An Introduction to Gender Terminology

I and others are going to be talking about the medicalization and pathologization of trans* gender identities here at FWD/Forward in the coming weeks and months, so I wanted to put up a definitions post so that we can all get familiar with the kind of language we will be using. I want to note that, uhm, people write entire books about this issue. So, obviously, I can’t cover all the ground in a single post. This is a starter to lay out the basics, not a definitive dictionary.

I also want to note that this terminology differs within the social justice movement, and in various areas of the world. This means that you may disagree with some of my word use/definitions here because they are coming from a specific perspective. Remember: This is a starting point, not an ending point. If I really flub up, please let me know; I’ve tried to be very meticulous about the structure of this post, but I do mess up, and I would like to have my attention drawn to it if I have mischaracterized something (or someone).

The gender binary is a construct of gender which views gender as falling into one of two camps: male or female. Under the gender binary, these are the only options. Gender essentialists believe that assigned sex at birth is also one’s gender for life. Other folks believe that it is possible for one’s binary gender identity to differ from one’s assigned sex; e.g. someone may be assigned male at birth and later realize that she is a woman. Take, for example, a person with a gender identity which differs from assigned sex in the sense that she was assigned male at birth and knows she is female or in the sense that he was assigned female at birth and knows that he is male. This individual may be referred to as a trans person or said to be trans gendered, and as a transsexual person if he or she pursues medical treatment such as hormone therapy, top and bottom surgery, etc. These trans folks still fall within the binary, however: They have a gender identity which is male or female. (Though they may not necessarily subscribe to the idea that gender is a binary, it’s just that their gender identity happens to be on the binary!)

It’s important to note that intersex individuals (more information on intersex folks) are a problem for the gender binary. Under the rules of the binary, they should not exist, which means that being intersex is treated as a pathology which must be corrected. Historically, intersex people have been subjected to invasive surgical procedures at birth in which a gender is medically assigned. In some instances, these individuals later turn out to be trans gendered, as in the case of someone who is assigned male who later turns out to be a woman. These individuals may also later realize that they actually have a nonbinary gender identity.

The nonbinary view of gender recognizes that humans actually express and experience gender along a spectrum. Gender identity, in other words, is not as simple as “male” or “female” although these are points on the spectrum. This view does not pathologize intersex people and makes room for people who do not identify with a male or female gender. The umbrella term trans is sometimes used to refer to these individuals (and sometimes not, depending on where you are), and they may also be referred to as nonbinary. In this case, “trans” refers to someone with a gender identity which differs from assigned sex at birth, as discussed above, but in these instances, that gender identity does not fall along the gender binary. I tend to use “nonbinary” rather than “trans” when talking about people who are not on the gender binary to avoid confusion between binary trans and nonbinary trans people. Nonbinary trans folks people may self identify as genderqueer, androgyne, neuter, third gender, intergender, genderfuck, etc, but none of these terms is an appropriate umbrella term for nonbinary people. Some individuals identify as nongendered or agendered, which is yet another facet of the gender identity spectrum.

The umbrella term trans* is sometimes used to refer to the entire trans spectrum. I may use this term when I want to discuss all people on the trans* spectrum, including binary and nonbinary people. I do want to briefly note that not all intersex individuals identify as trans*; while they are outside the binary, this does not necessarily make them trans*. We need to avoid making the mistake of lumping intersex folks under the “trans*” umbrella.

Above all, self labeling is important. However someone identifies is how that person should be identified by others. On the flip side of this, it’s important to try to avoid automatic gendering; don’t assume someone’s gender identity on the basis of appearance, in other words.

Obviously, as a nonbinary, I subscribe to the nonbinary view of gender. And because we live in a society which is structured around the binary and which tends to center the experiences of cis (more information on the term “cis”) people who have a gender identity which conforms with their assigned sex, living as a trans* person is incredibly difficult. We are assaulted because of our gender identity and expression. We are reduced to our genitals (or lack thereof). We are policed. Seeking medical treatment can be frustrating and dangerous. We may be denied medical services on the basis of our gender identity, as seen, for example, among trans men who are not given screenings for cancers of the breast, cervix, and ovaries.

