Why ‘transgender’ is preferred over ‘transgendered’

Last week, in sharing some grammar “rules” that you love and hate, we mentioned the comments on our use the previous week of “transgendered,” as in “Many transgendered people …”

The link is to the relevant Media Guide page of GLAAD, an organization founded in 1985 as the “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.” Things change: “Transgender” and other terms describing people who do not conform to so-called traditional gender identities are not mentioned on the group’s history page until 2000, when, it says, “After meeting with GLAAD, the Associated Press revises its Stylebook to include fair and accurate LGBT terminology.”

The 2000 Associated Press Stylebook did not contain any reference to transgender(ed). It had entries on “gay” and “lesbian”:

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gay Acceptable as popular synonym for both male and female homosexuals (n. and adj.), although it is generally associated with males, while lesbian is the more common term for female homosexuals. Avoid references to gay, homosexual or alternative “lifestyle.”

The entry on “lesbian” said simply:

lesbian, lesbianism Lowercase in references to homosexual women, except in names of organizations.

But it had an entry on “sex changes”:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

Things change: Later AP stylebooks included a “transsexuals” entry that cross-referenced to the “sex changes” entry but dropped the mention of how that change was achieved.

Today, AP’s “transgender” entry carries the same advice. Its “gay” entry now says:

Used to describe men and women attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. Preferred over homosexual except in clinical contexts or references to sexual activity.

Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to “sexual preference” or to a gay or alternative “lifestyle.” See LGBT and phobia.

Its “lesbian” reference simply cross-references to “gay.”

The stylebook of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association uses “transgender” as a noun and adjective, as does the New York Times stylebook. The Chicago Manual of Style is silent on “transgender(ed).”

So why did we use “transgendered”?

Merriam-Webster lists “transgendered” as a “variation” of “transgender,” noting its first use was in 1979. It can be a noun or an adjective. We used it as an adjective (“transgendered people,” not a noun (“a transgender.”) In that, we’re in good company: “Transgendered” as an adjective appears frequently in the news media. It appears far less often as a noun.

None of the above is meant to imply that “transgendered” is more “correct” as an adjective than “transgender,” or less correct. But it acknowledges that the way words are used can set off unintended reactions.

Many organizations have their preferred terminology, which they often share with the news media in hopes it will be adopted. Many terms can be polemic, such as “right-to-life” vs. “anti-abortion,” or if to say a “terrorist” underwent “harsh interrogation techniques” instead of saying he was “tortured.”

The American Copy Editors Society is tackling some of these issues this week at its annual conference. (Full disclosure: As president of the ACES Education Fund, this columnist is a member of the ACES board.) One track is “Cultural sensitivity,” or “how to keep language respectful amid quickly shifting social issues.” Panels will include discussions of how to deal with terminology for mental health, race, and yes, LGBT issues.

Ultimately, it’s up to a writer or publication to decide how it wants to refer to various groups or issues. But knowing how people on all sides of those issues view the language used in those contexts is just as important. And noting how things change is important, too: “Retarded,” for many years a common term for someone with a mental disability, is now considered offensive.

So while linguistically, “transgendered” might be fine, it’s not that simple. It may not matter to the language, but it matters to the audience.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.