Words Matter: Understanding the Meaning of Transgender


Covering transgender people, including those making the very personal decision to transition, can be challenging for reporters unfamiliar with the LGBTQ community, and, in particular, the increasingly visible transgender community.

This guide from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) civil rights organization, is intended to serve as a primer, a starting point for reporters committed to telling the stories of transgender people accurately and humanely, from appropriate word usage to context that reflects the reality of their lived experience.

Here’s our list of the Top Eight things reporters covering transgender people should know:

1. Understand what “transgender” means.

A transgender person, not “transgendered,” is someone whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside. It includes people who have medically transitioned to align their internal knowledge of gender with their physical presentation. But it also includes those who have not transitioned, and genderqueer or gender expansive people who do not fit in the distinct and opposite binary of male and female. Preferred usage is “transgender people,” “transgender person,” “transgender woman,” “transgender man,” “trans people,” “trans person,” “trans woman,” and “trans man.”

2. Know the difference between “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”

Gender Identity is one’s internal concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither. It is how individuals perceive themselves, and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their own sense of gender identity do not match.

Sexual Orientation refers to emotional, romantic, sexual, and relational attraction to someone else, whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. Refrain from using “sexual preference,” “homosexuality,” or “heterosexuality.” In other words, someone can be transgender and straight, or transgender and gay.

3. Understand what “transition” means.

Transition is a process that some transgender people undergo when they decide to live as the gender with which they identify, rather than the one they were assigned at birth. A transgender person transitioning is not “becoming” a man or a woman; they are starting to live openly as their true gender. Transitioning can include medical components such as hormone therapy and surgery. However, not every transition involves medical interventions. And many people can’t pursue them because of cost. Recognize that, while public, transitioning is a very personal process and everyone has a right to privacy.

4. Know that the full process of transitioning isn’t always or just about surgery.

The process of transitioning frequently involves affirming one’s gender identity in ways other than or beyond medical components. It involves affirming one’s gender identity through social means -- by changing the pronouns one uses, for example; as well as through legal means including changing one’s name on legal documents like a driver’s license and Social Security card.  Changing one’s identity documents is often a complex and time-consuming process, and some states do not allow transgender people to receive appropriate identity documents that reflect the way they live their lives.

5. Respect transgender people by using their preferred names and pronouns.

Proper names and pronouns preferred by the transgender person should be used, regardless of their legal name or gender marker on identification documents. If you’re not sure, the AP Stylebook advises that you should “use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” Also note that some transgender people prefer the pronoun “them” to “her” or “him.”  

6. Understand their reality. Be aware of the reality of many transgender people in the United States and how that can inform the context of your story.

Transgender people in the United States are extraordinarily diverse. They come from every type of community, including rural and urban places, and they represent every race and ethnicity. They pursue a wide range of professions, participate in a variety of religious traditions, and play important roles in families, including as parents. Because prejudice and discrimination are so common, transgender people are far more likely than non-transgender people to be living in poverty, and too many experience homelessness at some point in their lives. This can make them especially vulnerable both to violence and to contact with law enforcement, with or without cause. In 2016, HRC tracked at least 21 murders of transgender people in the United States, a number that excludes both unreported cases and serious attacks that did not end in death. In the recent past, it was common for media reports on transgender murder victims to emphasize a victim's arrest record (if they had one) in order to suggest—nearly always inaccurately—that they were killed because of their own criminal activity or because they deceived their killer about their transgender status.  Thankfully, today many reporters are now avoiding these stereotypes and turning to those who knew the victim, rather than any arrest record, for information.

7. Refrain from contrasting trans men and women with“real” or “biological” men and women.

Contrasting transgender people with “real” or “biological” men and women is a  false comparison. They are real men and women, and doing so contributes to the inaccurate perception that transgender people are being deceptive when, in fact, they are being authentic and courageous.

8. Focus on the whole person.

Focusing solely on a person’s transition can make people feel like a specimen, which nobody likes. Put the person at the center of your story, in the context of family, friends, and daily life. While celebrities are helping increase awareness, there have been transgender people living openly for a very long time, as well as advocates and everyday people working to change hearts and minds in their communities, in the law, and in workplaces.

Jess Downey