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Transgender vs. Transsexual: Understanding the Difference


  • The terms transgender and transsexual have separate meanings.
  • Transgender can be used as an umbrella term, while transsexual cannot.
  • The term transsexual can be seen as outdated or offensive, so some people prefer not to use this terminology.
  • You can show respect for others by using the terminology they use to describe themselves.
  • You can learn more about gender, sexuality, and sexual health at eDrugstore.com. 

The terms transgender and transsexual have separate definitions. The term transgender can be used as an umbrella term or a gender identity, while the term transsexual is more specific. Using appropriate terminology is key to showing compassion and respect for people of all genders. 

What Does Transgender Mean?

Transgender is sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe someone whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. Transgender can also be used as a gender identity that indicates a person’s gender is the opposite of their assigned sex at birth. Some people may also use “trans” instead of transgender.

Someone who was assigned male sex at birth but has a female sense of self may describe themselves as transgender. The reverse is also true. Someone who does not feel male or female, or who feels a sense of both genders, may also describe themselves as transgender. 

Someone may use more than one term to describe their gender. For example, an individual may use one of the following terms: 

  • Transgender man/male
  • Transgender woman/female
  • Transgender non-binary person
  • Non-binary person

Language is continually evolving. Transgender people have different preferences for the language they use to describe themselves.

Other terms sometimes used by transgender people include:

  • MtF. This stands for male-to-female. It describes someone who was assigned a male sex at birth and whose gender identity is woman, female, or girl. This language is often seen as outdated.
  • FtM. This stands for female-to-male. It describes someone who was assigned female sex at birth and whose gender identity is man, male, or boy. This language is often seen as outdated.
  • AFAB. Assigned female at birth.
  • AMAB. Assigned male at birth.

What Does Transsexual Mean?

Transsexual is a narrower term that falls under the transgender umbrella. It’s used and viewed differently across cultures. In Western cultures, many consider this term to be outdated and offensive. 

In the United States, the term transsexual originated in medical and psychological circles. It was originally used in this context to describe people who sought medical or surgical intervention to change their bodies to match their gender identity. The term eventually ended up in mainstream vernacular. 

Some people may still use the term transsexual to describe themselves. However, many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. The best way to know which term someone uses to describe themselves is to ask them.

What Are the Main Differences Between the Terms?

Standing in front of different gender symbols

While both terms have been used to describe a person whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth, they still hold different meanings. The two terms are also used differently across communities and cultures. 

Some helpful ways to remember the key difference between the two terms include:

  • General vs. specific terms. Transgender can be used as an umbrella term, but transsexual is not used as an umbrella term.
  • Negative associations. Research shows that many people, including transgender people, hold negative associations with the word transsexual. 
  • Preferences for use. Transsexual should only be used when someone indicates that it is their preference. Transgender is a more inclusive term that is accepted across communities.

How Can I Be More Inclusive of Transgender People?

Pronouns on a name tag

Gender and the language we use to describe it can be complex. This can be empowering to many, but it can also feel overwhelming. Fortunately, there are several things you can practice to build healthier and more inclusive spaces for all genders. 

These practices include:

  • Listen first. If you aren’t sure of how someone describes themselves, or which pronouns they use, you can sit back and listen. They may provide their own pronouns, or others in their community may use their pronouns in conversations.
  • Offer your own pronouns. You can offer your own pronouns when you’re introduced. This may help others to feel more comfortable sharing their pronouns or gender identity. 
  • Don’t demand disclosure. Never pressure others to self-disclose their gender identity. Some spaces may not be safe for transgender people to disclose their gender identity. Some people may not feel comfortable disclosing to you.
  • When in doubt, ask. The best way to know how to refer to someone is to ask. If they are uncomfortable answering, don’t press the topic.
  • Show acceptance. One of the easiest ways to show acceptance for someone is to respect the terminology they use. Once someone shares the terminology they use to describe themselves or their experience, there’s no need to question it.
  • Don’t ask invasive questions. Don’t ask transgender people questions about their genitals, transition process, or sex life. If you wouldn’t ask a cisgender person the question, it’s likely inappropriate for you to ask of a transgender person. If a transgender person wants to speak to you about these topics, they will bring it up.
  • Don’t deadname someone. To deadname someone is to use the name they were assigned at birth. If a transgender person has changed their name or goes by a new name, don’t use their old name when referring to them. It’s also inappropriate to ask about someone’s original name.
  • Don’t use offensive language. While language preferences vary between people and cultures, there are several terms that are considered offensive across the board. Avoid terms that have historically been used to “other” transgender people or label them as dangerous, sexually deviant, or mentally ill. This includes “transvestite,” “tranny,” “gender identity disorder,” and similar terms.
  • Do better next time. There may be times when you accidentally use the wrong term or pronoun. If this happens, apologize sincerely, correct your mistake, and move the conversation forward. You shouldn’t spend time centering yourself or requesting an apology. Simply acknowledge the mistake and take the effort to do better moving forward.

Learn More with eDrugstore

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