Language is fluid. The use and meaning of words change constantly. In most cases, the new is incorporated with the old, so confusion is rare. The field of sexology, however, seems to have a particularly difficult time keeping up with all the shifts in terminology and usage. This is probably related to the multitudes of words used in sexual contexts, the double entendres that accompany many words, and the symbolic and socio-political nature of much that accompanies language. But there is obviously more to this. And if the terminology is confusing for those dealing with it daily, how much more difficult is it for those who come upon it only occasionally—for instance, reporters, historians, and laypersons?

Since the late 1960s, the terms associated with transgender conditions have been repeatedly revised. Things have far from settled down in this regard. For some time now I have been involved with the Gender Identity Research and Education Society in Britain, in an attempt to have the U.K. government consider revision of its laws dealing with transsexuals. In some of the materials prepared in early 2002, the terms transman and transwoman were used to describe those persons whose lives are at issue, for instance, “That person was born a male, but is now living as a transwoman.”

The motive was partly to remove the designations gender identity disorder and gender identity dysphoria, with which the term transsexual is clinically associated. Before the terms transman and transwoman were even cold, however—by the end of 2002—it had become common to separate the prefix from the stem, so trans man and trans woman became the preferred expressions.

In contrast, on a trip to the state of Queensland, in Australia, also in 2002, the noun transgender was used for those we in the U.S. know as transsexuals. Individuals would say of themselves things like, “He is a transgender,” or “I am a female transgender.” However, in everyday conversation, they more often referred to themselves as trannys. This is how they are casually referred to elsewhere in Australia, where the term transsexual is still current and the term transgender is used as a more inclusive or general term.

The adoption in Queensland of the term transgender for transsexual happened because of the urging of legislative supporters who thought favorable legislation was more likely to occur if the word “sex” and any associated connotations were removed from the condition.

On a broader scale, transgender is a term that has been found useful for a host of different sorts of people and for many occasions. While the term has become popular only over the last ten years or so, it is much older than that. Actually, the word has been in a state of flux since being coined by Virginia Prince in the late 1960s (Denny, 2000). Prince, considered by many the first modern public transvestite, found the term transgender useful to describe individuals like herself who had no difficulty accepting that they were heterosexual males who wanted to live as women, at least part-time. She also saw the term extending to females who manifest male characteristics. In Prince’s use, the term transgender specifically excluded transsexuals. For Prince, individuals who exhibited transgender behaviors didn’t want to change their sex, but did want to change aspects of their gender (Bullough, 1997). A person’s sex was their biology, while their gender was their public manifestation of their sexual identity. Prince describes herself as a transgenderist.

Since the 1970s, an extended host of persons have accepted the designation of transgender as their own. Many use it as they eschew for themselves or others any strict dichotomy in male and female gender roles. In their own lives, they mix characteristics that are often considered both masculine and feminine.

As do the transsexuals in Queensland, many transsexuals elsewhere see themselves as transgenders. But, so, too, do intersexed and even homosexual or bisexual persons, who list themselves under this banner when they think it beneficial. The term seems broad enough to fit almost anyone who simultaneously and openly exhibits traits or characteristics typical of both men and women. The word transgender conveys an impression that there is a continuum of gender conditions or circumstances that extend between the extremes of masculine and feminine.

This broadening of usage, however, hasn’t satisfied everyone, and even disturbs some. The wide new use of transgender seems to bother some transsexuals in particular. They wish to adhere to Prince’s original meaning and restrict use of the term transgender so it pointedly excludes transsexuals. These “hard-core” transsexuals see themselves as more than those who meld masculinity and femininity. They resent being lumped with those who don’t have and don’t want surgery. They see the distinction as crucial, so the world will see that for “true transsexuals,” there is little choice in the life course they take.

These transsexuals insist, and want the world to know, that surgery for them is not a choice, but a compulsion. Transsexuals, unlike transgendered persons, they claim, truly want to change their sex, and to this end remove as many vestiges of their natal sex as possible. Surgery, with castration and hormone treatment, is part of the life plan for transsexuals, but not necessarily so for those labeled transgendered.

