An Argument to Replace Trans-

(Updated Aug. 26 – added link in footnote 1.)

Jennifer Boylan‘s op-ed in in the August 12, 2011 New York Times generated several comments from people within and without the trans [1] community that highlighted how the vocabulary and semantics around gender [2] are often barriers to understanding and clear communications. Long before I began to look for gender information in the late 1990’s, there were heated discussions within the trans community around the vocabulary and nomenclature describing trans people and the trans experience. These debates ranged from scholarly discourse to vitriolic, personal attacks, and they continue today.

When the medical community, political institutions, the general public at large and those within the trans community use the same words but each group uses them with different connotations, it’s no wonder that our battle for equal rights and against stigmatization seems to take stuttering steps forward.

This got me thinking. We really do need a better vocabulary with a regularized semantic underpinning before we’ll see larger gains as a community. The current gender dictionary is simply too imprecise and generates more confusion than clarity.

My goals here are threefold: first, to help shape the existing cacophonous community discussion into a more focused, coherent one so that we can all be sure we’re talking about the same thing; second, to provide a verbal framework with more precise terms to help educate the general public and help accelerate political policy achievements in the equal rights arena; and thirdly, use the nomenclature to help shift attitudes within the medical community towards an informed consent model for trans care and hasten the removal of gender-related diagnoses from the DSM, which unnecessarily stigmatizes an already marginalized and at-risk population.

Most existing discussions around terminology and nomenclature boil down to [3], [4]:

  1. Some terms overemphasize the physical sex characteristic component of the trans experience and obscure the emotional and mental components (e.g. – transsexual, intersex)
  2. Some terms are overly broad and smear the spectrum of gender expression (e.g. – transgender)
  3. Some terms are overly narrow and exclude broad swaths of the gender spectrum (e.g. – crossdresser)
  4. Some terms connote a sexual orientation when none is implied or expressed (e.g. – genderqueer)
  5. Some terms do not accurately reflect the internal emotional experience of gender expression (e.g. – female to male, male to female)
  6. Some terms do not accurately reflect a current or future state of gender expression (e.g. – transwoman, transman)
  7. Some terms haven’t yet reached broad and common [5] usage (e.g. – cisgender)
  8. Some terms are offensive (e.g. – shemale, tranny)
  9. Some terms have unclear definitions or require context to understand the intended use (e.g. – transgender, trans)

I believe that most of the confusion around gender terminology and nomenclature stems from the prefix “trans-“, first applied as a gender descriptor in 1910 by Magnus Hirschfeld in his work, Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress. It was further muddied by his coining of the word “transsexual” in 1923 and which John Money and Harry Benjamin popularized beginning in the 1950’s.

“Trans-” is defined as across, beyond or through, and has a Latin root meaning “across”. It’s not surprising that this prefix was chosen at the time, given that most people who drew academic attention literally changed their genders and/or sexes and moved across from one side to the other. As the academic literature expanded and more research was done, it became apparent that the terms “transvestite” and “transsexual” did not fully encompass the broad range of human gender expression and had inherent structural weaknesses that exposed sexual bias, among other things.

With existing terminology as a guide, it’s not surprising that other trans- words proliferated, and Cristan Williams documents them well in her article, The Rise of “Transgender”.

But “trans-” starts to break down when you talk to people and listen to their gender stories.

If you’ve ever talked to someone who has transitioned (another trans- word!), many will simply say, “I’m a woman,” or, “I’m a man.” Talk to others who haven’t taken that path, and listen to them try and describe themselves succinctly – it’s almost impossible as many, including myself, grope around for the words to describe where they fall on a broad spectrum.

It becomes even harder when talking with people outside of the community, as they either conflate terms or jump right to genitalia status. The trans- prefix also implies movement, so it becomes doubly hard to explain how one could have a fixed gender identity or expression using words that implicitly imply you’re about to change it.

Add suffix modifiers like -woman, -man and -person or use a trans- word as an adjective, and you end up with word constructions that are so ambiguous as to have no stand-alone meaning. As an example, there are many different definitions for the term “transgender man” and each one is valid.

This situation is confusing to everyone!

With imprecise language, it becomes apparent that advancing civil and medical rights becomes unnecessarily complex because so much effort goes into trying to level-set terminology, never mind the intra-community arguments that erupt around self- and other-identification. These arguments tend to focus attention towards community divisions and away from advancing our civil and medical rights.