Part of the way to address this is to start breaking down barriers, to get people thinking about experiences which differ from their own. Deconstructing the binary and decentering cis people doesn’t threaten or hurt anyone’s gender identity, but it would make the world a lot safer for us. And for trans* folks with disabilities, talking about these issues is literally the difference between life and death.

Here are some other terms which may come up: transphobia (discrimination/prejudice against trans* people), transmisogyny (specifically, prejudice and discrimination aimed at trans women), binarism (prejudice rooted in a rejection of the gender spectrum), cissexism (discrimination which stems from gender essentialism), gendering as a verb (referring to describing gender identity, as in “I try to avoid gendering people until I know how they prefer to be gendered.”).

Some examples of terminology that is not acceptable to use and will not be tolerated in comments here: a transgender (“transgender” is not a noun, and it should also be “trans gender”), a trans (“trans” also isn’t a noun), tranny (unless it is being used in a reclamatory sense by a trans person), woman born woman/women born women (cissesexist and often used in a transmisogynistic sense), biowomen/biowoman, biomen/bioman, biological sex (everyone’s biological, folks–if you’re thinking “assigned sex at birth,” then please use “assigned sex”). It’s also not appropriate to say “transwomen” “transmen” etc–please put a space in, as in “trans woman” and “trans man.” We use a space because we want to avoid creating a new gender; we are using “trans” as a modifier. A trans woman is a woman. A transwoman is…something else.

Here are some links on this topic to get you started with some more material: Questioning Transphobia, bird of paradox, Holly at Feministe, TransGriot, and Julia Serano. I encourage you to do some seeking on your own to learn more about gender identification and the complex terminology which surrounds it, because there’s some very diverse thinking on the issue. Please be aware that comments on this post are being carefully moderated.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

34 thoughts on “An Introduction to Gender Terminology

  1. Thanks so much for this — I’m very new to the nonbinary view, and I really appreciate the help. Could you say a word or two about using an asterisk after trans, as in “trans*”? What does the asterisk represent/replace?

  2. I always saw the asterisk as a placeholder like “x” in a mathematical equation; it is a variable, and represents whatever the actual answer may be in any given situation (which can change). So “trans*” is just much more efficient than listing all the nouns “trans” can modify. However, I generally forget the star, but still use “trans” in the way meloukhia uses “trans*.”

    Echoing the “thanks” for this post. I’m a newly-revealed genderqueer/non-gendered person, and every time I out myself, I’m met with a string of questions from ignorant* cis folks. It’s nice to have a link to send them so they know WTF I am talking about instead of having to constantly re-explain myself. 🙂

    *I am using this literally, not meanly

  3. Thank you for a very good, concise summary of what can be very confusing language! I’ll be linking folks here pretty regularly, I’m sure. And I’m looking forward to the upcoming posts.
    (from an intersex trans*gressivly gendered butch)

  4. Thank you for this!

    Even as an ally I find that I am sometimes using language wrong, even when I have been in my STFU & L stage for a while. It is like learning a new language that you have to remember the vocabulary and then remember how to use it … and this is a great 101 on that vocab and usage (I sure hope that was not insulting, I am trying to break that into something I understand).

    I didn’t realize until recently that “cis” isn’t a common lay word, because I tend to throw it around when I am talking to people about things that I write about or care about and I get reactions as if I suddenly started speaking Portuguese and didn’t realize it.

    Be prepared for this to be a highly linked to piece. Kudos!

  5. Nonbinary feminists unite!

    (After some of the horrible things I’ve seen some feminists saying about trans people, I wasn’t entirely sure I was allowed to be a feminist to be honest.)

  6. meloukhia – Yay! I mean, I know I’m not the most active person on this site (I try, but my memory isn’t the most reliable), but it’s nice to know that I’m included.

  7. Just to check my terminology: I’m assuming “cis” is not applied to nonbinary gendered people who do not identify as trans? As in your link I’ve only seen it defined as “the opposite of trans” with no mention of intersex etc people one way or another, and I wanted to check.

