The term transgender is often confused with other similar terms, such as transvestite and transsexual. This confusion is understandable, as the definition of transgender has changed in the years since it was first used and is still not completely unambiguous. The dictionary definition of transgender is a person who identifies with a gender different than their biological gender.
Although the basic medical and dictionary definition of transgender is fairly straightforward, the use of the term is still evolving. A transgender person can identify themselves as a different gender than what was assigned to them at birth or can express this gender in various ways. They might also feel that neither biological gender truly fits them. A person who identifies as transgender may or may not pursue gender reassignment surgery to more fully align their physical and psychological genders. Identification as transgender has nothing to do with the individual's sexuality-that is, a person who is biologically identified as female but psychologically identifies as male could be sexually attracted to either women or men.
Sex vs. gender
These definitions are clearer if presented alongside a different definition of sex versus gender. In some cases, these terms are used interchangeably. In other cases, 'gender' refers to whether a person is biologically male or female, and 'sex' refers to sexual intercourse. However, when discussing transgender issues, 'sex' refers to the biological sex of male or female assigned to a person based on physical characteristics. "Gender" refers to the social ramifications of this assignment-for example how a person is expected to behave or interact with others based on whether they are a man or a woman. Another way to think of this is that "sex" refers to male and female, while "gender" refers to masculine and feminine. Many people who identify as transgender feel separated from the "gender" part of this definition and do not want to be forced into specific social roles or certain kinds of behavior based on their physical characteristics. They might even think of themselves as neither masculine nor feminine in gender.
Transgender vs. transsexual vs. transvestite
Transgender is often used to refer to transsexuals and transvestites, as well as people who simply feel their official gender does not adequately describe them or is inaccurate based on their psychological makeup. In other usage, however, transsexual refers more specifically to those who consistently present themselves as a specific gender other than that assigned to them at birth. People referred to as transsexual have often undergone partial or complete gender reassignment surgery, also known as a sex-change procedure.
A transvestite, by contrast, is someone who chooses to dress as the opposite gender but who may or may not identify with that gender on a psychological level. They may dress this way all the time or only on some occasions. There is also no effect on sexuality-a man who chooses to dress as a woman may or may not be homosexual.
Many people find these distinctions confusing or unnecessary, often because they have never felt as if they have been placed in an incorrect biological or societal category. However, for those who do experience these feelings, it is important that they be respected for who they are. Although some progress has been made as far as providing understanding and acceptance for transgender people, there is still a long way to go.