Dude, man, sir, male… what?

I’ve had at least three conversations in the last week about what to call people when we talk about gender. Things like: what does it mean when we say “woman”, and how is that different to “cis woman”? I know a common argument about trans-inclusive language is that it’s too difficult, or too elitist to be useful, so this guide is supposed to be an easy place to start with what various terms mean, when to use them, and when you should not*.

Man/Woman/Non-binary Person
What Does it Mean?
An adult human with a specific gender. This term gives no information about the sexual characteristics (primarily the genitals) of the person you’re talking about. Includes cis and trans people who identify as the gender specified.

When should I use it?
In day-to-day conversation when you want to talk about an individual; to determine pronoun use; or to make comments referring to all individuals of a specific gender e.g. non-binary people are great!

When not to use it*:
In conjunction with the word “real” e.g. “real men.”
When you’re trying to make a generalization and you actually mean one of the other terms below, or when you’re tying to specifically include or exclude people with certain body shapes, or who are cis/trans in a certain way.

Male/Female/Non-binary
What does it mean?
This is used to indicate that you are talking specifically about gender in the content of your conversation. The terms male and female refer to sexual characteristics only when you are talking about non-human animals – according to biologists, anyway, and I think they know best.

When should I use it?
As an adjective to talk about people or animals in gender-specific terms: female drivers (which includes trans and cis women), non-binary teachers etc.

When should I not use it*?
It is an IMMEDIATE red flag of a particularly toxic brand of sexism if you use the term “females” to talk about women. Unless you are talking about the biology of non-human animals, there’s no real need to use either of these in the plural. I want to stress again that when you use “male” to talk about people you are including trans and cis men, and no-one else.

AMAB/AFAB
What does it mean?
Assigned male at birth/assigned female at birth. When you were born, someone looked at your sexual characteristics and decided if you were a girl or a boy or an intersex human (in which case you were usually surgically forced, without your consent, into one configuration or another). AFAB, for example, refers to people who were born with a vulva, regardless of their gender, or what their body looks like now.

When should I use it?
To talk about people with a shared experience of having the same sexual characteristics, in a way that includes cis and trans people e.g. AFAB people going through menopause.

When should I not use it*?
You should NEVER use these terms to out someone, or to imply that their gender isn’t real. If you are referring to one trans individual by either of these terms, make sure that they are comfortable with you doing so first.

Cis (cis men, cis women, cis people)
What does it mean?
A person assigned male at birth who identifies as a man, or a person assigned female at birth who identifies as a woman. Does not include trans people.

When should I use it?
When you specifically want to talk about non-transgender individuals and their experiences. This isn’t usually thought of as a transphobic term, because it gives equal validity to trans experiences.

When should I not use it*?
When you’re talking about an experience shared by trans people.

Trans (trans men, trans women, trans people)
What does it mean?
Someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, e.g. an AFAB person who is male, non-binary, or uses another term to identify their gender. A trans man is a man, and uses “he” pronouns, a trans woman is a woman and uses “she” pronouns. Transphobes have started using “trans identified man” as a way to refer to trans women, as a deliberate way to lash out and cause harm to trans individuals.

When should I use it?
When you want to specifically talk about transgender people and their experiences e.g. trans people face discrimination.

When should I not use it*?
Never use this to out someone. Remember that when you say trans x, x should be their gender, not the gender they were mistakenly assigned at birth.

Dude/Guys
What does it mean?
An affectionate term for referring to a group of people. Colloquially this might mean an all-male group, or a mixed gender group. People who are not men who have grown up culturally learning that “dude” means “male people” may feel misgendered and hurt by being called “dude.”

When should I use it?
To refer to men in an informal setting, and with people who you know are comfortable being called “dude.”

When should I not use it*?
To refer to non-men when you haven’t checked their comfort with it. To refer to anyone who has told you they do not want to be called “dude” for any reason. The usual rule is that people decide what they want to be called, not what they want to call others.

Biological Men/Women
What does it mean?
It can mean a whole bunch of things. It’s usually used by transphobes to refer to cis women, where “biology” means chromosomes. But trans folk will argue that their body is biological, and theirs, so it’s biologically female. You could also ask whether the “biology” of a woman means having a uterus? A vulva? Or the ability to conceive? Or people whose sexual hormone make-up is predominantly estrogen-based ? Some of these criteria include men, non-binary people, and trans women.

When should I use it?
To protest transphobia: trans men are biologically men! Or the term “biological women” really makes no sense and is often transphobic.

When should I not use it*?
To make statements about the reality of someone’s gender or gendered experience.

Male-Bodied/Female-Bodied/Non-binary bodied
What does it mean?
This person has the body of a man or male animal. In humans this gives you no information about the sexual characteristics of the person referred to. Male-bodied humans may have a penis and testes, a vulva, breasts, no breasts… but all men have male bodies.

When should I use it?
To refer to the bodies of men.

When should I not use it*?
When you want to refer to AMAB people.

People who menstruate, people with testes, pregnant people etc.
What does it mean?
These are context-specific terms to define a group of people who share a biological experience, regardless of gender.

When should I use it?
When you want to talk about a specific experience e.g. when giving health advice to pregnant people.

When should I not use it*?
As a substitute for cis-women and cis-men, or to erase the presence of trans folks in the conversation. If you say “people with periods” you are including some men and non-binary in the conversation, and your language and attitudes should reflect that.

 

 

That got long, and kind of repetitive, but I hope somewhere in here is a term right for your needs when you’re speaking about gender and want to be accurate and non-hurtful about who you mean to include.

If you find this guide useful, please consider giving some money to the Elliot Jackson Jones scholarship run by the Capstone Alliance here in Alabama.

* …if you don’t want to be transphobic or hurt transpeople.

 

 

 

 

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