouldn’t do all the time, and I’m not contributing to that. Do I believe transition makes a female person male? Of course not.”
In her lawsuit against AfterEllen, Brennan claims that she does not support “irrational discrimination” against transgender people, but she made it clear in a July interview with The Advocate that she is strongly opposed to legislation to “afford biological males protection at the expense of the rights of women and girls,” as also stated in the lawsuit.
Read more about the origin of "TERF" as explained by journalist and trans historian Cristan Williams on her website, The TERFs.
"Deadnaming" someone who is transgender is a form of "doxxing," and is the practice of uttering or publishing the name that a trans person used prior to transition. Cisgender (nontrans) people often refer to this as a trans person’s “real” name, as if the name a trans person either uses or have legally had changed is somehow less real than the one given them at birth, when they were assigned male or female. It is seen as a verbally violent offense that attempts to invalidate a person’s authentic gender identity.
A common practice among trans people on social media to avoid deadnaming is to use punctuation and a stand-in word to reflect a reference to a name they’d just as soon forget, such as <boyname> or using a single initial of the former first name. In some cases, a creative trans person might rely upon artistic license by referring to their former identity as “my twin.”
The most famous transgender woman in the world, Caitlyn Jenner, is perhaps also the most deadnamed person in the world. Why some news media keep doing it raises the question: is there anyone who doesn’t know she used to go by another name beginning with the letter “B?”
But it’s not just conservative critics and religious right forces who aim to discredit Jenner’s transition and all trans people by using her former first name. Even The New York Times and the website for NBC’s Today show deadnamed her last week. NBC is owned by the same company that owns E!, home to Jenner's docu-series I Am Cait, and the show featuring her famous ex-wife and daughters, Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Jenner legally changed her name in 2015 to Caitlyn Marie Jenner, and held a naming ceremony with friends that was featured in the season one finale of I Am Cait.
“Clocking” is insider lingo that got its start on the outside. To the rest of the English-speaking universe, it is colloquially used to define the measurement of time or speed, as when a police officer says “I clocked you at 75 in a 35 mile per hour zone, ma’am. License and registration, please.” For decades, it has also been used in boxing to describe the act of punching someone in the face violently. Boxing fans have long been heard uttering phrases like “He really cleaned his clock,” or “Wow, did he get clocked!” The Word Detective website says “clock” has been slang for the human face since the mid-19th century.
But for those of us in the trans world, the term “clocked” is used to reflect that someone transgender has been recognized as trans, usually when that person is trying to blend in with cisgender people, and not intending to be seen as anything other than the gender they present.
"Clocking" is typically used by presentation-focused trans men and women to explain the crushing disappointment they feel, usually when cisgender people clock them, but also when someone trans does it. Another word is "read," as in "She read me," or "I got read as trans."
It should be noted not all trans people can or want to “blend in” or "pass" (more on that word later) to avoid being “clocked,” and many make peace with their gender presentation being at odds with what society dictates a man or woman "should" look like.
Similar to outing someone against their will, this word is best defined as the outcome of the act of “clocking” someone trans. "Misgendering" someone is to label that person as a gender different from the one with which they identify.
When someone “misgenders” a trans person, it means they have said words to someone within earshot that erases the trans person's gender presentation. This can trigger any reaction, from anger, to panic, to "so what?" The key issue in misgendering is that the word spoken, broadcast, or published does not match that trans person's authentic gender presentation.
All too often, trans women of color are misgendered by police or local media, who rely on legal identification and irrelevant prior arrests to report on the ongoing epidemic of murders of transgender women. Last year, at least 21 trans women were killed as a result of transphobic violence — nearly double the number killed in 2014.
It can be a huge blow when a trans man is called “miss” or a trans woman is addressed as “sir,” as seen in the Season 2 premiere episode of Transparent. The lead character, Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is called “sir” by a wedding photographer, and opts to just walk away rather than call out the lensman for misgendering her.
“Passing” is among the most controversial of the 10 Terrible Trans Words, in that it represents two contrary perspectives on the transgender experience.
To those whose aim is to be accepted as the gender with which they identify, “passing” is considered a worthy goal, and at the same time a very arbitrary determinant. “Passing” is to “blend-in,” and like beauty, can vary depending on the eye of the beholder. For many trans people, the pursuit of "passing" is rooted in a desire for safety — as being "clocked" as visibly trans can have deadly consequences, depending on who is doing the clocking.
Detractors of trans women tend to focus on what they say are telltale signs of binary gender, such as above-average height, the size of hands and feet, facial hair or five o’clock shadow, Adam’s apple and broad shoulders. But they are ignoring the fact that with the exception of the Adam’s apple and five o’clock shadow, plenty of cisgender women are tall, broad-shouldered, battle unruly facial hair, and are stuck with the dreaded “man hands” and size 13 feet. These same transphobes might choose to say “passing is to be "mistaken for,” which is a perpetuation of the myth that trans women are by nature deceivers of cisgender men.
While “passing” as male is equally important to many trans men, there is no apparent equivalent to the deception myth. However, many a trans man benefits from the effects of hormone therapy that allow him to “pass” in ways trans women can only wish would work in their favor. Where estrogen prompts the redistribution of fat and can help trans women develop breasts, testosterone has arguably more pronounced effects that are outwardly visible early in transition for many trans men. Testosterone deepens a trans man’s voice, allows him to grow facial and body hair equal to that of a cis male, and gives him the ability to pack on muscle mass that even those assigned male at birth would be lucky to acquire.
