Question Eighteen: What kinds of meanings are attached to ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?

April 19, 2013 § 18 Comments

I haven’t gone to bed yet so, by insomnia time, this still counts as today – time for another question. Panel bios here.



Question Eighteen

I’d like to hear some different opinions on the meanings of the terms “transgender” and “transsexual”. With an awareness of them being cultural labels as well as linguistic ones, I still find it difficult to pin them down. I *thought* gender was in the head, and sex was in the body, and “trans” meant changing that. However, if one was born with a sex (body) that didn’t match gender (head) how is the gender changing at all? Does transgender rather mean * perceived* gender is changing/has changed? Are the terms in fact synonymous and I am looking too etymologically at them rather than semantically? If a person wears the label transgender or transsexual, is there something specific that they are trying to tell me about themselves that I am missing, because I have difficulty distinguishing the meanings of the words? I have discussed this with my partner (who wears the label transsexual herself) and we both just get more and more confused the more we discuss it. Some more opinions would be very helpful. Also, I have recently heard the term “of trans history” a few times, and wondered if this has yet another meaning. Is it all just a matter of preference?



Maeve: The STA guidebook has a good discussion of these terms:




Roz: Pretty much – you seem to be getting it.




Natacha: The answer to this depends on who you talk to. I know a number of transwomen who have not had surgery (and do not intend to) but still describe themselves as transsexual. However there are those who would say that they are not real transsexual women. These people tend to consider that only those who are fully post-operative, who live in stealth, who pass as the other gender and who are heterosexual in their new gender, are actually allowed to call themselves transsexual people. ON the other hand I know some people who are post-operative but who describe themselves as “transgender” or “genderqueer” rather than transsexual people. This may be one of the reasons some people have started to use the word “trans”.




CN: ‘more and more confused the more we discuss it’ – I think that just about covers it! I haven’t found the same meaning twice whenever I’ve asked/looked for answers – I think that there seems to be a broad consensus on some terms, but with many (sometimes very loud) dissenting voices. My understanding of ‘transgender’ as a broad umbrella term is based on the fact that we’re not only assigned a sex at birth – we’re assigned a gender role based on that sex. So someone, like myself, assigned ‘female’ at birth is also assigned ‘girl’ and, later, ‘woman’. Even if I were to understand myself as always having had been a boy and, later, a man, and change my body to be what’s typically considered male, I would still have had to transgress the cultural/social gender role I was assigned, not just navigate the changes to my body. Even someone with a childhood as free from gender stereotyping at home as mine luckily was would still have to deal with school systems, legal paperwork, the reactions of strangers etc. So I do think that transgender can be a useful word – though, as previously stated, I’m not a huge fan of using adjectives to categorise ‘identity’, as such.

Growing up, I always thought that ‘transsexual’ only applied to people who’d transitioned from male to female, or vice versa. I think it actually has a broader application than that, which I’ve seen more and more, which is to signpost bodily dysphoria – I would certainly use both the words ‘transsexual’ and ‘genderqueer’ to describe myself. Though there are still many people who would only apply it to those who are either men or women, but not neither/both/a combination. 

Coming back to the idea of trans as an adjective vs. trans as an identity – as far as I know, ‘of trans history’ is used when someone wants to make it clear that transitioning is something that happened in their lives, but that they don’t actively identify ‘as trans’. A debate on what it actually means to ‘identify as trans’ or not is a can of worms too enormous to open here – but maybe for a future post. I would say that ‘trans’ is the safest option, and to ask which terms each individual finds the most comfortable/correct. 


§ 18 Responses to Question Eighteen: What kinds of meanings are attached to ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?

  • misswonderly says:

    For me ‘transgender’ is an adjective which refers to behaviour/presentation which transgresses prevailing cultural gender norms. ‘Transsexual’ is an adjective relevant to medical therapies/surgery and to a neurological need which certain individuals experience in relation to their body sex. Neither describe any kind of core identity because I do not believe it is necessary or useful to do that … that way lies more and more confusion and to what end? I recently came across something Roland Barthes said about a myth, once established, inventing itself perpetually. Gender is a myth. It can be a really fun and enjoyable myth but it is a myth and should never be permitted to cause pain to any individual 🙂

    • cnlester says:

      Any reference to Barthes wins instant brownie points. I’m still quite confused by the prevailing talk of ‘identity’ rather than the self? Into the book it goes.

  • misswonderly says:

    🙂 …. Perhaps I am incurious. Both identity and self seem concepts similar to god to me. We invent them to answer existential questions but those questions don’t really bother me. Why bother explaining something unless/until there is empirical evidence which makes an explanation likely.

  • cnlester says:

    Filthy empiricist!

  • knightofwolf says:

    Transgender is male in mind and female in body if you are an ftm. And female in mind and male in body if you are mtf. That is is all that transgender is. Then there is trans sexual which is where one chooses to get the sex change operation to make them self feel better. For there are multiple degrees of gender in this world and not everyone fits in societies one mind you must be just a female or just a male. All you can be is you and fight the hate of the world. Just be happy with you at the end of the day.

