Transgender and Transsexual, What’s the Difference?

Social networks and the media recently reported the news that the Oscar nominated Juno film star, who has also appeared on other big screen hits such as Inception and X-Men, has declared themselves as transgender. Causing confusion in some, upset in others (because of the use of this person’s previous name), but especially fear when trying to report the news and show respect. 

In this article, we will provide a general view on the differences between transgender and transsexual and how to address them respectfully. 

 What does being transgender mean? 

The term transgender may mean different things to different people. This may be confusing at first, but let’s take it slow. 

For example, a person who was assigned a female gender upon birth and has a male sense of themselves may classify as transgender. Similarly, a person who was assigned a male gender at birth and has a female sense of themselves may also classify as transgender. 

Those who are transgender may identify as female, male, a combination of both, something completely different or a non-binary transgender person. 

“Non-binary” is a general term that describes people who have a gender that cannot be exclusively classified as male or female. 

Some transgender people change their appearance, body, name or legal gender marker in order to transmit and assert their internal gender experience. Others don’t feel the need to make these changes in order to express and validate this aspect regarding who they are. 

What does it mean to be transsexual? 

Historically and medically, the term transsexual was used to indicate a difference between gender identity (internal gender experience) and sex assigned at birth (male, female or intersex).

More specifically, the term is often used (though not always) to communicate that the gender experience implies medical changes, such as hormones or surgery, which help alter anatomy and appearance in order to align more closely to gender identity. 

Despite their similar definitions, many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. Transsexual is not a generic term. It must never be used to refer to the transgender community. 

Besides, some transgender people find that the word transsexual is offensive and stigmatizing. This is due to its history and roots in the fields of the medical and psychological professions, which used this term to incorrectly label all transgender people as mentally ill or sexual deviants. 

I feel I’ve read the same thing twice, what’s the difference? 

The main difference between the words transgender and transsexual has to do with the way they are used and how they are experienced. 

Current best practices in the health of transgender people still use the word transsexual, albeit they recognize that it’s no longer the most inclusive and affirmative term. 

Transgender or trans are now the widely-accepted terms that western societies use to describe those who have a different gender than the one assigned at birth. 

Why is the term transsexual so controversial? 

The term transsexual may be controversial because it was historically used to categorize transgender people as mentally ill. It often served as a justification for discrimination, harassment and abuse. This term is very debated both inside and outside of the transgender community. 

If it has this history, why do some people refer to themselves this way? 

Many of who use the word transsexual to describe their gender, see a medical diagnosis, a medical transition with hormones and a gender confirmation surgery as important parts of their experience. They use the term to help communicate this point of view. 

Are there other controversial terms that we need to be aware of?

“Gender identity disorder”, “transvestite” and “transsexual” are other terms historically used to label transgender people as mentally ill, sexual deviants or inferior. 

These terms are also commonly related to cases of discrimination, harassment, abuse and misunderstandings. It’s best to avoid using them both in casual or professional conversations. 

How do I know what term to use to refer to someone? 

The best way to determine what term to use to address someone is to ask them. If you’re not sure, asking the person is always the best option. 

The word someone uses to describe their gender may be a private and delicate matter. Many people do not share this information publicly or with strangers. If you need to refer to someone but you don’t know their gender or pronoun, it’s best to avoid gender language and use the person’s name. 

Where can I learn more about this?

You can visit the resources’ section for more information. In case of requiring personalized attention, counseling, get tested for HIV or condoms for free, visit our clinic directory and wellness center to find the one closest to you.