As two cis people we have not always fully understood the language that surrounds gender and the transgender and non-binary communities. We have tried to educate ourselves by talking to people and reading around the subject but we know for many cis people it can feel a bit daunting so we thought we would try and help and get someone to write a simple introduction guide to trans and gender terminology.
This post, about terminology used to talk about gender, is part 1 and in a couple of week times there will be a part 2 which will be an introduction of some of the most common trans and non-binary gender identities both of them written for us by the fabulous blogger Quinn Rhodes. (ze/hir)
An intro to trans terminology By Quinn Rhodes (ze/hir)
Are you ever confused by the words trans and non-binary folks throw around when they’re talking about gender? The queer and trans communities have a lot of their own language, and it’s completely ok not to understand everything straight away. The important thing for an ally to is be willing to learn about the words trans and non-binary folk use to talk about gender.
This is a brief introduction to some of the terminology trans folks use when we talk about ourselves.
Biological sex is assigned to a person at birth based on the genitalia your doctor sees. If a doctor sees a penis they will be assigned male at birth, and if a doctor sees a vulva they will be assigned female at birth. We’re told that biological sex is a binary, but it really isn’t.
A tiny percentage of babies are born intersex meaning that they have ambiguous genitalia and a doctor cannot immediately tell if they have a vulva or a penis. They might have biological attributes of both sexes and their external and internal genitalia may not match what we’d expect to see. Intersex people may identify as male, female, non-binary, or any other gender identity.
AMAB and AFAB
AMAB and AFAB stand for Assigned Male At Birth and Assigned Female At Birth respectively. refers to people who a doctor looks at when they are born and sees a penis. Often well-meaning cis folks will use the words “female bodied” or “male bodied” when what they really mean is AFAB or AMAB. There’s no one way to have a male body or a female body, and if you really do need to refer to someone based on their genitalia (and more often than not you don’t), the polite way to do that is by using AFAB and AMAB.
It is really hard to define gender, but it can be seen as doing the things that society thinks of as being male or female. Gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth, because as a society we have a strange fascination with the way people’s bodies look as tiny babies.
This is a person’s internal, innate sense of their gender. A trans or non-binary person’s gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
How a person chooses to outwardly express their gender is referred to as their gender expression. It can encompass a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behaviour, or voice. For example, wearing lipstick is a form of gender expression.
Someone’s gender expression does not have to be the same as their gender identity. For example, a butch lesbian might dress in a traditionally masculine way, but they are still a woman – that is how they perform their gender. Trans folks do not have to express their gender exactly as it lines up with binary gender roles – for example, trans men can chose to wear a skirt.
Androgyny is a style of ambiguous gender expression being neither specifically feminine or masculine. Most non-binary representation in media features thin, white, androgynous people, but non-binary people do not have to perform androgyny to validate their gender identity.
We use pronouns all the time: cis men use he/him/his pronouns and cis women use she/her pronouns. While binary trans folks often use he/him and she/her pronouns too, non-binary people often choose other pronouns that they feel more accurately reflect their gender identity. The most common non-binary pronoun is they/them/their, but folks also use ze/zir, ze/hir and xe/xem/xyr – plus many more!
Despite common misconceptions, they/them are not plural pronouns – in fact you’ve probably used them that way yourself. Imagine finding an umbrella in a restaurant: you’d say “someone left their umbrella” if you didn’t know who had left the umbrella there – a perfect example of using they/them as singular pronouns.
Remember, you cannot know from looking at someone what gender they identify as. Until you know what pronouns they prefer, you should default to using they/them pronouns. You’re totally allowed to ask someone what their pronouns – in fact it’s encouraged, because it normalises the idea that gender expression isn’t the same as gender identity.
A great way to be an ally is to introduce yourself with your pronouns first, i.e. “I’m Molly, I use she/her pronouns, what’s your name?” In fact, anything that helps put less pressure on the trans person as the “weird” ones who are sharing their pronouns is good – like putting your pronouns in your Twitter bio or email signature.
Transition refers to the process of a trans or non-binary person exploring their gender and embodying their gender identity in a way that feels right to them. Every trans person’s transition will be different, and may or may not involve using a different name and new pronouns, dressing differently, or starting to take hormones.
To misgender a trans or non-binary person is to use the wrong pronouns for them, or by some other way imply that they are not the gender they identify with. Please don’t do this.
A trans or non-binary’s person birth name is referred to as their deadname after they’ve changed it, especially as part of their transition. You should absolutely not use someone’s deadname, unless it’s to protect them in spaces where they aren’t yet out as trans.
Quinn Rhodes creates advice on how not to be a dick to trans and non-binary folks over on Patreon. You can find out more about hir on the bio below.
Quinn Rhodes (he/him) is a queer, trans, disabled sex writer. He’s a sex nerd with vaginismus who writes about his vagina anxiety, mental illness, and adventures in learning to fuck without fucking up. Quinn can usually be found wearing stomp-on-the-patriarchy boots while falling in love every time he fucks. He blogs about sex at onqueerstreet.com and creates educational content about trans inclusivity at whatsinyourpants.co.