Language Toolbox: Undercover Evil Agents

Title of this specific column: A Glossary of Words You’ve Probably Heard in Discussions of Queer People But Shouldn’t Use Because They Are Undercover Evil Agents That Bite Off People’s Faces and Make them Sad.

There are words I cannot hear and feel safe as a queer.  People find it easy to understand some of these words, like “tranny,” or the pronoun “she” if it’s directed at me.  But others mystify the very same people.  “Why don’t you like that word?  I know this one trans person who uses it.”  Or, my favorite, “But that’s the PC term!”

These “PC terms” are stealthy.  They’re agents of evil working undercover.  I intend to blow that cover.

Here’s my second column on language, the second compartment in the Language Toolbox for a Kinder Word that I want to give you, gentle reader.  This one will run a little long, like my previous glossary, but there is free quinoa with maple sugar at the end of it.*

born female, born male:  Queers don’t so much use this in my experience, at least no educated queers, but the press sure does.  Now, the idea that someone can be “born” a gender isn’t totally unfounded, but the idea that we can know what gender they’re born when they’re a baby is ridiculous.  Trans people know that the only real way to know someone’s gender is to ask them.  See how far you get trying that with a baby.

female-bodied, male-bodied: Trans folks and their allies used to use these a lot.  They’re meant to refer to trans people with vaginas and breasts without calling them born female or trans people with penises and no breasts without calling them born male.  But vaginas and breasts do not a female body make!  Female and male bodies come in all different types with different secondary sex characteristics.  I am a man.  This is my body.  It’s a man’s body.  It is a male body.  Next!

sex change, “the” surgery: No such thing!  There are tons of different parts of what trans people usually call “medical transition.”  There’s taking testosterone blockers.  There’s taking estrogen blockers.  There’s taking testosterone.  There’s taking estrogen.  There’s getting a mastectomy, a breast augmentation, a metoidoplasty, a phalloplasty, a vaginoplasty, a hysterectomy, an oopherectomy–the list goes on and on until you feel sleepy just thinking about it.  If we all got all of these procedures done, we would have no time to do conference work–not all trans women get breast augmentations or vaginoplasties.  Not all trans men get metoidoplasties, phalloplasties, or mastectomies.

The less flippant way to put it is that “sex change” or “the surgery” implies that medical transition is one huge big procedure that turns trans people from cookie cutter men or women into cookie cutter women or men, and that’s just not the case.  Plus, what a “sex change” calls to mind is tabloid articles and terrible middle school lunch table talks.  We’d all rather avoid those, I think.

gender identity disorder: Often abbreviated as GID, this is how transgender identity is described in the DSM IV, a gargantuan book by the American Psychological Association in which all recognized mental illnesses are catalogued.  (That’s right, according to the APA being trans is a mental illness.  Most trans people have to get diagnosed with it in order to be treated. The more you know.)  Do I even need to explain why this is cissexist douchery, that no one’s identity is disordered, that–fuck it, gentle reader, you are better than this.

FTM, MTF: These mean “female to male” and “male to female” respectively, and are used to denote trans men and trans women.  They’re still very much in common use, and are claimed by many trans people–who of course have the right to use them!  But, even if you are someone who claims the initialism for themselves, I wouldn’t recommend using it to describe anyone else unless you know they specifically claim it too.

These intialisms carry the connotation, like “born female” or “born male,” that trans people “used to be” something other than what they are.  I’m not female to male–I started out from male.  My society just had the wrong place marked “You are Here” on the map they handed me.

LGBT: Well, here’s a can of worms.  I know, I know!  Even I use this one.  I used it in a Sound of Music pun last week, but let’s be frank; I will do many things for puns to which I am otherwise opposed.

It’s not that this initialism is outwardly offensive; it’s that its noninclusive and is often used in harmful contexts.  Where aren’t asexuals included in this?  Pansexuals?  People who just identify as queer full-stop?  Plus, LGBT is often used as a way to pretend that cis queers are including trans queers when they really aren’t.  Groups like the Human Rights Campaign bill themselves as LGBT, but they never forget that the T is the last (and therefore least significant) letter in there.

