Transgender Terms: What They All Mean

The Subtle Differences Between Some Phrases

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I interviewed a 17-year-old named Casey who identifies as a pre-op FTM trans teen. It was great to hear about his life, but some of the terms he used during the conversation—like pre-op and FTM—might not be familiar to everyone.

Like gender, language can be fluid. A certain term might mean one thing in some circles, while in others it might mean something completely different. Even so, having a general understanding of the language used to discuss transgender life is an important step in becoming a more inclusive society.

Transgender Terms: What They All Mean

Transgender is something of an umbrella term for individuals who may have the genitals of one sex, but a gender identity associated with the other sex. For example, a person born with a penis who feels female may identify as transgender. A "transgender man" identifies as a male and a "transgender woman" identifies as a female.

Similarly, trans is used as a shorthand version of the term transgender to mean transgender or transsexual. It may also be used as an umbrella term, just as transgender is. It's important to avoid using this kind of terminology with audiences who do not have a good understanding of LGBTQ words and opt for the full term to help add context the conversation.

Terminology A-Z

Some of the more common transgender terms used in language include 'T', 'genderqueer,' and 'transitioning.' Review some of the most common terms used when discussing transgender life:

  • FTM or F2M: A trans person who is transitioning from female to male.
  • Gender confirmation surgery: Sometimes mistakenly called a "sex change operation," and more recently "sex reassignment surgery," this involves physically changing one's sex through surgery. It is often accompanied by hormone treatments.
  • Genderqueer: Genderqueer refers to people who do not adhere to strictly male or female identities and roles. A genderqueer person often chooses to present as neither clearly male nor clearly female, but rather as a gender-free individual whose identity may shift and change over time.
  • Gender expression: The gender an individual displays to the world and to those around him through things like dress, hairstyle or mannerisms.
  • Gender identity: A person's inner emotional and psychological inclination as being male or female. 
  • Hormone therapy: Synthetic hormones are taken to affect things like body shape, hair growth patterns, and secondary sex characteristics.
  • MTF or M2F: A trans person who is transitioning from male to female.
  • Non-op: A transgender person who does not intend to have surgery.
  • Post-op: A transgender person who has had surgery.
  • Pre-op: A transgender person who has not had surgery to alter his or her body, although he or she may want to. 
  • Sex: This refers to how someone is classified—either male or female. Babies are assigned a male or female sex at birth, typically due to their external anatomy (whether they have a penis or a vagina). This assignment is then written on their birth certificate. Regardless of this traditional classification, a person's sex is actually a mix of bodily characteristics like chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
  • Sexual orientation: This term addresses whether an individual is sexually attracted to men, women or both. It's not the same as gender identity, which focuses on the gender a person identifies with.
  • T: Shorthand for the hormone testosterone, which is taken by some FTM individuals.
  • Transitioning: This is the process of changing one's sex to match one's gender identity.
  • Transsexual: This is an outdated term that refers to individuals who identify with a gender that's different from the one they were assigned at birth. The person desires to transition from male to female or vice versa. This term has fallen out of favor for a few reasons, one being that it seems to focus more on the body than on gender identity. It also sounds very clinical or medical.

Drag Queens and Cross-dressing

Cross-dressers often refer to people who wear makeup, clothes, and accessories associated with women.

Most often, these people are heterosexual men who simply engage in gender expression that is not for entertainment. Rather, drag queens dress like women for entertainment purposes (and typically gay men play this type of role). It's important to understand the key differences between these various forms of terminology so that we remain educated and respectful during conversations with and about LGBTQ people.