But, as for trans women, there are certain characteristics that will not be impacted by hormone therapy for trans men, including several stereotypical aspects of being assigned female at birth. Trans men may have a smaller head, shorter-than-average height for males, and many feel the need for chest compression, binding, or “top surgery” to conceal or remove breasts, and wider than male-standard hips. These are all roadblocks for trans men who want to “pass” as men.
That, however, is not a priority for every trans man, or trans woman for that matter. Individuals not interested in passing may be so secure in their own identity and expression that binary-based societal judgments don’t concern them, or may recognize that their own physical, financial, or health conditions prevent them from even attempting to pass. These individuals — and others who openly embrace a nonbinary identity like many genderqueer, intersex, or gender-fluid people — don’t need help “passing;” they need society to broaden its concept of gender and expression and allow non-conformity to be an acceptable alternative to the male or female binary.
Much like those who still refer to gay people exclusively as "homosexuals," the majority of the people who use the word “transgenderism” are either biased against the community, such as the discredited anti-trans "expert" Dr. Paul McHugh, or harbor hatred toward the trans community, like the right-wing organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Family Research Council.
TERFs like Sheila Jeffreys use the word to dismiss trans identity as nothing more than an expression of cultural stereotypes. Jeffreys is quoted in pieces such as The New Yorker, claiming those who de-transition serve as “evidence that transgenderism isn’t immutable and thus doesn’t warrant radical medical intervention.” (She considers gender-reassignment surgery a form of mutilation.)
GLAAD calls the term “problematic” and includes it in its media reference guide as one of the “terms to avoid:”
“This is not a term commonly used by transgender people. This is a term used by anti-transgender activists to dehumanize transgender people and reduce who they are to 'a condition.' Refer to 'being transgender' instead, or refer to 'the transgender community.' You can also refer to 'the movement for transgender equality.'"
The word “sex change” dates back to when Christine Jorgensen made headlines in 1952, as the Caitlyn Jenner of her day. Most dictionaries still have the words “sex change” in them, to define “a change in a person's physical sexual characteristics, typically by surgery and hormone treatment.” So what’s so terrible about the term?
It’s not the worst of the bunch but it’s far from accurate. It’s also not a preferred term, and to many in the trans community, it’s insulting.
To those looking in from the outside, "sex change" seems to be the perfect description: one day you’re a woman, now you’re a man. You changed your sex.
Well, not really. To understand why “sex change” is a terrible thing to say, understand that “sex” is a stand-in for the word “gender.” Gender doesn’t really change when someone undergoes an operation that for decades was commonly called a “sex change,” or more recently, “sexual reassignment surgery.” Someone who identifies as female — regardless of their sex assigned at birth — doesn’t change, so much as work to align their physical appearance and anatomy with the gender they know themselves to be.
That’s why the term “gender reassignment” came about, to better explain that a person assigned male at birth was given a treatment or surgery to live as a female. But that, too, raised heckles, and that is where we get the terms “gender-confirmation surgery” and “gender-affirming surgery,” two more accepted terms that emphasize the treatment and surgery not so much as a transformation but as an acknowledgement that the mind and body needed realignment.
It should also be noted these kinds of surgeries vary from person to person, and not every trans person wants, needs, or has access to any surgical intervention as part of their transition. Surgery is not "the end" of transition for many trans people, and asking "have you had 'the surgery'?" is just about the rudest question imaginable, as Katie Couric learned the hard way.
“Oh ignore that beyotch. She’s so Triple T.”
“Triple T” stands for "Trannier Than Thou," and that first word is most definitely a slur. So, make no mistake, this is a put-down; an expression meant to criticize someone transgender who has either taken the position or exhibited behavior that indicates their transition was (or is) somehow better than another trans person’s. Such a proclamation more often than not carries with it a lot of attitude and swagger, sometimes unjustified to others.
"Triple T" can involve many factors, most typically “passing” and “stealth mode,” which is the act of not being detected as anything other than the gender being presented. Transgender people who never come out to their coworkers or friends or partners are described as being “stealth.”
Number 10 on the list of Terrible Trans Words also includes that ugly slur, and will not be repeated here for that reason — although it is a word used by many within the community and sometimes by outsiders, but almost always derisively.
Combined with “chaser,” this term describes a suitor, usually a man, whose sexual yearnings are to hook up with the object of his desire: a transsexual or transgender woman. The term often refers to those who seek out trans people solely because of their trans identity, rather than those who happen to be attracted to someone who is transgender. It can also appl to a predator, and/or a fetishist.
As for the words “transgender” and “transsexual,” some people in the community use them interchangeably, while others prefer “transsexual” to mean only those have either undergone or are intending to have gender-affirming surgery. Transgender is typically a more broad, “umbrella” term used to describe anyone whose gender assignment at birth does not match their gender identity.
Bottom line on these “chasers:” it’s not meant to be flattering. Some have derided men attracted to trans women as "gay," as if that were a bad thing. But it's worth noting that the term does not typically apply to a heterosexual man who is attracted to a woman who is trans.
In simpler language, that is what is called a “man” who is turned on by a “woman.” Also known as a heterosexual.