The Difference Between Transsexuality and Transgenderism

Although it may seem that they're synonymous, transsexuality and transgenderism are two different terms. However, they both reflect and encourage the collective struggle for the recognition of diverse identities and the depathologization of these differences.
The Difference Between Transsexuality and Transgenderism

Last update: 03 November, 2021

The prefix trans comes from Latin and means ‘from the other side’ or ‘through’. Throughout the 20th century, its use has been fundamental in giving names to diverse sexual identities. In fact, it defines individuals whose perception of themselves doesn’t coincide with their biological or assigned sex at birth.

Thus, the word trans has become an umbrella term. In other words, it groups together identities such as transsexuality, transgenderism, transvestism, and crossdressers.

At first glance, the terms “transsexuality” and “transgenderism” may seem synonymous. However, each one appears at different times and refers to particular characteristics of the trans life experience.

In this article, we’ll briefly explore the history of these concepts. We’ll also look at the ethical and political stance involved in the use of each one. Furthermore, the importance of identifying transphobia and fighting it on a daily basis.

Trans person

History: transsexuality and the biomedical view

The term transsexuality first formally appeared in the mid-20th century, more particularly in the biomedical setting. It was coined to describe those people whose gender identity differs from their sexual characteristics at birth.

History recognizes the doctors, David Cauldwell and Harry Benjamin as the first to formulate and use this concept clinically. One of the most important characteristics associated with the idea of transsexuality was the desire of transsexual people to transform their bodies to make them coincide with the genders with which they identified.

In this way, and in accordance with clinical canons, procedures such as sexual reassignment surgery and hormonal therapy became the elements that defined transsexuality and the individuals who identified themselves as transsexual.

Likewise, transsexuality became a category to define “pathological” and “deviant” behaviors in relation to the concordance between sex and gender.

More recently, both the DSM-V and the ICD-11 have made efforts to reduce the stigma associated with transsexual identities. Nevertheless, diagnoses such as “ gender dysphoria ” and “gender discordance” may still be viewed as ways of pathologizing sexual and gender diversity and inscribing it within the framework of normalized binarism.

Towards depathologization: transgenderism and trans identities

This is how transgender identities began to appear. As a matter of fact, they came about as a criticism of the biomedical view. They emphasize the fact that transformations on the body in order to inscribe it within the male/female binarism category aren’t necessary in order to experience a trans identity.

It’s true that, in some cases, transgender people will undergo hormonal or surgical interventions. However, their real objective is to question the idea of cisnormativity. Furthermore, they dispute the social imperative that the physical materiality of the body and assumed gender identity should correspond.

Thus, transgenderism may be seen as a search for the depathologization of sexual diversity. Furthermore, it’s a political commitment to understanding the historical and cultural forms in which we’ve built relationships with our bodies.

For some LGBTI + groups, especially in Latin America, transgenderism is an identity that emerges in the global north and ignores the struggles for the recognition of diverse bodies in public space and for full integration into social life. However, transgenderism is a powerful invitation to think about sexuality and gender from an enriched perspective.

Hand with a trans flag

Stop transphobia!

The most important thing, beyond establishing differences between the terms and simply turning them into labels, is to recognize that those who embody these concepts every day face different violations of their fundamental rights.

Violence ranges from harassment, verbal aggression (in public space and on social networks), and persecution, to physical aggression, rape, and murder. Added to this is the denial of health services (which may or may not be associated with gender transition), the difficulties of access to education, and few job opportunities with conditions of dignity, recognition, and fair remuneration.

In addition, the media is often responsible for creating, spreading, and strengthening negative stereotypes towards trans people. This, in turn, maintains and reproduces social prejudices, giving way to new forms of violence.

Action needs to be taken. For example, we should be informed of the experiences of trans people. We should know how to use the appropriate pronouns in accordance with their gender identity. Most importantly, we must report and not reproduce any form of discrimination, violence, or rejection of the trans community. These actions are important in order to make our society a more inclusive and respectful place. A place that’s more tolerant of any kind of difference.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  •  Benjamin, H. (1966), The Transsexual Phenomenon, Julian Press, US.
  • O’Keefe, Tracie (1999), Gender and sex identity disorder vs sex, gender and sexuality exploration, The International Journal of Transgenderism, 3 (3). ijt/index.htm.
  • Roughgarden, Joan (2005) Evolution’s Rainbow. Sexual and gender diversity in biology, University of California Press.
  • Soley-Beltran, Patrícia. (2014). Transexualidad y Transgénero: una perspectiva bioética. Revista de Bioética y Derecho , (30), 21-39.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.