A rough guide to some Trans* terminology

This is not intended as a stand-alone post but rather to work as a reference guide to supplement the post “Guide to better interactions with transgender family members, friends or acquaintances“.

The term “sex” here refers to a person’s biological status. Contrary to popular belief, in humans, sex is not determined by any one trait or feature. Determination relies instead on internal as well as external organs, the presence or absence of a Y-chromosome, hormones and the presence or absence of testes or ovaries. If these five factors agree in a typical fashion, a person is classified as either biologically male or female accordingly.

The term “gender identity” refers to a person’s own sense and subjective experience of their gender. This is what the American Psychological Association’s Definition of Terms calls “one’s sense of oneself as male, female..” etc. Though simplified, those are the standard definitions for these two terms and they are recognised as being distinct from one another, though not everyone is aware of the fact.

Transgender people are those whose gender identity does not unambiguously align in the typical manner with their biological sex (that is, the sex assigned to them at birth). Some of these people choose to undergo medical treatment to alter their bodies, others do not, according to what is right for them and their own needs.


Cisgender is the medical term for people who are not Transgender, people whose biological sex and gender identity conform with each other. The majority of people are therefore cisgender.


Transgender is actually an umbrella term because it encompasses a vast array of non-traditional possibilities, though the two most common are MTFs (male-to-female) and FTMs (female-to-male). These initialisms refer first to the assigned sex and then to the person’s gender identity.

Under this umbrella is the word transsexual. This is a very specific term used to describe people who opt for some degree of medical treatment. Some people reject the term transsexual, feeling that it is too often and too easily shortened to the derogatory word “tranny” or because they feel it may lead to others placing a greater emphasis on sex and sexuality when discussing their transgender status.


Transgender is often shortened to “trans” and it is sometimes used in this way to describe people who choose not to take medical action and by those who do opt for medical intervention but reject the term transsexual. To differentiate between the descriptive term for MTFs and FTMs who do or do not opt for medical treatment and the term as an umbrella which includes people of non-binary gender identity (people who don’t identify unambiguously as men or women), the categorical, umbrella term is increasingly written as Trans* with an asterisks.


In short, trans/transgender may mean a male or female identifying person whose biological sex is female or male respectively. Meanwhile Trans* with an asterisk refers to a broad variety of non-typical gender identities, including MTFs and FTMs, among many others.


The broad category Trans* also includes people who are born with interex conditions. This is a range of conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that cannot be defined as typically male or typically female. Although these conditions are present from birth, they may not always be apparent. Exterior genitalia may appear to be one sex, while internal organs conform to another etc. Many people do not discover they are intersex until later in life or not at all.

This is not a complete explanation of terminology but hopefully it will be helpful to those who are unfamiliar with the language surrounding this topic.

If still you’re finding it at all difficult to understand, I suggest you have a look at The Genderbread Person 2.0 which explains some complex issues with clear language and a nice visual representation too.


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