Saying that Caitlyn Jenner is in the news is a bit like saying that there are words in the dictionary. Regardless of what you think of the media storm, her very public story has opened up conversations about sexuality and gender identity like never before.
The word transgender and its opposite, cisgender, figure heavily in such discussions, and journalists and their editors need to understand them if they are going to participate fairly and accurately.
When people are born, they are assigned a male or female gender based primarily on their external sexual traits. But sometimes, as they grow older, people know themselves to be a different gender than the one they were assigned. A transgender person is someone whose gender identity is different from the gender they were given at birth.
The word transgender is fairly new; Merriam-Webster's etymologists place its first known use in 1979. It was formed from the well-known Latin prefix trans-, meaning “across, beyond, or through,” and gender. It took the place of the outdated term transsexual, which some transgender people oppose because it can carry misleading medical connotations.
Discussions about transgenderism — both scientific and casual — naturally led to comparisons of transgender people with, well, people who aren't transgender. There was a gap in our lexicon.
In the early 1990s, the word cisgender evolved to fill that gap. This word uses the lesser-known Latin prefix cis-, which means “on this side,” and refers to a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Etymology is fun, sure, but journalists and their editors also need to know how to use these words accurately and fairly. Here are some things to remember:
- Being transgender is about personal identity, not physical characteristics. The word does not apply only to people who take the big step to undergo sex reassignment surgery or hormone treatments. Put another way, Caitlyn Jenner was a transgender woman long before she changed her name from Bruce.
- Being transgender is about personal identification, not interpersonal attraction. Don't assume that a transgender person is gay. Transgender people can be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or any of the points along that spectrum.
- Use the word transgender (if you must use it at all) to indicate the gender the person identifies as. A transgender woman is someone who was assigned a male gender at birth but identifies as a woman. A transgender man was assigned the female gender at birth but identifies as a man.
- Transgender people use a number of terms to describe themselves. If you can ascertain a particular person's preferences — which pronoun to use, how they identify their gender and sexual orientation — use those preferences. If you think doing so might confuse your readers, explain to them why you're doing it that way. (Respect plays a big role in the “why.”)
- As with any labels you could tag a person with, if it isn't pertinent to the story, leave it out. Unless gender identity is an important part of the story, there's no reason to bring it up.
For more guidance on how to be fair and inclusive when writing about this and other gender and sexuality issues, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Society (NLGJA) has an excellent, free, online stylebook. I also recommend checking out the resources at the Conscious Style Guide.