Language Toolbox for a Kinder World

In my last column, I talked about one of the tools people, especially oppressed people like queers, need in order to build a world that isn’t ruled by oppression.  This week I’d like to offer you guys a personal toolbox of mine—I’m going to give you all the language I know.

I can’t do that all at once, so we’ll take it slow.  First, we’ll do a column of words that I recommend learning and using.  Second, we’ll do a column of words that you’ve probably heard, but I don’t recommend using.  And third, we’ll do one about that big thorny subject—anti-queer slurs, reclaimed and otherwise.

Language, terminology, semantics—sometimes it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but guess what?  Semantics are an entire field!  There are professors of semantics!  Think the next time you say, “It’s just semantics.”  An academic might cry somewhere.  Language is how we make the world, or, frighteningly, how the world is made for us.

Here at SLC, where we write constantly and talk even more, and lots of that writing and talking is about who makes the world and how they do it, language is a constant obsession.

When I claim my language I claim dignity.  I become a female-assigned man with the strength to live my gender instead of a woman with Gender Identity Disorder.  And then I ask you to use the same words I use for me, because something as powerful and huge as language requires more than one kid to change and then help remake the world into a better, braver place.

It can be hard—no, it’s always hard—to see how you’re helping to remake the world.  So here’s a good reason to be careful about your language that’s super concrete:  You are an all right kind of a human.  You are kind.  You want to be kind to your friends and the people you love, and hopefully even the people you don’t, and because this is Sarah Lawrence, that inevitably includes some queers.  I believe, gentle reader, in your better nature.

One last note before we get started: Not all queers claim the same language.  Some of us repudiate for ourselves the language that others absolutely need for themselves.  Fortunately, language isn’t a zero-sum game.  If you encounter a queer who has different words for themselves, don’t you dare say, “I read in Stephen Ira’s column that you’re not allowed to use that.”  I’m not the arbiter of language!  I’m just a guy who’d like to help you out a little.  Let’s go.

This glossary is organized in a way so as to avoid cross-referencing whenever possible.  So, anarchy, a little.  Since language is less well understood in issues of trans identity, this’ll be pretty trans heavy, and well, let’s start in the birthing room, all right?  It’s not exactly what Maria does in The Sound of Music, but when you read, you begin with LGBT. . .

female-assigned, male-assigned:  A male-assigned person is someone whose parents, doctors, and peers decided was male.  A female-assigned person is just the opposite.  Male-assigned people often have penises, but some intersex folks don’t.  The reverse is true for female-assigned people.

To say that someone is “assigned” to a gender instead of being “born” a gender acknowledges that whether the doctor says, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” when you pop out doesn’t have any bearing on what gender you really are.

People also use the acronyms FAAB (female-assigned at birth), MAAB (male assigned at birth), and AFAB (assigned female at birth) and AMAB (just guess, I’m sick of doing these parentheticals).

transgender:  Oh boy.  You might think you know what it means, but you probably don’t!  Well, here’s a good working definition.  A transgender person has a gender that’s different from the gender they were assigned at birth!  Now, let’s get into some shit.

Some people use transgender as a noun, to mean something along the lines of “trans issues” or “the subject of gender variance.”  To me, this sounds awkward, and encourages people to believe that transgender is a noun one can use for people, as in, “Look at that transgender, Stephen!” or “Bro, don’t go in there, there’s some transgenders in the Teahaus!”

Some people say “transgendered” instead of transgender, when they’re talking about a person.  That is, they’ll say, “I was female-assigned but I’m male.  I’m a transgendered man.”  I don’t use this, because to me it sounds like being trans is something that’s being done to the trans person.  We don’t talk about gay people being “gayed,” or black people being “blackened.”  I resent being put into a position of passivity within my identity.  But everyone has the right to their language, and unless you know someone’s personal preference as far as transgendered vs. transgender, just go with “trans.”

cisgender: A cisgender person has the same gender they were assigned at birth.  So, if you were male-assigned and you’re male, you’re cisgender.  The same goes for a woman who was assigned female at birth.

cissexism: A system of beliefs that considers the genders of trans people less valid than those of cis people.  “A trans man can never be a real man.”  Cissexist!  “No women have penises!”  That’s cissexism at work.  “Non-binary people are just confused; there are only two genders.”  Cissexism at its finest.  Now, this may sound like. . .

