Geena Rocero did a pretty bold thing at TED2014: She came out. The transgender fashion model chose Vancouver to reveal to the world that she was assigned male at birth. “I am here exposed … to help others live without shame and terror,” she says in today’s talk.

The trans community has had a spotlight fixed on it in this year: a piece in Grantland sparked outrage and sadness after the subject of the story, outed without her permission, committed suicide; Jared Leto won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club; while Piers Morgan was widely criticized after a poorly handled interview with journalist and activist Janet Mock. Meanwhile the US’s new Affordable Care Act bans discrimination against someone based on their “gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” (See also: Why scientist Kate Stone decided to speak up about being transgender a year after giving her own TED Talk.)

As gender issues become more public, it’s clear that the media will play a crucial role in how trans people are treated — but sensitivity starts with the individual, and a good first step is to be thoughtful and precise about our language. Below, find tips and quotes gathered from trans men and women and their allies about positive, helpful ways to have that conversation. Though respectful language is only part of the battle for equality and acceptance, it’s a very good start.

Don’t conflate sex and gender.
This concept is fundamental to the trans community — and it’s simultaneously obvious and difficult to grasp. Sex is based on biology and assigned at birth, while gender is cultural and social, based on how a person self-identifies. This is, for many, perhaps the biggest obstacle to understanding by the cisgendered (that is, people whose sex and gender align). Says LGBT activist and TED speaker iO Tillett Wright, “Male and female are the two pillars upon which our society is built. Gender dictates everything from what kind of relationship you get into to where you take a piss. And if you upend that, it’s very threatening for people. It challenges the system by which they live.”

Take the time to find out a trans person’s preferred pronoun.
Across the board, experts and activists say this is vital. But isn’t asking someone’s preferred pronoun at a party a bit awkward? According to GLAAD Senior Media Strategist Tiq Milan, most people appreciate it. He says, “People would respect [the question] more than they would reject it, particularly if you have people not on the binary.”

Never use: tranny, transvestite, he-she, she-he, it, sex swapped, sex change. Do use: trans man or woman, male-to-female (m-t-f), or female-to-male (f-t-m), transition.
“‘Tranny’ is the same as ‘faggot,’” says Milan. TED speaker Kate Stone agrees: “The worst, to me, is when people shout out ‘tranny’ across the street. It sounds horrible.” Norman Spack, the first doctor in North America to create an interdisciplinary program for transgender adolescents in a pediatric academic medical center, also sees “she-male” as potentially damaging, because the phrase is often used to refer to male sex workers who dress as women to serve a specific fetish.

While many public trans people and allies view careful language as paramount, University of Southern California’s Jack Halberstam has quite a different view: “I’m not a banner. Policing speech is usually the least interesting way of addressing social prejudice, and often it actually misunderstands how you make change — and also what constitutes harm and prejudice. So I’m much less concerned with the word ‘tranny’ and much more concerned with how we might raise kids to expect people to embody lots of different forms of gendering.”

Don’t focus on a person’s anatomy, past or present.
As Piers Morgan learned the hard way, belaboring someone’s assigned sex at birth, or their surgical procedures since then, misses the point. Says Stone, “Asking someone you just met, ‘Have you had a sex change?’ is like asking, ‘Have you been circumcised?’” Adds Rocero: “It’s a very private thing. Most people just go there, because there’s a sense of fascination about it, but that’s a big no-no.”

Indeed, sexual definition is becoming less important legally. Says Spack, “I’m glad to see that we no longer use terms that require people to have, let’s say, certain surgeries to qualify as trans. It used to be that in order to get a license or a passport, a person would have to have either top surgery or bottom surgery, and then have the surgeon sign on that, so that they could get the designation of being transsexual.” (As of 2010, the US State Department no longer requires sexual reassignment surgery for a passport gender change.)

Never out a person without their permission.
This seems beyond obvious, but it’s precisely what landed Grantland in hot water. How much did outing Dr. V without her permission contribute to her committing suicide? There’s no easy answer, but, says Rocero emphatically, “Nobody has the right to out a person.”

Don’t assume you’ll recognize a trans person — and that’s a good thing.
With harassment rates so high (in a recent survey of 6,450 American trans people, 90 percent reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job), it’s no surprise that for some trans people, even going outside can be daunting. Not to mention, as Rocero says, that media and popular entertainment seem to prefer portraying trans people as victims, drug addicts or prostitutes. Says Milan, “I know so many people, especially trans women, who don’t leave the house during the day. They only come out at night because of the ridicule and the violence.” But this is changing, for the better. Increased visibility is integral to the growth of the trans movement. Says Halberstam, exposure to trans people is the real way to make progress: “There are trans people in every walk of life at this point. There are a large number of trans women who work in software, in computer technology. There are trans people who are politicians, doctors, lawyers, professors. I think that increasingly people do know trans people, though they may not know it.”

