Trans-inclusive language to talk about sex and gender

If you’re a feminist you are probably familiar with the idea the sex and gender are different things. Sex is about physical body parts, usually understood as being male or female. Of course, its not quite so clear cut with there being a number of different factors apparently defining sex (hormones, chromosomes, external genitals, internal reproductive organs, secondary sex characteristics like breasts and hair growth, etc.) and there are a large number of people born intersex, that is in some big way existing in between.

Gender is even more shifting. Gender is social identities, how we (are supposed to) recognize sex. We use terms like men and women to talk about gender. Things like how you dress might be considered your gender. For example, you identify the woman across the street as a woman because her hair is long, and she’s wearing a low cut pink tank top and a bra while carrying a purse. Gender runs deep. We hear it in how people talk, in the attributes they are assigned and take on, how people walk, what they do in social situations, what roles they take on in life. Gender is so important to the organization of our society, even if it is messy with lots of cross over, that we are  very much attached to it and in fact often find it at the core of our identities.

So, sex and gender, who you are and what’s in your pants, are not the same thing. When you decide if someone is a man or a woman you usually have little knowledge of their physical make-up. And that’s just fine.

With all this said, I want to make a point about how to use language in a way that is inclusive to transpeople. People who are trans are currently identifying with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth based on some of their sex characteristic. This can mean any variety of things and includes people who have had surgery to transform their genitals, but many transpeople live in bodies society would generally categorize as one sex while identifying and existing as people of “another” gender. A gender that society doesn’t consider to match up with that body. (The term for people whose gender and sex do ‘match up’ is cisgendered).

With this in mind, when you talk about something that specifically refers to being female-sexed (for example, talking about birth control for a female body), instead of using the word ‘women’ talk about ‘people who have a female reproductive system’. Always remember that if you do choose to say ‘women’, not all women have vaginas, clitorises, uteruses, periods, ovaries, eggs, breasts, etc. and vice versa. This isn’t even just about transwomen. Many cisgendered women (people who identify with the gender that ‘matches’ the sex they were assigned at birth) don’t fulfill all these ‘requirements’.

For example, we generally associate the experience of having a period with being a woman. Many, many women don’t have periods. Because they are pregnant, taking a certain type of medication, too old, too young, have a body that is healthy without menstruation (this includes transwomen and others), have a body that is unhealthy and therefore not menstruating, have a body that is doing things that impact whether they menstruate (lots of physical exertion and exercise for example), etc.

So how do you change from saying ‘women’ to saying ‘people with a female reproduction system’? It does seem a bit tedious and it might not always work (in those situations, ‘females’ might be a better word than ‘women’). Here is one example where it is simple enough to slot it in.

“This type of birth control is for people with female reproductive systems that have sex with people with male reproductive systems.”

Still sound tedious? Well that’s actually not such a bad thing. It makes it obvious what you are doing and draws to everyones attention the fact that you are choosing new words. This can be used as a learning experience.

Sometimes you can change your language much more easily.

Say “People who have been pregnant” rather than “Women who have been pregnant”, ask “Who likes having their balls  played with?” rather than “Do any of you men like having your balls played with?”, and tell your kid “Some people have clitorises and some people have penises” rather than “little girls have clitorises and little boys have penises.”

See, not so hard. Keep it in mind and do it when you can to be inclusive of the many people whose bodies and genders aren’t as straightforward as our society wants us to believe.

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