transphobia: But it’s actually subtly different!  Transphobia is just the straight up fear of or revulsion towards transgender people.  In some ways its creepier, but it has its roots in the idea that trans people are a frightening foreign presence in the world of gender.  For example, when the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival says that trans women can’t participate because it’s an all woman space and trans women have “male energy,” that’s cissexist, but it’s transphobic too, because clearly these cis women find trans women ooooh so scaaaary.

homophobia: The irrational fear of gay people!  Just like transphobia is the irrational fear of trans people.

heterosexism: A system of beliefs that considers same-gender or otherwise queer relationships less valid than straight relationships.

preferred gender pronoun:  Does just what it says on the tin—it’s the third person pronoun you prefer people to use when they talk about you!  Most men, for example, prefer “he,” and most women prefer “she.”  The initialism PGP, which means the same thing, is often also used.

non-binary identified:  Someone who doesn’t have either of the two binary genders.  (For those of you following along at home, that’s male or female.)  In other words, a non-binary person isn’t a man and isn’t a woman.  Some non-binary people also identify as genderqueer.  (Remember when I said language was self-determining? I was not kidding.)

genderqueer:  A genderqueer person can identify as neither male nor female; they can identify as male with a little female twist, female with a male twist, non-binary entirely, male with a non-binary twist—the possibilities are endless.  Essentially, genderqueer people are people for whom “man” or “woman” doesn’t do the job.

agender: Agender people don’t identify as any gender.  Some consider themselves non-binary, some don’t.  Self determination, we meet again!

zie, hir: These are a set of non-binary pronouns, often preferred by non-binary and genderqueer identified people.  Zie is the subject, hir is both the object and the possessive.  There are lots of different non-binary pronouns, but those deserve their own column, and I’d say this is probably the most common.  It’s easiest to understand this by example:

Ex. “Stephen is male-identified.  He prefers that people use male pronouns when they talk about him and his life.”

Ex. “Pop is non-binary identified.  Zie prefers that people use non-binary pronouns when they talk about hir and hir life.”

intersex: Intersex people have chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, or some other biological qualities that place them outside of the strict binary of sexes.  In other words, the doctor has a hard time deciding what to say when they pop out in the birthing room.  Intersex people are almost always coercively assigned to one of the two binary genders.  This is medical abuse, and can involve anything from hormone injections to surgery and beyond.  This practice of dealing with intersex people is fucked up as hell, obviously.

Some intersex people identify as transgender or transsexual, but not all.  There’s that self-determining language stuff again!

transsexual: A transgender person who needs medical treatment to make their body better fit their own person gender—hormone therapy, for example, or surgery on secondary sex characteristics like genitals and breasts.  I like to think of this as kind of like how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares—all transsexuals are transgender, but not all transgender people are transsexuals.

Now, this is important—transsexuals don’t get surgery so they can look like what the world tells us a man or woman looks like—we (oh yes, we) get surgery so we can feel at peace in our own skin.  It’s that we’ve got to fit their own personal way of being our own gender, whether that’s male, female, or a non-binary gender.

Some non-binary people want surgery, and some non-binary people who want surgery identify as transsexual, but not all.  Man, this whole self-determining language thing.  It’s no joke.

dysphoria:  In a broad sense, dysphoria is just the opposite of euphoria—it’s when you feel extremely sad.  When trans people use it, we’re usually talking about specifically gender dysphoria, which is the depression and despair felt as a consequence of having a body that doesn’t match your gender.  It’s because of dysphoria that transsexual people medically transition.  Not all trans people feel dysphoria, but for the ones who do, it can be a serious problem with daily life.

T: A slang term trans men and their peers use for testosterone.

Ex.  “Are you on T?”

