Transgender and Transsexual, two words that have been, and are used to describe people who medically transition. Two terms that have been, and continue to be loaded with baggage. Two words that can, and do, spark intense debate among trans people. Is it possible to have just one word rule us all, one word to find us, one word to bring us all…
Oh, wait, do I really want to be bound in darkness? Not really. Yet, that’s how it often feels when the words are discussed among trans people, most often, it seems, transgender/transsexual women. For those who transition socially and/or medically there is often an important distinction between the two words and the experiences those words define. Therefore, I will start by talking about each word on its own.
Transsexual is a word that was in common usage to describe someone who was, to use the term of the 1970s and 1980s, going to have a sex change. Like so many words it was, and still is, often used to stereotype those who transition. It is still a common term in pornography with transsexual porn one of the more popular categories among straight men. These negative connotations were one reason why when the word transgender came along many chose to stop using the word transsexual. At the same time, however, it still provides an important distinction for many who socially and/or medically transition.
Transgender defines a much broader range of people than transsexual. It is an umbrella term that is used to describe people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned, given, or designated at birth. It, for the most part, includes people who medically transition, people who socially transition, people who are non-binary, people who engage in what is often called crossdressing (this particular subject is one that requires its own post to go into more detail). It is broad and therefore a difficult word choice when discussing the needs of those who medically and socially transition.
Transgender and transsexual, why can’t we get along?
At its most fundamental level it comes down to what people need and is a particular focus for trans women because transmisogyny is real. In wider trans community there is a divide between those of us who medically and socially transition and those who do not. At one extreme there are those who state that if one isn’t fully medically transitioning, including vaginoplasty, one isn’t really transgender. On the other extreme are those whose statements come across as saying that medical transition isn’t necessary and trans rights are only about being able to go out dressed as a woman without harassment. The question arises of who is allowed to use the term transgender. Adding to the confusion of language the word transgender is often used to refer specifically to those who transition socially and/or medically and ignores those who do not.
Many who medically and socially transition state that they do not feel comfortable and do not fit in many trans spaces, particularly if they have completed their transition. When I examine the variety of trans groups and spaces I notice two types of groups that focus on trans women. The first is for those who are transitioning. They provide support and advice. All too often this advice and support is geared towards a specific type of transition with emphasis on passing as cisgender and genital surgery. The second type is the social group. They have a tendency to focus on outings and have a membership that leans more towards those who are not transitioning and have different needs when compared to those who do transition.
In the wider world, we have the added factor of drag, drag shows, and drag culture. In particular, is how people like Ru Paul try to define what it means to be trans, what’s a slur, when they do not even identify as transgender. “Stop Letting Cis Drag Queens Decide What’s Transphobic” is a good article discussing this problem. Drag can be, and still is for many people, a way for them to safely explore their gender expression and identity. It has been, however, taken over by white cisgender men. It is this particular aspect of drag that many other trans people dislike. For trans women who medically transition, it is particularly problematic. I came across a good article about the type of drag that people are complaining about a while back, unfortunately I didn’t bookmark it and can’t find the link now that I want it, if you happen to recall it, please comment below!
Drag continues to be used to perpetuate the myth that transgender women are really only men in dresses. That we are traps for straight men who are trying to make them gay. It directly relates to how trans women are used as punchlines. Stating that we are a joke. That we are not “real” women. These aspects of how trans women are portrayed are harmful and continue to lead to violence against trans women. This violence is targeted at trans women, drag performers, and disproportionately trans women of colour.
What does all this mean?
First, at its most fundamental level this means that we have to acknowledge the differences in trans experiences. We must recognize that not everyone transitions in the same way. Many do not transition at all. For many others, transitioning saves their lives. Literally. It often feels like we must be at one end or the other around the question of whether or not someone is transitioning. I call for more compassion and empathy for where the other person is at and less judgement of them.
Second, when people who have transitioned express their concerns, frustrations, and anger about how trans women are portrayed do not minimize their experiences and feelings. They are very real and come from the heart. This is particularly true for older trans women who have had decades of manure piled on them around being transgender, transexual, and transitioning. When you see the harmful messaging do not leave it up to trans women to speak up about it.
There is a very real distinction between transgender and transsexual. When the term transsexual is used by someone to describe themselves or to refer to medical transition there is a reason for it. There is a desire and need to be clear about the distinctions in experience. To not recognize and admit this is a disservice to us all. The challenge is to ensure that we are using terms to uplift and support, rather than to push people down.