May 4 2015 9:45am

A (Brief) Guide to Transgender Terminology in Romance

The Burnt Toast B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz

Romance as a genre wants to become more diverse. Male/male romance’s popularity and the increasing demand for non-normative historical settings have been seen as positive steps towards an inclusive romance readership, but there’s a lot more to romance than men having really good sex with each other (although we still love reading about it).

M/M romance is a part of a larger type of romance—LGBTQ romance, also known as queer romance. LGBTQ stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer/Questioning. Queer is an umbrella term for these identities as well as a number of others, including asexual, aromantic, pansexual, and intersex. Queer is a deeply political word that started as a term used negatively against the LGBTQ community and has since been reclaimed to become a more positive term (although that’s a simplification of a much larger history of cultural history with the word).

Under LGBTQ romance, one identity we don’t often see represented is that of transgender characters. Transgender characters are characters whose initially assigned genders (typically as a man or a woman) do not match their actual genders. Trans as a term originates from Latin and means “across” or “beyond.” Much like the prefix term, transgender people go “across” or “beyond” their assigned binary gender identities.

When romance readers encounter books with transgender characters, there can often be a lot of confusion, lack of understanding, or even defensiveness and fear. The specific hate, prejudice, and subconscious fear of transgender people is called transphobia. Often, transphobic commends occur because people lack the knowledge of how to refer to someone who is transgender. What pronouns do you use? What name do you use? What questions are and are not appropriate to ask? What things about them are othered by assuming they’re difference?

Questions are our best way of learning, but, in the wrong context, our questions can make people feel less-than-human. The romance community needs accessible education about transgender identities so it can be less inherently transphobic. Listed below are pieces of terminology to use and to avoid when reviewing, writing, and discussing romance with transgender characters.

Terms to Know

Gender Identity – Gender identity is a personal, innate sense of your gender. This could be as a man, a woman, or something outside of the gender binary (which is the assumption that only two genders exist – man and woman). Some people identify as agender (lacking a gender), gender queer (multiple genders), or transgender (across/beyond genders). Cisgender refers to when someone’s assigned-at-birth gender and sex align with their gender and sex identities.

Sexual Orientation – The physical attraction felt towards other people. Various identities exist for this, including heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, bisexual, demisexual, and asexual. Sexual orientation is not the same as gender identity (so someone transgender can be heterosexual, etc.).

Sex – A label based upon the physical makeup of an individual, most often associated with visible genital anatomy as described at birth. This can include identities like male, female, and intersex. While sex is often labeled at birth, sex is not gender and sex is not a basis for gender identity. This means that someone’s personal pronouns, gender identities, and status as an individual (transgender or not) is not based around that person’s physical makeup.

Transition – The process in which someone changes their labeled birth gender and/or sex. This can include legal name changes, pronoun changes, changes of identification on documentation, hormone therapy, potential surgery, coming out as transgender, and even changing the form of dress. Everyone’s transition is different and does not always involve the same steps. This is because not every transgender person has to or wants to change their birth sex, and also because many of these processes require financial capital that many transgender people cannot afford.

Trade Me by Courtney Milan

Preferred Pronouns – Preferred pronouns are the words that someone identifies with and wants to be called by on a daily basis. Some people prefer he/him/his, some prefer she/her/hers, some prefer they/their/theirs, and some prefer other pronouns, too. A transgender person often establishes preferred pronouns because we do not feel like the words used to describe us previously accurately depicted our gender identity. When a person or book character uses specific pronouns, it’s important to respect that by using those desired pronouns as well. If you aren’t sure about which pronouns to use, avoid using pronouns or use gender-neutral pronouns in describing them. When you purposefully or accidentally misuse someone’s pronouns, you misidentify them and show that you do not believe them worthy of proper identification.


Terms to Avoid

Transgenders/Transgendered – Transgender is an adjective because it refers to an aspect of someone’s identity. Calling someone “a transgender”, or “transgenders”, or “transgendered” makes the word into a noun or a verb, which is grammatically incorrect and also othering.

Sex change – Transgender people do not need to have any sort of surgery, including SRS (Sexual Reassignment Surgery) in order to be transgender. A media myth has over-emphasized the need for surgery to be transgender; it also implies that someone cannot be transgender unless they have or are planning to have surgery. This is not the case, and therefore phrases like “sex change” should be avoided because they support these limited understandings.

Biological male or female/Born a man or woman – Transgender people are born people, just as cisgender people are born people. Someone’s gender is not something that happens at birth, but rather is an identity personally manifested over the course of time. To emphasize assigned gender and sex identities is to imply that someone who is transgender is going against nature, which is not the case.

Tranny/transvestite/shemale/he-she/etc. – These words have been used to defame, dehumanize, and insult transgender people for years. While some transgender people reclaim the terms for themselves, they aren’t words that are used with respect from allies of transgender people. These words are insulting to many people in the community and, like other dehumanizing words for other groups, should be avoided.

As someone who identifies as gender queer and queer, I want the romance community to feel inclusive of LGBTQ people. Transgender characters are appearing more and more in romance, as protagonists in books like The Burnt Toaste B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz and as secondary characters/future protagonists in books like Trade Me by Courtney Milan.

While these characters show up more and more, I want the community to be able to talk about them with respect and understanding, and I want the community to realize they can be written about with equal respect and understanding. Romance is something everyone deserves if they want it. For more information about transgender terminology, GLAAD has a great resource page on words to know and avoid, along with other resources about transgender and other LGBTQ people.


Learn more about the books mentioned in this post: 

The Burnt Toast B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz  
Trade Me by Courtney Milan  




John is a student, reviewer, and editor with a taste for social justice.  He's queer/LGBTQ and has always loved a good romance novel.  A current student at Ithaca College, he is majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications and trying to pick up a creative writing minor on the side. If you observe him in the wild, you may see him reading—or find him watching reruns of The Golden Girls while sipping his first/second/third cup of coffee for the day.  You can find his reviews on his blog, Dreaming in Books, and listen to his random musings on Twitter @DreamingReviews.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Helena J
2. Helena J
Thank you for a really useful and helpful post, John. I'm saving the url to be able to refer to it again.
Helena J
3. Heidi Belleau
Thanks for this post, John!

Here are some other books featuring trans characters (many of which are by trans authors themselves):

Breaking Free by Cat Grant
Dark Soul by Aleksandr Voinov
A Matter of Disagreement by EE Ottoman
Selume Proferre by EE Ottoman
A Boy Called Cin by Cecil Wilde
Defying Convention by Cecil Wilde
The Left Hand of Calvus by LA Witt
Static by LA Witt

There's also Topside Press (, which is a publisher specifically dedicated to publishing trans fiction, although I'm not sure if any of their current offerings are romance. Also, at least two presses that I know of specifically allow you to search for trans characters:

Less Than Three Press:

Riptide Publishing:

Does anybody here know of any other publishers who do this?
Helena J
5. JenL
Wonderful post, and I'm happy to see this getting attention. Thank you!
Helena J
6. Dena Hankins
Thanks for posting this! It's not just the straight readers who may not be welcoming of trans characters. I just debuted Heart of the Liliko'i, a romance between a cisgender lesbian and a transmasculine genderqueer bi guy, at Provincetown's Women's Week. Many of the women were welcoming, but not all. It's good to see this sort of post opening up the educational side so our fiction doesn't have to be too heavy-handed.
Post a comment