  • Jonathan says:

    Rather than gender being in the head and sex in the body, with “trans” indicating a conflict between gender and sex, I much prefer Julia Serano’s idea of sex being in the head (i.e. our sex is what we each know it to be; “subconscious sex”) with “trans” (in this context) indicating a conflict between sex and morphology (the apparent sex of the body). This leaves (the idea of) a person’s gender free (though often intertwined) to be whatever it is, irrespective of sex – for instance, femaleness (sex; whether cis or trans) and masculinity (gender) in one person is not necessarily a conflict (or “trans”) at all, except culturally (within patriarchy); and gender expression (how we choose to express our gender) is something separate again.

  • This is really not complicated a all. To be transgender means ones internal sense of self is different or not in line with their physical body. Transsexual people share this condition but in addition feel a strong need to have their physical self be in congruence with how they feel internally. By the way, SRS is only one of the ways in which we achieve this. Many have multiple surgeries in addition to SRS. Transsexuals have a strong need to eliminate all traces of their male birth body. Transexuals feel that in this way they can best and most properly experience living a female life. One is not better thaj the other but they are very different.

    By the way whoever made some comment about needing to be heterosexual is referring to a very small group of transsexuals that do not reflect the opinions of the majority. Most intelligent people understand that sex and sexuality, as for cis people, are separate issues.

    As for what people say – people say all kinds of things that make no sense and for some reason that is beyond my understanding some transgender people insist that transsexuals are elitist and even refer to themselves as transsexual when they clearly are not.

  • Rosaliy Lynne says:

    I have to agree with Amber Anne here. Having been born male and now living as female I identify as female. However, if I have to use a label, I prefer transgender since it means, generally, that I am different from my birth assignment. It is also a convenient umbrella label for all people who fall in this category.

    To my mind, a transsexual is one who undergoes SRS to ‘fix the birth defect.’ I too, know people who say they are transsexual and not undergoing srs and I have no problem with that for them. I respect how they see themselves.

    Perhaps much of the problem is the fact that sex and gender are too often used interchangeably. Gender is the body you are born, OR adjusted by SRS, into. Sex is something that people do, although the better term here is intercourse.

    • I have to emphasize a totally incorrect statment that has been made by many posters here, Transsexuals do have a strong, even overhwelming sense that they are in the wrong body. The changes we make to our bodies include hormone therapy, SRS/GRS and potentially MANY other surgeries For a number of us the correction of our genitals is only one of many things we undertake. Herein lies the distinction between being transgender and transsexual, Transsexuals cannot change their gender, it is fixed and immutable from birth. We are driven to create congruence between our minds and bodies to an extent that no cis sexual person can comprehend. In short, the difference between being transgender and transsexual is the same as the difference between apples and oranges. Personally, I do find those who have no desire to change their bodies referring to themselves as transsexual to be highly offensive not to mention inaccurate. In fact, the view I have just stated is in line with the current thinking of the medical estabishment.

  • cnlester says:

    Thank you everyone for commenting. Just a brief reminder that disagreement is fine, but I would urge everyone to be respectful and understanding.

    For the record, many transgender people, genderqueer people, androgynous people – like myself – have had surgery/hormones etc. – or desire them – and that there are many reasons why people can’t have surgery or hormones, no matter how much they need them.

    • amber says:

      Im not sure which comments you found disrespectful, but I took the time to reread all of them and found nothing of offense and this lady is much more sensitive than the average.

      I also found no suggestion that even hinted at the thought that those who are transgender or gender queer (I have no idea what this means let alone what it is) do not have or do not wish to have surgeries or take hormones. I think it should be obvious that the motivation is different though from those who are truly transsexual. Further, its a little condescending to suggest that mature adults dont understand that not everyone can afford surgery even should they wish so. As for hormones, one would have to be very poor indeed to not manage those.

      The word transseuxal has a specific meaning and it is a specific condition. While we are all individuals and have our own feelings the symptoms are very much held in common. Body dysphoria is only one of those and the degree varies from person to person although it is always fairly severe. In real life I know many hundreds of transsexual people, I work with young trans women and interact with them every day. Not one of them is queer about their gender, in fact they would all, universally find it offensive if someone were to suggest such a thing. The two conditions may theoretically exist together, but in truth they simply do not. You can be one or the other but not both. They are oxymoronic and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. That does not preclude the possibility that someone who is genderqueer may not wish to modify their body but that one thing does not make them transsexual.

      Sorry if you find this offensive but my experience in these matters is deep and spans more than a decade or two.

      • cnlester says:

        “The two conditions may theoretically exist together, but in truth they simply do not. You can be one or the other but not both. They are oxymoronic and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. ” – Simply that I, and others answering these questions, all work in support and activism with and for trans people of all kinds – with years of experience ranging from 5 to 40 years, with groups across the UK, US – as well as academic research in the field. We know many people who are both, or whose experiences of being transsexual, or transgender, or both, contradict what you’ve written above.