All this said, I would like to advance “per-” as a potential general substitute for “trans-“, and suggest that we also expand our repertoire of prefixes to include “idio-” and “poly-“.

The prefix “per-” is defined as through, thoroughly, all over.

The prefix “idio-” is defined as personal, own, individual.

The prefix “poly-” is defined as many.

“Per-“, in particular, I believe helps to cut the Gordian knot of base gender terminology when combined with “non-“, as it can be applied to people with or without any cross-gender feelings or behaviors.

Here are my suggested terms and their definitions:

Pergender – An internal gender identity that matches external gender expression.

Non-pergender: An internal gender identity that does not match external gender expression.

Idiogender – An internal gender identity that is neither male nor female.

Polygender – An internal gender identity that is some combination of male, female and other.

Note that pergender and non-pergender are supersets of idiogender and polygender without being prescriptive and create a verbal framework to define and discuss pre- and post-transition (or sidestep that issue entirely) states that are absent biological terminology and medical status, both of which so many people often get hung up on.

I think they also provide enough flexibility to allow people to shift their self-identifications as needed.

Example constructions:

  • “I am a non-pergender woman.” This is a statement of being female-identified but not living in the female gender role.
  • “I am a pergender man.” This is a statement of being male-identified and living in the male role. This could be someone who was born non-pergendered and transitioned or someone born pergender male.
  • “I am pergendered in my polygenderism.” This is a statement of being multi-gendered and living in that role.
  • “Prior to transition, my non-pergenderism while identifying as a pergender woman made me deeply unhappy.”
  • “I always felt idiogender and it wasn’t until I tried to transition that I realized I was polygender.”
  • “I’m non-pergender. I like to wear men’s clothes and love being a woman.”
  • “My boyfriend, being born pergender, never understood why I needed to become a pergender man too.”
  • “I love being idiogender. I create my own rules.”
  • “I told my mom that I was non-pergender and that I was going to transition to a woman. She hugged me.”

What do you think?

Do you think these words help or hinder understanding? Do they replace or ghettoize other words? What’s good about these words? What’s bad about them?



Copyright 2011, Jenn Ifer, All rights reserved. No re-use without permission and attribution.

[1] I’m using trans here as an umbrella term to encompass any person with a past or present history of either non-sociocultural gender norm alignment or expression, or who has physical sex characteristics not in alignment with their sociocultural gender expression. Or, simply put, those who identify even vaguely with the “T” in LGBT or have common cause to support the policy objectives of EDNA (Employment Non-discrimination Act) and other legislation that provides equal rights for gender expression.

[2] The word “gender” brings its own problems, which I am not going to tackle here. For purposes of this essay, I’m using Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary definition of gender: “sexual identity, especially in relation to society or culture”.

[3] I use the word “terms” here interchangeably with “word/s” and “word/s with modifier/s”. The examples are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative.

[4] Given the fluidity with which many of these terms are used in conversation and literature, many may have multiple problems associated with them, not just the one I am highlighting with its use as an example. I’ve also purposefully selected example terms that seem to me to have the broadest usage and understanding in order avoid a trip to the dictionary or search engine for those not intimately familiar with the language landscape of gender.

[5] Here I intend broad and common to mean that most English speakers could provide an approximate definition without referring to reference materials.

Selected Bibliography

American Psychological Association (APA):

gender. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary. Retrieved August 16, 2011, from website:

American Psychological Association (APA):

trans-. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from website:
American Psychological Association (APA):
per-. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from website:
Transsexual Road Map:
Glossary of transgender terms:
National Center for Transgender Equality:
GLADD Media Reference Guide:
Transgender Glossary of Terms:

About cistotrans

A Seattle-area trans woman seeking a happy spot to stay at along the path of transition.
This entry was posted in community, observations, opinion, politics. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to An Argument to Replace Trans-

  1. Natasha says:

    I'm sure you would much rather have the thoughts of someone with something more intelligent to say about your post… but I know you really want people responses on this, and I can't believe you haven't had any yet.

    So for what it's worth, here's mine… I actually got a bit carried away and wrote too much, so I have posted it as a blog entry rather than a comment. You can find it here:

    I hope I said something worthwhile at some point.

