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Transgender is generally used as an overarching term for a variety of individuals, behaviours, and groups involving tendencies along the gender continuum that are opposite to or in divergence from the gender role commonly, but not always, assigned for life at birth.
Transgender, therefore, is the state of one’s identity not matching one’s assigned gender, which is usually based on physical/genetic sex, or of falling into multiple categories in terms of gender and sexual identification. Transgender is inclusive of such diverse categories as transvestism, transsexualism, and any other traits and behaviours not typically associated with one’s assigned gender.
A far greater range of human sexuality and gender identities exist than have been traditionally identified in Western culture. The only way to determine how many distinct classes exist, however, is to list them in terms of those classes which are mutually exclusive, partially exclusive, or inclusive, then crunch the numbers.
There are many options for those individuals who identify themselves as Transgender to alter their image. A Transgender individual may embody characteristics associated with a particular gender, identify elsewhere on the gender continuum, or exist outside of it as “other ” or “third.” A complete genital or sex reassignment can be made through hormone therapy, and for a more dramatic change surgery is a viable option.
Fully mutually exclusive categories
- Genetic sex: (XY, XX, XYY, XXY, XO, etc.). This category is purely genetic. There exist also people with more than 3 sex chromosomes.
- Physical sex: male, female, and various types of intersex. Physical sex is determined by a combination of chromosomes, genitalia, sex hormone (oestrogen and testosterone) levels, and secondary sex characteristics (the changes that occur at puberty).
- Sexual orientation: attracted to men, attracted to women, attracted to both/all (bisexual/pansexual/omnisexual/queer), attracted to none (asexual). This category refers to the sex and/or gender of those one is physically or romantically attracted to.
- Gender expression: masculine, feminine, androgynous. This is usually more or less aligned with the way your parents dressed you as a child, but not always. A few parents, for whatever reason, dress their children in the clothing of the opposite sex, although this is far less common than it used to be. Furthermore, this category would include older children and adults who routinely engage in cross-dressing or transvestic behaviours.
- Gender identity: Man/boy, woman/girl, genderqueer, Trans, Two Spirit, Third Gender, Other, etc. This is the gender you feel yourself to be inside and is not dependent on your physical sex, the feelings/opinions of anyone else. Most people whose sex is male feel themselves to be boys or men, and most people whose sex is female feel themselves to be girls or women. Some people’s gender does not align with their physical sex that way. Of those, some are happy being a mix of both sexes physically (usually by not having genital reassignment surgery (GRS) and retaining their original genitalia). Some also desire to be neither sex, but instead would be perfectly happy with no penis or vagina – just human.
The definition for a transgender person remains in flux, but the most accepted one currently is:
People who were assigned a gender, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.
Another one is:
Non-identification with, or non-presentation as, the gender one was assigned at birth.
Transgender people may or may not have had medical gender reassignment therapy, also called sexual reassignment surgery, and may or may not have any interest in such a procedure. In other words, not all transgender people are necessarily transsexual.
When referring to the two basic directions of Transgender, the terms Transman for female-to-male (abbreviated as FTM) Transgender people and Transwoman for male-to-female (abbreviated as MTF) Transgender people may be used. In the past it had always been assumed that there were considerably more Transwomen than Transmen. However, as more research is done, it seems more likely that the actual ratio is close to 1:1. There are also, of course, people who identify as neither female-to-male nor male-to-female.
Transgender can include a number of sub-categories, which, among others, include transsexual, transvestite, consciously androgynous people, people who are genderqueer, people who live cross-gender, drag kings and drag queens. People who cross-dress are not necessarily considered transgender. Transvestic fetishists are also not necessarily included as Transgender.
Many people also identify as plainly Transgender, although they may fit the definition of any of the previously mentioned categories as well.
The extent to which intersex people (those with genitalia or other physical sexual characteristics that are not strictly either male or female) are included in the Transgender category is often debated. Not all intersex people have a problem with the gender role they were assigned at birth, nor do all intersex people have any problems with gender identity. Those who have, though, are sometimes included in Transgender.
Cisgender is the term for people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. It is, essentially, the “opposite” of transgender. Contrary to some claims, this is not a “new word” as its first recorded use is in 1904.
The terms “gender dysphoria” and “gender identity disorder” are used in the psychiatric and medical community to explain these tendencies as a psychological condition and the reaction to its social consequences. Strictly speaking, gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder are considered to be mental illnesses, as recorded in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the standard for mental healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, many mental healthcare providers know little about Transgender life, and persons seeking help from these professionals often end up educating the professional rather than receiving help. Among those therapists who profess to know about Transgender issues, many believe that transitioning from one sex to another — the standard transsexual model — is the best or only solution. This usually works well for those who are transsexual, but often far less well for those cross-gender people who do not identify as plainly male or female.
