A Trans* Glossary

EDIT 06/13/2013: There are a few issues with this glossary that I address in a subsequent post, especially the problem that is, alongside much of contemporary Western trans discourse, is ethnocentric. This glossary is not meant to be definitive or indeed tell anyone else how to define.


Hi again. I’m aware that I launched into things without explaining all the terms that I use. This is mostly because these terms are everyday for me now, and so I use them without a second thought, in the same way certain industries or communities have their own terms that pepper regular conversations but would be confusing and possibly alienating to those unused to them. And even for those of us who do use those terms, we often find that what we mean precisely by those terms varies. It’s not uncommon to find trans* people debating the use of certain words or terms, and what consensus there is is far from unanimous. Language is, after all, power, and terminology gives us the ability to explain who we are, what we experience, things that affect us, and what we can do about them.

As a result, I’ve written a small trans glossary of certain trans-related terms, and what meanings I ascribe to them. I’ve tried to explain a little about the backgrounds of these words, because what may seem obvious to me now wouldn’t have been obvious to me before, and may be entirely unfamiliar for many cis people (and ‘cis’ itself is a term that’s only gradually gaining currency outside of specific trans* and activist circles).

Anyway, let’s begin.

Trans* – the little asterisk there is a little confusing at first, and can make sentences look like they have been randomly scattered with stars. Asterisks are used as wildcards, and this is the case here. It can mean transsexual (usually: someone who identifies with the gender ‘opposite’ to the gender they were assigned at birth, such as most trans men and trans women) or transgender (a broader umbrella term which can include ‘transsexual’ but also includes people who do not identify with any particular gender, or ‘both’ genders, or a different gender, or a fluctuating gender, (and so on) – these people are also known as non-binary due to not fitting in to the traditional binary gender system. Transgender can also include people who identify as genderqueer which, like ‘queer’ in terms of sexuality, is a more fluid and personally-defined term than the more rigid other categories. British musician CN Lester has a series on genderqueer/non-binary people by genderqueer/non-binary people that explains this far better than I can, given that I don’t identify this way).

Sometimes, you’ll see people arguing that the asterisk is unnecessary as ‘trans’ on its own should include all these people, but some genderqueer/non-binary people have felt that ‘trans’ too often means ‘binary’. For this reason, I’ll try to use ‘trans*’ in a more general sense and ‘trans’ in a more-specific binary sense with my posts, but again, as someone who identifies as a woman, it’s easier for me to write about what I know.

Cis – the opposite of ‘trans’. That’s it. It’s somehow a controversial term, despite many of the people arguing this having no trouble with ‘heterosexual’. ‘Cis’ and ‘Trans’ are chemistry terms taken from the Latin, and mean ‘on the same side’ and ‘on the other side’ respectively. They can be found outside of chemistry too, in certain geographical descriptions such as ‘Cisalpine Gaul‘ and ‘Transalpine Gaul’. ‘Trans’ is used as a prefix in this same sense in many words and terms, including ‘transplant’, ‘transport’, ‘transmission’ and ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’ but ‘Cis’ isn’t, which might be part of the reason it seems so unfamiliar to many people. So why bother with it? For the same reason we have ‘heterosexual’ – if you only ever define people who differ from a preconceived ‘normal’, you are othering them. Imagine dividing up a group of people and telling half of them that they were the red team, but saying nothing to the others. How would they be defined? I think a lot of the backlash against ‘cis’ is down to people uncomfortable with the label being applied to them because they feel ‘normal’. This approach doesn’t consider how trans* people must feel, constantly having this label applied to them, and seems to suggest that whatever else the person railing against ‘cis’ may say, they do see trans* people as distinctly ‘other’.

‘Cis’ is also taken to mean things it does not. It does not mean ‘fits in well with sociological gender roles’ or ‘conforms to preconceived notions of gendered appearance’. A cis woman who has short hair, binds her breasts, and behaves in a way society considers ‘masculine’ is still cis. And a trans woman who as short hair, binds her breasts, and behaves in a way society considers ‘masculine’ is still trans. The gender that matters for ‘cis/trans*’ is the congruence between the gender someone was assigned at birth (see further down the glossary) and the gender they identify as (as for this point, and the concept of ‘gender identity’ in general, stay tuned for a future post).

