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Labels and Vocabulary

Key Points

Terms and definitions are evolving quickly.  The most important thing is to ask how people identify and respect their right to self-identify.

This respect for chosen language is important around identity labels, as well as around the ways people describe their personal history and experiences. Preferred pronouns and body part names also vary from person to person and should be respected not interrogated.

More Resources

This two page list of definitions comes from Gender Spectrum.

Working definitions for a wide variety of terms relating to transgender experience, compiled by Midwest Trans* and Queer Wellness Initiative.

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reference document with definitions and welcoming tips, suitable for use as a handout.

This 2 page list of terms from the National Center for Transgender Equality accompanies their Teaching Trans workshop.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) has produced this glossary of terms related to transgender people.


Going Deeper: The Terms Paradox

Many Trans 101 efforts include a list of terms, yet it is important to recognize "that the meanings of terms are in a constant state of flux and evolution, and that every individual defines particular terms in very different ways. ...there are literally hundreds of words used to describe transgender and gender non-conforming identities and experiences." (Forge fact sheet #2)

Some terms are contested within the trans community, reflecting political alignments and realignments. Some terms reflect specific cultural contexts and are not well understood outside of that context. Individuals often come up with unique ways to articulate their experience and self-understanding within their own personal life narrative. This beautiful variety of language can be confusing for those who are trying to find their bearings.

In their work training victim service providers, Forge has highlighted an important distinction that they call the "Terms Paradox."

1. Terms are crucial. Finding out what terms a person uses and then using their language is a primary way of conveying respect and openness. To be culturally competent, you need to find out what terms a person uses to refer to themselves and then reflect those terms back to them. The use of [the individual's] terms tells them that you are listening closely and respect their right to self-define.

2. Terms are meaningless. Terms tell you almost none of what you need to know to... have respectful, meaningful interactions. There are two primary reasons why terms are meaningless: 1. There has never been consensus on any transgender-related term. 2. What you really need to know about transgender people in order to [be appropriate and culturally competent] isn’t going to come from an identity term, but from asking specific questions related to their needs, concerns, experiences.

In working with transgender communities, it is less important to be "right" or "have all the answers." It is more important to be respectful.

For most, [people], the goal of communication is to enhance and build rapport. Remembering to hear and reflect [a transgender person's] language will help [the transgender person] feel heard, seen, believed, and respected. (Forge fact sheet #2)

So by all means, explore the language of transgender communities in every way you can. But when you are interacting with or discussing transgender communities, keep your humility close at hand. When in doubt about a term, ask for clarification in a sensitive and appropriate way, such as during a pause in the discussion.

Trans Basics
Gender vs. Sexuality
Beyond the Binary
Labels and Vocabulary
Myths and Sterotypes
Children and Youth
Is it an Illness?