I Transitioned 20 Years Ago. Here’s What Marketers Need to Know About Gender Identity

Trans is now a key part of the cultural vocabulary

Recently I was filling out an online consumer survey. Under "gender," in addition to "male" and "female," there was a third option: "other." My first thought was, "Wow, that's progress." My second thought was, "These guys are paying attention."

Over the past year and especially the last four months (not to mention the last 36 hours), the word "transgender" has been everywhere. From Orange Is the New Black's Laverne Cox gracing the cover of Time, to Amazon's series "Transparent" winning two Golden Globes to news stories about the high rate of trans teen suicides and violence against trans women of color to the official unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner, you'd have to be living in a cave not to have seen or heard it used.

The question is, are you truly paying attention?

If not, and you're even somewhat involved in the marketing industry, I suggest it would be a good idea. The conversation surrounding gender identity won't be dying down anytime soon and it's important to understand the basic distinctions so that when the time comes, you can take part in the dialogue without appearing ham-handed.

Orange Is the New Black's Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Jeffrey Tambor's character in Transparent have helped spark a national conversation around gender identity.  

While I'm by no means an expert on all things transgender, I did transition 20 years ago. And as someone who's been in the ad biz for just as long, I thought I could be of some help here.

The first thing you need to understand is that gender identity is not defined by what's between your legs. It's defined by what's inside your brain. It has absolutely nothing to do with sexual preference. Transgender people can be gay, straight or bi just like people who are "cisgender" (not transgender). One way to understand it is that sexual preference is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as.

It's also important to realize that the word "transgender" doesn't just apply to people who transition from male to female or female to male. It's actually an umbrella term that describes anyone with a gender identity that does not match what they were labeled with at birth.

This includes people who identify as "genderqueer," which means they don't feel they are entirely male or female but rather somewhere on a gender spectrum. There are also people who identify as "gender fluid," a mix of both genders, and may feel more male on some days and more female on others. Then there are people who identify as "intersex," which means they were born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit typical definitions of male or female.

If you think all that's confusing, check out Facebook, where users can choose from more than 50 ways to describe their gender identity.

This is where pronouns get tricky. With someone transitioning from one gender to another, you use the pronoun of the gender to which they are affirming. So if someone is transitioning from male to female, you would use the pronoun "she." (I.e. now that Bruce Jenner has officially come out as Caitlyn, you should refer to her as "she" and call her only by her new name.) There is no hard and fast rule for the other transgender categories. Someone who identifies as genderqueer or gender fluid may prefer no pronoun at all—just their name in place of one.

Some trans people actually prefer the pronoun "ze," which is gender neutral. In many cases the plural pronouns "they" and "them" are used in place of singular forms and are considered grammatically acceptable.

So why is understanding all this important, and how does it relate to you?

Well, while you may not be marketing to the trans audience directly, there is a groundswell of support for this community, and society's acceptance is only increasing. Just look at all the support for Caitlyn Jenner–over 1 million Twitter followers in four hours, a record formerly held by President Barack Obama.

To relate this trend to the advertising industry, it goes without saying that the old "Surprise! She's really a guy!" punch line will no longer fly in ads anymore. The millennial audience in particular is much more accepting of gender differences and extremely sensitive to how jokes like that hurt and misrepresent their peers. Millennials, among others, are also not shy about taking brands or other "haters" to task on social media.

Jamie Foxx's jab at Jenner on the iHeartRadio Music Awards did not go over well, and Sarah Silverman's joke about gender confirmation surgery in her video for the National Women's Law Center caused quite a controversy.

Even if you're overtly "pro-trans" there are many ways you could slip up if you're not aware of the correct terminology and use of pronouns. Both NPR and The New York Times have been called out for this, and they are huge advocates of the transgender community that have done much to promote education and understanding on the transgender topic.

Just yesterday the Associated Press violated its own transgender reporting guidelines when it published a voyeuristic report on the Jenner Vanity Fair preview with incorrect use of pronouns, name reference and salacious commentary.

Bottom line: If your brand is supportive and forward thinking, it will score big points, but only if you get it right.

Take a look at Barneys New York. Always on the cutting edge, it was the first to embrace the transgender population when last spring it featured members of the trans community as fashion models in an eight-page spread shot by Bruce Weber and accompanied with sensitively written copy that showed they "get it."

Planet Fitness advertises their gyms as "judgment-free zones," and true to their brand, allow trans members to use the locker room of the gender to which they identify. A female member who did not like having to share a locker room with a "man" (i.e. trans woman) outed the trans member to other members and stood outside the locker room alerting women entering that the gym "let a man in there." Planet Fitness told this complaining member she violated the no-judgment policy and revoked her membership.

And just recently Clean & Clear made pubescent trans teen Jazz Jennings a spokesperson for its brand.

So for now, whether you chime in or stay silent, as marketers it's important to listen to the conversation. In the big interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner revealed she couldn't wait to be able to wear nail polish until it just chips off. O.P.I., are you listening?

Chris Edwards is a copywriter, creative director, blogger, public speaker and author of the forthcoming memoir Balls, about his gender transition and lengthy career in advertising. Follow him on Twitter at @cedwardswrites.