Transgender issues and experiences have received more public attention in recent years. Many individuals are making good-faith attempts to shift their language regarding sex and gender.
As an unintended side-effect, however, I have seen an increase in cis allies perpetuating transphobia through their language in an attempt to be more inclusive.
Language norms within the LGBTQIA+ community are continually evolving as our understanding of sex and gender evolves. I will outline a few common pitfalls, as well as examples of how to shift one’s mindset regarding gender identity.
The use of the singular “they” is one common place where individuals often get tripped up. It is much more simple than people make it out to be.
The History and Use of Singular They
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the singular “they” can be traced back to as early as 1375. English already makes use of the singular “you,” which began to replace thou, thee, and thy in the seventeenth century. Using “they” as both singular and plural is no more complicated than using “you” as both singular and plural.
When referring to an individual using they/them pronouns, you conjugate the verbs in the sentence as you normally would (just like you do with the singular you!). So, for example, saying, “This is my friend Toni. They are a teacher at the local high school.”
Additionally, it is likely that you already use the singular they anytime you are referencing a person whose gender is unknown. (Example: “Someone forgot their jacket in this booth! Let’s give it to the server in case they come back for it.”) The only difference is, the gender of every stranger is actually unknown!
Gender Identity vs Gender Expression
Western culture socializes individuals to assume that someone’s gender identity can be determined based on their gender expression. We now know that these are two separate things.
Gender identity is an individual’s internal experience of gender. Gender expression is how an individual chooses to externally express their gender. This could include clothing, hair, voice, body language, or other aspects of appearance or behavior.
What helped me become more comfortable using “they” as a singular pronoun was referring in my head to every stranger in a gender-neutral way.
The real work is decoupling your assumptions about someone’s gender based on your perception of their physical appearance. You have experienced cultural conditioning to connect these two phenomena.
The good news is that conditioning works both ways! With time and effort, you can learn to challenge your assumptions regarding the gender of others.
Referring to “preferred” pronouns is now widely seen as a microaggression within the transgender community.
Cis people do not have “preferred” pronouns, they just have pronouns. If trans and non-binary individuals are the only ones with “preferred” pronouns, it singles us out as different.
The use of the term “preferred” also carries other negative connotations. It conveys the idea that trans and non-binary people are overly sensitive, picky, or as if pronouns are a whim or eccentricity.
Something which is preferred is generally seen as nice to have, but not necessary. I might prefer apples over pears, for example. Speaking about “preferred” pronouns sends the message that it isn’t a big deal if someone uses the wrong pronouns, which is not the case.
The Impact of Misgendering On Mental Health
Research shows that transgender individuals have higher rates of anxiety and depression, including an increased risk of suicide.
According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 40% of transgender respondents had attempted suicide in their lifetime. This is nine times the rate of the general population. Research by the Trevor Project in 2022 echoes these statistics for transgender youth.
Misgendering is a traumatic experience. It has real and tangible effects on the health and well-being of transgender and non-binary individuals.
Referring to an individual with the correct pronouns is not a matter of preference. The EEOC states that repeated misgendering is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and is a form of harassment and discrimination.
Assigned Sex at Birth (ASAB)
Some trans or non-binary people will refer to their assigned sex at birth as a way of speaking to past experiences, or how their sense of gender has evolved over time.
Western culture typically conflates ASAB with gender identity. So, an infant assigned female at birth (AFAB) will be raised, socialized, and treated as a woman. But in reality, biological sex and gender identity are two separate phenomena.
What is biological sex?
Biological sex isn’t a straightforward concept.
When a physician assigns sex at birth, it is based on their interpretation of the external visual presentation of genitalia. This is only one component of biological sex.
Biological sex is as much a social construct as gender is. It is viewed as a binary when it is a spectrum, based on the complex interrelationships between chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia.
Approximately 1 in 100 individuals are born intersex. The Intersex Society of North America explains in more detail why it is complicated to even estimate how common intersex conditions are. Many intersex infants have unnecessary surgical procedures so that they can be placed within the gender binary.
The Impact of Assigned Sex at Birth
The sex we are assigned at birth impacts how we are socialized, perceived, and categorized. The messages we receive about sex and gender affect our sense of self and the choices we make in our lives.
A trans man, trans woman, cis woman, and non-binary person will all have a different relationship to misogyny and patriarchy that is informed by their lived experience. This is true even if they were all assigned the same sex at birth.
Some cis allies try to use ASAB to speak about or define another person, or as a replacement for other gendered terms. So, for example, a cis woman might talk about AFAB experiences instead of women’s experiences. This is a misguided attempt to be inclusive and to recognize that all women were not assigned female at birth.
The Harm of Assigned Sex at Birth
Underneath the use of ASAB terminology is the assumption that all AFAB individuals, for example, share similar experiences of discrimination or misogyny, or related to their biology (usually menstruation, pregnancy, etc.). Which is not the case.
It also privileges the assignment a medical professional made in infancy over the gender identity of the person. This reinforces harm perpetuated by the medical industrial complex, which includes gatekeeping transgender individuals from receiving gender-affirming healthcare.
If a trans or non-binary person chooses to use ASAB to speak about their own experience, that is different from labeling another individual based on their ASAB.
