Question about history of the word "transgender"

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Mona Pereth

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Location: New York City (Queens)

19 Oct 2022, 5:02 pm

The word "transgender" seems to have changed in meaning over the past 10 years or so. I'm wondering if anyone here is familiar with the history of this change and the reasons for it.

The GLAAD glossary contains the following definitions:

An adjective to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. People who are transgender may also use other terms, in addition to transgender, to describe their gender more specifically. Some of those terms are defined below. Use the term(s) the person uses to describe their gender. It is important to note that being transgender is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures. A person can call themself transgender the moment they realize that their gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth.

and then later, under "OTHER TERMS":

Transsexual (adj.)
An older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities. As the gay and lesbian community rejected homosexual and replaced it with gay and lesbian, the transgender community rejected transsexual and replaced it with transgender. Some people within the trans community may still call themselves transsexual. Do not use transsexual to describe a person unless it is a word they use to describe themself. If the subject of your news article uses the word transsexual to describe themself, use it as an adjective: transsexual woman or transsexual man.

An older term that replaced the offensive word "transvestite." While anyone may wear clothes associated with a different sex, the term cross-dresser is typically used to refer to men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women, but who do not wish to transition and present as a woman at all times. This activity is not drag. It is a form of gender expression and not done for entertainment purposes. Be aware of the differences between cross-dressers, drag queens, and transgender women. Cross-dresser does not describe men who perform in drag as drag queens. Transgender women are not cross-dressers and should never be referred to as such.

But the word "transgender," as defined above, has a much narrower meaning now than it used to. As noted in the above definition of "transsexual," "transgender" today is commonly used to mean what was previously known as "transsexual." On the other hand, not very long ago, "transgender" was an umbrella term that referred to a wide variety of gender nonconformity, including cross-dressers and drag queens, as well as what were then called transsexuals.

An example of the older meanings can be found in Julia’s trans, gender, sexuality, & activism glossary by Julia Serano:

Transgender: the most commonly accepted umbrella term for people who transgress gender norms or defy traditional gender categories in some way. Activists in the 1990s forwarded this term to unite transsexuals, crossdressers, drag artists, butch women, feminine men, and people who are androgynous, intersex, non-binary, and possibly others (as discussed in Outspoken, pp. 257-268; see also here). While the word was intended to be inclusive of all gender-variant people (in the hopes of organizing the largest possible coalition to challenge the gender binary), some individuals or subgroups have objected to being included under the label (see e.g., Whipping Girl, p. 26; Outspoken, pp. 179-188, also here), while some who identify with the term have attempted to exclude other subgroups from using or being included under the label (e.g., some have objected to the inclusion of drag performers and other non-transsexual gender non-conforming people). Unfortunately, many people in the cis mainstream are unaware of the broad coalition of identities that exist under the transgender umbrella, leading them to mistakenly equate the word “transgender” with transsexuals (even though the latter are merely one subgroup). For this reason, I sometimes use the phrase “transgender-spectrum” in my writings to stress this gender diversity, even though it is arguably redundant. Contemporary activists typically claim that “transgender” should only be used as an adjective (not a noun or a verb), and that individuals should not be referred to as “transgenders” or “transgendered,” even though these variants were routinely used by trans activists up through the mid-’00s (e.g., see Outspoken, pp. 322-323, note 31).


Transsexual: a person who identifies and/or lives as a member of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth. Some people (especially in the psychological/sexological literature) define “transsexual” based on the medical procedures one undergoes (e.g., seeking out sex reassignment surgery), but many trans people find such definitions to be objectifying (as they place undo focus on body parts rather than the person as a whole) and classist (as not all trans people can afford the means to physically transition). For these reasons, I favor definitions based on self-identity (i.e., whether one identifies as female or male) and/or lived sex (i.e., whether one currently navigates their way through the world as a woman or man) -- this conceptualization would be inclusive of pre-transition transsexuals (who are not yet living as a member of the gender they identify as), as well non-binary transsexuals (who navigate their way through the world as members of the sex other than the one they are assigned a birth, even if they do not fully embrace the identity of “woman” or “man”). I have conjectured (based upon countless conversations with other transsexuals) that the decision to transition is sometimes driven primarily by gender affiliation or identity (i.e., understanding oneself socially as a woman or man, and wanting to be recognized as such), and other times more by sex embodiment (i.e., an understanding that our bodies should be physically female or male); of course, many people experience both of these aspects. While I proudly call myself transsexual (and probably will until the day I die), other trans people take issue with the label, either because it originated in medical/psychiatric discourses, or because it has the pesky syllable “sex” in it (even though “sex” in this case clearly refers to physical sex rather than copulation). During the 1990s, the activist group Transexual Menace forwarded the alternative spelling “transexual” (with one S rather than two) as a reclaimed variant of the word.

Julia Serano also notes, on a page about her book, that the transgender community has undergone lots of rapid changes:

The speed at which trans activism has evolved is at least partly due to the cyclical nature of trans communities: Often the people who are most active and involved (especially in online settings) tend to be relatively new to the community, such as people who have recently “come out” as trans and/or who are transitioning (or have recently transitioned). And after a several year period of being passionate about, and absorbed in, conversations about trans identities, experiences, and activism, many trans people disengage to some degree, or move onto other interests or concerns. As a result, we (the community as a whole) tend to have a somewhat short memory span, even when it comes to fairly recent events in trans history.

(For more about Julia Serano, see this thread.)

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05 Dec 2022, 1:30 pm

I first met the word Transgender in around 2001. At that point I noted it was used very broadly to encompass many different conditions. Previously the terms I had seen were Transvestite and transexual, one related to dressing grooming and presentation and the other as a person having such a strong association with the other gender than that associated with the body type with which they were born that there was a very strong desire for a treatment (s) to change the body.

A second difference I noted was the origin of the terms. Transvestite and transexual were terms used about trans people by others. Transgender appeared to come more from trans people ourselves and our experience rather than what others thought our experience was.

A third was that there was implied judgement, scorn or pitty in the older terms from others.


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18 Apr 2023, 7:42 pm

I'm a transbender. LOL jk.

I want to be able to walk around with a cup boobs still shirtless.

I considered breastbinding. I don't want that attention. It's easier hiding under male showiness.