How to respectfully discuss transgender people in English

Yesterday, in Game Design/“Re: I’d really like to design an IF but…”, someone used a slur to refer to transgender people, and another poster spoke up and said that he was unaware that it was a slur.

There are multiple transgender and genderqueer people active in the interactive fiction community and the indie game dev community, so it’s important to be educated on this topic.

The GLAAD site is a good reference for information about transgender people. A few useful pages: - A quick FAQ - Appropriate and inappropriate ways to speak about transgender people - How to be supportive and respectful of transgender people

And a few terms for quick reference:

Transgender (trans for short) - This term refers to someone whose gender was incorrectly assigned at birth. So a woman who was incorrectly assigned male at birth would be a transgender woman, but man who was incorrectly assigned female at birth would be a transgender man. This word is an adjective, not a noun - so “transgender people” is correct and respectful, but “transgenders” is not.

What pronouns to use for a trans person - People should always be referred to by whatever pronouns they want. If in doubt, it’s okay to ask “What pronouns do you prefer?” Referring to a trans person by the wrong gender (for example, referring to a trans man as “she”) is disrespectful.

Genderqueer - This term refers to someone whose gender identity does not match either male or female.

Cisgender (cis for short) - This term refers to someone whose gender identity/expression match the gender assigned to them at birth. The vast majority of people are cisgender.

These are slurs that cannot be used respectfully:
“she-male,” “he-she,” “it,” “trannie,” “tranny,” “shim,” “gender-bender”

If you’re in doubt about whether or not something is respectful, feel free to PM me with questions. I’m a cis ally rather than a trans person, but there are important trans and genderqueer people in my life, and this is something I care about deeply. I can probably either answer your question or direct you to someone better able to answer it.

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Hmmm. “Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Transgender”? :smiley:

I get that. Just as long as they don’t get huffy and puffy if I mistakenly call them by the wrong pronoun/gender before I have a chance to know what the right pronoun should be. Some people just get insulted at the drop of a feather…

Peter, don’t start. :stuck_out_tongue:

Oh, come on. We should totally do politically-correct game names.

“A humanly-challenged creature’s night out”
“Rooster Block”
“Falsified Simian”
“Ending- and naming-challenged”

Okay…I’m into it now. :stuck_out_tongue:

Another useful resource: … mylife.pdf

This is a guide from the UK National Health Service. It’s directed at people who identify as trans or are currently beginning to explore their gender identity, which makes a good read to understand the options and concerns faced by trans people.

This is all very interesting, thanks for sharing. But, ah, quick question.

The term “ally”… does it mean people who choose to be a friend of a transgender, or simply people who approve/are not against the whole transgender issue? Am I an “ally” if I acknowledge that the issue is a real one and respect the difficulties these people have to face, or do I actively need to be involved in the issue?

Also, and this is what really worries me about that word, it implies by default that the world is full of enemies.

Just the Religious Right, really.

And thanks for setting us str8, cvaneseltine! :wink:

on a short side note, the Union of the Peoples with an Obsession Towards Mayhem would want to point out that we’re developing a table of acceptable terms to refer to this ever growing minority. Being called a troll, a grue, a dumbass or a weirdo is simply unacceptable and we demand as much respect as any other tax payer. Expect news from our lawyers soon.

As long as you correct it once you do know, then you’re probably in the clear. But if you make that mistake repeatedly, then you’re not. It’s like stepping heavily on someone’s foot - you can do it once, apologize, and be OK. But if you stomp someone’s instep every time you see them, it won’t take long for them to get pissed off, or to warn other people that you’re a foot-stomping jerk.

When it happens for the first time - the people I know aren’t likely to get huffy and puffy in the face of an honest mistake. They’re more likely to get hurt.

There’s a specific incident that comes to mind, where a trans woman I know wore her brand new corset at a science-fiction convention. She looked really good in it - tall, bare-shouldered, and curvy. But a passing stranger took one look at her and said, very clearly, “Damn, even the guys look better in corsets than I do.”