    Take care
    Tasha, xx


  2. Jenn Ifer says:

    Tasha – you are intelligent; don't ever sell yourself short! Your input is just as valid as anyone else's and I appreciate you taking the time to write a response.

    You bring up a a good, worthwhile point about the ambiguousness of “pergender woman/man”.

    In my first draft, I did actually define them, but deleted them after thinking that it would be better to get some input first on the term pergender. In my mind, it's a disclosure issue. We can say things like, “I am now a pergender woman,” which implicitly implies that there was a state of being non-pergender. The constructions allow for flexibility to self-define and meter the amount of disclosed information.

    For myself, I consider myself at this point to be a non-pergender male moving towards being either a pergender female or idiogender female. For shorthand I'd say I'm nonper moving towards per.


  3. ArizonaAbby says:

    I don't have the time or inclination to provide a comprehensive response, but, basically, I don't like your suggested terms for replacing “transgender,” “cisgender,” “transsexual” and “trans.”

    First, I think you exaggerate the difficulty people have with current terminology. “Transgender” is not “overly broad.” Instead, it is a very useful term that, *by design*, is broadly defined to include all manner of people who violate societal gender norms in one way or another. It is especially useful in discussing the broad array of issues that anyone who violates those norms may face, legally, politically and socially.

    The arguments within our community over the use of that term arise from 2 sources:

    1) Confusion over the use of “transgender” as merely an adjective describing a characteristic shared by a broad spectrum of people versus those who personally identify as “transgender,” in the same way that a woman attracted to other women identifies socially and culturally as a “lesbian”; and

    2) The bias some in our community have against being associated with others who qualify as transgender, even by the use of a descriptive term that applies to both, but who they simply don't like, find distasteful in some way and/or believe will somehow harm them through that association.

    In my opinion, neither reason requires the adoption of new terminology.

    Also, your adoption of “pergender” and non-pergender” suffers from the same problem that has led to increasing use of “cisgender” as the opposite of “transgender.” The LGB community pushed for the adoption of the term “straight” to describe heterosexual people in order to emphasize that *everyone* has a sexual orientation of one kind or another, i.e., some people are heterosexual, while others are homosexual, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, etc. That approach avoids the underlying assumption that there's all these “normal,” i.e., heterosexual, people and then there are these “other,” i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc., people. Similarly, the use of the term “cisgender” emphasizes that *everyone* has a gender identity and gender expression, but some people's gender identity and expression matches the gender expected based on their sex assigned at birth, while others have a gender identity and expression that from that expected based on their sex assigned at birth. This avoidance of the “normalization” of cisgender people and the “othering” of trans people is very important in discussions of policy, gender theory, feminism, etc. Your system makes no provision to avoid that “othering”.

    Finally, your system omits any reference to biological and physical realities, both those we are born with and those that we may alter in some way through hormones and/or surgery. I believe that omitting any reference to physical characteristics is a mistake, since it complicates the discussion about the differing needs of those transgender people who need medical transition in some form to live in peace with themselves, and those who don't, at least, not yet. The unfamiliarity of some people with terminology such as “male to female” or “trans man,” and the resulting need for education about the lives of transgender people, is not sufficient reason to abandon those terms, especially given the importance of medical transition for some trans people, and the conflation of sex and gender by the general public.


  4. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with Tasha and Abby that there is no distinction between assigned sex at birth, and if you're looking for a more descriptive nomenclature, then it must be addressed. If you're looking for something that doesn't necessarily call attention to this, then everyone needs to stop looking at terms that more accurately describe biology and look more towards the general, moving towards ambiguity rather than specificity.

    However, I think Abby is dead wrong in her assumption that “transgender” is “broadly defined to include all manner of people who violate societal gender norms” as I think quite a few gender non-conforming people would take argument against that, seeing as how non-conforming people aren't crossing (trans) any gender at all… they are simply choosing alternate expressions.

    Also, I think it needs to be pointed out that all of this discussion is so hotly debated for one sole reason: In our attempts to seek out better terminology, and arguing over current terminology, we are still using a conservative 'male' and 'female' bi-gender species model, falling in line with cisgender-male-centric-paternal societal norms.

