The Difference Between Transgender and Transsexual Women

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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 sex that corresponds with the gender with which they identify. (Note that the word "gender" is usually used to refer to social and cultural roles, while "sex" refers to physical attributes.)

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 (also commonly referred to as "assigned") male at birth but who identifies as a woman. Some transgender women may use the term AMAB (assigned male at birth) in describing their identity. 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. (Note that some trans men may use the term AFAB, or assigned female at birth.)

Not all transgender persons, however, identify with the man/woman, masculine/feminine binary. Some identify as gender nonconforming, nonbinary, genderqueer, androgynous, or "third gender." For this reason, it is important never to assume that a transgender person identifies with a particular gender nor to assume what pronouns a person uses.

Similarly, not all transgender persons feel comfortable with language such as "identifies as..." For some, it is viewed as a microaggression or an act of "othering" — a cis woman, for instance, would likely never be referred to as "identifying as" a woman, but simply as "being" one. It is important to keep in mind the wide spectrum of experiences within the community and to follow the guidance of individuals.


A transsexual person is one who desires to physically transition to the sex that corresponds with 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, change vocal pitch, and contribute in other ways to a more traditionally feminine appearance. A transsexual person might even undergo gender confirmation surgery (also referred to as "gender affirming surgery"), where the anatomical features of the gender and sex assigned at birth are physically altered or removed.

Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as a "sex change operation." A person can elect to have cosmetic surgeries done to alter their physical appearance to match conventional norms associated with the gender with which they identify, 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, both, or neither and this orientation has no bearing on her gender identity. She may identify as gay or lesbian, straight, bisexual, asexual, or may not name her orientation at all.

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 they do not identify. For instance, a man may prefer to dress as a woman, but this does not make him transgender if he does not identify as a woman.

In previous decades and generations, "transvestite" was sometimes used as a self-identifier for trans people in general. Although language has since evolved, it is not unusual to come across media from earlier times that uses different terminology.

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Head, Tom. "The Difference Between Transgender and Transsexual Women." ThoughtCo, Sep. 13, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, September 13). The Difference Between Transgender and Transsexual Women. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "The Difference Between Transgender and Transsexual Women." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).