In the complicated redefining of gender and sexuality, terminology has become confusing and easy to misuse. Transvestites and transsexuals are two terms used often as synonyms, although many people suggest that this is a misidentification. A number of differences exist between those identifying themselves as one or the other, although the exact definitions may vary from person to person.
One of the main differences regards gender identification. Gender, according to many experts, is a social rather than biological definition. The social structures regarding male and female roles are what define gender, rather than the anatomical and scientific definitions that define what sex a person is. In essence, the clothes someone wears, the beauty products he or she uses, and even the types of activities that he or she enjoys may all be described in terms of gender.
Transvestites and transsexuals usually have different ideas of gender identification. Transvestites do not usually exhibit any discomfort with their biologically determined sex. Transvestite men want to be men; transvestite women want to be women. Many transvestites choose to adopt habits of dress or appearance of the opposite gender, while retaining all physical characteristics of their sex.
In contrast, transsexuals believe that they should be or are truly the opposite sex. A transsexual may take action to make chemical or anatomical alterations to his or her body in order to be more similar to their desired sex. Hormone supplements, such as estrogen and testosterone, are often used by transsexuals to cause chemical changes, such as hair growth and vocal range alteration. Some may choose to undergo re-assignment surgery that makes the body appear to be more like that of the opposite sex. Many transsexuals live their public lives as the opposite sex, preferring to be seen as the sex they wish to be, rather than that that was biologically determined.
It is often suggested that cross-dressing, as seen in transvestites, is a clear indicator of homosexual orientation. This is not by any means true, although some transvestites are gay. Cross-dressing or drag may be done for any number of reasons, including for personal enjoyment, performance art, or to make a political or social statement about gender roles or societal rules.
A major difference between transvestites and transsexuals is the extent to which their transgender activities pervade their lifestyle. Usually, those who have undergone reassignment surgery will live openly and constantly as their chosen sex. Transvestites will often confine their transgender activities to specific portions of their lives, remaining in traditional gender roles much of the time.
Since the rise of the the women’s rights and gay rights movements, traditional gender roles are being questioned by many societies. In some cultures, gender roles are far less specific and those who exhibit physical or emotional traits of both are often considered to be shamanistic or in possession of special powers. While in Western society, transgender activities and choices remain often misunderstood and disdained, the extent to which individuals can express their thoughts and preferences is considerably greater than in times past.