This is not a comprehensive guide to the “right” language to use when discussing trans topics, and these topics are subject to change just like any aspect of language. But to start off, let’s start with a metaphor. Let’s say you’re explaining the three states of matter that water can take: ice, water, and water vapor.
There’s a lot of ways of going about that. You could explain scientifically that the difference between these two are differences in the inter-molecular bonds (or the lack thereof) between dihydrogen monoxide depending on the total kinetic energy of the molecules. You could reduce it to simpler terms like ice turns to water when it’s warmed up and water vapor when it’s very hot. Both are useful for different reasons.
What is less useful is using words that are outdated (like vatn, from the Old Norse for water), inaccurate (vodka is not the same as water), or technically true but not often used (cloud juice). Those would only confuse someone trying to understand you.
What would be even worse is if you chose something that made them feel uncomfortable or hurt (This is hard using this metaphor, but let’s go with “Jeremy’s piss”) because you weren’t intending to do that by simply talking about a subject. Unless you are trying to make someone feel bad, in which case, that’s kind of a jerk move. Be nice to Jeremy; he makes me cookies.
People are more complicated than water, so being clear about what you’re talking about while avoiding hurtful language is important.
Let’s start with a brief glossary of useful words.
Transgender or Trans: an adjective (not a noun) describing someone who identifies as something other than what they were assigned at birth.
Trans man: a man who was not assigned male at birth.
Trans woman: a woman who was not assigned female at birth.
Cisgender or Cis: an adjective describing someone who identifies the way they were assigned at birth
Assigned gender at birth: the gender the doctor described when a person was born.
Gender: a psychological state of identity and being.
Gender expression: the outward way a person expresses their gender, such as the way they dress, speak, or carry themselves.
Genderfluid: adjective describing someone whose gender fluctuates over time
Transition: the process of coming to live more authentically as their gender, sometimes including medical interventions like hormone replacement therapy or gender confirmation surgery.
Gender-nonconforming: adjective describing someone who do not behave in a way that fits into the traditional expectations and norms of their assigned gender.
Nonbinary: adjective describing someone who does not fit neatly into the categories of male and female.
Pronouns: short words like he, she, or they that can be used in place of someone’s name. Another set of pronouns some people use is ze/zir/zirs (Ze went to the park. It was zir birthday. The presents were zirs.), which rhyme with see/sear/sears.
Misgendering: referring to someone as the wrong gender
LGBT, LGBTQ+, or LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual/aromantic/agender community.
Sexual orientation: who someone is sexually attracted to.
Romantic orientation: who someone is romantically attracted to.
Ally: Someone who is not LGBTQIA+ but shows support for those who are.
Outing: exposing someone as LGBTQIA+ without their permission, which can have personal and professional consequences at times.
Now let’s talk about some words that are usually less useful when talking about gender. Some people choose to reclaim or identify with these words (just as some people identify with negative words like bitch), but avoid using these words for someone whom you do not have explicit permission from.
This one is generally used with good intentions, such as asking for a person’s “preferred pronouns.” However, pronouns are not a matter of preference; they are a matter of fact. My pronouns are mine, and if you use a different set, that’s misgendering. It’d be like asking for someone’s preferred name. People just have names, and if you use the wrong one, you’re misidentifying them.
A better way to ask this would be “What are your pronouns?” or “What pronouns do you use?” You get bonus points if you introduce yourself and your pronouns first.
Some people choose to use multiple sets of pronouns. If you know this, you could follow up with them to ask whether there’s one set they like the best. If not, use whichever ones you like. However, if you’d like a bit of extra credit, use the least common pronouns a person uses. This will give you extra practice, plus the person will likely not get to hear that pronoun very often, so they might appreciate getting to hear it from you.
Ladyboy, Shemale, He She, Hermaphrodite
Trans people are the gender they say they are, not some combination of other genders. These words imply that you think someone is not truly the gender they say they are, so they can be quite hurtful.
Transexual, Transvestite, Crossdresser
These are generally considered outdated or inappropriate terms. Rather than going into the nuances of what each exactly means, it is usually better to just avoid them.
Trans men are men, and trans women are women. Making them into a single word implies that they are not an “ordinary” man or woman. For instance, he’s not a man; he’s a transman. Trans is just an adjective that describes what kind of man, woman, or person somebody is.
Traditionally these were used to describe people transitioning from Male-to-Female (MtF) or Female-to-Male (FtM). This is not used as often anymore because it implies that a person’s gender changed from one to the other. This implication is not necessarily true because many trans people feel they were always the gender they are now. Even if they don’t, it isn’t really anyone’s business what they were like in the past.
It is generally better to refer to what gender someone identifies as now, unless you have their permission to do differently or if doing so would out them.
Biologically Male/Female, “Born as a boy/girl”
Similar to above, it is much more polite and accurate to refer to someone according to the gender they are now. If you are speaking medically about people with certain organs, use phrases that say more precisely what you mean (i.e. “people with uteruses”, “pregnant people”, “people with penises”).
Some people like to replace sentences like “they were born as a boy” with AMAB (assigned male at birth) or AFAB (assigned female at birth), thinking that changing the words will fix the problem. I would challenge you to consider whether the person’s assigned gender is relevant in the first place. Could you use a more specific phrase like those in the last paragraph? Could you leave it out in the first place? If not, assigned gender is more appropriate. It describes how a person was gendered by their doctor and parents before they were ever given a choice or a way to speak for themselves.
Again, not every trans person feels that they are changing anything other than how they express their gender. This process of expression matching with the gender they feel they are is called a transition.
If you are referring to certain surgeries that trans people sometimes undergo, there are better terms for it. For example, Gender Confirmation Surgery.
These are slurs: words that are used deliberately by people to mock someone’s identity. Trap is especially problematic because it implies that trans women are actually men who “trap” men into sleeping with them by “pretending” to be a woman. This is not only untrue but is a narrative that puts trans women in danger.
It is a pronoun that is used to describe inanimate objects ( “See that pencil? Can you pass it to me?”). Using “it” as a pronoun for a person implies that they are an object, taking away their humanity. Some people choose to reclaim this word, but it is incredibly inappropriate to use “it” as someone’s pronouns if they have not asked you to.
Asexual is actually a wonderful word to describe someone who does not experience sexual attraction. However, this is generally unrelated to someone’s gender. If someone is neither male nor female, you might call them nonbinary instead.
Another word that people sometimes identify with is Agender. This is used to describe someone who does not identify as any gender. However, again, it is generally better not to assume someone is agender without asking first.
Transgender is an adjective; it describes somebody. It is not a noun: what someone is.
Try flipping it around. If someone referred to cisgender people as cisgenders, they would likely not love that they are being defined by their gender. The same goes for transgender people.