My friend didn’t get pissed off. Instead, she was crushed. She’d been wearing a corset and jewelry and makeup and a skirt - all the typical societal markers to message “Hey, universe, I’m female!” She left her hotel room confident that she looked beautiful, and suddenly a total stranger told her that she wasn’t and she didn’t belong there, through no fault of her own. There was nothing she could have done to convey her gender more strongly than she did.

She went back to her hotel room and didn’t leave it again for the afternoon.

Honest mistake? Sure. But honest mistakes cause actual harm, so it’s important to be careful.

At a first approximation, this is in fact correct. In all but a tiny handful of places in the world, trans people live under constant threat. The statistic usually cited (though I can’t find a good source for this) is that the murder rate for transwomen in the USA is about one in twelve. I live in one of the most socially-liberal areas of the Western world, and trans friends have still been cautious about coming out to me, with good fucking reason.

Whether everyone who isn’t an ally automatically counts as an enemy is… a political issue that I won’t get into. But suffice to say that there is no shortage of enemies requiring no disambiguation.

I don’t think that stranger was making a honest mistake. He was probably not mistaken in seeing quite clearly a guy dressed in woman clothes. Thus, the remark. a cruel and uncalled for remark, no doubt. But no mistake as far as I can tell…


I see what you mean. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the stranger could well have thought she was a… oh dear, I’m out of my depth here in my nomenclature. Let’s say he could have thought she was a flamboyant liberace-style homosexual man. Nowadays, it’s possible and likely. The guy probably didn’t mean anything by that. She got hurt, and the thing is that she read into that remark “that she wasn’t and she didn’t belong there”. Which is more content than the remark had.

Having said that, just a glance through the documention you kindly provide makes it clear how hard it is for a trans. It’s a question of fractured identity from the very start. It’s the old saying - you have to believe in yourself before the world can believe in you, and a trans goes through their defining years without really believing in him/herself because they don’t recognise the person they see in the mirror. In these circumstances, they’re likely to be way more fragile than a cis, in a case like you just described.

I haven’t got a clear solution here. I don’t think it’s ok for a person to let themselves be so crushed by a passing innocent remark that - but I can’t ignore the context that makes that remark so hurtful. I don’t think it’s ok for the rest of the world to pussyfoot around an issue, and indeed most of the documentation says, simply, “don’t approach the subject when talking to a trans, treat them like a person and leave it at that”. But people can’t guess, and in these days, it can be really hard to tell - gay? Queen? Trans? Metrosexual? Excentric?

The worse thing is, a trans is, by the documentation you’re sharing, really a fractured person. There are two identities there, one of which they despise, the other one being one they’re fragile about. I’m not too sure cuddling to that is the answer. Well, of course, one has to be sensitive, one has to realise the inherent frailty, but the struggle of a trans is mostly an inner struggle. Surely when that struggle is resolved as best it can be (which I’m aware can take a lifetime, as a trans will have spent their defining years trapped in a sexual identity that isn’t their own) they will be able to shake off remarks like that like… well, you know, like everyone else.

The issue with the case you cite is curious because it’s really about a stranger casually making an innocent remark and deeply hurting someone with severe self-esteem issues. We can strip the whole gender-thing away to this.

Incidently, I’m not trying to make light of that situation, or excuse the stranger, or what have you. It does make me sad that someone could be affected that deeply. I’m just verbalising my thoughts, trying to put them into shape, as this isn’t something I typically think about, so I’m also probing my own feelings about it.


That’s a sad state of affairs that of course has nothing whatsoever to do with everything I said to cvaneseltine. I’m as liberal as the next guy, and I can take pretty much anything, except for stupidity and intolerance, which usually go hand in hand. Plus, you can’t reason with those people. It’s the only time that I think wistfully about bringing back the death penalty.

Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s definitely how I feel.

