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4 common mistakes made about Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Should you refer to Caitlyn Jenner as "he" or "she"? Did Jenner "become" a woman? These are some of the questions many people have asked following Jenner's big reveal in a new Vanity Fair cover story — and some people, including major media outlets, have gotten the answers wrong.

These are bad and sometimes hurtful mistakes to trans people, who identify with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth. But issues surrounding gender identity and expression are unfamiliar to a great majority of Americans. Even I — someone who regularly writes about trans issues — still need to lean on the trans people I know to get some of my questions and terminology sorted out.

But Jenner's public journey has given many Americans an opportunity to learn about trans issues for the first time — and that should include, hopefully, fixing some of the mistakes in terminology that people often make when addressing trans people.

1) Don't use a pronoun someone doesn't want you to use

There's been some legitimate confusion about how to refer to Jenner following her interview with ABC News's Diane Sawyer in April, in which Jenner told Sawyer that she would like to continue using male pronouns to refer to herself for the time being. But that changed with the Vanity Fair cover story and Jenner's second tweet on Twitter, which referred to Jenner as "she." With that, the right way to refer to Jenner became female pronouns.

What pronoun do you use for a transgender person? Whatever they use for themselves. Javier Zarracina/Vox

This is standard advice for referring to people's gender identity: respect their wishes. If there's any reasonable uncertainty, GLAAD advises the best thing to do is directly ask what someone's gender identity is. Although it can be awkward for both parties, it's much better than the problems that can arise from not asking and making an assumption. And there's a good chance transgender people may be used to the question — and might even appreciate it, because it shows you don't want to misgender them.

Misgendering is seen as an insult within LGBTQ communities because it characterizes people in a way they don't relate to. What's worse, some opponents of LGBTQ rights purposely misgender people to show their disapproval of identifying or expressing gender in a way that doesn't heed traditional social standards. These subtle acts are viewed by many LGBTQ people as microaggressions, which, while not always overtly or purposely insulting, can act as a constant reminder to people that large segments of the population don't understand or approve of their personal identity.

"Imagine going through life every day and having so many of your interactions involve somebody trying to give you a hug and stepping on your foot while doing it," Emily Prince, a 31-year-old trans woman in Alexandria, Virginia, said in December. "And then when you ask them to step off your foot, no matter how polite you are about it, they respond with, 'Oh, excuse me, I was just trying to give you a hug.'"

Sometimes the problem is magnified by limitations in the English language, which relies heavily on gendered pronouns. LGBTQ communities have tried to propose various gender-neutral pronouns, but none have caught on. Some people and organizations, including Vox, might use "they" instead of "he" or "she" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

The lack of a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun makes it difficult for even the most well-meaning person to correctly address someone without running the risk of misgendering them. That's one of the reasons it's typically better to directly ask about a person's gender identity if there's any reasonable uncertainty.

2) Don't say trans people "became" the gender they identify with

Laverne Cox at an LGBTQ pride march.

Laverne Cox is a woman. She did not "become" one.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

A trans man doesn't become a man, and a trans woman doesn't become a woman. These are generally gender identities that people hold for most or all of their lives. But they may not decide to transition for various reasons — maybe they're nervous about the social backlash, maybe they can't afford the treatments they want, or maybe they think it's none of anybody else's business.

"People say things like, 'You're pretending to be a man,' or, 'You're pretending to be a woman,'" Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said earlier this year. "What they don't understand is I was actually pretending before."

The empirical evidence backs this up. Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine conducted a review of the current scientific studies, and concluded that the available data suggests there's a biological link to a person's gender identity, indicating that trans people are essentially assigned genders at birth that don't match their inherent, biologically set identity. And a study from the TransYouth Project found that trans children as young as 5 years old respond to psychological gender-association tests, which evaluate how people view themselves within gender roles, as quickly and consistently as those who don't identify as trans.

Suggesting that trans people "became" the gender they identify with undermines that inherent value of their identity — since it can imply that their gender is something they chose at some point in their life.

3) Try to avoid using a trans person's "deadname"

A transgender flag.

Demonstrators carry a large transgender flag during a march in Turkey.

Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

When referring to a trans person, it's important to avoid their "deadname" — the name they went by before transitioning — as much as possible. In general, the deadname only serves as a reminder of how society previously misgendered someone and denied their gender identity.

There are exceptions to this. For example, with Jenner's transition, it was difficult to avoid bringing up Jenner's previous name, Bruce, since it's what Americans knew her as before — and the name she explicitly said she wanted to be referred to even after she came out on Sawyer's show. So if news outlets completely avoided Jenner's deadname, it's entirely possible that a lot of readers would have been left genuinely confused.

The issue instead more commonly arises when someone deadnames a person who has already been out. For instance, Laverne Cox, star of Orange Is the New Black, has always been known as Laverne Cox in the public view. Trying to dig up a deadname for her and publishing it could be taken as an attempt to undermine Cox's identity.

4) Don't say "transgendered"

LGBTQ and trans flags.

The LGBT and trans flags.

Samuel Kubani / AFP via Getty Images

The umbrella term for people who identify with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth is "transgender" or "trans." The word "transgendered" is offensive to trans people and unnecessarily confusing.

As trans advocate Joanne Herman noted in the Huffington Post, calling someone transgendered is a bit like calling someone "colored." "One problem with this label was that it implied something happened to make the person 'of color,' which denied the person's dignity of being born that way," Herman wrote. Similarly, transgendered suggests that being trans is something that happens to someone, as opposed to an identity someone is born with.

Transgendered is also unnecessarily long and confusing. LGBT group GLAAD explained: "The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous '-ed' tacked onto the end. An '-ed' suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. It also brings transgender into alignment with lesbian, gay, and bisexual. You would not say that Elton John is 'gayed' or Ellen DeGeneres is 'lesbianed,' therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is 'transgendered.'"

Watch: Life as a transgender woman

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