What the words trans and transgender really mean

Jack Molay's picture

There is a new movement of transsexual separatists over at tumblr who claims total ownership of the term "transgender". They call themselves "truscum" (appropriating a slur directed against them) and require that anyone who calls him- or herself transgender must be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. 

I have the deepest sympathy for the transsexual struggle and is gender dysphoric myself, but this attempt at excluding other types of gender variance from the transgender umbrella is simply unacceptable.

So here is a reminder on the common use of  the word transgender.


The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, WPATH, often uses the phrase "transsexual, transgender and gender nonconforming people" when presenting their area of responsibility. The definition given of transgender in their Standards of Care is taken from Bockting 1999:

"Adjective to describe a diverse group of individuals who cross or transcend culturally defined categories of gender. The gender identity of transgender people differs to varying degrees from the sex they were assigned at birth"

I guess some would argue that this definition requires some kind of alternative fundamental gender identity, but I am not convinced. In any case this association, who has the word "transgender" in its name, also covers other "nonconforming" people.

American Medical Student Association

Here is the American Medical Student Association:

“Transgender” is an umbrella term used by people in a number of different groups, including but not limited to cross-dressers (those who wear clothing of the other sex some of the time) to genderqueer people (those who feel that they belong to either both genders or neither gender) and transsexuals (an older term for people who take hormones and have sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) in order to transition to a different sex."

See also  the US National Center for Trangender Equality, which explicitly includes crossdressers and gender nonconforming people.

The British NHS

On my side of the Atlantic, the UK National Health Service (NHS) gives the following definition:

"Trans and transgender are terms that are used to describe people who don’t conform to the traditional division of male and female.

Trans embraces many different types of people and lifestyles, including

  • People who cross-dress (transvestite people). These people sometimes wear the clothing of the opposite sex, but don't want to live full-time as a member of the opposite sex.
  • People who feel that they're both male and female, or neither male nor female.
  • Drag queens, drag kings and other people who don’t appear conventionally masculine or feminine.
  • Transsexual people. These are people who have a strong and constant desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex. Many transsexual people have gender reassignment treatment to make their appearance more consistent with their preferred gender. This often involves hormone therapy and surgery."


What about the major dictionaries?

Merriam-Webster can be interpreted both ways, as it defines transgender as 

"of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth."

But since it includes transvestites,and argues that it is enough to express (as opposed to "identify with") a different gender identity, it cannot be used to exclude non-transsexual gender variant people.

Oxford is equally inclusive:

"denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender."

The DSM-5

I know that many truscum transsexual separatist have gone to the current edition of the American Psychiatric Manual to find support for their idea that "trans" and "transgender" mean the same as "transsexual". 

Note that the DSM is the manual that until last year labelled trans women as mentally ill and that still stigmatizes crossdressers as perverts.

The DSM-5 makes use of a terminology that may be interpreted to mean that transgender equals transsexual. Careful reading, however, tells us that this is not so. 

The DSM-5 says that "Transgender refers to the broad specter of individuals who transiently or persistently identify with a gender different from their natal gender." 

Transiently means "not permanent". "Gender different from their natal gender" includes all possible gender identities, as described by the manual, not only male or female. In the DSM-5 transgender is therefore a much broader term than "transsexual", which requires transitioning from male to female or female to male.

In spite of what many truscum believes, the DSM-5 does not require someone to suffer from gender dysphoria to be considered transgender. The manual explicitly states that not all individuals feel distress from gender incongruence. 

Moreover, the new edition of the DSM explicitly states that being diagnosed as having a "transvestic disorder" does not stop you from being diagnosed as having gender dysphoria.

(And if you do not believe me, you can read the text for yourself here!)

Historical use of the term

The medical establishment clearly think of "transgender" as a broad umbrella term. But ultimately it is not they who decide who is to be called transgender. Transgender is a term that has been developed by the transgender community, which for the last 30 years or so has included all kinds of gender variant people.

The trans historian Cristan Williams  has done extensive research on the development of terms like trans, transgender and transsexual and found that by the mid-1970s, the term "trans" was used as an umbrella term to describe all crossdressers and/or transsexuals. It is still used this way.

I strongly recommend that all truscum read her article "Tracking Transgender: The Historical Truth".

But for it to make sense to them, however, the new generation of transsexual separatists must keep in mind that she is responding to a different kind of separatists, the so-called "classical transsexuals" or  the "Harry Benjamine Syndrome" tribe. 

The "classic transsexuals" have, ironically, spent an insane amount of time trying to prove that they are not "transgender", as they believe the word was created by perverted crossdressers trying to appropriate their narrative. (It wasn't).  In other words: For them "transgender" is a slur.

This bizarre contradiction does in itself  indicate that  the truscum appropriation of the term "transgender" is not about facts, but about redefining language to their own liking. 

Sorry, truscum, this is not for you to decide!

See also 
"Truscum and the Transgender War of Words"
"What does transgender really mean? On Wikipedia's misleading article."

(This post was originally posted over at XD Express)

Your rating: None
Syndicate content
Powered by Drupal, an open source content management system