In this article:
- Though similar, there are slight differences in meaning between transexual vs. transgender.
- Transgender is often used as an umbrella term for anyone whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Meanwhile, transsexual is typically used to refer specifically to trans people who have undergone some form of gender-affirmation treatment, like hormone therapy or surgery.
- Sometimes, the terms are used interchangeably and some people might prefer one over the other.
- For those who aren’t trans themselves, navigating the language can be tough. While this guide can give you a starting place, the best to do is just ask the trans people in your life what they prefer and respect those preferences.
Transsexual vs. transgender — what does it all really mean? Admittedly, it’s not that easy keeping track of what it means to be transgender when you aren’t trans yourself, let alone remember all the nuances of how to interact with trans individuals in a way that respects their personhood.
While “treat people with basic decency” tend to cover the basics, if there’s a trans person in your life who you’re interested in connecting with, it helps to understand where they’re coming from to show that you’re genuine about your intentions.
What Do Transgender and Transsexual Mean?
Generally speaking, transgender is a term that refers to people who do not identify with their birth sex — the sex assigned to them at birth. Transgender people express themselves in ways that differ from their birth sex either by expressing themselves as what we conventionally recognize as the opposite gender to their birth sex or a third, more fluid identity.
If that’s a little too vague, an easy, though not precise, way to understand it is this: some people don’t feel they were born in the “right” body.
You can also interpret it as people feeling differently from what others expect of them in their heart of hearts. This is a little closer to what trans people point to when they explain their own distinction between their gender identity, expression, and sex.
Gender identity refers to the gender people identify as. This can mean that they identify as male, female, non-binary, etc. Their gender expression is meant to communicate this identity.
People assigned female at birth but identifying as male will express themselves as male which can mean adopting male pronouns (he/him), wearing traditionally masculine clothing, and adopting masculine behaviors in order to fill the social role of “male.”
It’s the same vice versa for people assigned female at birth who later identify and express themselves as women.
Meanwhile, transsexual is a term used by trans individuals who have transitioned from their assigned sex to their desired one, typically through physical change. Transsexual people may have taken medications that suppress physical traits associated with their assigned sex at birth or have undergone medical procedures that alter their bodies to resemble features associated with the gender they identify with.
That said, this isn’t always absolute. Many younger trans people no longer favor the term “transsexual” because they believe it implies that trans-ness is about sex and not gender.
Older trans people may favor “transsexual” more as this older term comes from a time when trans-hood needed to be anchored in language and rhetoric that presented it as just as “physically real” as conventional conceptions of sex.
Are “Transgender” and “Transsexual” the Same Thing?
To some trans individuals, the question of whether transsexual vs. transgender is the right term to refer to them isn’t really a question of which one is more accurate but of which is more agreeable to them.
Again, transsexual used to be a fairly popular term used to refer to trans individuals, but as times change, so do the implications of language and ideological stances. Now that transsexual has a more outdated implication, transgender is the prevalent word.
Is “Transsexual” Offensive?
The transsexual vs. transgender debate isn’t cut and dry. Neither terms are inherently offensive and they won’t necessarily be interpreted as such by all trans individuals. However, some may prefer one more than the other.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re just trying to learn more about others and you don’t want to hurt the person you’re talking to, it helps to ask them personally whether they would like to be called transsexual vs. transgender.
While you’re at it, you could probably ask for their pronouns and how exactly they identify and/or experience themselves. This way, you can correctly acknowledge their identity and show your support with gender-affirming language.
Terms to Avoid When Talking to Trans People
Now you’re probably thinking: “If words are so subjective, why are there words that people find offensive?” This is because certain words and phrases have been used against members of minority groups, making their use colored with the historical discrimination that usually comes with those words. It’s not the words themselves, it’s what they imply.
When minority groups reclaim words as their own, the attempt is done to “clean it up” and transform it from something that was once hurtful into a word they can use to identify each other with.
This is why some trans people may use words such as “tranny” or “trannie” to refer to each other but will not accept the use of these words toward them by people who are not members of the community because it has often been used by cisgender people against them.
Just think of it this way: You don’t live in the metaphorical trans house so not everything is yours to use.
Another distinction to remember is that transgender and/or transsexual people are not transvestites or people with a transvestic disorder. Transvestites or drag queens are people who do not necessarily identify as the gender they dress as, unlike trans people who actually do.
Neither are trans people suffering from transvestic disorder as psychological disorders are marked by the 4 Ds of distress, dysfunction, deviance, and danger, things that are usually faced by transgender people rather than caused by them.
Other Things to Keep In Mind When Befriending Trans People
There are really only two things you need to remember when approaching trans people and that’s to keep an open mind and an open heart.
Understanding the lives and experiences of people whose lives and experiences are wildly different from our own can be difficult. For some groups of people, the idea that other people do not share their subjective realities can be so enraging that they reject the lived experiences of others as “less real” than theirs.
After all, we only usually know what we have prior experience with, but the world and other people are a lot larger than personal experience and personal perspective.
Whether someone calls themselves transsexual vs. transgender, just approach them with basic decency and you should be fine.