        The point of this blog series is to provide a broad range of responses to common questions and, as such, people are going to disagree. But I’m not comfortable with policing other people’s understandings of themselves.

        • amber says:

          Policing is a little strong. If this is just a forum to parrot your own feelings ten just say so. I should also point out that point comes from my last comment so it is not subject to what you said. Being transsexual requires one to be clear about there gender – there internal sense of self. It is a prerequsit. Sim0ly having a desire to change your body does not make you or anyone else transsexual. Thats all. It is a misuse of a well defined word. I fail to see how that is offensive. I have idea how that offends. or why. Be genderqueer and do all the surgeries you desire, I dont care and I support your right to do so.

          You and others may support trans people of all kinds. I do not, nor do I make any such claim. I work in support of transsexuals only and on that one subject I have much experience to draw upon. Bear in mind, and I repeat myself, being transsexual is a medical condition, with prescribed treatment. If you present different symptoms then you are not transsexual with no judgement as to the validity of how you feel. If it helps, I have to say in fairness that I feell nothing in common with you other than that we are both human. In insisting that we are the same, you diminish myself and thousands like me, perhaps you should consider that.

          The phrasew trans history is one that many of us who are fully transitioned prefer to use. It is based on the idea that being transseuxal is a curable condition and so at some point we consider ourselves either male or female and not trans of any kind. Therefor our illness is a history, not a label we wear for our entire lives. Transition is a process, not a destination for people like myself. Once again, feel as you please, but I can say without the hope of completion life would be bleak indeed for people like myself.

          • misswonderly says:

            Amber, you write: “Being transsexual is a medical condition”. I would put it that experiencing relief and being aware that one will experience relief as a result of transsexual therapy is a well-documented natural human variation. Estrogen, testosterone, electrolysis, mastectomy, FFS, genital surgery etc. may all be part of modifying an individual’s body sex either in a male or female direction. It would therefore seem literal to describe them as transsexual therapy. I think it is true to say that, whether for social/cultural or neurological reasons, most people who have sought out such therapies have historically felt more comfortable visibly crossing a perceived binary from masculine to feminine or vice versa both in physical and behavioral terms. This certainly applies to me and, I imagine, to you also going by what you have said so far. But there have always been exceptions and my impression is that, in a society more at ease with people presenting their gender differently, these exceptions are becoming less exceptional.

            Years ago I met one individual who underwent M to F genital surgery yet was always insulted at the suggestion that he should wear feminine clothing and continued to present as clearly male. He was in a relationship with somebody who had been born female but presented as male although never having undergone any sort of therapy or surgery. Both expressed themselves very comfortable as a result of the modifications they had made. If you will, their existing ‘conditions’ had been cured. Just one example.

            I doubt I will persuade you that claiming the term ‘transsexual’ as applying exclusively to your combination of medical/surgical/social binary transition cannot be considered watertight but I believe the evidence suggests this is the case. I would never deny anybody the right to describe their own condition. It may be important to you to distinguish your own condition but I would not be happy myself to deny anybody else’s description of their own condition nor do I see any reason to feel diminished by them doing so.

            For me the insoluble consequence of viewing either ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ as discrete identities is that we can align our identities with those of others but at some point they will always diverge. I find it far more positive to view these terms as underpinning political aims … Transgender = autonomy to present our gender socially as we need. Transsexual = autonomy over our own bodies and access to any medical therapies we need.

            Any discussion beyond this is certainly interesting but my own conclusion is that it most often proves puzzling to those who do not share a trans experience and divisive among those who do.

      • Tom Robinson says:

        ‘As for hormones, one would have to be very poor indeed to not manage those.’

        I currently am on private testosterone at the cost of £40/month; given that my monthly budget post-rent and post-testosterone but before bills is then £80/month, hormones represent a third of my total ‘disposable’ (not sure how ‘disposable’ it is given I only use it for necessities) income. In the US, costs can be a lot worse; I know that Testim gel can be up to $400 a month.

        I identify as transsexual (if I even have to put a name to my own being trans) but I would argue that hormones are financially more difficult for many to access than you’ve assumed – I can only afford my own hormones because I make significant sacrifices with food costs etc. (To say nothing of the cost of monitoring blood tests, obtaining a diagnosis and prescription in the first place etc.)

  • […] “What kinds of meaning are attached to ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’… […]

  • Lilith says:

    I don’t think of “trans” as changing. I think of it more as “crossing” or “crossed.” So either their perceived gender or sex is crossed over from their physical or mental societal convention.

    When I first started reading online postings regarding the community, 12-15 years ago, I was introduced to the term “transgender” as an umbrella term. From a lexical point of view I can see that. “Transsexual” is a bit more focused.

    Until there’s ultimately an authority on the subject, which I doubt will ever happen, the debate will go on.

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