There are those who take this distinction even further. Many transsexuals see themselves and label others as either pre-op or post-op, depending upon whether or not they have completed genital surgery (been operated upon). There may be a bit of an in-group social or political one-upmanship in this, where being post-op brings more status among the group than being pre-op or even non-op (individuals who identify as transsexual but don’t aspire to surgery). A subset of transsexuals go beyond, and instead of using commonly-accepted designations such as MTF (male-to-female) or FTM (female-to-male), use acronyms such as WBM (woman born male) or MBF (man born female) or MBT and WBT (man or woman born transsexual). These designations are supposed to more directly infer that theirs is a natural condition in which the man or woman in question was “born in the wrong skin.” There is yet no consistency in such usage, and discussion, often heated, about such wording continues. Lastly in this regard, it should be mentioned that some transsexuals see themselves as displaying Benjamin’s Syndrome. As others identify with a condition named after the individual who first clinically described it and is best associated with it—for instance, those with Klinefelter’s Syndrome, who have a XXY chromosome set, or Turner’s Syndrome, if they have an XO set—this label for transsexual credits Harry Benjamin. Benjamin was the physician who first published seriously and compassionately about the condition (Benjamin, 1956, 1966).

Recently in the United Kingdom, the term 3rd G, as in “TS, TV, LGB and 3rd G” has appeared to represent the transgender population or those intersexed individuals who prefer not to be identified as either man or woman. It’s as if in contrast to the genders man and woman, they’re part of a third gender. In the United States, the term TGV is becoming popular in some quarters. The letters represent TransGender Variant. It remains to be seen whether 3rd G and TGV become prevalent.

The term transvestite has also undergone a long and varied history. First coined by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910, this word referred to individuals, usually men, who sought and received erotic pleasure by wearing women’s clothes. Although Hirschfeld used the term for any individual who might engage in heterosexual as well as homosexual or bisexual behavior, he also described individuals who crossdressed solely for autoerotic pleasure. Currently, many who crossdress dismiss the allegation that their dressing is related to autoeroticism and contend that their dressing is to satisfy an internally motivated feature of their personality not otherwise expressed nor fully understood.

In the general press and in everyday speech, the term transvestite is often applied to any male who dresses in clothes typically worn by women; less often used is the term crossdresser. Among the majority of sexologists, however, the term transvestite usually refers only to men who crossdress and are heterosexual in orientation. Certainly females, too, can crossdress, but the term transvestite is rarely applied to them, since they are allowed much more leeway in their choice of clothing. They are more often described as mannish. The term crossdresser can be applied to anyone who wears clothing associated with the opposite sex.

Laypersons often mistakenly attribute erotic characteristics to those males they see as dressing in the clothes associated with women and to those females they see as dressing in the clothes associated with men. Such individuals are almost invariably thought to be homosexual. However, clothing and other characteristics of gender are only tangentially related to eroticism and orientation to a partner. Although they can certainly serve to attract or repel and identify one’s erotic desires, clothes are more typically used to identify with a group, class, or faction. In a minority of cases, crossdressing can be part of a theatrical ploy. It can also be used for other, more mundane, matters, like adjusting to climate and finances or just plain personal comfort or disposition. In relation to sexuality, however, the common error is that one’s manner of dress is taken to signal sexual orientation (preference for male or female partners).

For those best described as drag queens, this assumption is valid. Drag queens are males who prefer sexual relations with other males. They see their woman’s costume as both reflecting their own disposition and serving to make them attractive to other males. In a similar vein, drag kings are females who dress in typical men’s clothing to manifest their identity as mannish and to appeal to other females.

Not everyone who crossdresses, however, is homosexually oriented. As with transvestites, one’s sexual orientation is separate from dressing. This is also true for post-op transsexuals; some MTF and FTM transsexuals desire sexual relations with females, others with males, and yet others with either, or both. The old saw holds: You can’t tell a book by its cover.

While discussing sexual orientation, it’s appropriate to mention that the term gay isn’t always appropriate for someone who enjoys sex with a person of the same sex. The term has a long history. In addition to giving the common meanings such as joyous and merry, Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary (Gove, 1971) lists as an older meaning, “Given to social pleasures; inclined to the dissipations of society: licentious, loose.” When applied to a woman, the term implied that she led an immoral life, usually as a prostitute. The Oxford English Dictionary (Simpson, 1989) indicates that such usage was common in England in the 1600s, and Panati (1998) claims it was so used in 12th century France.

In any case, by the 1920s the term gay was being used in the U.S., and by the 1940s had solidified as a code word referring to homosexuals. After World War II, however, the meaning of the word had changed so it openly became a euphemism for homosexual, used both in and out of the community itself (Adams, 2002; Chauncey, 1994). Interestingly, while the term had referred to both males and females, in the 1960 and 1970s, as feminism emerged, homosexually-oriented women wanted to have their own identity. They promoted themselves as lesbians and urged the distinction be clear. This movement slackened with the advent of HIV/AIDS, when many lesbians wanted to show their care and concern for their male compatriots and association with them. Depending upon the locale, the term gay currently can be used for both males and females.

Lastly, it is to be noted that many males who routinely have sex with men don’t consider themselves gay, since the term implies an association with a lifestyle or group they don’t accept. To this end, many agencies, for instance, those dealing with HIV/AIDS, use the designation MSM (males having sex with males).

The term dyke has a less well-established past. It seemed to have first attracted scholarly attention during the early 20th century and might have come from the term dike, which referred to a male in full dress (Roberts, 1979). This usage seems to have been transferred to women who preferred male garb. Another explanation is that the term came from the American South, where strong Black women who worked on plantation watercourses were called dikes (Panati, 1998). A third hypothesis, proposed by Judy Grahn (1990), is that the term literally means balance, the path, and is the name for the goddess Dike of Greece, who could foster balance and peace or was a warrior/avenger against those who broke old traditions. Some women currently embrace the term, while others avoid it.

Parenthetically, since at least 1980 or so (Diamond & Karlen, 1980), I have advocated that the terms homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual refer to acts rather than people. Individuals are better seen as androphilic (male-loving), gynecophilic (female-loving), or ambiphilic (both-loving). The use of such terms eliminates the need to define specifically the sex or gender of the person referred to and focuses solely on the sex of the desired partner. This usage is particularly useful when discussing transsexuals or intersexuals, since the sex or gender of the individual in question is then immaterial.

For reasons still to be understood, while all the groups mentioned fall under the banner of sexual minorities, they don’t always work and play well together. Indeed, political squabbles often keep the groups apart. One group might think association with another group brings with it negative consequences or a form of subjugation. Another group might feel it’s losing its individuality and group adhesion or identity. My general feeling is that for the average layperson, little distinction is made among the sexual minorities mentioned. I similarly think that advantaging any one group betters them all, and disparaging any group harms them all. I believe it best to recognize the goals each faction is trying to achieve and work to resolve disputes. Then, the groups should work together to attain these aims.

A last word: As I write this, I learned the Australian state of Queensland has passed the most liberal and transsexual-positive law in Australian history. It’s now illegal to discriminate in any way against a person because of transgender dress or behaviors. Perhaps using the tag of transgender for trannys has paid off. Or perhaps it made no difference in the legislative halls. We’ll never know.

How do you identify yourself, and why? Does it matter to you how your behavior is categorized? Do you prefer association with any of the groups mentioned? Are there any with which you prefer separation? Your answers may indicate more about yourself than you can imagine.



Adams, C. (2002). The Straight Dope: How Did “Gay” Come to Mean “Homosexual?” In The Straight Dope.

Benjamin, H. (1956). Trans-sexualism and transvestism. In: Cauldwell, D.O. (Ed.), Transvestism: Men in female dress. Sexology Corporation, New York, pp. 15–22.

Benjamin, H. (1966). The Transsexual Phenomenon. New York: The Julian Press, Inc.

Bullough, B., Bullough, V.L. & Elias, J. Eds. (1997). Gender Blending. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.

Denny, D. (2000). Virginia’s Ordeal: S.P.I.C.E. Organizers Should be Ashamed. Transgender Tapestry, 1(89): 21.

Diamond, M., & Karlen, A. (1980). Sexual Decisions. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gove, P.B., et al. (1971). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Springfield, Mass: Merriam.

Grahn, J. (1990). Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hirschfeld, M. (1910/1991). Die Transvestiten [The Transvestites: An Investigation of the Erotic Drive to Cross Dress]. Leipzig [Buffalo]: Spohr [Prometheus].

Panati, C. (1998). Sexy Origins and Intimate Things: The Rites and Rituals of Straights, Gays, Bi’s, Drags, Trans, Virgins, and Others. New York: Penguin Books.

Simpson, J.A., & Weiner, E.S.C., Eds. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Back to top