“Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can break our hearts.”
People who are transgender have been appearing more and more in the spotlight lately which can only be a good thing. Actress Laverne Cox from ‘Orange is the New Black,’ Cher’s famous son; Chaz Bono, Carmen Carrera from ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ and most recently trans model Andreja Pejic; the Bosnian born supermodel who is making it big in the modelling world, have all been increasingly visible in mainstream media. Andreja was quoted recently as saying “I think we all evolve as we get older and that’s normal but I like to think that my recent transition hasn’t made me into a different individual. Same person, no difference at all just a different gender, I hope you can all understand that.”
Some people may wonder why I am writing this article. I am a straight cis woman. Cis or cisgender purely means that my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned at birth. Some may say I am not qualified to write an article about transgender issues, but I feel the more literature out there the better. People who identify as transgender are still largely misunderstood and they can be vilified in our society or endure extensive discrimination. The ABS surveys state that the number of trans people who have attempted suicide in Australia in the last 10 years is much higher than rates of suicide in cis gender people, which is an absolute tragedy.
These stats weren’t what sparked this article though. There was an event in the media recently which made me quite mad. It made me think that we as a society really need to gain more knowledge about the words we choose in regards to people who are transgender. That the public in general are pretty uninformed and misguided about this issue and about their choice of vocabulary. The incident I am referring to happened a few weeks back when a lady in Brisbane was brutally murdered, dismembered and partly cooked at the hands of her partner who later committed suicide whilst being chased by the police. A horrific story and a tragic outcome for the lady at the centre of it all. This lady was transgender and the local newspaper reported it like this:
Shemale is an extremely derogatory term in our culture. I realise the lady in the article referred to herself using this term in a clip in the newspaper but that doesn’t give us carte blanche to go about using terms like this. Same goes for the words “Ladyboy” and “He-she.” They are transphobic slurs in our culture and they incite hatred and highlight difference.
I may be a straight woman but I am a big supporter of the LGBTIQ community and I feel that these discussions need to be had. Generally I choose to see the good in people. I realise that there are a lot of bigoted, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic (fear of the unknown) people out there but despite that I think that often offensive or derogatory terms are used simply because people don’t know any better. When we know better we act better, hence this article.
I feel Australia is a fairly free and progressive country. People are largely able to be themselves, especially compared to other oppressive countries in our world. Having said that we still have a long way to go, but the only way we will progress is to have the conversations so….. after extensive research here is our list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to choosing words regarding the trans community.
Do not say that someone was “born as a boy” or “born as a girl” purely based on the genitals they were assigned at birth. Gender is about the way you think and who you are in your head, not what is between your legs. To say that the ladies in the two examples above were “born boys” is to completely discount what trans people are all about. All people are born as who they identify with, in some cases, such as people who are transgender, the external body does not match the inside.
The correct terminology is transgender or simply trans. This term should be followed by the words man or woman depending on what the person identifies as. For example, ‘Andreja Pejic is a trans woman.’ The word transgender should always be used as an adjective, not as a noun. For example ‘Andreja is a transgender,’ is incorrect. ‘Andreja is a transgender woman,’ is the right way to phrase it.
Perhaps the most important issue when it comes to vocab in regards to people who are trans is the use of pronouns. He, she, her, his etc. The correct pronoun is the one the person identifies with. In the examples of the ladies above it would be extremely disrespectful to refer to them as “he.” It makes you look ignorant and it undermines them as a person.
Please don’t ask a trans person about their genitalia. You wouldn’t ask a cisgender person so don’t ask a transgender one. This is rude and inappropriate, if they ever choose to discuss it they will.
Transitioning is when one is changing from the sex they were assigned at birth to the sex they identify with. This may or may not involve surgery or hormones. The correct term for any surgery is ‘gender affirming surgery’ or ‘genital reassignment surgery.’
Please refrain from using the term ‘sex change’ as surgery does not change ones sex or gender, just the genitalia.
Lastly please be aware that gender identity has got nothing to do with sexuality. They are two completely different things. Who you are attracted to versus who you are. Please don’t make assumptions.
Having said all this, the people I know who identify as transgender and probably a large majority of the trans community would say that if you are confused please just ask. Genuine interest and a desire not to offend is better than saying nothing at all or even worse, unknowingly using derogatory or defamatory vocabulary. When we know better we do better but we can’t do better without researching, learning and asking the questions. So let’s get educated and remember to always choose your words carefully.
What are you thoughts on vocabulary surrounding the trans community?
Do you feel words can have a powerful impact?