How To Use Transgender vs. Transsexual vs. Transvestite Correctly

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Transvestite, transexual, or transgender are three terms that tend to get mixed up. A transvestite is someone who might dress in clothing that’s usually worn by the opposite sex. A transexual might have used medical procedures to physically change their biological sex. And lastly, a transgender is someone whose gender identity doesn’t totally align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Understanding the nuanced differences between them is not just a matter of political correctness; it’s essential for respectful and accurate communication. So, I’ll break down each term’s meaning and usage and give you some sentence examples to refer back to.

A transexual or transgender is one whose gender identity is distinct from their sex at birth. A transvestite is someone who wears the opposite sex’s clothes.

Transexual vs. Transgender vs. Transvestite

How To Use Transgender vs. Transsexual vs. Transvestite Correctly

A transexual or transgender is one whose gender identity is distinct from their sex at birth. A transvestite is someone who wears the opposite sex’s clothes.

Some dictionaries still consider the terms transgender and transvestite synonymous, but they are not. Transgender is a broader adjective that is more inclusive of the wider community.

A transgender person might be assigned male or female at birth but now identify the opposite. The word is much deeper than transvestite because it’s more than the individual’s clothes.

A transvestite is another word for someone who cross-dresses. It refers to a person who acts and dresses in the opposite gender but may not necessarily identify as one. 

What Does It Mean to Be a Transgender Person?

Being transgender or trans is not the same for all cultures. The dominant view is that you identify as different or opposite from your sex at birth. 

Men and Women

If one was assigned female at birth and discovered she identifies as male, he’s a transman. If someone was born with male genitalia and knew later on that she’s a woman, she’s a transwoman. 

It’s also worth noting that a transwoman has a female sense of self, while a transman has a male sense of self. 

Using Both

A transgender person can also identify as a combination of both. It’s based on the notion that gender is fluid, and one can change gender identity and expression over time. The correct term for someone who identifies as a combination or neither is a transgender nonbinary person.

Trans people can transform their physical appearance. They can also change their legal gender marker and name to reinforce the gender they identify. 

It’s also essential to learn that the term transgender is an adjective instead of a noun. It can be politically incorrect to call someone transgender. Instead, call them a transgender person. In plural form, it’s trans people, transgender men, or transgender women. 

What Does It Mean to Be Transvestite?

A transvestite wears clothing that is conventionally associated with the opposite sex. It comes from the Latin word vestire, which means to dress. 

The main difference between transgender and transvestite is that transgender people show gender identity. Meanwhile, a transvestite man can dress like a woman but still identify as a man.  

That means someone who wants to dress like the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trans. Some examples of celebrities who cross-dress are Harry Styles and Marvin Gaye Sr. 

Clothing is just one form of one’s gender expression. One’s expressions of gender refer to how one person shows their gender to people and their surroundings. For instance, a woman’s gender expression can be feminine or masculine. 

Old Fashioned Rules 

Unfortunately, society reinforces gendered choices that people should make. Some parents teach children to use toys, clothes, and colors that match traditional expectations at a young age.

Another outdated definition of a transvestite is a person who gets sexual pleasure from cross-dressing. Today, we see transvestites as those who wear clothes of the opposite sex. The correct term for someone whose fetish is cross-dressing is a transvestic fetishist.

Transvetitism is often linked with drag. Although drag traces its history back to cross-dressing, it usually involves mimicking and exaggerating signifiers of gender and gender roles. 

Unlike the term transgender, transvestite can be a noun. And it’s potentially offensive to say that someone is a transvestite. 

What Does It Mean to Be Transexual?

Transexual is another outdated term that refers to transgender individuals who have experienced medical interventions. It can also mean anyone who wants to or is about to undergo the medical transition. It can be in the form of hormones or gender confirmation surgery. 

Some transexual people are okay with being called transexual. However, many now reject the word because of its history and implications in medical communities. 

Use the word transexual as an adjective when writing. Like transgender, it emphasizes the word woman, man, person, or people because it’s only a descriptor. So instead of saying, “She’s a transexual,” say, “She’s transexual” or “She’s a transexual woman.”

Transgender vs. Cisgender

A trans man had female genitalia and was assigned female in their birth certificate but identified as a man. That’s because “trans” is a Latin word for “on the other side.”

Transgender individuals do not have to undergo gender-affirming medical procedures to consider themselves trans. They are also permitted to change their legal gender marker. 

“Cis” is a Latin prefix that means “on the side.” A cisgender person has a gender identity matching their birth sex. It’s a straight woman or man, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual. The term cisgender has been used for more than twenty years now. 

Why Is the Word Transexual Offensive?

