The Difference Between Transgender and Transsexual Women

An Explanation of Gender Terms

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Transgender and transsexual are commonly confused terms that both refer to gender identity. Transgender is a broader, more inclusive category that includes all individuals who do not identify with the gender that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth. Transsexual is a more narrow category that includes individuals who desire to physically transition to the gender with which they identify. All transsexual persons are transgender. However, not all transgender persons are transsexual. Transgender women are sometimes referred to as trans women. Some may also be known as male-to-female transsexuals, MTFs, transsexual women, transgirls, or tgirls. (The term "transsexual" originated as a medical term and is sometimes considered pejorative. It is always best to ask a person which term is preferred.)

Transgender vs. Transsexual 

Although they both refer to gender identity, transgender and transsexual are terms with distinct meanings. That they are often used interchangeably has led to some confusion. In most cases, a transgender woman is a woman who was designated male at birth but who identifies as a woman. She may take steps to transition, but these steps do not necessarily involve surgery or physical alterations. She may dress as a woman, refer to herself as a woman, or use a feminine name. (Not all transgender persons, however, identify with the man/woman, masculine/feminine binary. Some identify as gender non-conforming, genderqueer, androgynous, or "third gender." For this reason, it is important never to assume that a transgender person identifies with a particular gender.)

A transsexual woman is one who desires to physically transition to the gender with which she identifies. Transitioning often includes taking hormones to suppress the physical characteristics of her assigned gender. Many transsexual women in the U.S. take hormone supplements, which can promote breast growth, increase vocal pitch, and contribute in other ways to a more traditionally feminine appearance. A transsexual might even undergo gender reassignment surgery, where the anatomical features of her assigned gender are physically altered or removed.

Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as a "sex change operation." A woman can elect to have cosmetic surgeries done to alter her physical appearance to match conventional norms associated with the gender with which she identifies, but anyone can have these procedures done, regardless of their gender identity. These surgeries are not limited to transsexual people.

Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation

Gender identity is often confused with sexual orientation. The latter, however, refers only to a person's "enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people" and is not related to gender identity. A transgender woman, for example, may be attracted to women, men, or both, and this preference has no bearing on her gender identity.

Transgender vs. Transvestite

Transgender women are often incorrectly identified as "transvestites." A transvestite, however, is an individual who wears clothing primarily associated with the gender with whom he or she does not identify. A man may prefer to dress as a woman, but this does not make him transgender if he does not identify as a woman.