The term Transgender was coined in the 1970s by Virginia Prince in the USA, as a contrast with the term “transsexual,” to refer to someone who does not desire surgical intervention to “change sex,” and/or who considers that they fall “between” genders, not identifying strictly to one gender or the other, identifying themselves as neither fully male, nor female.
Transgenderists and non-operative transsexuals
Often in older writings (pre ~1990s), but rarely today, the term Transgender is used to refer to these “non-op transsexuals” or “non-op Transpeople” — Transpeople who live as the gender opposite to their birth gender and, though sexual reassignment surgery is possible, have chosen not to undergo it; sometimes they also choose not have other medical gender reassignment therapy. However, sometimes, for example in the Netherlands (but not in the rest of Europe), the term Transgender is still in use for this particular group instead of being used as such an umbrella term.
This group is also sometimes known as “transgenderists” or “non-op transsexuals”. Many point out that the term “non-op transsexual”, however, is inaccurate, in that it seems to be an oxymoron, as it refers to people who transition socially and physically to their desired gender role, yet retain their original genitals. Further confusing the term is that various motivations, ranging from dissatisfaction with medical options available (particularly among FTM transsexuals), to the perception that one’s genitals have little bearing upon identity.
Unfortunately, there are not yet broadly agreed-upon terms to accurately define the various groups of non-op transsexuals even within the larger Transgender community.
Transgender as “in between”
Transgender is less frequently used to specifically refer to people whose gender identity or appearance is in an “in-between” state, rather than as an umbrella term.
A newer related term is genderqueer, which refers to the mixing of qualities traditionally associated with male and female, and can also refer to the in-between sense sometimes associated with transgenderism. Most people who self-identify as genderqueer would use “transgender” solely as an umbrella term.
For a more comprehensive discussion of transsexuality, please see our article on transsexuality.
Transsexual people are people who desire to have, or have achieved, a different physical sex from that which they were assigned at birth. One typical (though oversimplified) explanation is of a “woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa; many transsexual women state that they were in fact always of the female gender, but were assigned male as a child on the basis of their genitals, and having realised that they are female, wish to change their bodies to match; Transmen, naturally, feel the opposite.
The process of physical transition for transsexuals usually includes hormone replacement therapy and may include sexual reassignment surgery (a.k.a. gender reassignment surgery). For Transwomen, electrolysis for hair removal is often required, while many Transmen have breast removal surgery as early as possible, whether accompanied by genital surgery or not.
Some spell the term transexual with one “s” in order to reduce the association of their identity with psychiatry and medicine.
Terminology and concepts, compared to Transgender
Transgender is often used as a euphemistic synonym for transsexual people by some. One set of reasoning for this is that it removes the conceptual image “sex” in “transsexual” that implies transsexualism is sexually motivated, which it is not. This usage is problematic because it can cause Transgender people who do not identify as transsexual to be confused with them. It also seems to remove the issue of social presentation (gender, in its social sense) from the question, even though gender role and presentation is an important part of the equation.
Furthermore, many transsexuals reject the term “Transgender” as an identification for themselves, either as a synonym or as an umbrella term. They advance a number of arguments for this. One argument is that the use of the umbrella term inaccurately subsumes them and causes their identity, history, and existence to be marginalized. Another is that they perceive the term to be the breaking down of gender barriers, whereas transsexual people themselves usually identify as men or as women — just not as they were assigned at birth. A third occasionally mentioned is that they did not change gender at any point — they have always had their gender (identity), and the difficulty is their sex (anatomy), which they desire to change. However, others point out that transsexual people do change their gender role at some point, and that most non-transsexual Transgender people always had their gender identity, too.
A more problematic dispute with the use of the term “transsexual” is that it refers to processes of chemical and/or anatomical modification that do not actually render an individual reproductively viable after transition processes, nor change sex chromosomes. Particularly, criticism of transsexual women by some feminists includes the contention that their transition is cosmetic rather than fundamental, and they are thus not “really” changing their sex at all (thus the use of Transgender). These critics claim that the presumption of reproductive viability is what distinguishes “women” from “men”. This argument is used to discount the rights of identification and association with other women that transsexual women might claim. However, many arguments that link whether someone is a “woman” or a “man” based on reproductive capability, or chromosomes, fall apart when considering non-transsexual people who are infertile or non-transsexual men or women who have a chromosomal configuration different from other men and women in the general population.
Probably many of these problems are associated with the history of the term “transgender” and its other definitions; see above.
To respect the identity of those transsexual people who do not identify as Transgender, the constructions Trans, Trans*, or Transgender and transsexual sometimes are used to describe all Transpeople.