I find queer a much more liberating umbrella term.  And it’s the term I use, except in case of emergency.  (NB: For “emergency,” here read, “opportunity to make Julie Andrews-related pun.”)

stealth: Stealth is used to refer to trans people who do not disclose their trans status on the daily.  It has problematic connotations that the person is “lying” or “hiding something” about themselves.  Trans people who don’t disclose aren’t “lying,” they just don’t want to deal with the constant bombardment of questions and rudeness and assumptions that comes with being a disclosing trans person–and frankly, if it weren’t for a variety of unfortunate circumstances, I’d probably choose not to disclose either.

The kinder term to use for trans people who don’t disclose is blending as cis.

passing: This term has a super complicated history, oh gee!  In a racial context, it refers to people of color “passing” for white in order to avoid racism.  But for trans people, to “pass” is to be read as the correct gender.

Ex.  “Today I went to the Mobil and the cashier said, ‘Here’s your Marlboro 27s, sir.’  I totally passed!”  Bob the trans guy bounced happily outside the Pub, alarming the hipsters, for whom all enthusiasm was strictly verboten.

But saying you “passed” for a certain gender implies that you aren’t really that gender–just “passing” for it.  Plus, it places the onus of the action on Bob the trans guy, rather than the person who’s really doing anything in this situation–the Mobile cashier.  It’s the Mobile cashier who is using visual cues and other socially constructed material to make a (probably unconscious) assumption about Bob’s gender.  That’s why the kinder term is “being read correctly,” or “being read as [insert person’s identified gender here].”

Ex.  “Today I went to the Mobil and the cashier said, ‘Here’s your Marlboro 27s, sir.’  He totally read me right!”  Bob the trans guy bounced happily outside the Pub, leading all the hipsters to join in on the kyriarchy burning celebration.

transman, transwoman: This one might be my least favorite evil secret agent, if only because it’s such an easy one to avoid.  All you have to do to fix it is add a space in the middle, right between the “trans” and the rest of the word.  We don’t talk about “gaywomen” or “blackmen” or “disabledwomen” or “workingclasswoman.”  Why should we talk about “transmen” and “transwomen” as though their transness modified their manhood or womanhood?

NB: Some people are transmen and transwomen, and their transness does modify their manhood or woman hood!  But trans men and transmen are not the same!  Neither are transwomen and trans women.  Get correct.
When we place all transgender men and women in a separate category from cisgender men and women, we deny the reality of their genders.  And that is balls!

In closing, I’d like to remind all of you that these words were invented by queer people and by straights who wanted to help queer people.  Oppression gets into your head and into your language like a mind-controlling worm from some niche drawn online pornography.Oppressors are lazy.  They don’t want to do their own work, so they’ll try to get you to do it for them.  They know queers trust other queers (and their straight allies), so they sneak oppression into our brains.  They give us reasons to call ourselves by names that hurt us.

Never forget that they can do that to you.  More importantly, never forget that you can stop them.  You can rip the masks off of the oppressor’s secret agents and call the world by its real name.

Tune in next week, when I’ll be talking about everyone’s favorite queer language controversy, slurs and reclamation!  After that, the series on language will be done, and I’ll start complaining about the transgender name policy here at SLC!  Aren’t you drooling for 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.


  • […] column on queer issues for SLC Speaks, a Sarah Lawrence student publication.  My latest column is here, and is a brief rundown of words that are frequently used in discourse about queers but are […]

  • Reply November 18, 2011

    Kristen from MA

    Just popped over from your latest blog entry. I just want to say that I’m impressed with your writing and look forward to reading more.

    And this: ‘He believes there is nothing more radical than kindness.’

    Awesome. Just awesome.

  • Reply November 19, 2011


    thank you for writing. I will be following your highly informative and often entertaining work.

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