Dr Anastacia Tomson and Ms. Megan Reeves


Language used in research investigations and reports, has the power to be hurtful towards individuals who are part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA) and other sexual or gender minorities. Researchers are bound by the South African Bill of Rights to ensure that they uphold the dignity of their participants. Further, the Health Professions Council of South Africa stipulates that researchers should avoid harming participants through discrimination, as per the Ethical Rules of Conduct for Practitioners Registered Under the Health Professions Act, 1974 (Department of Health, 1974). Therefore, researchers have an obligation to respect their participants by referring to them in a way that corresponds to their authentic selves, and to not use outdated and hurtful terminology that does not capture their participants’ true experiences or current feelings. Ultimately, researchers have a duty to lead by way of example to the general public in reducing stigma and stereotypes that perpetuate harmful beliefs about persons from the LGBTQIA and other sexual or gender minorities.

The use of outdated terms and the use of incorrect pronouns (misgendering participants) in research fails to give voice to participants’ beliefs and experiences. Furthermore, it erases aspects of that individual’s identity, or suggests that the researcher’s judgment takes precedence over the participant’s sense of self. Researchers should be mindful of respecting the ways that participants’ self-identify and of using only terms that their participants choose to use to refer to themselves, or those terms that the participant expresses should be used in reference to them. As researchers, we need to be informed of current accepted terminology so that we minimise the perpetuation of misinformation and prejudice. As a point of departure, here is a list with some examples of appropriate pronouns and descriptors of gender identities that may be used in research, as well as explanations for their appropriate use in context.

Problematic terminology

Preferred terminology


“Transgendered” “Transgender person, man, woman, etc.” “Transgender” is an adjective, not a verb. Being transgender is not something that happens to a person. Similarly, you would say a “black woman”, and not a “blacked woman”.
“Born fe/male”, “male-to-female”, “female-to-male” “Assigned fe/male at birth” Many trans people identify as never having been another gender. This terminology (AMAB or AFAB) reflects that an incorrect gender was assigned to that individual at birth. This also makes room for non-binary identities (people who do not identify fully as male or female).
“Transsexual” “Transgender” Unless a person expressly identifies as transsexual, this term should be avoided, as it’s antiquated and highly medicalised.
“Transgendering” “Transitioning” Again, “transgender” is not a verb. “Transition” is the word used to refer to the process that some (but not all) transgender people go through in altering their social expression and/or physical characteristics.
“Normal” “Cisgender” Being transgender is just as normal as not being transgender. The word “cisgender” is correctly used to refer to people who are not trans.
“Sex change” “Gender confirming surgery” “Sex change” suggests that transition is a singular process, and one that necessitates surgery when, in fact, many trans people do not have the resources, or in some cases even the desire, to undergo surgery. Similarly, terms like “pre- or post-operative” should not be used.
“Transgenders”, “a transgender” “A transgender person/man/woman” Transgender is not a noun, and should not be used as such.

In addition to the above, please try to be mindful of the following principles:

  • A transgender person should always be referred to as the gender with which they identify. This applies irrespective of the clothes they are wearing, whether they have makeup on, or your impression of their physical appearance.
  • When referring to a trans person’s history, they should still be referred to as the gender with which they identify. Suggesting that a transgender man “used to be a woman”, for example, is a harmful and damaging idea that perpetuates transphobic practices. This applies also to the pronouns you use in referring to that person.
  • Remember that each trans person has different and unique experiences – there is no set pattern to which everyone conforms, just as there is no set pattern amongst cis individuals. Each set of different experiences is valid and must be respected, especially within the context of transition. The researcher should not impose their own views or judgments on those experiences.

Some helpful sources of further information concerning the use of appropriate terminology include GLAAD (see http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender), Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) (see http://www.transstudent.org/definitions), and the National Centre for Transgender Equality (see http://www.transequality.org/issues/resources/transgender-terminology).

In conclusion, please be cognisant of the terminology that is used in reports, articles, presentations, interviews, and questionnaires as these serve to inform others and should maintain the dignity of research participants. Researchers have a privileged position as academics, social advocates, educators, advertisers and heath care practitioners, and in so far as possible this influence should be used for good.

Reference List:

Department of Health (1974). Health Professions Act 1974 (Act no. 56 of 1974). Retrieved from http://www.hpcsa.co.za

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