Does language need to be collectively agreed upon before it’s actually offensive? What about subtler phrasings that unconsciously undermine people, specifically transgender and nonbinary people?
Ignoring what others identify themselves as can actually be alienating and sometimes traumatizing. The misuse of pronouns might seem innocent, but it also puts the speaker’s discomfort and values before the other person’s. In other words, it’s a form of discrimination and harmful to presume someone’s pronouns by looking at them.
Referring to people with terms or phrases that they don’t agree with — like “it’s just a phase” — is a destructive force that implies a sense of doubt, fantasy, or role-play.
Describing someone as a “former man” or “biological man” is demeaning. When you insist on using a former name an individual no longer uses, it symbolizes a preference for your own comfort and can be outright rude, if done intentionally.
In an article for Conscious Style Guide, Steve Bien-Aimé proclaims, “Common language usages should not trample over others who are different.” So why not use the words that have power to validate, acknowledge, and include?
Here at Healthline, we couldn’t agree more. Our most powerful tools on the editorial team are our words. We weigh the words of our content carefully, scanning for issues that could hurt, exclude, or invalidate other human experiences. It’s why we use “they” instead of “he or she” and why we distinguish between gender and sex.
Gender and sex are separate matters. Sex is a word that refers to a person’s biology, including chromosomes, hormones, and organs (and when you take a closer look, it becomes clear that sex isn’t binary, either).
Gender (or gender identity) is the state of being a man, woman, both, neither, or other gender altogether. Gender also includes the roles and expectations society assigns to each person based on their “maleness” or “femaleness.” These expectations can become so ingrained that we may not even recognize when or how we reinforce them.
Gender evolves over time and culture. There was (not too long ago) a time when it was socially unacceptable for women to wear pants. Many of us look back on that now and wonder how it was that way for so long.
Just as we created the space for changes in clothing (which is gender expression) for women, we are learning more space needs to be created in language to affirm and account for the experiences and feelings of transgender people.
Despite being such small words, pronouns hold a lot of significance when it comes to identity. She, he, they — it’s not a matter of grammar. (The Associated Press updated their style guidelines for 2017, allowing for the singular use of “they.”) We use “they” all the time in reference to singular people — just in the introduction above, we used it four times.
If you meet someone new and they haven’t made it clear which pronouns they use, ask. The more we do this as a society, the more natural it’ll become, like asking “How are you?” And honestly, it’ll save you more awkwardness down the line. A simple, “Hey Jay, how do you like to be referred to? What pronouns do you use?” will suffice.
So, whether it’s he, she, they, or something else: When someone lets you know their pronouns, accept them. Using the wrong pronouns (or misgendering) is a sign that you don’t believe someone knows who they are better than you do. It can also be a form of harassment when done intentionally.
Don’t say this: “She’s a former woman who now goes by Michael.”
Say this instead: “That’s Michael. He tells amazing stories! You should meet him sometime.”
It’s unfortunately not uncommon for trans people to still be referred to by their given (as opposed to affirmed) names. This is called deadnaming, and it’s an act of disrespect that can be easily avoided by simply asking, “How do you like to be referred to?”
Many trans people put a lot of time, emotion, and energy into the name they use and it should be respected. The use of any other name can be harmful and should be avoided whenever possible.
A full summary of a transgender person’s gender history and anatomy are usually completely irrelevant. So, when you talk about or with a person, be careful to not prioritize your curiosities. Stick to topics that are relevant to why the person came to see you.
Don’t say this: “Dr. Cyril Brown, named Jessica Brown at birth, made a pivotal discovery in the journey toward curing cancer.”
Say this instead: “Thanks to Dr. Cyril Brown, an amazing scientist, we may now be one step closer to curing cancer.”
Curiosity is a valid feeling, but acting on it isn’t your job. It’s also disrespectful to many trans people. While you may be curious about the details of a person’s gender, body, and anatomy, understand that you don’t have a right to that information. Just like you don’t owe an explanation about your past life, they don’t owe you one, either.
When you meet most other people, you probably don’t inquire about the state of their genitals or their medication regimen. That personal health information is personal, and being trans doesn’t take away that right to privacy.
If you want to understand their experience better, do some research of your own into the different options available to people who identify as transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming. But don’t ask an individual about their specific journey unless they’ve given you permission.
