The T Word and 5 Other Things You Should Not Say to Trans Women

It is unheard of in the life of a trans woman to never experience misgendering, judgment, cissexism¹, or transphobia in their lifetime. It just happens.

In order to understand everything in a transgender perspective, there are certain basics that people have to get through. Creating this list is one of them. And holy moley, there’s so many lists of this and that, and yeah it gets tiring, but for my purposes, and my writing, these are essential to understand. Not only was this list therapeutic for me, but also constructive to think of how trans women are not victims, but survivors.

1. Transgendered

Oh sweet Mary, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve not only seen this in cisgender² people’s vocabulary, but also in some important transgender-written pieces.

Ok, so what’s the big fuss with adding an –ed at the end? Well, if you look at the history of its usage, it becomes a linguistic nightmare.

Take the case of the now common term, “people of color.” Once upon a time anyone who was not white, particularly African Americans in the U.S., were called “colored.” In this day and age, in our society, people frown at this and correctly label it as racist. Why? Well, because it was a derogatory word for someone who was non-white. Its weight comes from its usage as a passive verb. That this defect, in this case “coloration,” happened to someone and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Simply put, transgender is not a passive verb. It is not something that has happened to someone—they have always been transgender. Transgender, or simply “trans,” is usually used as an adjective to that person’s real gender. In my case, I say I’m a trans woman because I want others to know that I was coercively assigned “male” at birth. That’s what the doctor said when I came out, and that’s how I was raised for a big chunk of my life. Now I am open to others that I am transgender and a woman: “trans woman.”

Also, notice the space between them—trans is the adjective, woman is the noun. So none of this transwoman or transman business for me. I am a woman who happens to be trans.

“Transgendered” seeks to belittle one’s trans status by obscuring it. It makes someone think that this is something that happened to them, or maybe that it was them, and always be them, rather than placing it as an affirmative “transgender person.”

2. “Have you had the surgery?”

I cannot tell you how many strangers ask me this after I come out to them. I’ve got it at bars with a “liberal” crowd, dive bars, and bars where there’s a lesbian majority. Yep. It’s all over.

This question is so intrusive. The first time I was asked it I immediately said “no, but I may in the future.” Later, I felt horrible. I just exposed what’s in my pants to someone I don’t know because I felt like I needed to validate my existence.

This question aims to dehumanize trans people, and in my opinion, it almost always falls on trans women rather than trans men. There are a couple reasons for this that I’ll try to paraphrase here.

No one else needs to claim what’s in their pants except for transgender folk. Everyone assumes other people’s gender in a blink of an eye. If something challenges that assumption, we have to know what their parts are. Our society is obsessed with gender roles and conformity to it—even down to your nether regions. But particularly we’re obsessed with the effeminization³ of male-assigned people.

And, of course, there’s the oft-used assumption that in order to be a “real” transgender that you must get “the surgery.” That’s just not true. I know many, many trans people who either can’t afford it or simply don’t want it. As trans folk, many of us know that the sum of our parts do not reside in our pants. We are not defined by our genitals, and neither should anyone else be.

3. “I couldn’t tell you were transgender!”

Hearing this is so awkward.

Ok. I know this is one of those sticky issues, but “looking” transgender to most people is not a compliment. We live in a society where we’re bred with bizarre (and boring!) standards of beauty. The more feminine a woman looks, the better—same goes for men’s masculine features. Ew!

My transfemininity is beautiful. And if you don’t think I look transgender, so what? Unlike the misled assumption that all trans women want to conform to femininity as much as possible, I don’t I aspire to be a flawless cisgender woman at all.

Now inside the transgender community, it’s different. It can come from a place of internal transphobia, where someone will compliment you by saying that you “pass” as a cisgender woman, and thereby degrade “looking” transgender.

Or it can come from a place of, let’s say, “a queer superiority complex” where if you do not show enough physical traits of transgenderism (jaw line, facial hair shadow, chest, etc.) that you are committing the crime of assimilating to cisgender norms of beauty. These are both wrong.

Final word on this: even if you think it, just don’t say it out loud. It’s not a compliment, because all trans people are beautiful.

4. “What’s it like?”

This is another one of those intrusive questions. How does one even begin to describe what it’s like to be trans? It’s full of complexities. That’s all.

Also, treating trans people as your encyclopedia is not nice. Somehow, it’s way more acceptable to ask a trans person what “it’s like” than, say, a cisgender Latina woman what it’s like being in their shoes.

5. “You’re so brave. Good luck!”

This is pretty condescending. I didn’t choose to be brave, this is just how I am and how I live my life. I don’t need your good luck. I’ve got all the strength that I’ve built up from going through this and am a fully capable person.

6. Tranny / Chicks with Dicks / She-male / He-she

Ok. There’s like of debate inside the transgender community, but I and many other trans women firmly believe that if you are not a transfeminine person, do not say tranny. Ever.

One time someone plainly asked, like it was completely normal, “what kind of tranny are you?” I was kind of stunned. Since it was just after a question about if I had “the surgery,” I sighed and explained that I enjoyed being soft butch and was in a loving relationship with another woman.

Saying the “t word” is similar to saying the “n word” to an African American. This is not comparing oppressions point-blank. These words have very different oppressive histories. But they are similar in the fact that many black folk have reclaimed the n word as many trans women have begun to reclaim the t word.

I won’t get into the “trans male vs. trans female use of tranny” debate here. But there are a lot of opinions, by people I respect dearly. But I do strongly believe that only transfeminine / trans female people have a right to reclaim that word.

Finally, chicks with dicks / she-male / he-she is just plain transphobic. Don’t say it. And correct people who do!