    I’m glad you introduced me to the nobinary/binary dichotomy, since I’ve needed those terms from time to time and had nothing to use.

  8. I have DID/MPD with male and female alters … so although my body is one thing I may be something else right now. I’ve been thinking about what to call myself. I’m not of the generation where *queer is comfortable, so I’m a bit at a loss.

  9. @diamond:

    Some folks that I know on WiG and personally (who are in similar situations to you) refer to themselves as “plural”, “multiple” or “multigendered” as a way of describing the sum total of the people in the system.

    A few have also created a cover (to avoid having to discuss their DID/MPD and dealing with the ableist and psychophobic bullshit people subject folk with multiplicity to) of the word genderqueer (because of all it encompasses), genderfluid (because externally genderfluid and DID look very similar, so it works well as a cover) or bigendered (for only two individuals in the system) to describe themselves safely.

    And that’s just the id’s I can remember so far. I’m sure there’s more.

  10. Good suggestions all, genderbitch, and it occurs to me that I didn’t really address multigendered peeps in my discussion of common terminology above! (Here I was thinking I was being so thorough.)
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..Acidification =-.

  11. @Sophie: “cis” refers to binary identifying people who identify with their assigned, binary, birth sex.


    “This individual may be referred to as a trans person or said to be trans gendered, and as a transsexual person if he or she pursues medical treatment such as hormone therapy, top and bottom surgery, etc.”

    As a non-op transsexual woman, I object a little to that passage. I kind of feel a bit uncomfortable with the medical policing of transsexual people’s bodies: the idea that in order to be a “true transsexual” one must take hormones and seek surgery plus any number of arbitrary medical procedures.

    Hormones help people blend back into society and live as close to a normal life as possible. The way I think of it, they’re not all that different than, say, a scooter is for someone with mobility problems.

    Medical treatment helps us, it does *not ever* define who we are. Or at least that’s my doctrine and I’m sticking to it.


    The only other thing I can really comment on is the use of “trans gendered.” There are many, many trans people, myself included, who object to the conjugation “transgendered/trans gendered.” We feel that it is objectifying our identity, as if it is something that is done to us. We *are* transgender, it doesn’t need to be formed into an adjective because it already is.

  12. The only other thing I can really comment on is the use of “trans gendered.” There are many, many trans people, myself included, who object to the conjugation “transgendered/trans gendered.” We feel that it is objectifying our identity, as if it is something that is done to us. We *are* transgender, it doesn’t need to be formed into an adjective because it already is.

    Thank you for bringing this up, Samantha; I know that people go back and forth on this so I used the language I am comfortable with, but the transgendered/trans gendered dichotomy does reflect an important split in thinking; I know that one usage or the other can be upsetting/alienating for various trans folks (and in fact struggled over which to use, using both, etc for that reason). And your point illustrates, for me, the importance of respecting self identification and labeling. Knowing that you prefer “transgendered,” that’s how I would describe you, and I would hope that others do the same.

    In re:transsexual, I am also not comfortable with the policing of bodies, and I clearly have misspoken there/framed that poorly because the way that sentence is worded, it does indeed sound like you need medical procedures to be considered transsexual. You are absolutely right; of course, people do not need medical procedures/hormones/etc to be transsexual. I am, to be honest, a bit fuzzy on how “transsexual” is defined because I’ve seen many competing definitions for it; I didn’t want to leave it out of this post altogether, because it’s an important term within the framework of terms used to discuss gender identity, but I clearly should have done my homework a little better (and perhaps addressed the different ways in which that term was used, and the ways in which it gets used as a weapon to police “oh, you haven’t had X, you’re not a real transsexual).

    Perhaps we can come up with a better/clearer definition in comments than the one in the post?

  13. @Meloukhia: nono, you misunderstood me. It wasn’t between “transgender” and “trans gender” (it’s transgender, by the way *wink*). It’s between “transgender/trans gender” and “transgendered/trans gendered.” Note the -ed at the end of the second example.

