I recently attended a dinner party at which all the guests were relative strangers to one another, save the charming hostess.
Midway through our dinner (pasta with spiced turkey sausage meatballs, lemon zested simple salad, tender zucchini, and fresh berries and tart topped in a mountainous serving of homemade whipped cream), said hostess introduced an ice-breaker-style question into the mix. The question was designed to build intimacy and discussion in an in-person group, as opposed to the fast and all-too-furious questions and responses one often sees on social media.
Her question was this: What is the one social issue you wish you knew more about but are too afraid to ask?
The resounding answer around the table (except for mine: mass incarceration) surrounded the topic of transgender identity: how to get the pronouns right, when it is or isn’t appropriate to ask a person about their identity, the ethics of gender identity and children, etc.
As if they could read our whipped creamed minds (or, you know, because it’s Pride month), a few days later the powers that be at Associated Press Style (AP Style) emailed subscribers a helpful compilation of several entries related to the LGBTQ community.
The organization’s AP Stylebook is the book all journalists and many marketers use as tool to guide how they stylize, spell, format, and describe certain recurring words or phrases. For example, AP Style dictates that seven o’clock in the evening be written as 7 p.m. That’s numeral 7, space, the letter p, dot, the letter m, dot.
Entries in the AP Stylebook are ever-evolving, just like our languages, but I think it’s always a good place to start when looking for answers to new vocabulary conundrums. Here are some of the most helpful definitions they provided in the Pride roundup (ie., things I would have also needed to Google and a few words I had never heard of before, like “deadname”). Now to procure that homemade whipped cream recipe…
transgender (adj.) Describes people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were identified as having at birth. Does not require what are often known as sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures. Identify people as transgender only if pertinent, and use the name by which they live publicly. Generally, avoid references to a transgender person being born a boy or girl, since it’s an unnecessary detail and excludes intersex babies. Bernard is a transgender man. Christina is transgender. The shorthand trans is acceptable on second reference and in headlines: Grammys add first man and first trans woman as trophy handlers.
Do not use as a noun, such as referring to someone as a transgender, or use the term transgendered. Not synonymous with terms like cross-dresser or drag queen, which do not have to do with gender identity. See cross-dresser, drag performer. Do not use the outdated term transsexual. Avoid derogatory terms such as tranny. Follow guidelines for obscenities, profanities, vulgarities as appropriate.
Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. Refer to a previous name, sometimes called a deadname, only if relevant to the story.
cisgender May be used, if necessary, to refer to people who are not transgender, as a means to distinguish people from one another. Use only with explanation. Do not use terms like normal to describe people who are not transgender. Cisgender refers to gender and is not synonymous with heterosexual, which refers to sexual orientation.
nonbinary People are nonbinary if their gender identity is not strictly male or female. Not synonymous with transgender. Explain in a story if the context doesn’t make it clear.
gender-nonconforming (adj.) Acceptable in broad references as a term for people who do not conform to gender expectations. The group is providing scholarships for gender-nonconforming students. When talking about individuals, be specific about how a person describes or expresses gender identity and behavior. Roberta identifies as both male and female. Not synonymous with transgender. Use other terms like bigender (a term for people who identify as a combination of two genders) or agender(people who identify as having no gender) only if used by subjects to describe themselves, and only with explanation.
intersex This term can be used, when relevant, to describe people born with genitalia, chromosomes or reproductive organs that don’t fit typical definitions for males or females. Gonzalez is an intersex person who identifies as female. Zimmerman is intersex. Do not use the outdated term hermaphrodite.
sex reassignment or gender confirmation The treatments, surgeries and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender. Balducci considered having sex reassignment surgery during his transition.
transition, gender transition The processes transgender people go through to match their gender identity, which may include sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures, but not necessarily. Washington is transitioning while helping his daughter consider universities. Chamberlain’s family offered support during her transition.
asexual Describes people who don’t experience sexual attraction, though they may feel other types of attraction, such as romantic or aesthetic. Not synonymous with and does not assume celibacy.
bisexual Describes people attracted to more than one gender. Some people prefer pansexual, which describes people attracted to others regardless of their gender. The shortened version bi is acceptable in quotations.
conversion therapy The scientifically discredited practice of using therapy to “convert” LGBTQ people to heterosexuality or traditional gender expectations. Either refer to it as so-called conversion therapy or put quotation marks around it. Do not do both. Gay conversion therapy should take no hyphen. Always include the disclaimer that it is discredited.
cross-dresser Use this term instead of the outdated transvestite for someone who wears clothing associated with a different gender, and only when the subject identifies as such. Not synonymous with drag performer or transgender.
deadname A previous name, often of a transgender person from before a gender transition. Use previous name or similar phrasing unless in a quotation, and explain if necessary.
drag performer, drag queen, drag king Entertainers who dress and act as a different gender. Drag queens act as women; drag kings act as men. Male impersonator or female impersonator is also acceptable. Not synonymous with cross-dresser or transgender.
gay, lesbian Used to describe people attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. Preferred over homosexual. Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to sexual preference or to a gay or alternative lifestyle. Gays is acceptable as a plural noun when necessary, but do not use the singular gay as a noun. Lesbian is acceptable as a noun in singular or plural form. Sexual orientation is not synonymous with gender.
heterosexual (n. and adj.)In males, a sexual orientation that describes attraction to females, and vice versa. Straight is acceptable. Transgender people can be of any orientation, including heterosexual.
Acceptable in broad references or in quotations to the concept of fear or hatred of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The governor denounced homophobia. In individual cases, be specific about observable actions; avoid descriptions or language that assumes motives. The leaflets contained an anti-gay slur. The voters opposed same-sex marriage. Related terms include biphobia (fear or hatred specifically of bisexuals) and transphobia (fear or hatred of transgender people).
LGBT, LGBTQ (adj.) Acceptable in all references for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer. In quotations and the formal names of organizations and events, other forms such as LGBTQIA and other variations are also acceptable with the other letters explained. I generally stands for intersex, and A can stand for asexual (a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction), ally (some activists decry this use of the abbreviation for a person who is not LGBT but who actively supports LGBT communities) or both. Use of LGBT or LGBTQ is best as an adjective and an umbrella term. Don’t use it, for instance, when the group you’re referring to is limited to bisexuals. Walters joined the LGBTQ business association. Queer is an umbrella term covering people who are not heterosexual or cisgender and is acceptable for people and organizations that use the term to identify themselves. Do not use it when intended as a slur. Follow guidelines for obscenities, profanities, vulgarities as appropriate.
they, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.
Usage example: A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward: The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner). Examples of rewording:
All the class members raised their hands (instead of everyone raised their hands).
The foundation gave grants to anyone who lost a job this year (instead of anyone who lost their job).
Police said the victim would be identified after relatives are notified(instead of after their relatives are notified or after his or her relatives are notified).
Lottery officials said the winner could claim the prize Tuesday (instead of their or his or her prize).
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person. Examples of rewording:
Hendricks said the new job is a thrill (instead of Hendricks said Hendricks is thrilled about the new job or Hendricks said they are thrilled about the new job).
Lowry’s partner is Dana Adams, an antiques dealer. They bought a house last year (instead of Lowry and Lowry’s partner bought a house last year or Lowry and their partner bought a house last year).
When they is used in the singular, it takes a plural verb: Taylor said they need a new car. (Again, be sure it’s clear from the context that only one person is involved.)
The singular reflexive themself is acceptable only if needed in constructions involving people who identify as neither male nor female. Again, it’s usually possible and always best to rephrase. Dana Adams was not available for comment yet (instead of Dana Adams did not make themself available for comment).