Don’t say this: “So, are you ever going to have, you know, the surgery?”
Say this instead: “Hey, what are you up to this weekend?”
To be gender inclusive is to be open to all gender identities and gender expressions in a discussion.
For example, an article may come across our desk that reads “women” when it really means “people who can become pregnant.” For transgender men, menstruation and pregnancy may still be very real issues they experience. Describing the entire group of ovulating people as “women” excludes the experience of some trans men (and women who deal with infertility, but that’s another article).
Words like “real,” “regular,” and “normal” can also be excluding. Comparing trans women against so-called “real” women separates them from their identity and continues the incorrect idea that gender is biological.
Using precise, descriptive language rather than gender buckets isn’t only more inclusive, it’s just clearer.
Don’t say this: “Women and transgender women showed up in huge numbers at the rally.”
Say this instead: “Lots of women showed up at the rally in record numbers.”
Remember, you’re speaking about another person. Another human being. Before you open your mouth, think about what details may be unnecessary, diminish their humanity, or result from your own discomfort.
For example, it’s important to acknowledge that this person is — you guessed it — a person. Referring to members of the trans community as “transgenders” denies their humanity. It’s just like how you wouldn’t say “he’s a black.”
They’re people, and being transgender is just a part of that. Terms like “transgender people” and “the transgender community” are more appropriate. Likewise, many trans people dislike the term “transgendered,” as if trans-ness was something that happened to them.
Rather than coming up with new or shorthand ways to describe trans people, just call them trans people. This way, you avoid accidentally stumbling onto an offensive slur.
Note that even if one person identifies with a term or slur, it doesn’t mean everyone does. It doesn’t make it OK for you to use that term for all the other trans people you meet.
And in most instances, being trans isn’t relevant when interacting with people. Other details that probably aren’t necessary to question are whether the person is “pre-op” or “post-op” and how long ago they started transitioning.
You don’t talk about cis people’s bodies when you introduce them, so extend the same courtesy to trans people.
Don’t say this: “We met a transgender at the bar last night.”
Say this instead: “We met this awesome dancer at the bar last night.”
Navigating new territory can be difficult, we get it. And while these guidelines may be helpful, they’re also just guidelines. People are diverse, and one size will never fit all — especially when it comes to self-reference.
As humans, we’re bound to mess up at some point. Even good intentions may not land appropriately.
How one person feels respected may be different from how another person feels respected. If you flub up, politely correct your mistake and move forward. The important part is to remember to focus on the other’s feelings — not your own.
- Don’t make an assumption about how someone would like to be referred to.
- Don’t ask about what genitals a person has or will have, especially as a factor for deciding how you’ll refer to the person.
- Don’t explain away a person’s preference based on how it affects you.
- Don’t explain a person by a previous identity. This is called deadnaming, and it’s a form of disrespect against trans people. If you’re unsure how to refer to a person in the past, ask them.
- Don’t out a person. If you happen to learn about a person’s previous name or gender assignment, keep it to yourself.
- Don’t use offensive shorthand slurs.
Don’t say this: “I’m sorry, but it’s just so hard for me to call you Jimmy after I’ve known you as Justine for so long! I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it.”
Say this instead: “Hey Just— sorry, Jimmy, do you want to come with us to dinner Friday?”
- Ask respectfully for a person’s pronouns and commit to using them.
- Refer to a person only by their current identity.
- Correct yourself if you use the wrong name or pronouns.
- Avoid the words “real,” “regular,” and “normal.” Your transgender friend isn’t “as pretty as a ‘real’ woman.” They’re a beautiful woman, end of sentence.
- Understand you’ll make mistakes. Be open and receptive to feedback from trans people about how your language makes them feel.
- Remember that all people are greater than their gender identity and expression. Don’t focus too much on it either way.
If you think someone is trans, don’t ask. It doesn’t matter. They’ll tell you if it ever becomes relevant and if they feel comfortable sharing that information with you.
If someone is trans or nonbinary, or if you’re just not sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask how you should address them. Asking shows respect and that you want to validate their identity.
Welcome to “How to Be Human,” a series on empathy and how to put people first. Differences shouldn’t be crutches, no matter what box society has drawn for us. Come learn about the power of words and celebrate people’s experiences, no matter their age, ethnicity, gender, or state of being. Let’s elevate our fellow humans through respect.