It can be confusing on what terms to use, how to use them, and in what context are they are appropriate. Each person often comes up with their own individual understanding of the words they use to describe their identity, so these words can notoriously be fraught with tiny idiosyncratic differences in terminology that vary as much as the human population that uses them. Even the same word, like “trans” for example can mean one thing to one person, and then hold a completely different meaning for another person. Please remember that these are my understanding of the terms and it does not necessarily represent what every trans* person understands them to be.
First, I’ll start off with the word transgender. This is the most generic blanket term that is used. It does not have the same stigmatized forceful feel that transsexual can sometimes give off. Also it focuses more on the concept of gender rather than on the physical nature of sex that the word transsexual implies. Being an umbrella term, it includes anyone who’s gender identity does not align with the one assigned to them at birth. Depending on who you ask, it can also include cross-dressers and drag performers as well.
Personally I use transgender as more of a socio-political term to describe myself. It is a relatively quick simple term to describe the group of people who I share a similar experience with. It easily lets people know some of the struggles I have had to go through in life. It also provides a unifying word behind which all groups of gender minorities can rally together and fight for equality. I never really have seen myself as ever having been a boy/man since I never really accepted the role ascribed to me to begin with. Rather than becoming immersed in the male role, I just completely shut down and stopped talking or socializing all together. I did not even let myself have opinions on anything: even a favorite color. It was not until I actually started accepting myself as a woman that I started blossoming into the person I am today. Because of this, the word “transgender” can feel strange to me sometimes because I do not see myself as having changed from one gender to another (as the word suggests).
MTF and FTM Transsexual
This word is used to describe people who not only identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them, but also take or desire to take medical intervention into the mix. They either want hormones, surgery or both. Although I use medical intervention, I particularly do not like this term because it puts a strong emphasis on the physical transition rather than on who the person is. Also it has a slightly more negative connotation than transgender does since it has been abused more.
Do not, I repeat DO NOT use this word. Just because some people *cough* RuPaul *cough* use it does not mean that it is okay. For many, including myself, this is the equivalent of the “N” word. It has been used in such derogatory manners over the years that the word itself has inherently become derogatory. Also never call a trans* person an “it,” a “shemale,” or a “he/she” because these are extremely dehumanizing and offensive as well.
Trans vs. Trans*
“Trans” is just a shortening of the word transgender, but implies trans woman or trans man. Because of this, the relatively recent idea of adding an asterisk to the end to create “Trans*” came about. The asterisk means that anything can follow the word trans*, and as a result is seen as more inclusive of all that fall under the trans* umbrella.
Ex: “I am a trans woman”
“Being trans* can mean a number of things”
Trans Woman vs. Trans Man
Some people can get confused on who you are referring to someone as a “trans woman” or “trans man.” I see ignorant psychology articles that refer to transgender women as, “transgender men,” or “transgender males,” all the time. A trans woman is a trans* individual who identifies as a woman, and a trans man is a trans* individual who identifies as a man. Period. Unless you are being a jerk do not call someone who identifies as a woman a “man,” or someone who identifies as a man a “woman.”
Transgender is an Adjective NOT a Noun
This is definitely one of my pet peeves. Transgender is often used as a noun and this is wrong for two reasons: 1) It is grammatically incorrect and just sounds weird to me 2) Using transgender as a noun reduces our whole identity and being to one trait, when we are complex human beings with many traits and characteristics that define us.
Right: “They are transgender”
Wrong: “He is a transgender”
Right: “She is a transgender woman”
Wrong: ” I know lots of transgenders”
Drag Queen/King vs. Cross-dressers
The difference between a drag queen or king and a cross-dresser is that the drag performer does it for performance reasons. They like to play with gender in a way that puts on a show and is entertaining, and also like to mess with gender stereotypes as well. Like a cross-dresser, most do not identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them.
Someone who cross-dresses puts on clothes of a different gender because they enjoy it, sometimes for sexual reasons and sometimes not. They do not do it in order to perform like a drag queen or king, it is rather an internally driven desire.
Sometimes, before coming out as trans*, people will say they are a cross-dresser or perform drag first since it is safer and more contained than coming out all the way and turning everything in their lives upside down. This does NOT however mean that every drag performer or cross-dresser is secretly trans*.
Someone identifies as gender queer identifies as neither man nor woman. Since gender is a spectrum of countless different identities, there are a limitless number of subcategories to identifying as gender queer. These include, but are no means at all limited to androgynous, bigender and gender fluid.
This is when someone identifies somewhere between genders and does not adhere strictly to man or woman. Unlike someone who is gender fluid their gender identity and expression tends to stay in one spot on the spectrum and does not move.
Rather than identifying between genders, someone who is bi-gender identifies as man AND woman at the same time.
Someone who identifies as gender fluid does not strictly adhere to just one gender. They often “flow” between different gender expressions at different times. Depending on the person, the range of expression can vary greatly.
In the end there are SO many different gender identities out there that it would be impossible for me to cover all of them. Gender identities vary as much as people do, and as a result it creates a wide spectrum rather than a tight dichotomy. In the end, if you are unsure of someone’s identity or how they want to be referred to, then it is best just to ask. It is much better than assuming the wrong thing.