Facebook has added 50 gender terms recognising the diversity of possible gender identities and gender presentations, yet many do not understand the two broadest terms of transgender and transsexual. Before looking at the differences between the two, it is important to be clear about the difference between sex and gender.
Gender is a core sense of being male and female, based on societal or cultural definitions of being masculine or feminine. Sex is assigned at birth and refers to the individual’s biological status, that is, the differences in external and internal sex organs, hormones and chromosomes.
An umbrella term, transgender, is used for people who often say they feel they have been born in the wrong body, such as a man with male genitalia, who feels he is a woman. Gender is an internal sense of being male or female, or other, which is centred in the mind, rather than the body. Identifying as transgender means that the person has a sense of self which is inconsistent or not culturally associated with their birth sex in the place where they were born. Whilst someone is assigned as male or female when they are born, they can identify as the other, or as neither (agender), both (bigender or genderfluid), or other (genderqueer, pangender), all of which come under the transgender umbrella.
It is worth bearing in mind that gender is not a binary masculine:feminine concept, but more complex and wide-ranging than two single possibilities. Gender is also influenced by culture, class, and race because behaviour, activities and attributes seen as appropriate in one society or group may be viewed as inappropriate in another. Also, transgender people may be straight, bisexual, lesbian, gay, or asexual.
Someone who identifies as transgender may be a man who is attracted to women but also identifies as a cross-dresser. People who consider themselves as blending or alternating the binary concepts of masculinity and femininity, through being gender nonconforming, multigendered, androgynous, the third gender and two-spirit people make up the one per cent of the adult popular who identify as transgender.
Whilst transgender occurs in the mind, transsexual is when a person wants to assume the physical characteristics and gender role of the opposite sex through the use of hormones, other medications and possibly gender reassignment surgery. This is to either suppress or enhance characteristics of the opposite sex such as facial hair, or more developed breasts to become recognisably male or female. However, it is not possible to acquire the reproductive abilities of the sex to which they transition.
Some transsexuals, do not refer to themselves as transsexual once they have had reassignment surgery, simply calling themselves men or women.
In 2019, the most commonly accepted terminology for trans people is transgender. You may hear people refer to themselves or each other as “tranny” or “trannie”, but this is a way of trying to reclaim the word, in the same way, words considered racist have been reclaimed in some communities. Calling a trans person a “tranny” or “trannie” is generally considered extremely offensive.
Transgender is an adjective, not a noun, meaning someone is “a transgender person”, rather than “a transgender”.
Transsexual is a term that has begun to fall out of favour among most trans people. Many trans people reject the word, some because it incorporates the word “sex” in the middle of it which might suggest that being trans is all about sexuality, rather than gender identity.
People who are intersex are born with reproductive anatomy that does not appear to match the usual definitions of male or female. Most do not identify as part of the trans community. Even though intersex people can often face similar issues and discrimination against transgender people, there are unique issues that only intersex people face.
Transvestite is a word rarely used, with cross-dresser deemed to be more acceptable. This is because “transvestism” has historically been seen as a medical disorder. A transvestite is someone who dresses and acts in the style of the opposite gender to the one they were given when they were born.