Don’t make it a thing if it’s not.
If someone’s trans status is irrelevant, don’t focus on it. Definitely don’t dwell on the anatomical and legal details. This particularly applies to reporters. Milan allows that people may be naturally curious, but gender status should not drive the story. When Stone was in the press after being in a horrific accident, one paper published photos of her from before her transition. Says Stone, this suggests that when you find out a person is transgender, the first thing you should rush to do is dig up information about their past. Really, don’t. Of her gender status, “I’d never speak about it at work — not because it’s a secret, but because it’s not relevant.”

“How should we talk about …” is a TED series in which we examine how society tackles sensitive issues — and suggests ways we might do better. See also How should we talk about mental health, featuring insights from seven mental health experts, including Andrew Solomon, Sarah Caddick and Vikram Patel.

UPDATE: In May 2014 Stone filed a complaint with the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) regarding the tabloid articles that focused unnecessarily on her gender history. As a result the online “sex swap” headlines were removed. Watch a clip of Stone reflecting on her success.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Trans man commenting:

    “There are a large number of trans women who work in software, in computer technology”

    This is a bit out of topic but I’ll say it. Wonder why so much trans women work in male-typic fields and trans men, on the other hand tend to work in female typic fields or low rank male fields.

    Well, actually, I have the answer. It’s the different socialisation. Trans men suffer not only because of being transgender, but also because of oppressive socialisation, which *never* will go out of your head.

    I think this difference is actually an important point which should be further explored. It surely would give society A LOT of answers concerning how gender related socialisation shapes our brain and our future. Always when I see people in those feminism vs antifeminism discussions saying, that socialisation, toys, the way people talk to you, etc. are not relevant. Well, you should study trans women vs trans men, there you will find all the answers.

    But, don’t dare you mention this to trans women or some other “radical equalitarians”, because then you’re accused of being a “TERF” (trans exclusive radical feminist – in combination with RF of course). I even got banned from Twitter, because I just said, that trans women had a different socialisation. If you don’t believe me, note that many, if not most kick-ass women in tech are trans women. And trans men, on the other side, very rare, even more rare than cis-women. And no, it’s not because I can’t recognise them because of “good passing”.

    In other words this society keeps being sexist even for transgender. I’m aware that being transgender generally is a disadvantage compared to be not-transgender. But, unless their life is a disaster, or they have a terrible passing, trans women end with a way better deal than trans men.

    I really wonder why *no one* ever never mentions this. Probably it’s because society’s current understanding from transgender is still so primitive (“should I kill this person or not?”) that further thinking is to much to ask. But hopefully people, while becoming more familiar / less scared with the issue, becomes able to differentiate further, in order to understand important social dynamics.

  2. I have two comments to make:

    1. “Never use … transvestite”. Not necessarily. Just learn the difference between a transvestite and a transgendered person.

    Transvestites are cis-gendered people who wear clothing and adopt mannerisms of the opposite gender, sometimes in a theatrical way, sometimes fetishistic in nature.

    2. I think the division of sex and gender by biology and psychology/culture is a little to blunt. Both gender and sex are too complex, and they grey into each other. Psychology is based on biology, and even just looking at biology, it is sometimes difficult to divide people into male and female. If we think of gender as a framework, within which there are several dimensions of maleness and femaleness. This way we can help describe many different types of non-standard genders (intersex, transgender, cross-dresser,

    I find it useful to use ‘gender’ as a framework, an umbrella term, the conglomeration of many bits of information: Chromosomal gender (XX,XY,XXY,XO… etc), hormonal gender (for e.g. AIS), gender by presentation of genitalia (male, female, intermediate, surgically constructed), reproductive gender (male, female, sterile, true hermaphroditism), psychological gender, gender identity, gender presentation (clothing, mannerisms), legal gender, adherence to other social norms of gender.

  3. I captured a precious moment, as she took the stage to give her talk… with a supporting hand from the TED staff: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/13563189244/

  4. This article means well and is totally correct in how it says we ought to treat others (compassionately and respectfully) but it almost TOTALLY ignores and marginalizes nonbinary transpeople who DON’T identify as either men or women.
    Let’s be inclusive of all genders!

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