What Does Transgender Mean?

Hey FAM!

On this week’s Social Justice installment, we’re going to discuss Trans issues. We’re going to touch a bit on the Transgender community and some of the ways they are marginalized by cisgender folks.

Let’s start with a few definitions:

Gender: A social construct that allows individuals to make logical assumptions about someone based on cues such as appearance, mannerisms, presentation, clothing, speech patterns, name, and other cues.  Often, this is “assigned” to an infant at birth based on their genitalia (when those genitalia are unambiguous).  On an individual level, gender is an emotional, mental, and social state that is influenced by a number of factors, including genetics, society, neurochemistry, upbringing, exposure to media and academia, as well as other nonspecific factors.  Often, this term is conflated with ‘sex‘ as a way to differentiate “how someone feels” from their genitalia.  However, genitalia, chromosomes, and assigned birth gender have no scientifically provable bearing on one’s gender.  Only people have a gender; genitals, objects, actions, media, and other such items are not gendered.  Society may at large may associate them with a particular gender, however these associations are a function of a strong bias towards binary gender, and to a greater degree, gender essentialism.

Gender Presentation: How any individual represents their gender through mannerisms, appearance, name, and other nonspecific factors.

Gender Binary: The concept that only two genders exist, male and female, and that all other genders are invalid, made up, fake, or some other similar term.

Gender Essentialism: The practice or idea of boiling down an individual to so-called “essential” qualities associated with the gender they are, or present as. Examples include reducing an individual to their genitalia or secondary sex characteristics, to a biological function (such as pregnancy/birth or menstruation), to a societal role (housewife/homemaker, breadwinner, think 1950s americana), or to another lesser quality to remove the complexity and abstraction of the individual.  This is harmful not only in trans discourse, but also in feminist discourse in that it is often sexist as well as cissexist.

Transgender or Trans: (adjective) Transgender is an umbrella term for anyone who is not the gender doctors assigned when they were born. This includes binary and non-binary genders and identities as well. This is an adjective (not a noun) and should never use the -ed or -ism suffix. While you may see trans folks refer to themselves as “a tran” or “a trans” or “the trans” colloquially (and often in jest), much like with racially-charged language be sure to avoid mimicking the usage of the trans community as a cis individual.  Generally one should refer to binary trans folks as “trans men” or “trans women” as the term “trans” is an adjective, similar to blonde, white, fat, disabled, or neurotypical.  Specifically, using the terms “transman” and “transwoman” (note the lack of space) implies that these individuals are fundamentally “not” members of their gender, by creating a fully new term rather than applying an adjective to said gender.

Non-Binary: (adjective) Sometimes shortened to NB, or enby. This is an umbrella term for folks whose gender doesn’t exist within the gender binary. They aren’t “men” or “women,” but often have identities such as agender, gender-fluid, etc. If you think of gender less as a binary and more as a big ball of wibbly wobbly gendery-bendery stuff,* then non-binary folks are somewhere in said ball.  Sometimes this term is shortened to NB, or “enby” by members of the community.**

Cisgender: (adjective) Anyone who is the gender they were assigned at birth. Also referred to as “cis <insert gender here>” such as cis man or cis woman. Borrowed from latin, where it is the opposite of the prefix “trans”. This word follows the same grammatical rules as transgender, and should never have the -ism, or -ed suffix attached.

AMAB/AFAB: Abbreviation for “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth”; this is an abbreviation often used by/around trans people to avoid harmful or misgendering language such as “born <insert different gender here>” or “<insert different gender here>-bodied”.

Deadname: A trans person’s deadname is the name they were assigned before their gender became known. It is incredibly problematic to use this name, or to ask about it. Using it suggests that you don’t respect a person’s declaration of their authentic selves, and also runs the risk of potentially outting them.

Misgendering: The act of referring to someone using terms, implications, imagery, or other communication that expresses or implies that they are a different gender than they are, or are not genuine about their identity.  While it may be easier to understand this as “a different gender than they *say* they are” that language implies that an individual’s gender is invalid and based only on that individual’s opinion and that they do not have the agency to know their own gender moreso than society (or simply another individual).  While this can be as simple as using the incorrect pronouns, it can also be less obviously done via explicitly avoiding using a gendered or genderless pronoun to indicate a trans individual, preferring to use their name (or worse, their deadname) even when it is grammatically awkward or conversationally inappropriate. 

Dysphoria: This is the distress a trans person experiences as a result of the gender they were assigned at birth. Not all trans folks experience dysphoria, and for those who do, the degree to which they experience it may vary. Historically ‘gender dysphoria’ was the medical term for the condition of being transgender, much like how homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the socially unaware days of yesteryear.  As of the release of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (or DSM-5 for short), this is no longer the case.

Intersex: Intersex refers to a person who has a body that does not fit society’s binary definitions of male and female. This includes variance in chromosomes, hormones, secondary sex characteristics and sexual and reproductive anatomy (sometimes referred to as “ambiguous genitals” at birth).

