Transgender Terms: What They All Mean

The Subtle Differences Between Some Phrases

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Photograph © Franziska Neumeister

I interviewed a 17-year-old transgender teen named Casey. 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 do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender is a social construct that is performed, so it has very little to do with physical anatomy. Some trans people may opt for surgery, others may not — it doesn't make them any less transgender. A transgender man is a man who was assigned "woman" at birth and a transgender woman is a woman who was assigned "man" at birth. It's important to distinguish sex from gender and understand that they are not binaries.

Similarly, trans is used as a shorthand version of the term. 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 woman to man.
  • 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 experience as it relates to gender. Gender is not binary. 
  • 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 man to woman.
  • 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 their body, although they may want to. 
  • Sex: This refers to how someone is classified according to their chromosomes. Babies are assigned a 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 who an individual is sexually attracted to. It's not the same as gender identity, which focuses on how the person views themselves, not attraction.
  • 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 offensive term that refers to transgender individuals who identify with a gender that's different from the one they were assigned at birth. This term is offensive for a few reasons, one being that it seems to focus more on anatomy than on gender identity.

Drag Queens and Cross-dressing

Cross-dressers often refer to people who wear makeup, clothes, and accessories associated with another gender. Most often, these people are men who simply engage in gender expression that is not for entertainment. Rather, drag queens dress like women for entertainment purposes. 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 and culture.

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