What Does “Trans” Mean? Why Does the LGBT Acronym Keep Changing? Why Do I Need to Know this Anyway?

By Vinka Valdivia

Academia, government, and businesses recognize the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion. As professionals, we need to do so as well and should familiarize ourselves with the correct terminology to reflect that.

Do I really know what the acronym means?

If someone were to ask you to define the word “trans,” an abbreviation for “transgender” in the context of the LGBTQIA+ community, you could be forgiven for thinking it means the process of transitioning from one gender (e.g., female) to the other (e.g., male). At one time, the term meant precisely that but has evolved to mean something almost entirely different.

That’s the point of this article. With all the recent changes in laws—primarily the landmark LGBT case Obergefell vs. Hodges1 in June 2015, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples—and accompanying rights for the LGBTQIA+ community, people have become familiar with most of the letters in the acronym, such as “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” and “queer.” But the “T,” which stands for “trans,” is something much less familiar to some and also a term that has evolved to incorporate more than its original meaning.

Even the acronym LGBT has expanded to LGBTQ, then LGBTQ+, and now LGBTQIA+ to denote an expansion of identities and sexual attraction. (Please don’t conflate the two: the former refers to who you are while the latter refers to whom you’re attracted.) And one might ask: Is it really necessary to keep adding more and more letters? Is there a point where that goes too far?

The argument could be that there is. Certainly “LGBTQIA+” is longer and more cumbersome than “LGBTQ.” But, really, by only two more letters. (The “+” sign is an easy ending to incorporate.) Rather than focusing on the length of the acronym, we should focus instead on the people the additional letters represent. As they say, “If you’re not named, you don’t exist.” If you’re not identified, your concerns fall by the wayside. This is what motivated the LGBTQIA+ community to fight to be included in the recent U.S. Census.2 If certain ailments, social isolation, discrimination, or even murders are affecting this community but it’s not documented, then necessary services or protection of rights cannot be secured either.

I’ll confess that not too long ago in a presentation, I was guilty of recommending the use of “LGBTQ+” without the “I” or the “A,” or the other identities and orientations that the “+” could encompass. My argument was that most audiences would include “LGBT” people, but that one should use the “I” and “A” extensions if there were people in the audience who were part of those groups. In retrospect, I realize how naive that was. One would not inquire whether there are “intersex” or “asexual” people in the audience, just as one would not delve into some other topic that might be considered private. If one did, even with the intention of being more inclusive, one would be singling people out for their identity or orientation, which could be embarrassing. What’s clear is that automatically leaving out the letters necessarily excludes people. Even if those people prefer to be stealth (flying under the radar, so to speak), people still appreciate that others know they exist for the reasons stated above.

The “+” is an attempt to be more inclusive, incorporating groups we have since identified, such as ACE/ARO (asexual and aromantic), non-binary, pansexual, polyamorous, and quite a few more, as well as groups we may not even be aware of yet. (Some question whether polyamory or other sex-positive categories should be part of the LGBTQIA+ acronym, but if we are including the rainbow of identities and orientations, I would argue that it is.)

Why So Many Categories?

People ask why all these categories are necessary, and whether these groups are simply a result of influence (read “negative influence”) from people in the LGBTQIA+ community. History would indicate that many of these categories have existed since time immemorial—think of David Bowie, Prince, or even Gentleman Jack (a TV series based on the life of Anne Lister, who passed as a man in the 1800s). What has, in fact, changed is people’s awareness of themselves or others as well as their comfort level in accepting these identities and orientations.

Let’s revisit the word “trans.” It once referred to a person wanting their exterior to reflect how they felt on the inside. This could involve doing nothing, wearing certain clothes and/or accessories or makeup, binding, or even surgery. Everyone is free to choose how much or how little they wish to do. The original definition, then, of a trans person implied a transition from one gender to another. Today, there’s a recognition that gender dysphoria—the discomfort or distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity—can vary from person to person from practically nothing to a debilitating state. Accordingly, the definition of the word “trans” is much more nuanced as well: someone who’s gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Young people in ever greater numbers are starting to recognize that gender is a much more fluid concept than the binary system most of us were taught. Many young people who now identify as trans simply don’t fit into the past binary norm. In the past, someone assigned male at birth (AMAB) who identified as female might transition fully from one to the other. Such a person would be defined as trans and binary. Today, many young people identify as non-binary (i.e., either not conforming to either male or female, a combination of male and female, or simply not within that binary structure at all).