Cissexism: The discrimination of the dominant group (cis folks) against the oppressed group (trans folks) based on the quality of being trans, or having one or more qualities associated with trans folks, or the assertion/implication that trans folks are inferior to cis folks.

Folks: An easy-to-use genderless reference to a group of individuals.  Sometimes used in text as “folx” in the LGBT community to be more inclusive, and as a nod to the role of the internet and social media in modern LGBT culture.

TERF: “TERF” is an abbreviation for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. TERFs are a hate group and are known for doxxing (tracking down and publishing private information about), harassing, and excluding trans folks from spaces (including LGBT spaces). For more information, check out: Cathy Brennan is a Fake Goth. Originally coined by trans activist and historian Katarina Rose around 2008 as “Trans Exterminatory Radical Feminist” in an effort to describe a subset of radical feminists who, under the guise of “gender critical” arguments, seek to exclude trans women from feminist and female-only spaces, and to a greater extent, to eliminate the acceptance of trans women as women entirely.  Over time, TERFs have (largely successfully) rebranded as “exclusionary” but given their stated goals, this term is not entirely accurate.

Still with me? That was a whole lot of definitions, and they may be hard to remember, but it gets easier, I promise!

The problem of transphobia or transantagonism, like sexism, racism, ableism, or classism, is a systemic one. Under the theory of intersectionality, first coined by feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, various oppressions can not be understood independently of each other. You can’t separate the oppressions of being a woman, a person of color, of being poor or being trans. They’re intertwined and they act on each other frequently compounding the trauma and oppression and magnifying it. For transgender folk, this manifests in the way stigma and transphobia drive other oppressions like class and gender.

Transgender folk are more likely to experience family rejection and homelessness. The 2015 Transgender Survey asked respondents a series of questions relating to their immediate family’s support of their gender. They found that of respondents who were out to their immediate families:

  • 10% reported a family member was violent toward them because of their transgender status.
  • 8% were kicked out of their homes
  • 10% ran away from home

Trans folks experienced considerably higher rates of psychological distress as a result of the social stigma and rejection by their families.


  • 40% of transgender folks who responded to the survey have attempted suicide in their lifetime, compared to 4.6% of the US population as a whole.

Homelessness was a struggle for many of the respondents

  • 30% experienced homelessness at some point in their lives
  • 12% experienced homelessness in 2015 because of being transgender
  • of that 12%, 26% avoided staying in a shelter because of fears of being mistreated as a transgender person.
  • of those who did stay in shelters, 70% reported harassment, physical and sexual assault, or being kicked out because of being transgender.

Transgender folks are more likely to be victims of violence or harassment:

  • 46% of respondents experienced verbal harassment in the year predating the survey (2015)
  • 9% of respondents reported being physically attacked for being transgender in 2015
  • 47% of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime
  • 54% experienced some form of intimate partner violence.

Transgender folks are often discriminated against when attempting to simply exist in public. 31% of respondents to the survey experienced some form of mistreatment while in a place of public accomodation:


Should Republicans have their way and manage to completely defund Medicaid and Planned Parenthood, trans folk stand to suffer as well — low income trans folk, just like cis women, rely on Planned Parenthood for reproductive health. In many states, Planned Parenthood is the only option trans folk have for access to hormone replacement therapy and other trans related healthcare. Many trans folks avoid seeing doctors for fear of being mistreated as a trans person, or because they could not afford too.

So what can we do to support our trans siblings?

I’m so glad you asked!

The most important thing we can do for our trans siblings is listen.

When our trans siblings tell us that our pink pussy hats hurt them, we need to take them off.

When our trans siblings tell us that our insistence on associating genitalia with femininity excludes them, we need to find new symbols.

When our trans siblings tell us to use their pronouns, we need to do it without question.

When our children and loved ones tell us they are transgender, we need to support them.

We need to donate to Planned Parenthood’s HRT program, and to the Trans Lifeline.

When our politicians try to limit our trans siblings’ access to bathrooms and healthcare, we need to pick up our signs and march with them.

Remember Martin Niemoller’s famous words:

Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up Click To Tweet

For more in-depth terms, and additional resources, check out these links!

A Glossary of Terms — Transstudent.org

Gender is messier than a singular point on a two-dimensional line

Trans Feminism: There’s No Conundrum About It

*Doctor Who reference because why not?

**There is some controversy as to whether or not it is appropriate for cis folk to use the term enby. While the term is generally accepted by the non-binary community, it is vital to always respect individuals and their choice of terms when referring to them.

I would like to give a heartfelt thanks to Bronwyn Sperling, Ian Pinsker, Alaura Mae, and Tawny for their significant contributions to this piece.

If you are trans and living in the United States or Canada, the Trans Lifeline was created by trans folk for other trans folk. They are a free, 24 hour hotline that can be reached at (US) 877-565-8860, or (Canada) 877-330-6366. You matter, and you are loved.

Published by

Aila Moireach

Aila is a 30 year old single mum and social justice educator and writer. You can find her on facebook, or on her blog http://ailamoireach.com