Misunderstandings: Transsexual vs transgender

Last updated 05:00 11/01/2013
GET IT RIGHT: The term 'transgender' is an adjective that Racheal McGonigal wishes more people understood.

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The other day, I read this article: 'Transsexual vs Transgender, What's the difference?', in the Montreal Gazette and it got me thinking.

In the last six months, I have been told a few times that the term transsexual is an antiquated word and no longer used, and that 'transgender' is the new transsexual. Sorry, but as someone who identifies as a transsexual, I am not antiquated and nor are the many others who prefer to identify as transsexual and not transgender.

I recently visited a hospital and asked 15 or more medical professionals what the definitions of transsexual and transgender were. Not one got it right. In the bank, I had great fun asking the same with several tellers. No one got it right. The point is that people are confused and don’t know the answer. Can you tell the definitions of both?

The truth is that there is nowhere that the word transgender should be used alone. It is an adjective in most recognised dictionaries. It helps to describe a noun.

So you will have transgender people, transgender umbrella, the transgender community. Alas, the media are one of the worst offenders and have taken to the easy road of being lazy and using it as a noun because they can't be bothered to understand or explain correctly.

Transgender is recognised around the world as a term for a range of gender variant people. Under this term you will have: Gender queer, androgynous, cross dressers, transvestites, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, whakawahine, and yes, some would say, transsexual. There are many more as well, but all have a commonality of being gender variant from the norms of society, of being just male and female. Most of these transgender people will believe in gender as being a spectrum or range but not all believe this.

Transsexual is a person who has changed, or is in the process of changing, their physical sex to conform to their gender identity. They may be pre op or post op; male to female or female to male. Transsexuals as a rule, tend to believe in gender as binary, male or female hence they are going from one to the other. This is where the difference between sex and gender identity is important. Sex is how one was deemed at birth based solely on physical appearance. Gender identity is how one chooses to identify as.

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More and more transsexuals are opting out of being included in the transgender barrel as they feel their identity as transsexuals is being lost and they are just being negated and absorbed into group that is too diverse for society to bother to understand. They will still support those who wish to identify as a transgender person.

One piece of the article I liked and thought important was this:

"I think, many who do fully transition distance themselves from transgender organisations and individuals. They don’t identify as transgender. They don't identify as transsexual. They identify as women (vice versa for female to male people), and they resent the lack of respect shown to them by people — especially the media — who mislabel them."

There are a great many transsexuals out there but they distance themselves from the groups and discussions. They are who they are, happy and often don’t wish to draw attention to themselves. They have a life and aren’t concerned about being drawn into all the bitching. Some are stealth and some just happy doing their own thing.

But they accept who they are, what they are, where they came from and don't wish to stand out. That's fair but it isn’t fair to negate them. If the media wish to write a story about them, then the media should take the effort to find out how they identify and not just dump them in a transgender barrel. To find out the true facts also and report those.

Late last year, media reported that a court was told transgender is a recognised medical condition. It may well be in some obscure publications but the major world organisations used by our medical fraternity, such as WPATH, DSM, ICD and our own Ministry of Health don’t recognise it but recognise gender dysphoria or trans-sexualism. Not all transgender people have these conditions. The media’s reporting just added to the confusion. Being a transgender person doesn’t mean you have a medical condition or illness as implied.

So, transgender is an umbrella term for a range of gender variant people and transsexual is a person born as one sex, who identifies as the opposite gender. Surely that isn’t too hard to understand?

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