There’s all sorts of information out there about surgery for trans people, and not all of it is all that helpful. I did a lot of research a while back so that I’d know what I was getting into and be prepared for my appointments. It’s interesting looking into it again and knowing more about what’s actually true and what might be a bit outdated.

To each their own. Here’s my version of how to approach the language surrounding trans people and surgery:

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the Standards of Care

“The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH)… is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, interdisciplinary professional and educational organization devoted to transgender health. Our professional, supporting, and student members engage in clinical and academic research to develop evidence-based medicine and strive to promote a high quality of care for transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals internationally.”

This is the mission statement from their website. As part of this, they regularly update and publish the Standards of Care.

“The World Professional Association for Transgender Health promotes the highest standards of health care for individuals through the articulation of Standards of Care (SOC) for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People. The SOC are based on the best available science and expert professional consensus.

The overall goal of the SOC is to provide clinical guidance for health professionals to assist transgender, and gender nonconforming people with safe and effective pathways to achieving lasting personal comfort with their gendered selves, in order to maximize their overall health, psychological well-being, and self-fulfillment.”

The SOC is a great resource, but it’s a bit much for casual research (120 pages long). You can find the most recent version of it here. One of the more helpful things I’ve found in it is the glossary. Language and h o w we talk about things can be just as important as the actual information. Here’s a few terms from the SOC:

Female-to-Male (FtM): Adjective to describe individuals assigned female at birth who are changing or who have changed their body and/or gender role from birth-assigned female to a more masculine body or role

Gender dysphoria: Distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth

Gender identity: A person’s intrinsic sense of being male (a boy or a man), female (a girl or woman), or an alternative gender

Sex: Sex is assigned at birth as male or female, usually based on the appearance of the external genitalia. When the external genitalia are ambiguous, other components of sex (internal genitalia, chromosomal and hormonal sex) are considered in order to assign sex

Sex reassignment surgery (gender affirmation surgery): Surgery to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics to affirm a person’s gender identity. Sex reassignment surgery can be an important part of medically necessary treatment to alleviate gender dysphoria.

Transgender: Adjective to describe a diverse group of individuals who cross or transcend culturally defined categories of gender. The gender identity of transgender people differs to varying degrees from the sex they were assigned at birth

This one is a little flowery for me. Basically, a transgender person is someone who does not wholly identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Another thing to note, transgender is an adjective NOT a noun.

Transition: Period of time when individuals change from the gender role associated with their sex assigned at birth to a different gender role. For many people, this involves learning how to live socially in “the other” gender role; for others this means finding a gender role and expression that is most comfortable for them. Transition may or may not include feminization or masculinization of the body through hormones or other medical procedures. The nature and duration of transition is variable and individualized.

Another important term not covered in the SOC is cisgender. Basically, the opposite of transgender. A cisgender person does identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. You’re more likely to see them abbreviated as cis and trans.

Moving on to actual surgery related language…

“The Surgery” or “The Trans Surgery”

Yes, I understand what you’re getting at when you say this. No, it’s definitely not the right way to say it.

I’ve read all sorts of accounts of trans people being asked something along the lines of “So have you had the surgery yet?” I’ve seen videos like “Top Ten things you shouldn’t say to trans people.” I’ve actually had it happen to me once. Yep. The surgery. The singular surgery obligatory to all human beings who call themselves transgender. Sure do.

It seems like people are starting to be a bit more conscious of what’s socially acceptable and what’s not, so I won’t get into it here. There are plenty of resources to explain why calling it “The Surgery” isn’t cool. There are plenty of resources to explain why asking about it (especially in public or if you just met the person) isn’t always a very good idea.

If you want to talk about it with your friendly neighborhood trans person, make sure you know them well enough first. Know what kinds of things they are and aren’t comfortable discussing. Or start with asking that. In general, following their lead on how to talk about things is the best. Nobody knows their experience better than them. Nobody knows what language they’re most comfortable using better than them.

Confession time, I’ve called it trans surgery before. I was having a conversation and my mind blanked and that was the first thing that popped into my mind. We make mistakes sometimes too.

~T

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