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About “Transgendered”: Some History & Grammar

About “Transgendered”: Some History & Grammar
July 13, 2015 Jennifer Boylan

Here’s a piece Helen Boyd wrote for her blog; she asked me to add a postscript, which of course rapidly swelled to a thing larger than Helen’s original.  Submitted for your consideration.

By Helen Boyd and Jennifer Finney Boylan.

My traveling companion, Helen Boyd, author of "My Husband Betty" and "She's Not the Man I Married."


I’m well aware that the term “transgendered” is objected to by some for a variety of reasons. Most of us who did use it once upon a time have dropped it; Jenny Boylan, for instance, changed all of the instances of “transgendered” in her 10th anniversary edition of She’s Not There to “transgender” instead. I haven’t used it on my blog or in my writing for years.

But here’s the thing: interpreting any use of it as some kind of bad faith politics is also a mistake, because it was an acceptable form for many years. The reason some of us chose it – and again, I’ll cite Boylan and me, along with theorists like McKenna and Kessler – was for grammatical reasons.

Adding an “ed” to a verb is a common way to come up with a past participle in English, and past participles then function as adjectives. If you ice your tea, for instance, afterwards you’ve iced your tea, and so wound up with “iced tea”. It’s not complicated. You can do it with a lot of verbs – different verbs become adjectives/past participles in different ways – when you break a toy, it becomes a broken toy, because broke is, for whatever reasons, the past tense of “break”.

Some of these uses have become problematic, but the one I see cited most is “colored” of course, which was used to talk about African Americans and others marginalized by the color of their skin. It’s no longer acceptable because it implied that white people, for instance, have no color – but of course we do. That said, there are neutral ways you can use colored: you could, of course, color a picture in a coloring book, and so wind up with a colored picture.

It was the same idea. Gender is a verb. You can gender an infant (“it’s a girl!”) or degender a pronoun (My pronoun is “they” because I identify as genderqueer.) The logic then was that you could transgender something; you can find it used as a verb (“transgendering”) in the work of McKenna & Kessler, who did some of the first, best work on degendering and on trans issues – work that influences the likes of Kate Bornstein, for instance. And while it strikes an odd note now, for the people who were first writing about these issues, no one knew what the grammar was; we were making it up as we went along. So, if “gender” could be a verb, and made into a past participle (Most children are gendered by others when they’re born”) and so into an adjective: transgendered.

That’s all. It was a grammatical choice. It was neutral. That it’s now seen as implying more than that – the same way colored came to – is how this community has chosen to interpret it. As I said before, most of us who did use it don’t anymore because of the way its interpretation changed. “Transgendering” in McKenna & Kessler struck me as odd, too, when I first read them, but there is no doubt their work is trans affirming and trans inclusive.

So, if you would, don’t automatically judge the author of a work that uses this term. It has fallen out of fashion but it’s still in an awful lot of literature by people who were (1) trans themselves, and (2) trans positive. When people use it now it’s often because they’ve seen it elsewhere; it takes time for bad usages to work their way out of the lexicon, just as it takes a long time for some words to work their way in.

Postscript by Jennifer Finney Boylan:

I agreed to write a few words on this topic for my old friend Helen Boyd, whom I would also like to say, has been doing work to support the loved ones of trans people longer than anyone else I know about. Our books— her “My Husband Betty,” and my “She’s Not There” were published within a few months of each other in 2003, and since then as authors we have kind of been like a pair of babies born in the same hospital. It has been an honor to me to share a bookshelf with her for these many years.

Neither of us, I think, could have predicted how much progress would have been made on behalf of trans people (and their loved ones) when we first started writing our books. It has been amazing and heartening, and I am sure that, while downplaying our own individual roles in this movement, we would both still agree that one of the galvanizing forces in this progress has been the courage of individuals who stepped forward and told their stories, at a time when there was no public language for talking about trans issues.

I used “transgendered” back in the day because because—as Helen notes, “gender” is a verb, unlike “gay” for instance. (A bicycle, for instance, is gendered; but a bicycle cannot be “gayed,” at least not unless you start singing it show tunes.) Plus, it’s the word my own therapist used; I did not know when I began that I could challenge the discourse. I was very polite back then.

I did begin to hear about trans peoples restlessness with the term within a few years after my own book (which I abbreviate as SNoT) was published. I pushed back for a while against the criticism (being a professor of English), but finally came to accept that “transgender” or “trans” really had become the acceptable parlance by the middle of the last decade. I did indeed change the words in the 10th anniversary edition of SNoT, even when many other things about that book that I wish I’d said differently remained unaltered.

In thinking about language, and the way it morphs, I sometimes think about the new landscaping that was put in at the school where I used to teach. They put the new lawn in after a period of construction, but didn’t put the paths in until the following year. The reason? The architects wanted to see where people would walk, before they made the sidewalks. And so, after a year of seeing the natural paths formed by the shoes of people using the space, the paths were put in along those lines. I think language is like this too— it can take a while to figure out where the paths go, especially when we are finding a new route across uncharted territory.