In today’s more-expansive world, a person can be AFAB (assigned female at birth) and non-binary. They still fit into the trans category because they don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. But in this case, they may also not identify as male, thus trans and non-binary (NB). As you can see, there are myriad permutations of this identity and you would need to ask to know how someone identifies. It’s not obvious by someone’s appearance.

Since many trans and NB people also choose to use neopronouns to reflect their identity, it’s much more common to introduce oneself with one’s name and pronouns and then ask others what their names and pronouns are. The intention is not to put the onus on trans or NB people to have to single themselves out.

Similarly, people are much more open about their sexuality than in the past. Therefore, more people identify as polyamorous, ACE/ARO, or even graysexual. There are numerous identities in this realm as well.

Why Do I Need to Know This?

People in the LGBTQIA+ community are part of our everyday lives, whether we recognize them or not. It may be a trans person housed in the wrong facility in prison, a non-binary person requesting adequate hormone replacement treatment (HRT) or surgical intervention, or maybe any member of the LGBTQIA+ community trying to escape an abusive relationship. All the challenges other people encounter—medical, legal, and professional challenges—will be encountered by those in the LGBTQIA+ community as well, and they should be dealt with in the same respectful manner. Academia, government, and businesses recognize the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As professionals, we need to do so as well and should familiarize ourselves with the correct terminology to reflect that.

How Do I Learn More?

If all this seems overwhelming, fear not. As with any other specialized terminology, we can embark on a personal research project to inform ourselves on the most up-to-date, appropriate terminology to be prepared when we encounter it in the workplace. Just as we wouldn’t do an assignment on climate change without researching how to say solar panels or wind farms in our language pairs, neither should we neglect to know the correct LGBTQIA+ terminology for when, not if, we encounter it in our professional lives.

To keep up with the latest terminology, many resources are available, including the ones listed in the sidebar below (which also includes a small glossary). An excellent resource is the Human Rights Campaign website, which provides glossaries as well as people’s stories and the current legal framework affecting the LGBTQIA+ community.

This article skims the surface of some misunderstood topics regarding the LGBTQIA+ community today. But there is so much more to delve into in terms of identities and orientations, acknowledging them, accepting them, and understanding laws affecting LGBTQIA+ people here and abroad. I try to address these topics at length and cover more terminology in the presentations I continue to give at our national T&I professional conferences, including ATA and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). If you attend, you’ll come away with a long list of resources, a glossary, and much more. I hope to see you at one of these events sometime soon!

Small Glossary of LGBTQIA+ Terms

ACE: asexual
AFAB/AMAB: assigned female/male at birth
ARO: aromantic
Cisgender: A term used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
Gender Dysphoria: Discomfort or distress when the sex assigned at birth differs from your gender identity.
Gender Identity: The gender you identify with, male, female, or non-binary.
Graysexual: Having limited sexual attraction—can vary with respect to time or intensity.
Neopronouns: Pronouns that are being incorporated into the language to refer to newly recognized identities, much like the honorific “Ms.” was adapted in the1970s for a new reality.
Non-binary: Someone who doesn’t identify solely as male or female.
Polyamorous: Interested in intimate—physical or emotional—relationships with multiple people.
Stealth: Flying under the radar in terms of being identified.

More Terminology Resources 

Human Rights Campaign website
Bongiovanni, Archie, and Tristan Jimerson. A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, (Limerence Press, 2018).
Valido, Ray. “Words Matter, Identity Matters: Translating the Vocabulary of Diversity,” The ATA Chronicle (May/June 2022).
The ABC’s of LGBT+: Gender Identity Book for Teens, Teen & Young Adult LGBT Issues (Mango Publishing, 2016).
Pronouns.org website

  1. Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015 (National Constitution Center).
  2. Census Bureau Survey Explores Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021).

Vinka Valdivia is a California state and federally certified Spanish interpreter with almost 30 years of experience working in the courts and for private clients, including the U.S. Department of State. Her presentation on LGBT terminology and the law at a national conference for professional translators and interpreters in 2017 has since spawned many offshoots on topics such as inclusive language and why neopronouns are becoming more common in translations. clear.comm@att.net

2 Responses to "What Does “Trans” Mean? Why Does the LGBT Acronym Keep Changing? Why Do I Need to Know this Anyway?"

  1. Georganne Weller says:

    I found your article useful, interesting and provoking, all of which I welcome, so thanks a lot!

  2. Ashley says:

    Thank you for a really interesting and informative article!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ATA Chronicle © 2023 All rights reserved.