Be an ally to trans folk. Educate yourselves, but more importantly, educate others. Everyone makes mistakes, and these are really hot-button mistakes that so many people do. It’s so important that we develop better allyship and respect trans people.


  1. The belief that transsexual genders are less legitimate than, and mere imitations of, cissexual genders.
  2. Cisgender, meaning “same gender,” is the opposite of transgender. It means that you agree with the assigned gender you were given at birth. Cissexual means “same sex,” and is opposite of transsexual.
  3. Effeminization means the process of feminizing someone. Writer Julia Serano writes about “effemimania,” or the obsession of all things feminine, in U.S. culture in her book Whipping Girl. I highly recommend this book for further reading on trans women and transfeminism.


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About Dee

Dee is a transgender woman, queer dyke, and political activist who lives in the Andersonville neighborhood. She has worked at Early to Bed as a sex educator, and is a writer who performs at All the Writers I Know, a monthly queer literary event. She loves movement-building and organizing for civil liberties, accessible education, queer liberation, and against U.S. wars. One day she hopes to bring home a hairless cat to live with her and her girlfriend.


11 Responses to “The T Word and 5 Other Things You Should Not Say to Trans Women”

  1. Dear Dee,

    Thank you for this interesting and necessary article. I realize that I needed to read this. Even though I have several transpeople among my friends, I don’t know what it’s like to be one. I see the value if what you write about how you DON’T want to be addressed. My question to you is: how WOULD you like to be addressed? What questions/ supportive comments would you like to be asked?
    I am interested to know more about this. Please, share!

    My best wishes and love,


    Posted by Radhe | February 17, 2012, 10:07 am
  2. I understand the notion of wanting to protect something very private… however, I am of the thought that the more private you keep it, the less others can understand. No one needs to know exactly what’s in your pants, but, in the instance that someone is hitting on you, and they have a preference for what’s ‘down there’, the operation question isn’t necessarily invasive. Is the trans ‘situation’ a complex one? I’m sure it is. Having said that, I’m sure the complexity is furthered by the lack of dialogue to explain these things, and by saying “don’t call me this” or “don’t ask that”… in a sense, you’re cutting down your own bridge. Just because I’m in the gay community doesn’t mean that I am expertly versed on all the PC terms, etc. If a person uses the wrong wording while honestly trying to get to know you and/or understand what you’ve brought to the table (by ‘exposing’ your gender preference), then the choice of wording is just a nuance… not everyone out there lacking information on the matter is automatically ignorant and out to get you.

    Posted by K-lo | February 17, 2012, 10:59 am
  3. Dee, thank you for writing this article. I know there is a grand disconnect in the full spectrum of women in the LGBTQ community. How would you suggest bridging the gap? Reading books and articles? As a bisexual woman who has had many a hard conversations with both straight, gay, and queer friends about why I consider myself bi I feel that conversation is the best way to suture the wounds that unspoken questions cause. I have found no book or article that heals like the ability to look someone in the eye and make yourself vulnerable.

    Posted by Meg | February 17, 2012, 11:25 am
  4. Interesting article, great follow up questions, I look forward to reading more about this so I can educate myself.

    Posted by Cooper Thompson | February 17, 2012, 2:03 pm
  5. K-LO, shut the frell up!

    First of all, there’s no such thing as ‘politically correct’ (other than as a silencing tactic). There’s correct and that is it.

    You don’t ask about a person’s genitalia, EVER! It is beyond offensive and potentially triggering to, for example, survivors of sexual assault. Also, some people aren’t into sex, y’know? If you’re afraid of a penis, call Buck Angel. No need to be afraid there.

    If you don’t know the terms, you educate yourself or shut up.

    Posted by Suvi-Tuuli Allan | February 17, 2012, 3:12 pm
  6. “transgendered” isn’t from some mythical verb “to transgender”, it’s a adjectivizing suffix that’s been part of the English language for about a thousand years.
    See use three.

    Other examples of this use of the -ed suffix include: right-handed, able-bodied, absent-minded, pointed, angled, and so forth.

    Posted by Chris | February 20, 2012, 3:57 pm
  7. I love the bit about “you’re so courageous.” I fucking hate that so much. Is someone courageous when they escape death by hungry lion? Fuck.

    Posted by SummerRobin | February 21, 2012, 12:15 pm
  8. As a transexual woman who loves women, i have to say that i’m both glad to see the recent wave of acceptance of people like me in the lesbian/queer community (articles like this one are evidence of that) however, i’m upset at how divisive the constant prusit of political correctness, with all its included changes of terms and tranny etiquite, can be.

    Why the verbal lynching of K-Lo Suvvi? When she said ” If a person uses the wrong wording while honestly trying to get to know you and/or understand what you’ve brought to the table (by ‘exposing’ your gender preference), then the choice of wording is just a nuance… not everyone out there lacking information on the matter is automatically ignorant and out to get you.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

    I found Suvi’s assumption that K-Lo is “afraid of penises” to be homophobic and ignorant. So many so called “trans activists” and their ilk do little to help trans people and much to alienate lesbians and feminists that were/are/could be our allies and sisters. STOP IT!

    Posted by Temara | February 24, 2012, 8:55 pm
  9. “Have you had the surgery yet?”
    “Why yes, I have. In fact, I’ve had several. There was the bought of kidney stones in ’75, and then the lipoma that was removed from my back. I also had an appendectomy, and another bought of kidney stones. We thought for a while I’d have to have a knee replaced, but that got better with physical therapy.

    Oh, yes–almost forgot the adrenal gland they took out a few years ago, too.”

    Posted by Robyn Jane | February 29, 2012, 6:43 pm


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