There can be a lot of confusion trying to get a grasp on what exactly someone means when they say they are transgender. Most people will assume that it means they identify as a different gender compared to their anatomical sex and are transitioning to or have already transitioned to that gender identity. This is true for many transgender people, but not for all of us. You see, transgender is actually an umbrella term that covers many diverse yet similar groups along a variable gender spectrum. It includes drag queens and transvestites at one end, gender fluid folk in the middle all the way to the transsexuals on the other end.
The term transgender was first used back in the 1960’s. Most people believe a transvestite named Virginia Prince first used it in a book she wrote in 1969. She used ‘transgenderal’ as a term to distinguish between transvestites and transsexuals. However, the term was actually first used in 1965 by a psychiatrist named John F. Olivan who coined the word ‘transgenderism’ which he defined as a need to change gender or sex. Despite the origins of the word transgender, it came to be used as an umbrella term in the mid 1980’s and then began to really pick up in popularity in the 1990’s and of course exploded onto the center stage in the 2010’s.
Today, the whole transgender community can be confusing, even for some of us in the community. There is a huge amount of diversity and often interesting motivations for how individual subgroups like to be identified and of course there are exceptions galore from person to person. Yes, it can be quite difficult to grasp, so lets take a look at some of the sub groups and try to make it a little bit easier to understand. We will begin at one end of the spectrum where we have drag queens/kings and the transvestites.
Drag Queens and Kings are usually gay men and women who like to dress like the opposite sex to preform. Drag shows are considered by many to be a performance art. Usually, there is no desire to transition and they are generally comfortable in their own body. Not all drag queens and kings are gay, though a majority of them tend to be. Some Drag Queens/Kings may also be at a different part of the spectrum, as you will find some transsexuals or genderfluid people doing drag shows. Transvestites are men or women who get enjoyment out of dressing as the opposite sex, which can often come with a sexual arousal component but not always. Transvestites do not have any desire to transition nor live as the opposite sex. A transvestite can also be gay though they are generally straight.
In the middle we have the genderqueer folks, which is another umbrella term for anyone not identifying as either of the gender binary (male or female). Some genderqueer people like to think of themselves as neither male nor female or as both at the same time. Some will even identify themselves a unique third gender. Genderfluid people also fit under the genderqueer umbrella and they will often change their perspectives and shift at will over the spectrum. A genderfluid person may present as male in the morning, female in the afternoon, and then no gender in the evening or a mixture at any given point. Some genderqueer people may indulge in hormones and some plastic surgery though they will rarely look at transitioning.
At the further end of the spectrum we have the transsexuals who do identify as the opposite sex and will often transition with hormones and surgery to live as their true gender. Not all transsexuals will get surgery, some are completely happy with a partial transition. A transsexual will want to or will live full time in their true gender identity and will do whatever it takes to alter their bodies to match their gender.
Why does everyone use the term transgender when it would be easier to distinguish the subgroups if we just called them by their subgroup? Some people do like to be referred by their subgroup title but many do not. For transsexuals, the word transsexual has been through some very bad times at the hands of the media and television shows such as The Jerry Springer Show. Personally, I cringe at the sound of it. Transgender doesn’t have that baggage and for many of us it just feels better to use. There are some transgender women who still prefer transsexual and that is okay. The second reason is an umbrella term is great way to show solidarity and move all of us forward towards better rights and public acceptance.