Sexual Health Q&A

What is the difference between transsexual and transgender?

Sex and gender can be considered in biological and cultural ways. Biological sex refers to a person’s anatomy. Typically, a biological male has a penis and testes. A biological female has a vagina and ovaries. 

Gender is rooted more in culture and environment. Most cultures have social customs and activities that are associated with males and females. For example, children may be given certain gender-specific toys to play with. In some cultures, this might mean toy cars and trucks for boys and dolls and dress-up clothes for girls. Likewise, the children might be raised to take on certain roles – or have certain expectations - as adults, based on their gender.

In general terms, the word transgender refers to people who identify differently from their biological sex. For example, a transgender person who is biologically female may feel that a male identity is a better fit and take the following steps:

• Use a male name instead of a female name.
• Use male pronouns instead of female pronouns.
• Dress as a man.
• Engage in activities that are typically associated with men in that culture.

A transsexual is a person who physically transitions from male to female or vice versa.

He or she might take hormones to suppress the characteristics of the biological gender or promote the characteristics of the desired gender. In this way, transsexuals can control, to some extent, traits like facial hair and breast development.

Transsexuals may also decide to have gender reassignment surgery, in which – to the extent that is possible - the anatomical features of the biological gender are removed and the features of the desired gender are added.

These definitions are not strict, however. Some feel that the word transsexual should not always refer to physical changes. And some transsexuals no longer refer to themselves as such after they have finished their transition. They call themselves either men or women.

The words are also complex in light of culture and the passage of time. What is considered typical male or female dress or behavior in one culture may be considered unusual in another. And what may have been typical gender expression a century ago may not be the case today.