You expressed concern that the word “ally” suggested that the world was full of enemies. maga was explaining that that is in fact the case. That’s what it has to do with what you said, isn’t it?

Yes it does, and I’m sorry if I was unclear, because basically what I meant to do was to dissociate both halves of my post. What I said to cvaneseltine was all about the trans itself, and some of that could be read, I felt, as an “excuse” for the outside world: “I didn’t know”, “it was just a mistake”, “I thought you were this/that/those”, etc etc etc.

I wanted to separate that completely from my reply to maga, because there can be no excuse for, again, stupidity and intolerance (even worse when coupled with violence). It had everything to do with the discussion, and it had everything to do with the question I posed cvaneseltine, but had zero to do with the things I was saying in the same post a few paragraphs before.

I just wanted to make it absolutely clear that while I could rationalise what looked like an honest mistake I’ll have none of that rethoric applied to instances where the trans is victimised and even murdered because of that.

There’s a good explanation at, though it’s more focused on LGBTQ globally.

I describe myself as a trans ally because:

  1. I’m not trans myself,
  2. I’ve taken steps to educate myself about the issues transgender people face,
  3. I speak up against discrimination, and
  4. I take opportunities (like this one!) to educate other people.

As for the world being full of enemies - it isn’t for you, and I live in a place where it generally isn’t for me.

This is a concept called “privilege” - in this case, cisgender privilege. The world is safer for us and more accepting of us because we are not trans. Some examples:

  • If I go to the restroom in a public place, no one will force me to go to the wrong one or call security if I go into the right one.
  • If I go to the police to report a crime, I can expect them to take a report and try to find the criminal.
  • If I go to a hospital because I’m hurt, I can expect that doctors and nurses will help me.
  • If I apply for a job, I can expect to be as fairly considered for that position as any other woman would be.
  • If I tell my family and friends that I’m female, I have no fear that they will reject me.
  • If I want to rent an apartment, I don’t have to worry that the landlord will discriminate against me.

…and so on. (A much more comprehensive list of concerns is available at, with supporting statistics.)

These things aren’t true for trans people - for example, 1 in 5 have been refused a home or apartment, and 1 in 6 drop out of school due to gender-related bullying. Additionally, the trans murder rate is through the roof (as maga pointed out), and the attempted suicide rate is 42% for trans people versus 1.6% for the general population ( … ide-rates/).

Trans people are people. People deserve to be safe, and heard, and not to be publicly mocked or physically attacked for existing, and to receive healthcare and the protection of the police, and many other things. I can take these things for granted, but trans people can’t, and I want to see that change. The fight for equality is an effort to enact that change.

The fight for trans equality doesn’t affect me directly, because I’m cisgender. But it doesn’t mean I’m not part of it, because I’ve chosen to be. This is what makes the word “ally” appropriate.

It is, indeed, not always easy to distinguish between a transwoman and a transvestite (of whatever sexuality). (For transmen it’s even harder, because it’s perfectly normal in the West for a cis woman to dress in a largely masculine fashion without this implying anything about her sexuality or gender identity, or even being considered transvestite.)

So in that situation you don’t guess. It can be a little awkward and uncomfortable to do this. It is better that you be a little awkward and uncomfortable than that they be seriously hurt.

Well, no, we can’t. There implication running through your argument is that the self-esteem issues are something internally generated, an it’s-just-their-problem thing; the reality is that they’re inflicted on transgender people by society at large, as a consistent pattern. Yeah, trans people are often emotionally brittle; so would anybody be if they had had to put up with as much shit as they do. Mental health isn’t something that’s purely internally generated: to a very large degree, it’s something that is done to you.

There’s a general attitude that it’s reasonable to expect extraordinary virtue from minorities - that they should constantly exert an extraordinary degree of dignity, forbearance, fortitude, resourcefulness and generosity, avoid any behaviour that might conceivably be taken as reinforcing stereotypes, and generally be Twice as Good, just in order to be able to live normally. This is not a reasonable attitude to take.

