How the language of gender has evolved

December 2, 2021

Collage created by Jamie with photograph by Clement Percheron at Pexels

Jamie Aldridge explores and explains some of the intricacies of modern gender terminology

Gender is a complex topic, and everyone experiences their gender differently based on their own personal, cultural and social background.

Inevitably, the language used to describe gender is diversifying. Transgender people are gaining more visibility in mainstream media, leading more people to embrace gender identities that fall outside the traditional male-female binary.

With such rapidly evolving ways of expressing and defining gender, it can be difficult to keep up.

Even the word ‘transgender’ was only created in 1965, by psychiatrist John Oliven. Previously the word ‘transsexual’ had been used, though that was only coined in 1949 by sexologist David Cauldwell.

Oliven changed the term from ‘transsexual’ to ‘transgender’ as he asserted that sexuality was not a dominant part of trans people’s identity difficulties. This is the current position that is adopted by most LGBT activists and gender specialists working with trans people.

Pre-dating both terms was ‘transvestite’, used by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910 to describe people with a sexual interest in cross-dressing.


Gender identities
There are a few well-known words used to describe gender identity, such as ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’. However, these can also be used as umbrella terms, to include less familiar identities such as ‘agender’, ‘bigender’, and ‘genderqueer’.

These more specific terms haven’t all been defined below, but American youth organisation, ‘Trans Student Educational Resources’ have compiled a comprehensive glossary of terms related to LGBT+ identities, including gender identity.

Gender inclusive educators, ‘Gender Spectrum’ have created a helpful resource for trans people, their families and clinicians treating trans patients, which explains the differences between sex, gender identity and gender expression.

They’ve also written their own glossary of terms related to the language of gender.

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Once people realise they’re trans, they may transition in some way, meaning they make changes in their life, and may begin to dress, act or behave in a way which aligns more closely with their gender identity.

There are some key terms trans people use to describe their transition or exploration of their gender. For example they will probably ‘come out’ as trans to their loved ones at some point.

They may decide to ask their friends, family and colleagues to use different pronouns to refer to them or to call them by a new name.

Young trans people at LGBT Youth Scotland have written a booklet for trans peers about coming out to loved ones.

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Medical transition
Some trans people pursue medical treatment, such as hormones or surgery, as part of their transition. However, not all trans people do (or are able to) transition medically, for example because of pre-existing health conditions which would make surgery dangerous, or because of cultural or religious reasons.

Some people simply decide that they don’t want to pursue medical intervention as part of their transition. The fact that someone has not transitioned medically does not make them any less trans than someone who has.

The Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) have created several guides for trans people on behalf of the Department of Health – one on hormone therapy, and one specifically for young trans people.

They have also created guides about surgical treatment options for trans people, depending on whether they were assigned male or female at birth.

The National LGB&T Partnership has also published a number of factsheets about trans peoples’ health, including mental health among trans people, as well as the difficulties faced specifically by Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) trans people.

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Social transition
Another aspect of transitioning is social transition – the aspects of transition involving social, cosmetic, and legal changes.

Social transition can involve changing your outward appearance and asking others to respect your identity, for example wearing make-up or dressing differently, or speaking in a more masculine or feminine way.

It can also involve applying for your official documentation (such as your passport) to be changed to reflect your correct name and gender marker, or changing your name and pronouns.

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To learn more about LGBT-specific terminology, you could start off by reading The Little Book of LGBTQ+ by Harriet Dyer. For more specific topics such as trangender children, older transgender people, autistic trans people and supporting trans people in healthcare, look at the works published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.