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transgender, Transvestite, or Transsexual?

One question that I often see is "What is difference between transgender, transvestite, and transsexual?" I see it enough that I thought it merited a few comments.

Before I continue, a want to say a quick word about words. Linguists will often state that definitions for words often arise from their usage. For example, "gay" has developed a new meaning over the years and eventually became part of the language and the new definition added to various dictionaries. With this in mind, please be aware that not everyone agrees with the exact definitions for specific labels and that differing definitions may be equally valid. Still, I am sure that these comparisons will get someone upset...

One simplistic explanation of what "transgender" means is anyone who is "gender variant" including transsexuals, transvestites, crossdressers, drag queens, intersexed individuals, etc. This usage is supported by a number of sources, including Dr. Richard Elkins, the noted gender theorist who was asked by the folks at the Oxford English dictionary, to revise the term "transgender." Dr. Elkins states that there are at least four reasonable definitions for the term and those other definitions are in line with what is present in other answers. The definitions of these different "gender variants" are not quite so easy to state in a single sentence or two, so please forgive me if these explanations are a bit simplistic.

To understand the difference, one should first consider the difference between gender and sex. Gender is not the same as sex - they are independent. One's "sex" is defined by having a penis or a vagina whereas one's "gender identity" is a sense of self. In most people, their gender is in line with their sex. With gender variant individuals, their body may be on one sex while the feel (to some degree or another) like the gender normally associated with their opposite sex.

Transsexual individuals are people who were born of one sex but feel strongly that their gender does not agree with their bodies. This "gender dysphoria" is so compelling that they undergo medical procedures and/or drug therapies to change their bodies physically to be more like the opposite sex. This usually includes hormone replacement therapy, breast augmentation (or reduction for female-to-male transsexuals), and genital surgeries. The important concept here is an emotional disconnect between the gender they identify with and their physical body.

The word "transvestite" is increasingly rejected because of its association with fetishism, as in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) - the same reference that, years ago, concluded that homosexuality was a mental illness. The term "crossdresser" does not imply any motive, rather is a term that describes one's actions and makes not claim on their psychological condition. Still, in common usage, the term "transvestite" is synonymous with "crossdresser."

So what does the term "crossdresser" mean? Simplistically speaking, a crossdresser is a person whose gender identification is with one sex but who wears the clothing of the opposite sex because the clothing is the clothing of the opposite sex. This is opposed to, say a woman, who wears a men's sweat suit because it is more comfortable or more convenient and not because it is a "man's garment." For a crossdresser, dressing it is not about comfort or convenience, but about the gender role that these garments are associated with. With many crossdressers, it is not just the clothes but also the mannerisms and the being in the role of the opposite sex. This is why some crossdressers do more than simply wear a bra and panties, but take great efforts to portray the opposite sex convincingly and participate socially as the opposite sex, even if only temporarily.

There are many reasons motivating a crossdresser to crossdress. Some of these reasons may include a sexual or fetishistic component, but the again, some of these reasons may have little to do with fetishism. Some crossdressers may have had some initial sexual response when dressing but no longer do so. Like a transsexual, a crossdresser may have some degree of gender dysphoria, which compels them to dress periodically but this gender dysphoria is not so strong or consistent as to compel them live full time as the opposite sex or have surgeries to alter their bodies. These motivations make for a very interesting discussion, but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

In short, a transsexual wears clothes of the opposite sex because those clothes are associated with the gender they identify with whereas a crossdresser wears clothes of the opposite sex because those clothes are associated with the opposite gender.