What’s the difference between transsexual, transgender, transvestite and cross-dresser?
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This is a wonderful question and like all questions about labels, it can have various answers all depending on the individual and the circumstances. I personally am not a big fan of labels, since they tend to pigeon hole people into a group without a care for their individualism. On the other hand, labels help get conversation started and that is always a good thing. So here goes my take on the definitions.
As our society grows and matures, so do our definitions. Transsexual (also can be spelled transexual) is the medical term for a person who has changed their physical gender to their desired target gender. So in my case, I changed my gender from male to a female (MtF). This is also true of a female to male (FtM) as well. A transsexual lives fulltime in their new gender and usually has had some sort of reassignment surgery changing their physical appearance and/or hormone replacement. In the strictest sense, a transsexual is a person who has had surgery to change their physical appearance to match their target gender and live fulltime as this gender. Some transsexuals move into society and live solely as their target gender and identify as only male or only female.
Now, transgender is a more general term and has been widely accepted as politically correct; only really because transsexual has had such a negative stigma associated with it from the 70’s (and beyond). Maybe this is why I tend to call myself a transgendered woman, or for short a transwoman. Though transgender can refer to any person that dabbles in the binary male/female roles opposite to their birth gender. This is the more common definition of transgender and the umbrella it covers.
I’m going to put both transvestite and cross-dresser together for simplicity. Transvestites and cross-dressers are typically heterosexual males who wear traditionally feminine clothing. Transvestite has been labeled in the past to associate cross-dressing with sexual arousal, but that term has changed to transvestic fetishism.
Cross-dressers don’t associate with the LGBTQ community and don’t see themselves as anything but straight/heterosexual. Drag queens and drag kings are not usually labeled as cross-dressers/transvestites. Why? Good question, actually. People that dress in drag tend to be gay and cross-dressers tend to be straight.
As with all labels, nothing is black and white and there is plenty of gray area. One person might identify as transgender but not as transsexual; another as cross-dresser and not transvestite. There are also people who don’t identify as any gender. They are genderqueer and don’t feel part of the society norm of binary gender (male or female) and the stereotypes associated with each gender. I like to think of genderqueer as “gender free”; free of all gender labels and gender stereotypes, including clothes, roles and any society gender conformity.
I hope I helped answer the challenging definitions of labels. As always, keep those questions coming!