The LGBT community, specifically transgender people, considers the term transexual controversial. Historically, transexual or transsexual was a term to label trans people as someone with a mental health condition. Some still use it to discriminate and harass them.

Medical and psychological communities accepted it as an illness for transgender people. However, they now understand that being transgender is not a disease but human nature.

Using the Word “Sex”

Another reason transexual is now an offensive term is because of the word sex. It implies that one’s “transsexuality” is all about their sexuality when gender and sex are different

Transexual is also a derogatory term because a trans woman may identify as a woman without medical procedures. It denies the gender identity of those who have no access to the procedure or do not want to undergo it.

Therefore, the accepted term for someone whose gender identity is distinct from their biological sex at birth is transgender. The larger transgender community approves it, and Americans and British people use it more.

It’s Personal 

You might be confused as to why some are okay with calling themselves transexuals. It all has to do with the person’s personal experiences. 

If you’re uncertain how to address or refer to someone, ask them. But these identity terms and pronouns can be a sensitive topic to some. You need to understand that some people do not feel comfortable sharing that information.

Can You Call a Trans Person a “Tranny” for Short?

No, don’t call trans people tranny. It’s an offensive slur that only the entire transgender community can reclaim. So even if you hear your trans friend saying the word, it’s inappropriate to say it back. 

The word is derogatory because people use it to label transgender people as mentally ill. Psychological communities also use the term to consider trans people as inferior or sexually deviant.

What Does It Mean to Transition?

How To Use Transgender vs. Transsexual vs. Transvestite Correctly 1

A transgender person who wants to transform their looks to match their gender physically is undergoing transition. To transition may involve using hormone supplements to repress the traits of their assigned gender or undergoing surgery. 

For transgender women, US hormone supplements help with breast growth, feminine vocal pitch, and facial features. 


Another way to transition is through gender confirmation surgery. Another term for this process of transition is gender-affirming surgery. The person alters or removes the trans person’s anatomical features.

In the earlier times, it was called a sex-change operation. However, this medical term is now unacceptable.  

One can undergo cosmetic surgeries for their genitals and secondary sex characteristics. However, anyone can experience these processes no matter their gender identity. 

The decision to transition depends on person to person. Some feel the need to alter their physical traits medically. Others accept their femininity or masculinity despite not adhering to expectations of gender.  

Issues that Arise

Several transgender people experience gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder to diagnose their distress. They can feel depressed or anxious about having a gender opposite of the assigned birth sex.

Is the Term Transgenderism Correct?

No, the term transgenderism is dated and incorrect. You might think it just means being transgender, but many transphobic people misappropriate the term to diagnose transgender people as mentally sick.

Over ten years ago, transgenderism was still a disorder that appeared in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 2015, The American Society for Reproductive Medicine and other academic research institutions stated that it’s not a mental illness. 

If someone is undergoing hormone therapy or cosmetic surgery to match their gender identity, they are transitioning. They are not experiencing transgenderism. 

What Pronouns to Use for Transgender People

Most transgender people prefer the familiar “he” and “she” pronouns when someone refers to them in the third person. For transgender women, “she” and “her” are the appropriate terms, while it’s “he” and “him” for transgender men.

But there are exceptions. Some do not want to conform to these binary manifestations of gender. So, they prefer “they” and them” because they are gender non-conforming. 

Using They and Them

“They” and “them” are now acceptable gender pronouns. The APA endorses these pronouns as singular or plural. Follow it up with the simple form of a verb. For example, Julia is a transgender woman. They go to college at the University of Southern California.

In the first person, “I,” “me,” and “you” are still acceptable. When talking to a transgender person, say, “You are beautiful.” 

Always ask a person their pronouns to show courtesy. It also shows that you are free from gender bias and accept their gender identity.

Using the Terms in Writing

It’s not easy waters to navigate. If you’re ever unsure, reach out and ask someone from the community. They’re more than happy to help shed light on this topic and educate you. But, here are some examples.

If karaoke embarrasses Westerners, and cross-dressing embarrasses Easterners, the perfect tax official would be a transvestite amateur singer. [The Standard]

Candy Darling was probably the sexiest transvestite that ever lived, but s/he wasn’t just sexy — she was also talented. [Westword]

Now performing (and living) as Justin Vivian Bond—with a middle name added to reflect a transsexual identity—s/he has released a pretty terrific solo album. [Knoxville Metro Pulse]

The Verdict

The terms transgender and transvestite can be confusing. But over time, understanding the terms has become crucial to show respect for one’s gender identity. 

Use the word transgender to describe a person whose gender is different from the one they were assigned at birth. And use transvestite to refer to someone who cross-dresses. And if you’re ever unsure about using terms like this in your writing, check out our guide to easily confused words.