    That is an issue that quite a few trans people find important. We feel that transgender is who we are, just like woman is who we are. We are transgender women. Putting an -ed at the end of a word does a couple things. Firstly, using -ed to designate that a word is an adjective (“transgendered”) implies that the nonconjugated version is a noun (“a transgender”). In the English language, that’s just what -ed does, it turns nouns into adjectives. Many people in the trans community, including myself, find this deeply objectifying.

    The other issue that many of us have with it is that it makes it sound like transgender is something that happened to us: “She was transgendered when the surgeon finished” is something that comes to mind in this. Especially because the root that it conjugates is “gender;” consider the phrase “he gendered her as female.” It makes “transgender” seem like a verb: “to transgender.” I’m a little less clear on this argument myself, too, but it is something that I’ve heard expressed a lot.

    Personally, I have problems with it because of how it turns our identity modifier into a noun. Just remember that trans people don’t transition to be trans people (usually). I am a woman. I am a woman who happens to be transgender. Using “transgendered” objectifies my identity in EXACTLY the same way that calling me “a transgender” objectifies my identity and objectifying people’s identity is not okay.

    Anyway, please don’t get the feeling that I’m angry or anything either. It is a serious issue, but with the way that the popular media treats the word and even some people within the LGBT community use it, people get sloppy and don’t really stop to think about what it means.

  14. Ah! Reading comprehension fail. Thank you for clarifying (and I don’t think you’re angry at all; I specifically asked people to correct me if I flubbed up because this was a complicated post and I knew I would make a hash of something when I wrote it). It’s a great example of unconscious word usage which we absorb from others and then repeat without thinking about it, and I’ll make a note to not use it in the future for all the reasons you discuss!

  15. I was just looking over what I just wrote in my last post and had a brain moment. I’m thinking, what if you took what I said and replaced “disabled” for “transgendered” in the sense of having something DONE to you which reduces and objectifies your experiences. It’s even more astute in the example of “disabled,” too, because “disable” is, in fact, a verb!

    Something that’s done to me, not something I am.

    Now that I think about it, I’m starting to get bothered by that too. The thing is, I’m not sure I have a better word. Maybe “handicap.” But saying that I’m handicap has connotations of physical disability whereas being specific and saying I’m mentally/neurologically/psychiatrically handicap has all kinds of connotations re: developmental disabilities which is all manner of appropriating of me.

    Gaaaaah! I’ll tell you what, I’m a transgender woman with disabilities. Or I could just go with my reclamitory old standby: “the twitchy tranny.”

  16. “It’s also not appropriate to say “transwomen” “transmen” etc–please put a space in, as in “trans woman” and “trans man.” We use a space because we want to avoid creating a new gender; we are using “trans” as a modifier. A trans woman is a woman. A transwoman is… something else.”

    I’d never thought about this before; thank you for pointing it out.

  17. I did not know that about trans woman, trans man and had been thinking them each one word. But it makes total sense; I’m not a blackwoman.

    Having total facepalm now.

    I have a question though. Just this week I stumbled onto the term FAB as in Female At Birth and it was related to the thoughts that trans women have stolen/taken over the word ‘woman’ so now women who aren’t trans need a new term.

    I found the sites and the people on them … disturbing. I wondered if it was a term to add to the list of what wouldn’t be allowed on FWD.


    It is interesting to me that non-binary was described as it was in the OP, since non-binary and androgyne are terms I would use if asked. And yet I am extremely reluctant to think or imply I have any understanding of what it is to be trans.

  18. Ooooh, Avalon’s Willow, FAB would definitely not be tolerated here. I never ceased to be amazed by the creative terms cis women come up with to marginalize trans women.

  19. Similar with (sorry if I missed it) Woman Born Woman, which is a term invented by cis women specifically seeking to exclude trans* women from… well, everything, I suppose, but from their own damn sex/gender in particular.

  20. I’ve never gotten a clear picture as to why some people don’t like the term cis sexual or cis gender – the linked to article explains it pretty well! It seems silly to object to the term “cis gender” or “cis woman” when we so easily accept “straight woman”. It’s value-neutral, which seems to be exactly why it’s disliked. Ironic.

