Words Matter: Affirming Gender Identity Through Language

The language of transgender identity is constantly evolving as more people embrace gender classifications that fall outside the traditional male-female binary. With such rapidly changing ways of expressing gender, colleges and universities have an obligation to stay informed in order to build inclusive spaces where transgender students feel validated rather than invisible.

People who have never questioned their gender identity likely take their own name for granted, but for transgender people, the name they choose as part of their transition and the pronouns they prefer — including the gender-neutral  “they,” “ze,” “zir,” or “hir” — affirm their deeply held gender identity. When the media, peers and family, or institutions use a name that no longer corresponds with a transgender person’s view of who they are, the effect can be damaging to their health and well-being.

Understanding Transgender Terminology

Cisgender someone who identifies with the sex assigned to them at birth
Transgender someone who does not identify exclusively with the sex assigned to them at birth; not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, or anatomy
Gender expression/
the physical manifestation of gender identity through clothing, appearance, or voice — generally “masculine” or “feminine”; someone who identifies as gender nonconforming may or may not be transgender
Gender identity a person’s internal sense of being male, female, neither, or both
Sexual orientation a person’s physical, emotional, and romantic attraction to others — encompassed by LGBTQ
Gender binary refers to the dichotomous male-female/man-woman definition of gender
Gender-affirming surgery surgical alteration; not the be-all, end-all result of a transgender person’s transition
Transition the process of someone developing and assuming a gender expression that matches their gender identity; does not necessarily involve surgery
Gender dysphoria anxiety or discomfort regarding one’s sex assigned at birth
Heteronormative the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm in society and in interpersonal interactions
Nonbinary preferred term for all genders that do not align with the male-female dichotomy

According to Genny Beemyn, PhD, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst — who prefers the pronoun “they” — much has changed in the past few decades. Years ago, transgender people referred to themselves as a “transgender man” or “transgender woman,” but they say that today, it has become just as common for people to identify as outside the dichotomy of male and female.

“Giving students the ability to use the name that feels appropriate to them is a matter of fairness and doesn’t impinge upon anyone else,” Beemyn says. “Lots of people go by names other than the one they were born with. It’s like calling someone ‘Tom’ versus ‘Thomas’ or ‘Meg’ as opposed to ‘Margaret.’ And that’s not offensive. It’s offensive if you call someone by a name they don’t use and that never fit them.”

However, not all colleges and universities understand this concept. In addition to directing the Stonewall Center — which provides a wide range of LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) resources to the UMass community and beyond — Beemyn maintains a website for the national LGBTQ college student organization Campus Pride; the site lists colleges and universities with trans-inclusive policies, such as gender-inclusive housing, student health insurance that covers transition-related expenses, and application and enrollment forms that allow students to identify as LGBTQ.

Beemyn says the number of institutions that allow students to change their name and gender on campus records is minimal.

“There are 150 colleges and universities out of about 4,000 in the country. So that’s really just a drop in the bucket,” they say. “Allowing students to use their chosen name on school records is something schools could do without a whole lot of effort.”

Beemyn says that transgender people often realize their true identity at a very young age. If they grow up without the support and acceptance of their parents or community, they may envision college as a place where they can be themselves for the first time and are discouraged when they aren’t affirmed by their school’s policies.

“Students tell me they feel invisible on campus because they’re called by a name they don’t use — by what they call their ‘dead name,’” they say. “We see a lot of misgendering by professors … based on appearance because they’re not asking [students] for pronouns or their chosen name. This puts students in a quandary — do they correct that person or just let it go?”

The rates of suicide and attempted suicide are alarmingly high among transgender people; the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, one of the largest studies of its kind, found that 41 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people had attempted suicide, while the national average for all persons is 4.6 percent.

More recently, a study by researchers in Canada revealed factors that help reduce the rates of attempted suicide among transgender people. They found that the likelihood of transgender people attempting suicide was 66 percent lower when respondents had experienced reduced levels of anti-trans discrimination or abuse, and rates of suicidal thoughts dropped by 44 percent among transgender people who were able to obtain legal documents with their new name.

“Respect the name; it’s just that simple,” says Susan Stryker, PhD, associate professor of gender and women’s studies and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona. “People change their name all the time for many different reasons; you’re not going to call Muhammad Ali ‘Cassius Clay.’”

Stryker says one underpinning reason for the lack of acceptance of transgender identity is the persistent view among the non-trans community that biological sex equates with gender.

“We have a cultural belief that gender is rooted in sex and that sex is biological,” she says. “But who says you can’t move from one category to another? People are always changing their religion, their marital status, or their nationality. The sticking point is that we often don’t believe someone can really ‘change their gender.’ … We have the capacity to redefine what our culture says our body means.”

She says that accepting transgender identities does not require giving up your own sense of self.

“If someone really believes in Hinduism, or Islam, or is Jewish, no amount of arguing is going to make that person change their mind, but [we] can all still live harmoniously with each other,” she says. “… You don’t have to accept someone else’s reality as your reality to get along.”

While change may be slow, the needle on transgender acceptance is moving, with colleges and universities adding trans-inclusive policies, as out transgender and non-trans students become more vocal about the needs of this community. Evidence of this change can be seen in the Common Application and the Universal College Application — together used by more than 600 colleges and universities — which recently began allowing students to self-identify their gender when applying to college.●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Campus Pride is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity.