Trans*, Transgender, Transsexual, Transvestite, and when to check yourself.

I’ve had an amazing week, hosting an amazing person at my house and taking part in some seriously wonderful events that centre around concepts in feminist porn. It’s been basically a wonderland of adult goodness that I’ve been lacking a bit in my life in the last little while.

A really neat thing about all this is also that my worlds are colliding more than before. Friends who aren’t in the adult industry or my queer circles have come out to the events, learned, listened, and asked questions. While it’s been pretty great overall, it’s also made me realize that I haven’t been doing a good enough job in my non-queer friends’ lives of educating them

Framing your questions and observations about people who are not the same as you is incredibly important. Checking your privilege is important. Why? Because we’re talking about fucking *human beings*. It’s common decency. Racism, sexism, homophobia – we think about these in a non-queer society to a reasonable level, and I’d say that the friends I maintain do a fine job of respecting others with regards to those three – but what else is there?

The trans spectrum is really often misunderstood. Incredibly often. So much so, that a dear friend whose art I enjoy and whose conversations I treasure, shocked me when talking about seeing “trannies” in some porn, and how freakish their bodies were.

So let’s take a step back and analyze that shit, ok?

What people who are uneducated often think when they see a person who has male genitals but presents as a woman is that that person is a tranny, shemale, or transvestite. People who think they’re being PC often try to pull out the word transvestite because they know tranny and shemale sound offensive – but here’s the thing. That’s often not right either.

Let’s break it down into some very general explanations. These are by no means definitions, but they’re a good way to get started thinking about the many ways that gender exists. Cole’s notes, and hopefully a good place for some folks to start learning what these terms mean and what you’re saying when you use them.

1. Transvestite – Break this word down and you have trans and vestite (based in the root for “I clothe” or “to clothe”). The term is used to describe people who occasionally like to dress in a way that is typical of the opposite sex in a gender binary (male, female). People who cross-dress often only do it some of the time, and rarely do these folks desire to cross dress all of the time, nor do many desire to carry out a sex change. Many people use the term transvestite to describe all people with presentations that don’t match their genitals. That’s why sometimes, the word transvestite can be heard as jarring or offensive – because people commonly misuse it and attach a negative connotation to it. Typically, referring to someone as a cross-dresser can be preferred. Or just greet the person and ask them how their day is going without trying to assume you know what they’d like to be referred to as.

Both transvestite and cross dresser are NOT terms to use to describe someone who has made the choice to live permanently as the gender/sex that they identify with. It is a term used for someone who occasionally cross dresses. See the following definitions for more on this.

Bonus fact: Drag queens are transvestites, but not all transvestites are drag queens. The term drag queen is generally only used when performance is involved. Go to a drag show, you’ll be glad you did and you might learn a thing or two.

2. Transsexual – A person who is a transsexual tends to operate in a gender binary mindset and its relation to sex anatomy. I say tends, because there are exceptions to every rule. In general, a transsexual person is born not identifying with the sex they were born into. There’s actually research that shows that the brain structure of transsexual people actually more closely resembles the prevalent brain structure of the sex that person identifies with. As in, trans men’s brains look like men’s brains even though they were born with a vagina. It’s science. It’s a thing.

It's science.

It’s science.

Many transsexual folks undergo sexual reassignment surgery in order to live in the body they feel they should. Often, men and women who transition wish only to be referred to as a man or a woman, rather than as trans. Some prefer to acknowledge their journey through sex by saying they’re a “transitioned man/woman”, or a trans man/woman. This is all pretty personal, and if you don’t know, you can ask. POLITELY. Frame your question in a way that shows that you want to learn and respect their identity, not in a way that makes them feel like an other or like they don’t belong.

When you call someone who is transsexual a tranny, cross dresser, or shemale, you’re denying their right to be addressed as themselves. You’re basically writing off their transition as a phase and a freak show. Don’t be a piece of shit.

3. Transgender: Being transgender can mean a lot of things, and gets used as a kind of umbrella label sometimes. I’m guilty myself of often using the term transgender in places where transsexual is actually accurate. My explanation, then, is mostly going to be copied definitions. Because I don’t trust myself to do justice to the intricacies.

“An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgendertranssexualcross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.” — GLAAD

4. Trans* – Oh the many many shades of transitioning, gender, sex, clothing, and all. If you’re not sure, use this term. Some people also adopt this as a label because they themselves don’t feel represented by the definitions of other terms. If anyone else has anything to add to this blurb, please feel free to do so in the comments, or email me.

So why is the term tranny offensive? Because it’s mostly used to refer derogatorily to any of the above-defined groups. Can it be reclaimed? Maybe. Just like gay, homo, queer, etc, some people do identify with it positively. But that number is small comparatively, and checking yourself on your use of it is a big deal.

I’m coming from writing this piece as a cisgendered (born identifying with the typical gender presentation of my sex) white woman, and welcome all criticism that may exist. I haven’t been perfect throughout my life either, so hopefully having this list of definitions will help people who just haven’t *had to* think about trans identities before. It’s a privilege not to have to think about these things. The absolute least we can do as cisfolk is to educate ourselves in order to make life a little less difficult for people that aren’t sitting on our high horses. Yet.

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