That’s fair. For what it’s worth - until about five years ago, I didn’t give this matter any thought whatsoever, because if I had any trans friends, I didn’t know about it. Then I made a trans friend that I knew was trans, and did a bunch of research because I didn’t want to avoid her, and realized just how horrible life can be for people who are trans. Now it’s something that’s really important to me, but doesn’t come up often in conversation.

Appropriate to this board: I’ve wanted to write a transgender IF protagonist for some time, but I’m still mulling over how to do so respectfully. You don’t see a lot of transgender people in fiction, so I don’t have a lot of examples available, and even with people to ask about it, I’m worried about screwing up.

Erm, ok… I totally get where you’re coming from, but that’s a rather narrow view of things, certainly trans-centric. You could have equally said “The world is safer for us and more accepting of us because we are not [INSERT MINORITY GROUP HERE]”. Insert enough minority groups into the mix and they all start to overlap. Suddently “the world is safer for half a dozen people and more accepting of them because they are not part of any sort of group whatsoever and can only barely be described as having a life”. Also, it worries me somewhat that the way you put it makes it sound as though we cis people have more rights by virtue of being cis, whereas the real problem, as I understand it, is instead that trans people have less rights by virtue of being trans.

But, my argument is purely rethorical, and the numbers you’ve provided are a reality and realities like this don’t change unless strong measures are taken. If part of those strong measures are re-shaping the world with words so that the status quo is priviledged rather than the minority group being persecuted, and if it works, bring it on.

Personally, it affects me a lot more to think of human beings denied their basic human and social rights and being treated as less than they are… because when people start saying the reverse, i.e. saying that we, the not-minority-group, are priviledged, reveals a resentment and sometimes an unwillingness to reason that I shy away from immediately, and I feel at once that I won’t be able to do any real progress in a conversation with that person.

But, I’m probably the wrong person for this whole discussion, and I should withdraw gracefully now, because I’ve never seen the point of treating people differently because of stupid things like that. I don’t see what someone’s colour or gender or sexual orientation has to do with their rights, I think it’s stupid to generate so much hatred of what’s different, and if people would all be a bit more sensible and possibly have a little less hate instilled into them, sometimes by religion no less, this world would be a better place.

And while I’m at it, I wish I had a million billion trillion euros. :stuck_out_tongue:

EDIT - Aaaaand, I can’t quite leave it at this because post have been posted while I was writing mine. :slight_smile:

Look, if you have no reason to double-guess, you don’t. Otherwise I start wondering about whether everyone I know is a trans, on the basis of “Looks like a guy, but hang on…”. At a Sci-Fi convention, a guy in the outfit described is not so completely out of the blue. If I have no reason to think that something is not what it may seem at first sign, hey, I won’t. No one does. Otherwise we’d be double-checking every little step we took. We need some solid groundwork in our lives.

I’m going to risk shooting myself in the foot here, but look at the guys with long hair in the 60s being told off because they were “feminine haircuts”. Well, they were. Long hair was associated with being feminine. If you saw long hair, you assumed it was a girl, because you had pretty much a lifetime of experience saying “long hair = girls”. You can’t go against the way people view the world and expect them to immediately change their world view on account of that.

This paid off, of course (so much so that men are becoming feminine, women are becoming masculine, and gender is all over the place, but that’s another issue), and if it means it’ll work now with this issue, perfect. But you can’t expect, in today’s world, that people will not make assumptions and move on from them. You make assumptions every day, we all do.

Probably. I’ll admit again to not being well informed on the practical side of the situation. Yes, it does make sense that if a transgender were to be supported by their family and friends and not take abuse from the outside world, they would not be so brittle.

So again, the solution seems simple. We should just treat people as people. If it’s so bloody simple, why’s nobody doing it? This is supposed to be the era of information.

Have a transgender beta tester. Also, a honest screw up might still be a good thing; a better thing than silence.