How Does The English Language Handle Gender Identity?

Transgender issues are nothing new, but many of the words surrounding how we talk about gender identity are relatively young … at least by dictionary standards.

In conversational use as early as the 1960s, transgender entered the dictionary in the early 1990s. Trans- is a Latin prefix meaning “across or beyond.” Gender shares the same Latin root as genus. Someone who is transgender does not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Transgender is not a sexual orientation. Notice how the word gender is used in the term, rather than sex?

As a classifier for male and female, gender replaced sex in the 20th century. This was a trend started by feminist writers who wanted to highlight the biological attributes of males and females separate from their social characteristics. Transmen and transwomen are compound words originating from the word transgender that apply the familiarity of the word and its idea to individual people.

The opposite of transgender

Cisgender is a word that was added to the English language to distinguish from transgender. Based on the Latin root cis, which means “on this side of,” it refers to someone who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth.

The word comes from cissexual, a term popularized in the mid 1990s by a German sexologist.

Transgender pronouns

Pronouns in English are largely gender-designated (he/she, him/her). Many transgender people identify with these gender-related pronouns. A transgender person may say “I use she/her” or “I use he/him.”

The primary gender-neutral singular pronoun in English is it, which isn’t useful because it applies to objects, not people. This should never be used to refer to a transgender person, or a cisgender one for that matter!

If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, the gender-neutral plural they is an easy go-to. Although it’s often plural, it can be (and is often) used as a singular pronoun! In fact, Shakespeare, Dickens, and many other authors of the classics used the singular they.


Some people who use the pronoun they identify as gender-fluid. This means they identify with a non-binary gender that may change over time. However, this is not the same thing as being transgender!

Find out more about what it means to be gender-fluid.

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