    I like your new terms, Jenn. A few kinks to work out, true… but I'm actually looking forward to the day that humans realize that gender, as well as sexuality, are not binary. 1 and 0 are not the only numbers we have at our disposal. Similarly, male/female, and gay/straight are not our only options.



  5. Your terminology is logical and novel – you've made me think.

    I hate to be cynical, but I have little hope that terms that classify individuals into categories are always going to suffer from misunderstanding by the general public and suffer from either over-generalization or over-specificity in describing people to their satisfaction. My cynicism comes from experience as a psychologist who is also a woman of transsexual history.

    I think nature tends to be dimensional, not categorical. I think it is more useful to think of biological femaleness, biological maleness, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as separate dimensions where individuals may place themselves. That leads to mouthfuls, but may be most accurate in educating people who don't identify as trans anything.

    In fact, the five dimensions I mentioned are simplified using everyday language, but I think sexual orientation is better viewed as two dimensional (androphillic and gynephillic), gender identity as primarily two-dimensional (female-identified, male-identified), and gender expression being two dimensional (feminine, masculine). One can have a gender expression which is high on both the masculine and feminine scales, or low on both; high on feminine and low on masculine, and vice versa.

    But it's hard to build communities around dimensions. In actuality we are a diverse people, but we have some critical things in common. For anything requiring cooperation, we have to be able to see our commonalities. As cumbersome as “transgender” is currently, it serves as a word for community for me. I know that anyone who identifies as “transgender” is probably interested in many of the same things I am (non-discrimination, safety, trans health care, etc), and so I am likely to friend them or subscribe to their blog. It's not a perfect term, but it serves my purpose in connecting with people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would also add to my comment that a dimensional view doesn't necessarily rule genders other than male, female, neither, or a combination; I just don't know what additional genders there would be that are not described by the two-dimensional male-female scales. That's a limitation of my own thinking, but could lead to some interesting ideas about gender really is. Biology defines sex by the size of gametes produced – the form producing the largest gamete is always female. But a number of non-human species have more than two biological sexes.


  7. Life In Neon says:

    The only part that leaps out to me is non-pergender. There's a sizable number of people involved in social justice who would oppose any definition that exists only in opposition to a “default” state.


  8. Jenn Ifer says:

    Great comments, everyone and I appreciate the input!

    To be clear, I'm not suggesting that pergender, non-pergender, idiogender and polygender replace existing terms, but that they could be substituted at will to help better express the state of being that we share.


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  14. Lesboi says:

    Personally, I kind of like your new words because they simplify things and completely leave out any need for discussion about genitalia or surgeries and other private things that are of no concern to anyone else. What I don’t like about it is that it’s still binary and doesn’t really help to define a third gender or alternative to male and female. I also agree with others who, I think, differ with pergender being the “norm” and non-pergender being “different”. The non part hangs me up. I don’t want to be grouped in with non but I am at the moment under your definitions. It still kind of feels like the goal should be to be pergender or clearly not pergender. Anyway, it’s interesting and I liked reading your thoughts.


  15. cistotrans says:

    Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked reading it! I think ideo- and poly- probably have more legs than per-, but ideo- isn’t familiar to too many people and poly- has it’s own baggage.

    I wrote this back when I was idealistic and that I could contribute something to this debate; now I’m bitter and cynical. (Just kidding! Sort of…)

    Seriously, I’ve come back to this a few times over the years and I’m starting to think that English is just structurally the wrong language to describe the experience and label it. With few gendered and neuter words, compared to say, Spanish, (el, la, {el}lo) our grammar doesn’t seem to allow us to create subtly gendered sentences or compound word terms to describe ourselves well and we fall back into binary comparisons that leave everyone frustrated.

    At the very least, over the past 20+ years I’ve been in the community I’ve been surprised at how cis has caught on and I’ve even met random cis people who knew the term because they knew someone trans. That’s light-years away from the old binary of ‘normal’ and ‘tranny’, so…progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lesboi says:

      When I wrote my comment I didn’t realize how long ago you wrote this post but I still think the debate is going. I know I’m still searching for the right terms to use to describe myself and find the prevalent ones lacking. I agree, the language we currently have is too limited at the moment but I have a feeling that one day that will change. We just have to keep searching and experimenting, which is why I liked reading this post so much. Your thoughts were fresh and clean in their simplicity. Thanks for the comment back.

      Liked by 1 person

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