No one grabs a dictionary for a good read in the bathtub. I promised from the outset to carefully define my terms, but I also promised to deliver more in the way of personal perspective and experience than expertise. If you already have solid grip on transgender vocabulary and courtesies, I genuinely recommend that you skip what follows and rejoin me next post. Meanwhile, I will finish defining transgender by hacking it in two.
A transplant is uprooted from one soil and repotted in another. A TransformerTM morphs from one shape to another. A transatlantic flight crosses over to Europe.1 Words are sharp objects, so we must not grasp too literally, but the general sense of trans- is that of crossing, shifting or becoming.
Gender is our internal sense of self as male, female or something else. I plead ignorance2 about exactly how this sense arises. Most of the time, sex (our chromosomes and naughty bits) and gender seem to line up rather nicely–so much so that the idea that they are the same thing seems to be a pretty convenient and reliable rule, which most people have never had personal cause to question. Sometimes it takes a child.
Someone who is transgender has broken that rule; jumped the fence; blurred the borders. Piling on the cheesy metaphors, we are travellers in space, having journeyed from Venus to Mars, or vice versa. We are cheaters in the longest running game of Either This or That in history. We challenge the third word that was ever said about us–It’s a _______! We endanger the very fabric of society,3 yet for the moment, you can’t get enough of us.
Transgender is an adjective. Avoid adding an -ed to the end, which would have the effect of making it a past participle. In other words, transgender describes me rather than something that happened to me. I am not transgendered any more than I am talled, smarted, or gorgeoused. Neither am I a transgender any more than I am an ugly or a funny. As an adjective, it can stand alone–Sarah is transgender–or be attached to a noun–Tom is a transgender person. Talking about this at all is still a recent phenomenon. I offer you the most up-to-date usage, but you might still encounter some variability.
“Transgender” is a big tent. It describes anyone who does not fit neatly in the to boy or girl box that was assigned to them as a newborn. Transgender people vary widely in terms of the way they see themselves and how they present themselves to the world.
If a noun is required, transgender person is preferable. You can shorten this to transperson, but I don’t really hear this very often. Similarly, transman refers to a female-to-male (FTM) transperson, and transwoman refers to a male-to-female (MTF) transperson (me, for example). The easiest way to remember which is which is to keep in mind the direct of the person’s gender variance. Hipsters might even say t-guy or t-girl, but most of us are not that cool. You can probably get away with saying “an FTM” or “an MTF” when clarification is necessary in the context of a specific conversation, but stick with “transgender person” as much as possible.
Or don’t. Most of the time, we do away with cumbersome words and let pronouns do the heavy lifting for us. In most situations, the fact that I am transgender is or ought to be irrelevant. “This is my friend Renae. She will be joining us for dinner.” With one little word, the savvy friend dispels confusion and social tension by establishing “rules of engagement.” Everyone is free to mentally move on to something else.
Respecting pronoun preference is one of the best things you can do to put a transgender person at ease. Hopefully, the preferences have been clearly stated (mine are she/her), but otherwise, follow the visual cues. A transman in a suit and tie who introduces himself as “Phil” probably does not want to be referred to as “she.” If visual cues are not enough, asking “what pronouns do you prefer?” conveys a sincere interest in making that person comfortable. If you’re speaking of someone not present and you don’t know the preferences, it is ok to use they/their/them. Your seventh grade English teacher will forgive you just this once.