Put simply, if you use ‘trans’ (or ‘trans*’), then you should also use ‘cis’, because they go together like other binaries, and the absence of one implies the existence of the other (‘trans*’ is a useful term here because genderqueer people can blur the lines between ‘cis’ and ‘trans’).

Before we had ‘cis’, you’d often come across the terms biological man/biological woman or genetic guy/girl for cis people, which logically seem to suggest that trans* people are in fact robots. To which I say: ERROR. DOES NOT COMPUTE. PLEASE REBOOT VOCABULARY.

Trans man/Trans woman – a man who is a trans/ a woman who is trans. Simple as that. I prefer to use these terms rather than ‘transman/transwoman’ as having these as compound nouns seems to suggest a separate categorisation to ‘man/woman’ rather than subcategories of these. I sometimes come across confusion on these terms in that people assume that the gendered word refers to the gender they were assigned at birth rather than the gender they identify as. Someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman is not a ‘trans man’ – that would be the opposite. The gender people identify as is essentially the gender they are, and this should always take precedence over the gender they were assigned at birth. This is the reason why the old terms FTM (female-to-male) and MTF (male-to-female) were dropped by most trans people – its focus is wrong. You may still come across these terms in some places, though I won’t use them anymore.

FAAB / MAAB ( ‘Female/Male Assigned At Birth’) – (or sometimes AFAB/AMAB insteada way of talking about the gender people are seen to be transitioning from, without misgendering them in the process (like the media ‘born a man’/’born a woman’ rhetoric does). It’s worth mentioning that some trans* people do regard themselves as having originally been this gender, but that does not include everyone by any means, so this is a preferred term. Some people will say CAFAB/CAMAB to add the term ‘coercively’ to show that this was done without their consent, but I personally don’t feel this is necessary. Whilst the FAAB/MAAB terminology is useful, it does have a tendency to be over-used where it is not really relevant, and this is a problem since the terms are often disliked because they are a defining term based around a gender to which the person in question does not identify. I believe they do have a valid use and are better than any equivalent terms, but only within this limited capacity – namely to talk about biology and pre-transition life experiences.

Transphobia – is totally an official word now that it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary. It shares similar roots to ‘homophobia’, ‘biphobia’ and ‘xenophobia’ in that it’s not a phobia in the sense of ‘fear of’ but rather ‘prejudice towards’. Transphobia’s shiny new OED definition reads “an extreme and irrational aversion to transsexuality and transsexual or transgender people”. Pretty much all trans* people are familiar with this, unfortunately. Transphobia is the group of men yelling slurs at you across the street, or the company terminating your employment right after you state your intention to transition. It’s saturated in society, and it’s very rarely challenged, so that transphobia can often not even be recognised by those who are not aware of it (a number of TV sitcoms go this way). Related to transphobia is cissexism which is similar but not as direct, though its effects can be. Cissexism is an assumption that trans* people are in some way inferior to cis people, or do not actually exist (in the sense that systems are designed for cis people only). Whilst transphobia is often a deliberate act, cissexism can be more subtle to those causing it, simply because of how trans* perspectives may not even occur to the person in question. The difference between transphobia and cissexism is to some degree academic, however, since both make the lives of trans* people more difficult and dangerous. The lack of needing to deal with this specific axis of oppression is why we talk about people who are not in some way trans* having cis privilege. Again, this doesn’t mean that people with cis privilege don’t get oppression and prejudice on other axes – cis people can suffer racism, homophobia, sexism, disablism, and so on just as trans people can. I have white privilege, just as I lack cis privilege, for example. The idea that oppression and privilege do not rest on a single axis is the core concept of intersectional feminism.

Stealth – is where a trans person will essentially go undercover to appear to the world as a cis person of their specific gender. This term, along with passing (being recognised as the gender you identify with) and passing privilege (the benefits that passing brings you, ie: reduced transphobia) are terms found in various minority groups, and I’ll address the topic of stealth in one of my future posts.

The Cotton Ceiling – was a concept suggested in 2012 whereby trans lesbians ‘suffer discrimination’ because cis lesbians will not consider them as viable partners. Again, I’ll do a post on this at some future opportunity, but by and large, whilst I can understand the frustration behind it and I know that odd trans dilemma of being considered both desexualised and hypersexualised at the same time, I really dislike it as a term and I’m glad it’s now mostly been dropped in discourse.