“Yeah, I’ve been on T since May.”

no-ho: No hormones.  A slang term for trans people who don’t need to take hormones.

non-op: Non-operative.  Pretty self-explanatory, really, although not everyone is as easily defined as being operative or non-operative—not all trans people need all the surgeries on offer.

top surgery: Any kind of surgery related to one’s breasts, but the term most commonly refers to trans men’s mastectomies.

bottom surgery: Any kind of surgery related to one’s genitals.

pansexual: Someone who is attracted to people of all genders, not just the two binary ones.  Not someone, as people who think they’re very clever are always saying, “Someone who’ll like, fuck anything?”  You’ve got to read this last sentence to yourself in a Maggie Smith voice: Oh, shut up.

asexual: Asexual people don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone.  Some experience romantic feelings towards one or both genders, some don’t.  Some masturbate, some even fuck, because their partners are sexual and they’ve found a good way to work out that disparity.  Some are revolted by the idea of having sex.  Lots of asexual people also use the slang asexy, or ace.

 heteroromantic, homoromantic, panromantic, biromantic: A long list of terms coined by asexual people to refer to romantic attraction as opposed to sexual attraction!  So, if someone is asexual but is also attracted to members of their own gender, they’re homoromantic.  Some people are attracted to all genders, but only romantically attracted to members of their own, so they’d be pansexual and homoromantic.  It takes a while, but it’s easy to get when you think about it.

I hope this helps, guys!  The most important thing, though?  If you don’t know what language people prefer, find a polite, private way to ask them!  Don’t do it in front of a bunch of people, but when you have a moment alone, ask, “Hey, you don’t have to share this with me if it’s too personal, but what pronoun would you prefer me to use?” Be polite, and remember that being kind with your language not only helps fight evil, it will make your life a happier and comfier place.

If there’s a term you hear thrown around and don’t understand, feel free to write in and ask me about it!

Stephen Ira is a queer activist whose poetry and fiction have been published in 365 Tomorrows and Spot Literary Magazine. He co-chairs Sarah Lawrence's trans identity group, Trans Action, and keeps a blog as the Super-Mattachine, queer anti-oppression avenger, at As David Foster Wallace would say, he does things like get into a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it!" He believes there is nothing more radical than kindness.


  • Reply November 18, 2011


    […] this Trans 101 post by Asher Bauer!  If you’re confused about terminology, you can check out these columns I wrote a while ago on the subject–one of them is a glossary of basic terms.  I can’t […]

  • Reply November 18, 2011

    michelle victoria

    I agree, there is nothing more radical than kindness. So beautifully said, and I am happy to be a radical. Thank you for this really important writing.

  • Reply November 21, 2011

    Trelaine Lewis

    Hello Stephen Ira. I like you. I’m primarily known as a visual artist, but I also write. I was told many years ago that my “voice” is very distinct, because I write exactly how I speak. I think you do too – very cool! It’s also refreshing to find someone your age who grasps the concept of how language creates what is considered reality. I shudder every time I discover an acronym or slang term has replaced a real word, or find a word that has been misused for so long the definition has changed. I’m about your mom’s age, so I’m not that old (shut up!), but I’m bewildered at how rapidly my vocabulary is becoming archaic. WTF (I’m only using an acronym to be discreet – insert smiling emoticon here) is up with Spell Check? Why does it recognize “Emoticon,” but not “Autodidacticism”? Never mind; I’m getting used to the bruises on my face from slamming my head against the wall.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to rant. I wanted to thank you for posting a vernacular. I came across this page as I was trying to figure out what “Cis” meant. I don’t have a television, nor do I “tweet,” so somewhere along the way I have become disconnected from popular culture. (I am a badger, I live in a den, I can’t find the loop, I know I’m not in.) It was interesting to read all of the terms, most of which I’ll probably forget in 5 minutes, but then I couldn’t follow “Lord of the Rings” either. (Why are italics rarely an option?) Anyway, the comment I am meandering to express is that your list made me feel sad. I wish the terms were unnecessary. I wish we could just be people.

  • Reply November 22, 2011

    Cis Rundle

    hello again.. Love the way you write..I myself was looking for the definition of Cis.. As it is my name.. As well..I’ll keep re-reading cause I’m sure I missed it.. Stay the course.. Know your loved! Cis

  • Reply December 13, 2011


    Awesome. Brilliant. Thank you!

  • Reply October 24, 2012


    Man this makes me feel out of my element. I’m a bi girl and have always thought of myself as pretty progressive and language-appropriate when I talk about trans-related issues (I was very proud, maybe too proud, to know about “ze” and “hir” back when I went to SLC from ’01-’05), but half these terms are new to me.

    Bear with us old farts as we catch up, but thanks for the positive, interesting and entertaining primer. This is a great post, even if the amount of info in it is intimidating.

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