  21. sarah tx: the only reason i can see to objecting to the term “cis” is that it (GASP) highlights and allows discussion of cis privilege. which people seem to think would be way easier to just ignore and never deal with ever. i also can’t see any intellectually honest way to object.

  22. In Re: FAB

    There’s also FAAB, which is more value neutral. It means “female assigned at birth” and has its male counterpart, MAAB. It’s still a little binary enforcing but it really does pay homage to the fact that it’s ASSIGNED. Used a lot in with the genderqueer ect… community. Which is a bit problematic in itself because, just like referencing back to trans peoples’ birth assignment is erasing to our identities, it’s erasing towards non-binary people’s identity too.

  23. abby jean: That’s so true. I’ve had people say they don’t like the term “cis” because they didn’t get to choose it, but when given the chance they never come up with an alternative which isn’t “normal” or “non-trans”. Or, you know, something much worse.

  24. @Diamond – just wanted to thank you for commenting; i (we) have DID as well and definitely get tripped up on language. we not only have many genders in our system, we also identify as a trans man, and are on hormones and had surgery. (i am not accustomed to putting the space in, but the rationale makes sense. it’ll take some time to train myself to put the space in, but i’ll work on it!) and the person/people who deal with the outside world on a day-to-day basis is/are not genderqueer – they are very comfortable with being identified solely as male. so we don’t want to intrude in genderqueer spaces, because that is a different experience and we do live within the binary most of the time. but we will always have many other genders inside. in the past, we’ve generally referred to it as multigendered, but these days we are afraid to claim that because we live as male pretty comfortably. we have the privileges that come from living within the binary and the challenges/risks of being a person with an explicitly trans body as well, and multigendered tends to erase that. it’s so tangled, and i don’t think we’ll ever find a single word we’re comfortable with that really represents our whole experience. i guess that’s pretty much part of being multiple.

    anyway, it just really warms my heart that other multiples are part of this community, because we usually feel so outside of groups (that aren’t specifically multiple) because being multiple necessarily tends to supercede all other forms of identity (for me). we tend to feel very very other, so it’s nice to know we’re not alone. (o:
    .-= myriad´s last blog ..low, low, low =-.

  25. Just my 2c. The idea of FAAB/MAAB has really REALLY limited use, and i would seriously steer cis folks away from using these terms as any sort of default.

    Consider this from

    “Note that while ‘FAAB’ and ‘MAAB’ are useful in certain contexts when discussing the ideas of sex and gender abstractly, when used casually outside of that context they still reveal too much emphasis on the idea that initially-apparent biology = destiny, and can be used as sneakier ways of saying “real man” or “real woman” for cisgendered in order to exclude trans individuals from gendered spaces.”

  26. @Romham: totally agreed. Sometimes it is appropriate to talk about birth sex though. Maybe “this person’s assigned birth sex was male” would be best. I know I do a double take when people refer to me as male assigned at birth. When I’m talking and using those terms about myself I keep messing up too and saying I’m FAAB. I guess the whole female identity thing runs deep. :p

  27. I just gained a lot of enlightenment points. This was truly great. I’m always so awkward identifying my genders and sometimes lack of gender. I tend to put a sock in it in for fear of offending others who don’t fall within the binary limits and use different language than me. Thanks, everyone.

    English can really be inadequate…it’s the bending, breaking, and fusing of the language which keeps it vital.

  28. I’m cis, and it was my great fortune to be educated very kindly but forcefully on the fact that the best person to make any sort of determination on someone’s gender is…that person! I was in high school and used a thoughtless pronoun that hurt a guy who was a good friend.

    I try to be an ally. I know I make mistakes, but I try. I do my best to refer to a person by the pronouns and terms ze prefers. I do find some of the ways we talk about genders grammatically awkward, but I know that’s my bias and one I have to work on. But that’s part of being an ally, right? Acknowledging your mistakes and making a commitment to try to better them. I don’t want a cookie, I want a better world. I can only hope to be part of that if people can tell me when I have made a mistake.


  29. Thanks for explaining the reasoning behind the space in trans woman. I could never remember which way was correct before because I didn’t understand why.

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