Search For a Provider Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube ES View the Patient Toolkit

Sex Health Blog

Gender Definitions: Transsexual and Transgender

Gender Definitions: Transsexual and TransgenderWhen it comes to gender, definitions can be confusing.

On the surface, it sounds like it should simple. Take biological gender, for example. It’s easy to say that males have penises and females have vaginas. But is that necessarily true?

Not at all. For example, a baby can be born a genetic female but without a fully-formed vagina (a condition called vaginal agenesis). Children with androgen insensitivity syndrome are born as genetic males, but their bodies don’t respond to male hormones as they should, which can give them female characteristics. (Click here to learn more about disorders of sex development.)

Gender has social and cultural aspects as well. For example, cultural traditions may lead us to think that boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. But that’s not always the case. And such roles change over time. As recently as the 1960s, some newspapers in the United States divided their employment classified ads into “jobs for men” and “jobs for women.” That isn’t common today and many men and women take on professions that, at one time, were not considered appropriate for their gender.

Also, some people consider themselves as bi-gender (switching gender roles based on a situation) or genderfluid (feeling more male or more female at certain times).

So, as we see, gender isn’t as simple as it may seem. In many cases, gender is up to the individual.

Transgender and Transsexual

Transsexual or Transgender?Two terms that often give people pause are transgender and transsexual. What is the difference? Or are they one and the same?

The answer is complex and, again, depends on how people see themselves.

Generally, the term transgender is used to describe people whose gender expression or gender identity is different from their biological gender. For example, a biological male may feel that he is really meant to be a woman. He might decide to dress as a woman or asked to be called by a female name, expressing his gender in ways that work for him.

A person who physically transitions from the gender of birth to the other – male to female or female to male – is often considered transsexual. Such a transition might be done with hormone treatments and/or surgery. Transsexual is a more specific term than transgender. Not all transgender people decide to physically change their gender.

These definitions are open to interpretation, however. And they can mean different things to different people. For example, a person who has transitioned from male to female may call herself a woman rather than a transsexual person. Another may feel that the word transsexual should not always imply a physical or surgical change.

Which Term Should I Use?

The easiest way to answer this question is to ask the person directly. What does he or she prefer? What pronoun does he or she use? Is his or her gender identity situational? If you feel these questions are too personal, you can try following the person’s lead.

Your Turn

What words do you use to describe your gender? Feel free to leave us a comment and tell your story.

Print this article or view it as a PDF file here: Gender Definitions: Transsexual and Transgender



“GLAAD Media Reference Guide - Transgender Glossary of Terms”

Medical Daily

Scutti, Susan

“What Is The Difference Between Transsexual And Transgender? Facebook’s New Version Of ‘It’s Complicated’”

(March 17, 2014)

Montreal Gazette

Page, Jillian

“Transsexual vs. Transgender: What’s the Difference?”

(January 3, 2013)

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland

“Transgender Identity”

University of Colorado Denver – Women’s Resource Center

“Fact Sheet: Transgender, Transsexual, and Intersex”