TERFs – this is an acronym meaning ‘Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists‘ and refers to a specific group of women whose interpretation of radical feminism entails that trans women are male, trans men are female, and that trans people as a whole serve to uphold the socially-constructed concept of gender to the detriment of women worldwide. They’re a difficult topic to write about as they themselves are straw-manned as often as they straw-man trans* people, but they do cause trans* people problems. I’ll address this when I can spare a whole post on the topic. I will note that the acronym distinguishes TERFs from ‘radical feminists’. Radical feminism, as opposed to intersectional feminism, essentially places patriarchal misogynistic oppression as the big problem that needs a radical solution, and is not necessarily cissexist – although certain TERFs would argue that such a radical feminism would not be a true radical feminism. Again, though, I’ll go into this in more depth at a later time.

Tranny – is a slur. Please don’t use it (unless you are trans* yourself and wish to reclaim it, and even then, please don’t use it about me, or any other trans* person without their expressed permission to do so). It’s often referred to as ‘the T-word‘ because even writing it out in full can be upsetting to many trans* people. It is not an abbreviation for ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ (although it can be for ‘transvestites’, who dress up/adopt the stereotypical mannerisms of ‘the opposite sex’ for entertainment, sexual gratification, or simply because they want to, but not because they identify that way). The use of the word is overwhelming negative – if you have the stomach for it, google it, or do a Twitter search for an even more representative sample; it will be mostly derogatory comments about someone’s appearance, or sexual objectification, or verbal abuse, or mockery, or porn, and so the list goes on. Its associations are so negative and dehumanising that the only times I have referred to myself with this word have been when I was genuinely suicidal. I can understand why some people may wish to reclaim it – as has been done to a certain extent with people who identify as dykes, or queers – but I personally do not feel able to. This all applies to other slurs like shemale, which has more of a porn context but is otherwise very similar.

SRS/GRS – ‘sex reassignment surgery’/’genital reassignment surgery’/’sex realignment surgery’/’genital realignment surgery’ and so forth. Often simply referred to by trans women as ‘surgery’ (trans men distinguish between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ surgeries). The media likes to call these ‘sex changes’ which makes it sound a bit like changing your phone company. By and large – this isn’t anyone’s business but the person involved, and anyone they may wish to share this information with, so I won’t dwell on it much, but I’m aware the acronyms used for it can be confusing for people unused to them. I will say quickly that surgery is by no means mandatory, and doesn’t affect how people identify, though many legal systems require it as a means to change legal markers such as birth certificates. Amongst trans women, some don’t want it, some don’t need it, some do need it, and so forth. It’s a big deal, for sure, but it’s not the crux of the matter in the sense that the media like to make it out to be.

That’s all for now. There may be more that I’ll think of as I continue this blog, in which case I’ll come back here and add to the list, but I think I’ve covered the main ones.

It’s worth stating that this is a trans* glossary, not the trans* glossary. As I said, other trans* people may have definitions of some of this words that disagree with my own, so I don’t claim that this list is objective. I write what I know, and what I believe.

Amber – (fossilized tree resin/ a pure color, located on the color wheel midway between yellow and orange)


One thought on “A Trans* Glossary

  1. Thanks for this, very useful.

    ” I think a lot of the backlash against ‘cis’ is down to people uncomfortable with the label being applied to them because they feel ‘normal’.

    You might be right, but a lot of the criticisms I see of this term are from those who are non-gender conformant in some way (eg your example of the woman who binds her breasts, has a short haircut, dresses in an non-typically gendered fashion), who feel like its wrongly labelling them as gender conformant.

    And I also see a large generation gap – that non-gender conformant older women tend to identify within the binary, simply as non-gender conformant women, whereas younger non-gender conformant women are increasingly defining outwith the binary as genderqueer, and consequently as trans.

    So the feeling I’m picking up is resentment at some people informing other people that they are cis, when actually they share the same issues and problems with gender construction as many people who id as part of the trans community.

    One term that I would love to see found/invented/created (and I haven’t found it anywhere, except on Dyssonance who refers to it as “transness”) is the concept of cis/trans. That is to say (in the binary system)

    Man/Woman = gender
    Male/Female = sex
    Cis/trans = ?

    I’m not keen on Dyssonance’s term because it relates to only one “side”, but its the best that I’ve found so far.

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