Further, many people who this article would define as Transgender reject the term altogether, along with other related terms (transsexual, crossgender, etc.). This is most commonly seen with people who have changed sex but who do not define themselves as transsexual. A common statement is that a transsexual is someone who is undergoing a change from one sex to another; someone who has already done so is simply a man or a woman. This brings up issues of the extent to which someone who is not a part of a group may define it, also seen in the case of, for example, “men who have sex with men” (MSMs), who do not see themselves as homosexual but could still be defined as such.
Drag involves wearing highly exaggerated and outrageous costumes or imitating movie and music stars of the opposite sex. It is a form of performing art practised by drag queens and drag kings. Drag is often found in a gay or lesbian context. The term “drag king” can also apply to people from the female-to-male side of the Transgender spectrum who do not see themselves as exclusively male identified, therefore covering a much wider ground than a “drag queen”.
Transvestic fetishism is a term used in the medical community to refer to one who has a fetish for wearing the clothing of the opposite gender. This is considered a derogatory term by some, as it implies a hierarchy of value in which the sexual element of Transgender behaviour is of low social value. Many reject the term “transvestite” for this reason, preferring cross-dresser instead. It is often difficult to distinguish between fetishism that happens to have female clothing as an object and Transgender behaviour that includes sexual play. Transvestic fetishism should by no means to be considered equivalent to cross-dressing.
Cross-dressing is a non-Transgender behaviour in which a person of one biological sex chooses to wear some articles of clothing normally worn by members of the other sex. There is no desire to appear as, much less become, a member of the opposite sex, thus there are no Transgender issues. This is consistent with the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria, and cross-dressing has not been synonymous with “transvestism” for many years. (This last may be true among physicians, but millions of cross-dressers see the term “transvestite” as equivalent to “cross-dresser,” although many prefer the latter.)
“Transgender” is also used to describe behaviour or feelings that cannot be categorised into these older sub-categories, for example, people living in a gender role that is different from the one they were assigned at birth, but who do not wish to undergo any or all of the available medical options, or people who do not wish to identify themselves as “transsexuals”, “men” or “women”, and consider that they fall between genders, or transcend gender.
Some people who present as female, but with male genitalia may have been born intersex but may also be transsexual or Transgender, who do transition (taking oestrogens and/or other methods) to achieve some desired secondary sex characteristics, but not sexual reassignment surgery. Sometimes these individuals are referred to as ladyboy or shemale (compare there), but these terms are considered derogatory by many, including most Transgender or transsexual people not working in the sex industry.
(Trans-)gender identity is different from, though related to, sexual orientation. Sexual orientations among Transgender people vary just as much as they do among cisgender people. Although few studies have been done, Transgender groups almost always report that their members are more likely to be attracted to those with the same gender identity, compared to the population as a whole; that is, Trans women are more likely to be attracted to other women, and Trans men are more likely to be attracted to other men. Many Transgender people who are attracted to others of the same gender will identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Note that in the professional literature, “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are very often used respective to clients’ birth sex, instead of their desired sex. Transgender people may feel misunderstood by caregivers because of this practice; it is also quite confusing when a relationship that is considered gay or lesbian by both partners is labelled heterosexual, or a relationship that consists, as far as the partners are concerned, of a man and a women is labelled homosexual. The existence of Transgender people and their sexual relationships points to certain inadequacies of language.
Many Western societies today have some sort of procedure whereby an individual can change their name, sometimes also their legal gender, to reflect their gender identity; see Legal aspects of transsexualism. Medical procedures for Transgender people are also available in most Western and many non-Western countries. However, because gender roles are an important part of many cultures, those engaged in strong challenges to the prevalence of these roles, such as many Transgender people, often have to face considerable prejudice.
Transgender in non-Western cultures
This article describes primarily Western modes of transgenderism. Many other cultures have or have had similar phenomena:
- The berdache in many Native American groups is recognised as a separate gender, a woman-living-man, not as a man who wants to be a woman. The term “berdache” is a misnomer, however, as no Native American group actually used the term; different Native American nations had different names for the role, such as the Lakota winkte. The husband of such a person is not viewed as being gender-different themselves, but as a normal male. In some societies there is a corresponding gender for man-living-women (amazons).
- In Thai culture, there is the kathoey, who is very similar to the English definition of Transgender, but is sometimes broader, including effeminate gay males more so than “Transgender” does.
- South Asian cultures have hijra, usually genetic males who have been castrated and live as women, although many see themselves as a third sex.
- Chinese cultures have a wide variety of Transgender modes of existence. See transgender in China.
- In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini instituted state procedures to help pay for so-called “sex-change operations” (Genital Reconstruction Surgery, or GRS) in those who identified as Transgender. See Transsexuality in Iran.
- Mukhannathun are gender-diverse (typically male-to-female) persons of the Islamic faith who are “accepted within the boundaries of Makkah and Madinah (Islam)”.