When Words Fail: The Language of Gender Variance

rainbow umbrellaThe English lexicon is estimated to contain more than a million words, and yet when it comes to the vocabulary of sex and gender, there are many gaps. For example, we are stuck calling a 62-year-old man someone’s “boyfriend” because we don’t have a more appropriate option.

Most of the time, it might not be such a big deal. For the transgender community, however, there is a lot more at stake in a vocabulary shortage.

Language is very powerful. We use it to pass knowledge down to future generations, to design new things, and to create social structure. It is used to form relationships, share our thoughts and feelings, and to conduct our lives. We even use language to define ourselves—Irish American, teacher, Buddhist, jazz lover—in order to establish our unique identity among billions of other humans.

Minority groups, however, generally don’t define themselves; the dominant culture chooses words for them, and they are almost always derogatory. Language in those cases is used as a weapon by those in power. But language can also be a tool of empowerment by uniting a group and giving it a voice.

Members of the transgender community struggle to define themselves in English. We have no neutral pronouns (“it,” although preferred by a minority of transgender people, more often is viewed as highly derogatory), and gender is always described through the limits of a binary system—male/female. “Ze” is used by some people, but hasn’t gained popular use yet, probably because society is slow to change, particularly when it comes to sex and gender issues. So transgender people have had to create their own language of identity.

I have not yet discovered a list of terminology that all gender-variant people agree on. And without common language, it is difficult to have discourse on the issues. Listing all terms people use to identify themselves in each article or discussion would make reading or speaking on the topic virtually impossible. Therefore, I and many others use the term “transgender” to represent all those who do not fit into the man/male/masculine or woman/female/feminine binary.

For those who are unfamiliar with transgender vocabulary, I have listed some terms here that are used by some major organizations that support the transgender community. Not all are universally embraced.

  • Transgender: An umbrella term for those whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. “Trans” or “trans*” are also used, although there, too, is controversy. “Gender-variant” and “gender atypical” are often used within the medical community.
  • Gender identity: An individual’s internal sense of being male, female, neither, or some combination of both. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others. A few of the terms people use to identify themselves are bigender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender bender, gender fluid, and pangender.
  • Gender expression: The external manifestation of a person’s gender identity. Usually expressed through behavior, clothing, hair style, speech patterns, mannerisms, and so on.
  • Trans (gender man): Generally refers to someone who was identified female at birth but who identifies and portrays gender as male. Sometimes the expressions FTM, F2M, or affirmed male are also used. It’s important to understand that not everyone is comfortable with all terms.
  • Trans (gender) woman: Generally refers to someone who was identified male at birth but who identifies and portrays gender as female. Also used by some: MTF, M2F, affirmed female.
  • Transsexual: An older term, which originated in the medical and psychological communities, for people whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth who seek to transition from male to female or female to male. Transsexual is NOT an umbrella term and may be considered offensive unless it’s a person’s identity, and some transsexuals distinctly separate themselves from the term transgender.
  • Cross-dresser: One who occasionally wears clothing traditionally associated with people of the opposite sex (in a binary gender system), and is usually comfortable with the assigned sex. Cross-dressing is not indicative of sexual orientation. “Cross-dresser” is generally viewed as an outdated label and may be considered offensive to some.
  • Transition: The process that people go through as they change their gender expression and/or physical appearance to align with their gender identity. Length of the transition period will vary greatly from person to person. Transitioning is a very individual process, and not every transgender person elects to have surgery, change legal documents, use hormones, etc.

For more information about transgender language, see the resources below.


  1. Transgender Terminology: January 2014, National Center for Transgender Equality. Retrieved 3/21/14 from http://www.transequality.org/Resources/TransTerminology_2014.pdf
  2. GLAAD Media Reference Guide: Transgender Glossary of Terms. Retrieved 3/21/14 from https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender
  3. Glossary of Gender and Transgender Terms, January 2010 Revision; Fenway Health. Retrieved 3/21/14 from http://www.fenwayhealth.org/site/DocServer/Handout_7-C_Glossary_of_Gender_and_Transgender_Terms__fi.pdf?docID=7081

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  • Randee

    April 2nd, 2014 at 7:19 AM

    Argh it’s all so confusing!!
    Is it really still so bad to just use the terms that come the closest to what we really mean and we all wil, just figure it out?
    I really don’t think that my grandpa would have a hard time if he were gay having a “boyfriend” as a matter of fact I think that he might think that it was kinda cool.
    Sometimes I think that when you atart adding more and more terms, there grows more and more hesitation about using them because we are all still afraid we will say the wrong thing!

  • ava

    April 2nd, 2014 at 11:04 AM

    Do we really need this? How about, we are all humans?

  • Joseph

    April 3rd, 2014 at 3:29 AM

    I don’t necessarily think that the words are always meant to be derogatory, but I think that because someone form outside of the culture is typically the one doing the naming there is simply a general lack of understanding and this can sometimes limit how we see the group and come up with our name for them. I agree with ava, we are all human beings and shouldn’t really need much more than that, butt hat isn’t how we function so we have to leave that ideal behind. Sometimes it would probably be a better idea though to solicit the ideas and opinions of those for whom we are trying to identify rather than settling on something that others could see as harmful or hurtful, even in it is unintentional.

  • Cari

    April 4th, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    The words don’t fail, people fail
    We prescribe all of our notions about people and give them names only to make them fit into the boxes that we have created for them, paying little attention to the fact that they probably care nothing about fitting into our preconceived notions of them!

  • Clayton

    April 5th, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    I guess that my bigest problem with all of this is that if the community as a whole can’t even agree on the chosen terminology that they would like to see used then how are we, those of us who are not transgender supposed to know what is accurate and what ia appropriate? There might be one friend who says that one word is alright while there could be someone else who is offended, so are we ever going to come up with something that will make everyone happy?

  • gregory

    April 7th, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    I can understand how this bcould make a demographic feel marginalized when we don’t even care enough about who they are and how they feel to come with appropriate terminology to convery who they are to one another or more importantly, how they wish for others to view them.
    This is about more than the need for just another label in society, it is a show of acceptance and giving a name to something that may have once been unrecognized and unnamed but now should be worthy enough to get some recognition and attention from others.

  • Susan J. Leviton, MA, LMFT

    April 8th, 2014 at 1:10 PM

    Part of the reason the terminology is confusing is that we are talking about an entire spectrum of identity rather than a simple binary. If you are not sure what words to use–ask! “How do you identify?” “What pronouns do you prefer?” Or just use a person’s name. I believe that as the transgender community gains in rights and acceptance, the words may become less of an issue.

  • Sam

    August 3rd, 2014 at 7:47 AM

    Maybe words fail because gender is not located (purely) in language. Gender is largely located in relationships and it occurs between people in the space where we choose to acknowledge or disown the individual that we are relating to. For example, I am a trans guy who walks in the world without changing his body (yet). I allow people to use whatever pronoun they see me as at the time that they open their mouth… this is a dramatic divergence from the gender-segregating stance that a lot of people take: women identified individuals who verbally harass anyone who calls them ‘he’ and male identified individuals who reinforce their gender by othering women and ironically calling each other sissy. If only we can stop the interpersonal gender bashing by seeing ourselves in everyone we relate to, we will simultaneously reduce sexism and make space for gender-variant individuals.

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