(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  community that highlighted how the vocabulary and semantics around gender  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 , :
- Some terms overemphasize the physical sex characteristic component of the trans experience and obscure the emotional and mental components (e.g. – transsexual, intersex)
- Some terms are overly broad and smear the spectrum of gender expression (e.g. – transgender)
- Some terms are overly narrow and exclude broad swaths of the gender spectrum (e.g. – crossdresser)
- Some terms connote a sexual orientation when none is implied or expressed (e.g. – genderqueer)
- Some terms do not accurately reflect the internal emotional experience of gender expression (e.g. – female to male, male to female)
- Some terms do not accurately reflect a current or future state of gender expression (e.g. – transwoman, transman)
- Some terms haven’t yet reached broad and common  usage (e.g. – cisgender)
- Some terms are offensive (e.g. – shemale, tranny)
- 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 “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.
- “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?
 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.
 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”.
 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.
 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.
 Here I intend broad and common to mean that most English speakers could provide an approximate definition without referring to reference materials.
American Psychological Association (APA):