I’d also note that no one is harder on the trans community than the trans community itself. We are relentless in our desire to tell others that They Are Doing It Wrong; that being trans is not That but This; that living in our world demands constant vigilance and apology and fury. As someone involved in this work for fifteen years now, I understand the urgency of being seen (and spoken of) in the terms which we define. But I also feel that we would all benefit from a little more love, starting with the love we might show each other. There is no one right way of being trans, and there is no one right path to tread. This is true not only in our language, but in our hearts as well— the place where that language finds its source.

In the new prologue to SNoT, I also recalled the story of the author James Thurber, who was told at a party in Paris how much funnier his stories were in French than English. “Yes, I know,” said Thurber. “They do tend to lose something in the original.”


  1. J. Kiersten Leigh 9 years ago

    Jenny, VERY well written. As a minister one who finds myself often educating others, your piece here hit home. I particularly liked this ‘verse’ 🙂 “But I also feel that we would all benefit from a little more love, starting with the love we might show each other. There is no one right way of being trans, and there is no one right path to tread. This is true not only in our language, but in our hearts as well— the place where that language finds its source.” Excellent Jenny.. Hope to see you at GLAAD next year..
    Grace & Peace

  2. Carlotta Sklodowska 9 years ago

    So, would you care to comment on the prefixes “cis” and “trans,” referring to men/women who were born that way and continue to be so, as opposed to men/women who have decided they preferred to be the opposite gender, and acted on that preference?

  3. Cate Pretorius 9 years ago

    I, personally, am not aware of a negative meaning of transgendered. I suppose that this could be because I am mostly introverted, I still live with my family and I don’t spend any time with the trans community. It could also be because it may not have taken on much of a negative connotation in South Africa. Or it could be because I seek only the positive and avoid the negative. It seems to be quite important to you, though. Interesting.

  4. Loretta Falconer 9 years ago

    I think the addition of the ‘ed’ suffix needs to be taken in context. As Helen and Jenny both said, gender (and transgender) can be used as a verb and, therefore, be used in the past tense. However, when being used to refer to a person, it should be a non-verb. Whether that is a noun or a pronoun, also should be determined by the context.

    I am a transgender woman; I belong to a transgender association; I began my full transition in 2013 and I have blossomed ten fold since I realized and accepted that I was transgendered at an early age.

    When used and taken in proper context, the use of the past tense should not, in my opinion, be offensive. However, we all have our own perceptions based on our individual experiences.


  5. Vanessa Law 9 years ago

    Jenny, thanks for your insightful article on ‘transgendered’. I’ve gone back and forth myself in my writing as to which term I should use. The grammatical in me still struggles with ‘transgender person’ as opposed to ‘transgendered person’, but I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with it.

    I think it’s insightful to say that we sometimes go out of our way to correct others – perhaps our community can be a little over sensitive at times. My hope is that as acceptance grows we will see more generous interpretations become more common amongst the community.

  6. Dee Omally 9 years ago

    Excellent analysis if I may so so. We are all captives of our own birth date, and thus conditioned to a chronologically-appropriate lexicon, a lexicon which is never static, but always “living”. We fail to remember this at our own peril, because being too quick to rebuke those that have no malevolent intent (while there are plenty that do) can result in internecine squabbles that divide, not unite.

    Recognizing this is to know that some words we use today, contextually that is, will likewise be considered as inappropriate and some will have different definitions and rarely some will have different spellings. Aside from grammatical usage, there is that unwritten rule behind “living” grammar that assigns culpability to innocuous words such that they fall out of benevolent usage, but only after perennial and incessant usage in adversarial context—clearly “transgendered” now fits in this category, despite continuing to comply with grammatical rules. Thank you for reminding us to not be too quick to judge or condemn, and to consider context.

  7. gertrude 9 years ago

    “I’d also note that no one is harder on the trans community than the trans community itself. We are relentless in our desire to tell others that They Are Doing It Wrong; that being trans is not That but This; that living in our world demands constant vigilance and apology and fury.”

    I hope you and others keep this in mind with Jenner. There’s too much template thinking and prescriptive talking points such that it’s a real turn off. Does belonging to any group mean we have to think alike? I would think that the LGBT+ community is better than that. I hope so. So transgendered or transgender, progressive liberal or conservative republican, it doesn’t really matter. We know we’re different than most, but we just want to be ourselves without the thought police trying to tell us how to think, whether it’s Pat Robertson or someone within “The Community”.


  1. […] I wrote this short piece about the term “transgendered” and because Jenny Boylan and I had discussed it in the past, asked her to add her own thoughts. So my piece, then her postscript, and it’s crossposted on JFB’s blog. […]

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