Understanding the terms that are used
Trans issues and language
According to the latest figures in 2009 (GIRES) approximately 1500 adults every year seek out medical advice in the UK concerning their gender identity, a number which has grown steeply in the last five years. A proportion of those people will proceed to the point where they have permanently changed their social gender role. This is indicated by the fact that approximately 300 people currently seek legal recognition every year under the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
There are also an increasing number of children and young people being referred for specialist evaluation by the only centre for this in the UK; The Tavistock and Portman Clinic. Numbers are increasing rapidly, as awareness of gender identity issues becomes more widespread. The numbers of young people now changing social gender roles in school is also increasing.
The medical term for people who are uncomfortable with the role they are expected to fulfil because of their physical sex at birth is 'Gender Dysphoria'. Those who seek to permanently change their outward physical appearance in order to live more comfortably in the opposite gender role are described as 'transsexual people'.
The process of changing one’s gender role is referred to as 'transition'.
The original American usage of the term 'transgender' referred to people who adopt the opposite gender role from the one assigned to them at birth, but without the formal clinical diagnosis and control connected with the term 'transsexual'. They may change role permanently or only some of the time. Distinctions are blurred, however, because some people may obtain hormones unofficially and/or go abroad for privately arranged surgeries.
Inevitably it is much harder to make any accurate estimate of such people, although their numbers are thought to be significant. Transgender people like this are just as likely to encounter discrimination as transsexual people whose gender transition has been medically supervised.
Nowadays the term 'transgender' is used by many people as an umbrella term (as we do in this site). An alternative word is 'trans'. The use of 'trans' is preferred by some as it avoids ambiguity and recognises the original distinct meaning of 'transgender'.
Trans as an umbrella term includes transsexual people, transgender people, people who cross-dress and a range of other distinct forms of identity and expression. Strangers are unlikely to be aware of the distinctions and simply perceive someone who appears to violate conventional gender 'rules'.
There is a lack of agreement between people as to which terms they prefer. Therefore the safest practice is always to ask someone which way they would prefer to be described.
It is advisable to only ever use these terms as adjectives. Calling someone 'a transsexual' is often considered to be as rude as calling someone 'a black'. Similarly it is considered best practice to refer to 'a transgender person' rather than 'a transgendered person'.
Regardless of how far a trans person’s transition has progressed it is always considered polite and respectful to use terms that acknowledge their identity as a man or woman. Thus a transsexual person who is transitioning from a former male role to a female one would usually wish to be referred to as 'she' or 'her' and for people to refer to her as a woman. The same applies in reverse to trans men (going from female to male).
Trans people are therefore quite clearly diverse. People perceive and express their gender identity in different ways, The experience of discrimination, harassment, victimisation or adverse outcomes is common to all trans people though.
Last Updated: 15 May 2014