While to some the word transgender feels brand new, the term didn’t spring up out of nowhere with, say, Laverne Cox or Transparent. When transgender entered the popular lexicon through the efforts of activists and aid organizations in the mid-1990s, it replaced transsexual, which had replaced transvestite, which was what they called cross-dressers and before that viragos. Transgender was and is regarded as an umbrella category, and in the mid-’90s the two primary terms under that umbrella were female to male (FtM) and male to female (MtF). These terms captured what were then the major constituencies of transgender identity: those who were born female and lived as men and those who were born male and lived as women. But even at the moment of their emergence into the vernacular, FtM and MtF weren’t sufficient to describe the whole community: They coexisted with terms like third gender, which captured those who didn’t experience gender as incorporating a sense of “to-ness” at all—it wasn’t a journey from one point to another.
The terms FtM and MtF hung on through the early 2000s, but they haven’t fared well in the ’10s. These days, the terms trans-man and trans-woman, or just trans-person, have largely replaced FtM and MtF, with a growing number of folks preferring to use trans-masculine or trans-feminine. From the outside, this could look like another minor semantic disagreement, the infighting of a group often derided for its sensitivity around terminology. But the shift of identity vocabulary within the transgender community merits closer examination: Understanding what the trans community is trying to assert and defend can help everyone—cisgender folks included—comprehend what gender is, where it comes from, and how it operates. These are important lessons in a time where the deadly workings of culturally valorized, indeed “toxic,” masculinity are more evident than ever.
The new transgender terminology has evolved in tandem with a clearer understanding of the categories of biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression. The beginnings of this distinction are evident, in fact, from the movement away from transsexual toward transgender in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The forces behind this shift argued that what was really at stake in many people’s sense of self was not biological sex—genitalia or chromosomes or hormones—so much as it was gender identity and gender expression. Members of the transgender community from the late ’90s onward increasingly opted for social rather than medical transition. A change in pronouns, in clothing, in hairstyle, and name sufficed; surgery wasn’t required. The terminology reflected that reality: It wasn’t about sex; it was about gender.
But even though the move from transsexual to transgender reflected the emphasis on identity rather than physical sex, the terms FtM and MtF recapitulated the emphasis on biology. Female and male (and intersex) are the terms used to designate sex. Man and woman designate binary endpoints of gender identity. Masculine and feminine are used to describe gender expression. Those who chafed against the implications of surgery within the term transsexual also disliked the biological transition implied in FtM and MtF. Couldn’t someone be transgender and not go from male to female? The community increasingly recognized individuals who eschewed medical reassignment altogether.
Starting in the 2000s, the terms trans-man, trans-woman, and trans-person appeared and gained popularity. The prefix trans- still implies movement, change, transition, which is a valid component of identity for many transgender individuals. But the second half of the word—man, woman, person—carries a different gravity. These three terms are gender identities, not biological sexes. The new terms reinforce the idea that biology is not destiny. Moreover, unlike FtM or MtF—terms that wrapped together past identity with present identity, reinforcing the idea that a transgender person never fully becomes their present self but is always a self with a past-as-present—trans-man and trans-woman and trans-person simply place the individual within their present identity.
However, some in the transgender community feel that even trans-man and trans-woman rely on the binary endpoints too much and prefer trans-masculine and trans-feminine. These terms use the language of gender expression rather than gender identity. Gender expression is an outward manifestation of what is inwardly felt or understood and includes elements like one’s hairstyle or clothing.
In the 2000s, the work of terminology in the transgender community centered on distinguishing between biological sex and gender identity, reinforcing the understanding that the two, though related in a complex way, were neither interchangeable nor determinative. As we head toward the third decade of the 21st century, the work of terminology now is to explore the distinction between gender identity and gender expression. I may be a boy but not be particularly masculine, for instance. Or I may be female and identify as a woman and be feminine. These three components—sex, gender identity, and gender expression—have “expected” configurations within American society, but there is no innate correct alignment.
Gender identity is deeply felt and known. Gender expression is no less important to one’s self, but it is also largely external and interactive. It is crucial that we not only understand this intellectually but also employ vocabulary that recognizes and empowers this distinction. So long as we insist that sex and gender are biologically determined, we deny ourselves the ability to control and alter the norms we set around masculinity and femininity.
Early transgender terminology was complicit in this understanding, with terms like FtM and MtF, and a culture that was focused on transition—medical reassignment to create a biological reality. But gender is much more than biology; the transgender community has worked hard to understand this and to express that understanding in the language it uses. Trans-masculine, trans-feminine, trans-fluid: These are terms that matter. Gender expression is a component of self; just because it is external and changeable doesn’t mean it is dispensable. Gender doesn’t just act upon us: We can influence gender.
Norms around what is masculine and what is feminine have changed over time. What hasn’t changed is that these categories are used to assert and enshrine power and hierarchy. We’ve seen the devastating consequences of that in the dynamics that the #MeToo movement has exposed and in the discussions around gun violence and toxic masculinity. One way to tackle these problems is to look at gender: how we construct it, what assumptions we make about it. And as we begin to consider these challenges, we can empower ourselves by looking at the progress the transgender community has made in self-assertion and self-definition. This shifting vocabulary underlines the truth that we, as humans, are not beholden to biological imperatives; we, as a society, can determine what it means to be masculine and what it means to be feminine. We show what we value by how we live and what names we use for ourselves and others.