Terms and Definitions

People talk about their bodies and identities in many different ways. Below you will find an overview of some of the language and terms that people use within trans communities. These terms by no means constitute a definitive resource, and some of them may vary between cultural and linguistic communities. For example, a term accepted and used in one language or culture might be deemed offensive or unacceptable in another. This is especially important to keep in mind in a Québec context, as language used within anglophone, francophone, and allophone communities differs greatly. In any case, the following are some of the basic terms you might hear when working with trans communities.

Sex:

How we define biological differences between people’s bodies. Sex is determined by what we are assigned at birth according to assumed or perceived chromosomal/genetic/anatomical/biological characteristics that are generally divided into male and female within a western medical framework.

Gender Identity:

How we identify and understand our own gender. Regardless of our physical sex, we might think of ourselves as male, female, or somewhere in between. Because it is our internal understanding of ourselves, our gender identity might not be visible to other people.

Gender Expression:

How we show and express our gender identity. For example, your gender expression might be feminine.

Sexual Orientation:

The types of people and bodies that we are sexually or romantically attracted to. For example, if you have romantic and/or sexual relationships with people who are the same gender as you, you might identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer. Like non-trans people, trans people can identify anywhere within the spectrum of sexual orientation.

Transsexual:

A person who identifies with the sex/gender different from the one which they were assigned at birth. For example, a person who was assigned male at birth, but understands themselves as a woman, would be a transsexual woman. These people may decide to alter their appearance, body, name, and pronouns. Though within many circles the term “transsexual” is used only for those who choose to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy and Sex Reassignment Surgery, this guide understands this term more broadly. We do this to acknowledge barriers to access to these services, as well as to respect people’s personal choices with regard to their bodies.

Transgender:

An umbrella term used to encompass all those whose physical sex differs from their gender identity or who experience discomfort with their gender assigned at birth. In some circles, this term is used to describe people who choose not to access Hormone Replacement Therapies and Sex Reassignment Surgeries as a part of their transition. Because this term is so vague, and used to encompass so many identities, is has been contentious, as some people feel it risks invisibilizing the varying needs between different trans communities.

Cross-dresser:

A person who presents as the opposite gender to which they were assigned at birth, either full or part time, but does not identify as transsexual, and does not wish to go through a physical transition. An example might be a man who dresses in typical female clothing, but who does not identify as a woman. This term has replaced “transvestite” in English, though “travesti(e)” is used in many French and Spanish contexts.

Trans:

Usually short for “transgender” and/or “transsexual.” Trans means “crossing to another side.” So someone who presents, lives, and/or identifies as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth is a trans person.

Cis:

This term is used in some trans communities to describe non-trans people. Usually it is short for “cisgender” and/or “cissexual.” Everyone is assigned a gender. Cis means “on the same side.” So someone who presents, lives, and identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth is a cis person.

Two-Spirit:

A term used in some North American indigenous communities to describe a person who embodies both masculine and feminine qualities and attributes. This term is sometimes used to more generally describe transgender people in some Native communities.

Intersex:

A person whose body at birth is neither strictly male nor female by conventional medical standards (the medical term occasionally used is Disorders of Sex Development (DSD)). For example, a person might be born with a penis, but their body does not process the “male” hormone
testosterone, and thus they might also naturally develop breasts and other
“female” qualities.

Transition:

The emotional and/or physical process of actively moving away from the gender you were assigned at birth and toward whatever makes you feel more comfortable. This looks different for every individual. This process may or may not involve a new name, new clothes, new pronouns, Hormone Replacement Therapy, surgery, etc.

Transphobia:

A prejudiced or bigoted hatred of trans people or anyone who violates gender norms, and the institutional system resulting from this bias. You don’t have to be trans to experience transphobia.

WPATH:

Acronym for the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, formerly know as the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association. It is a professional body made up of psychiatrists, endocrinologists, surgeons, and other health care professionals who work with trans people. There is also the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health (CPATH), the only national faction of WPATH.

Gender Identity Disorder (GID):

The official diagnosis, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to describe someone who experiences gender dysphoria. Unless the health care provider is working within a harm-reduction model, a diagnosis of GID is required to receive a prescription for hormones or to access Sex Reassignment Surgery.

Gender Dysphoria:

A term used within medical and psychiatric discourse to describe an incongruence between gender assigned at birth and gender identity. It is used to describe Gender Identity Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many trans people reject this term, as they find it pathologizing.

Passing:

Being perceived or read as the gender with which you identify.

Outing:

The act of revealing someone’s trans status to other individuals. Make sure never to do this without the person’s consent.

* A few of these definitions were based on the Terms and Definitions section of HIP’s Trans In-Formation guide with permission from its author