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Real Talk With Trans People

How to be an ally.

By Leela Ginelle
Illustrations by Rory Midhani

Words can cut, like knives slicing open wounds. For transgender folk, loaded lingo has long made us feel unseen and unwelcome. Now there’s a growing acceptance that we all need to stop using words that reduce trans people to their clothing (“transvestite”) or their genitals (“transsexual”), or that are plain offensive (“tr-nny”).

But words can also be like thread and pull us closer together. So what should a non-trans person say and know? This timely guide can help you master pronouns and avoid trampling on trans people’s privacy and feelings. Let’s do this!


These acronyms stand for “Assigned Male at Birth” and “Assigned Female at Birth.” Trans folks prefer “assigned” (or sometimes “designated”) over phrases like “born a man” or “female to male,” which imply, wrongly, that those identities were ever correct. Nope. Genitals aren’t gender, plain and simple.

Shit Cis People Say:

“Chloe used to be a man,” “David was born a woman,” or “Desiree’s a male to female transsexual.”

“Bathroom Bill”

A public restroom can be a unique form of hell for trans men and women, a place ripe for misunderstandings and harassment. Some conservative lawmakers are trying to amp up the awkwardness by supporting so-called bathroom bills, a pejorative term for legislation intended to force people to use the toilets corresponding to their assigned gender. So far these efforts have all failed, but new bills seem to pop up like weeds. Let’s keep it classy, friends, and not criminalize the need to pee.

Extra Credit:

Check out the #wejustneedtopee hashtag on Twitter, and share your support by signing petitions against these bills.


If you’re AMAB and still identify as male, ch-ching — you’re cisgender! You can collect your winnings in the Gender Identity Privilege Lottery. Cisgender’s a fairly new term, but it’s legit — it made the Oxford English Dictionary this year. Cis is a companion term to trans, like heterosexual is to homosexual, but cis and trans refer strictly to gender. Knowing someone’s gender identity tells you nothing about who they crush on.

In a Sentence:

I’m a white, cisgender male. I apologize for the patriarchy.

Dead Name

The name a trans person is given at birth. Trans folk don’t like being asked about their dead name once they’ve chosen a new, more appropriate one as part of their transition. Dead names die hard, though, and often zombie their way back into trans people’s lives through old IDs, junk mail and birth certificates.

Shit Cis People Say:

“What did you used to be called?” . . . “What’s your real name?” . . . “Who were you before?”


Mainstream society has found a million ways to not see us for who we are — what some call erasure. It’s in the ubiquitous “male” or “female” checkboxes on application forms. It’s present all over Hollywood, too, as in the upcoming Stonewall movie, which reinterprets trans women of color as hunky, white Ken dolls on screen. We land robots on asteroids, but brown trans women are too much for our brains to comprehend? Mmkay.

In a Sentence:

Erasure is Jon Stewart making a billion pro-gay jokes while being transphobic the whole time.

Femme, Butch, Androgynous, Feminine of Center, Masculine of Center, etc.

These terms capture different kinds of gender expressions: the ways we communicate our sense of self through grooming and clothing, which can range from the high femme (heels, skirts, piles of makeup) to the hyper masculine (camo pants, button down shirts, short hair). Let’s learn these terms and make room for everyone’s inner diva.

In a Sentence:

I identify as female, but I’m not femme-y. My gender expression is masculine-of-center.

Gender-confirming Surgery

Don’t say sex change — that sounds sensational. Don’t say gender reassignment; that’s too weirdly clinical. What’s important is we’re confirming an identity we already know to be correct. Ok, moving on: for trans women, a vagina is created through the inversion of penile tissue. For trans men, a graft of skin, generally taken from the forearm, is constructed into a phallus.

Play it cool:

Don’t ask your trans friends about surgery unless they invite you to. There’s a reason we call them private parts.

HRT, E & Spiro, T

Some trans folk use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to alleviate gender dysphoria. Trans women who use hormones generally take estrogen and the testosterone-blocking drug spironolactone (or “e” and “spiro”), while trans men take injectable testosterone (or “t”). It takes a few months for HRT to start showing effects, but most trans folk express immediate relief upon starting.

In a Sentence:

Trans men don’t need to take an estrogen blocker because t just overrides their estrogen. Sigh… even our hormones obey the patriarchy.

Laser & Electrolysis

On the road to transition, many a rocky stretch is made of hair. For trans women to lose their stubble, they turn to laser hair removal or electrolysis, both of which can be extremely time-consuming, expensive and often torturous.

In a Sentence:

I survived 200 hours of electrolysis, but the pain was so intense it felt like a scene out of Zero Dark Thirty.


Pronouns are super important for trans folk. Like crazy important. Misgendering — the act of referring to someone by the wrong pronoun — can seem like an honest mistake, but to a trans person it can feel like PTSD-level bullying. When in doubt about what pronoun someone goes by, just ask, “Which pronouns do you prefer?” Don’t guess. For a gold star, offer up your own pronouns, too.

Shit Cis People Say:

“Oops, but you can see how I’d make that mistake”… “Uh, I meant ‘she’”… “Argh, sorry, this is just so confusing for me.”

Non-Binary or Genderqueer

NB and GQ folks, including celebs Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose, locate their genders outside the categories of male and female. They often use either first-person plural pronouns (they, them) or less common ones (ze/zir, ne/nem). These identities are already big in adolescent and college queer scenes.

In a Sentence:

I want to attend college at a place like the University of Vermont, which lets me be genderqueer in its records and recognizes my pronouns.


A transition’s the process by which a trans person moves from their assigned gender to their affirmed one. It’s a journey, not a jaunt, and there’s no “one sizes fits all” formula for how it unfolds. For instance, surgery’s a priority for many trans folk, but about one in five express no desire for it. That said, transitions often start with a person coming out to family, friends, and co-workers, gradually changing their appearance, and, soon, selecting a new name.

Play it cool:

Transitions are hyper-personal experiences, so a good rule of thumb is to only ask about someone’s process if you’re besties.


Bias against transgender people can show up anywhere from a tasteless Caitlyn Jenner meme, to harassment on the bus, to an inability to find a job or apartment. Transphobia is bad news: one study found that one in six trans youth dropped out of school due to bullying, and 41 percent of trans folk had attempted suicide. Let’s make it better, people!

Extra Credit:

Perpetuate some transphilia by taking in some awesome pro-trans entertainment, like the show Sens8, the band Against Me!, or the film Tangerine.

**Leela uses the pronouns she/her**

What terms do you think we should add? Tell us in a response
and we’ll whip up a definition.

Follow Gender 2.0 + the transgender tag to see more posts
in We The T! this month.




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