If you want to speak to a shared experience, it is better to describe that experience. So, for example, using language like “people who menstruate” would do a better job capturing that group than either “women” or “AFAB” would.
“Women and Non-binary” or “Women and femmes”
This comes up most often related to organizations or events which have historically been centered on the experiences of women.
In an attempt to be inclusive, these organizations will shift their marketing materials to say “women and non-binary” instead (or sometimes “women and femmes”).
Why This Language is Problematic
First, it treats non-binary individuals as “woman-lite,” which is a form of misgendering. There is often an underlying assumption that the non-binary individuals in question were assigned female at birth, and therefore “count” as women.
Non-binary isn’t a third gender – it is an umbrella term that encompasses countless variations of gender identity and expression. Which among these are welcome in an organization or at an event which has traditionally centered women?
Gender identity and gender expression are likewise distinct phenomena. If an event is for “women and femmes,” does that mean only feminine women are welcome? How might a butch lesbian be treated in this space? Or a masculine trans woman?
There is nothing wrong with creating organizations or events that center women’s experiences. When I see non-binary identity tacked on in these instances, it feels like an afterthought.
As a non-binary person, I actually feel less welcome in these spaces. I am concerned with how deeply the organization has interrogated its assumptions about gender identity. And I am not sure whether they actually see me as non-binary, or understand what that means.
How to Be More Gender-Inclusive
What would be more helpful is evidence of deeper thought regarding the audience a particular event or organization wants to serve.
When you say “women and femmes,” does that mean the event is for individuals who want to explore their relationship with femininity? Or those who have been harmed by misogyny?
Maybe gender is not even the defining feature of your audience. Is the organization or event for those who want to dismantle the patriarchy? Or is it a space free from toxic masculinity? Do you simply mean that cis heterosexual men are not welcome? And if so, what assumptions are being made about men, and where are those ideas coming from?
It can be easy to perpetuate biological essentialism, even within spaces that claim to be feminist. We live in a patriarchal society, and women need affinity spaces.
But if you’re going to open up a space to a wider range of lived experiences, I encourage you to think deeply about what that actually means and to be specific about what those experiences are.
I work in the mental health field, and I see a lot of referral requests for “female-identified” clinicians. This is an example of how an attempt to be gender-inclusive can actually perpetuate transphobia.
When someone says “female-identified,” it is a sloppy (and unnecessary) attempt to be inclusive of trans women. This LinkedIn post by Brandy Simula does a good job of explaining why the term “female” is not actually a synonym for “woman.”
The terms “male” and “female” describe biological sex. Sex and gender are two separate categories. This means that not all women are female.
Referring to women as “female” is a form of misogyny that attempts to reduce women to their biological sex characteristics (usually the ability to menstruate and become pregnant). This is in spite of the fact that there are cis women who do not menstruate, or who are not able to become pregnant or give birth.
There is rarely ever a need to actually use the terms “male” or “female.” The vast majority of the time, what we are actually concerned with is someone’s gender.
Moreover, the conflation of gender and biological sex aligns with TERF talking points which try to categorize trans women as “men who dress up as women.” This shows up most often in fear-mongering about gender-neutral restrooms. TERF ideology hinges on the argument that biological sex is what defines womanhood, which means that according to them, trans women will never be women.
The bottom line is that trans women don’t “identify as” female. Using “identify as” language is harmful for the same reasons that “preferred” pronouns are harmful. Trans women are women. If you want to be inclusive of trans women, the word “women” already does that work for you!
I have also recently seen someone use the term “female-bodied” in an attempt to be gender-inclusive. This is even more transphobic than “female-identified”!
Again, this kind of language reduces women to their biological sex characteristics and obscures the fact that biological sex and gender are two separate categories.
There are very few situations in which an individual’s biological sex is relevant. And, most individuals have not had a karyotype genetic test. This means that if you are relying on the sex which was assigned to you at birth, that is not necessarily even an accurate reflection of your biological sex.
There isn’t a way to define a term like “female-bodied” that does not misgender or erase trans, non-binary, and intersex individuals.
In fact, because various intersex conditions exist, using “male” and “female” in most medical situations isn’t even the most helpful framework. It would be more accurate to be specific about which body parts or hormones are relevant to a given procedure or test.
Best Practices for Gender-Inclusive Language
At the end of the day, you have to do the work to challenge your assumptions about biological sex and gender identity.
When attempting to describe the experiences of a specific group of people, don’t fall back on gender essentialism.
Instead, get specific about the lived experience you are attempting to capture by words like “women” or “men”.
This could look like:
- people who menstruate
- people with uteruses
- people with penises
- gestational parent
- individuals who experience misogyny
- individuals who perpetuate toxic masculinity
It can also help to be more mindful of using gender-neutral language wherever possible.
This might look like:
- Defaulting to “they” pronouns for strangers
- Using terms like server/flight attendant/postal worker instead of gendered terms to describe occupations
Often, gender isn’t actually an important part of the equation. And even if it is, relying on assumptions about gender can reinforce sexism and transphobia.
Being more intentional about how you use language can be a part of shifting your mindset about gender.
If you have additional questions or need support around a specific situation, you can always schedule a consultation.