Transgender, Transsexual, Transvestite or…

I have an entire section of my Transgender Awareness Training Workshop devoted to this topic because it is so confusing and I am going to devote a few pages to the topic here because there are so many labels to choose from. Look at the table below. My guess is that you have probably only heard of about half of them, and there are more labels being added every day, especially within some of the young gender queer or gender neutral communities where people are increasingly rejecting the idea of a society based on only two genders.

Female Impersonator

Gender Queer
Gender Variant
Non Binary
Gender Fluid

Drag Queen
Drag King
Faux Queen
She Male

Two Spirit (Berdache)

Many of the labels above refer to gender variant cultures in different parts of the world.  Each has its own unique and distinctive features. Some of these cultures have existed for thousands of years. There was even reference in the Bible to eunuchs who most people think of as castrated males - but the Hijra cultures in Asia who consider themselves neither male nor female were mostly born male and have had their entire genitals removed.  Were the eunuchs of Bible what we now consider Hijra? I will be looking at these various gender variant cultures in more detail in future articles.

In this article I want to focus on the primary western terms Trans, Transgender, Transsexual, Transvestite and Crossdresser and try to explain what these terms mean and how they are different.

The problem with labels is that they go right to the heart of identity and that is a subject that is very emotive.

Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld

The term Transvestite was first used in 1910 by Magnus Hirshfeld the first gay rights campaigner and founder of the first gender identity clinic in Berlin. The term comes from Latin trans-, "across, over" and vestitus, "dressed" and Hirshfeld used it to describe men and women who who habitually and voluntarily wore clothes of the opposite sex. However as his work progressed it became clear to him that the term did not apply to all, especially those who sought surgical intervention to change their bodies. In 1923 he used the term Transsexualismus though it did not become a term in common usage.  The term Transsexual came into common usage as a result of the work of Harry Benjamin in the USA in the early 1950's to describe people who wanted to change their bodies to match their acquired gender. 

Harry Benjamin

Harry Benjamin

Whilst these two terms have quite clear medical definitions, there is huge disagreement over their usage as I found out when, as part of my research for my Masters Degree in Gender Research, I posted a question on RosesForum, the leading UK online forum for trans people, on 21st  December 2005. The discussion was closed a month later on 21st January, partly because of some of the passionate responses to the discussion which by this time had become one of the most active discussions of all time.

I simply asked "is there a difference between Transvestite and Transsexual? 

In 30 days over 500 posts were made, many of which were 2000 word essays.  In all over 250,000 words were written on the subject with no clear consensus.

What I surmised from the discussion was that most people who identified as a transvestite saw themselves as occasional cross dressers and had no intention of permanently living in a new gender or undergoing any surgical or hormonal changes to their bodies. On the other hand most people who identified as a transsexual were undergoing, planning to undergo or had undergone some degree of permanent gender reassignment with either hormones and or surgery.

However what totally surprised me was the high proportion of those identifying as transvestites who said that the reason they were not planning to undergo gender reassignment was due to some form of social pressure. In 2007 Stephen Whittle undertook research on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and revealed that 42% of transvestites were "too afraid to transition." My research suggested that the percentage might even be higher.

Shortly after the Equality Act 2010 was passed the Government Equalities Office repeatedly stated that transvestites are not protected under the Act - and strictly speaking that is true.  However this does not really help people who identify as transvestites and is really difficult for everyone else.

Transsexual, Transgender and Transvestite candidates for Philippines Beauty Pageant - can you tell which is which?

Transsexual, Transgender and Transvestite candidates for
Philippines Beauty Pageant - can you tell which is which?

How would anyone know if someone was transsexual or transvestite.  Take a look at this picture of Philippines Beauty Pageant candidates - Which ones would have protection under the law in the UK?  All we can see are people who present themselves in the gender different to their birth gender - actually if you did not know you would just see a group of Filipino women.  In the UK if someone has a gender recognition certificate then even if you ask them about their gender, they are not obliged to tell you anything  because they are legally entitled to keep their previous gender completely secret.

Labeling the protected characteristic within the Equality Act 2010 "Gender Reassignment" was clearly a mistake. Gender reassignment is not a characteristic, it is a process. The characteristic is a person's "Gender Identity", but the government backed down on this because of pressure and the belief that this would provide protection to people who cross dressed for fetishistic reasons. In March 2013 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Society (DSM-5) was revised and a new condition, "Transvestic Fetishism", was introduced. The official label for what we knew as transsexualism is now "Gender Dysphoria". 

Someone who is diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria may elect to undergo gender reassignment, or they may chose to continue to live in their birth gender, but cross dress some of the time.  Importantly the Equality Act also changed the definition of Gender Reassignment.  The original definition was any person who is planning to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a medically supervised  process of gender reassignment".  The medically supervision is no longer required so anyone who can evidence that they are "planning to undergo, are undergoing of have undergone a personal process of gender reassignment" - whether they complete that process of not - is automatically protected by the act.

So all anyone who is gender variant needs to do is to speak to a GP or therapist about the possibility of changing gender and they would be protected as would anyone who cross-dresses in public and discloses a desire to change. And this is as it should be, because we know from research that most people born gender variant would transition were it not for the social and family pressures on them.

VirginiaPrinceThe term Transgender became popular in the 60's as a result of a decision transgender activist Virginia Prince. She had identified as a transvestite for years and had set up a national organisation Tri Ess in the USA for "heterosexual cross dressers. Back then Trans people were often treated as gay and arrested for suspicion of breaching homosexual offenses. As a result most transvestites were married and cross dressed in secret, which is exactly what I did. We had a similar organisation in the UK called the Beaumont Society which still exists today.  

When Virginia reach retirement she decided to live permanently as a woman and argued that as she was changing her gender , not her sex she was not transsexual so coined the term Transgender. Since then that term has increasingly become the universal umbrella term.  Here in the UK to avoid the emotional battles over terms, Press for Change, a parliamentary lobby group for the transgender community argued strongly for a more simple term of Trans which has been largely accepted and now anyone transitioning from male to female tends to identify themselves as a Trans Woman and anyone transitioning from female to male tends to identify themselves as a Trans Man.

Personally, I have a growing dislike of all labels - particularly as most are medical labels and say too much about a personal medical history.  What I do with my body is a personal matter and not a topic for public discussion. Legally in the UK I have to have to identify as either male or female and with that comes a set of unwritten social rules about how gender should be performed.

There is a growing demand now for a "third gender" option which is support and perhaps then many more people would be free to express themselves in any way they wish without breaking the gender rules and running the risk of discrimination, harassment and hate crime.  And maybe then more people would feel that they do not have to undergo surgical or hormonal treatment in order to fit in with other people's expectations of them. I am not in any way opposed to people undergoing gender reassignment, just the huge social pressure on trans people to have to do so in order to be accepted. 


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