The Wide Spectrum of Gender-Variant People and the Words Used to Describe Them:

[A sub-page of the TS informational page, by Lynn Conway

[V 3-28-06]

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The underlying emotions and feelings of gender variance are expressed in many different ways in different cultures, depending on the available social roles in which transgender people can exist in each culture. Different words may be used to describe the “types” of gender-variant people known in a particular culture and the ways in which they express their gender variance.  These “types” vary widely from culture to culture, and evolve over time within each culture. For information and examples from many cultures, see the references listed below.


Examples from English-language countries and cultures:

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the word “transvestite” came into use in English to describe any person who wore clothing ordinarily associated with the opposite sex, regardless of motivation. It took another 50 years before “transsexual” came into use to refer to those who took advantage of later technological (i.e., medical) advances to “change their sex” and live as women (if born as boys). Recently, other categories of gender variance have been given their own descriptive names in English, including the use of the word “transgender” as an inclusive term covering many categories.

The frequent confusion of gender variance with sexual orientation has had a strong impact on language everywhere. Even as the word “transvestite” gradually came into general usage in English, the majority of people still referred to gender-variant people by using one or another term for homosexuality. Since gays and gender-variant people alike were viewed as outcasts or worse, the majority of these “popular” terms were extremely negative ones.

English terminology for gender variance sometimes shifted for political reasons too. The word “transvestite” is now heard much less often in English, because it became associated in the public mind with “sexual deviance” or “mental illness” – in a holdover of Victorian and old-guard psychiatric ways of thinking about such things.

Nowadays the word “crossdresser” is increasingly heard as an alternative to “transvestite” for those who wear the clothing of the opposite sex. Although “crossdresser” has a literal meaning that is similar to “transvestite,” it is much less stigmatizing because it is a new word without negative connotations from the past. 


In the late 20th Century, the word “transgender” increasingly came into use to refer to people who are gender-variant in some way (including some crossdressers), and rapidly replaced the old-time use of the word “transvestite” for that purpose.

An example of communication/translation difficulties across languages and cultures:


The long historical use of the English word “transvestite” seriously complicates efforts at communication and translation across language barriers. The reason is that it is easily confused with the word “travesti”, which is used in many Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc.).

In the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking worlds, the word “travesti” has long been used to refer to gender-variant males (just as “transvestite” was long used in the English speaking world). However, “travesti” has a very different meaning in the Romance languages than “transvestite” has in English.

Instead of referring to heterosexual crossdressers ( “transvestites”), “travestis” refers to young gender transitioners who are attracted to men, who feminize their bodies and partly transition (usually without genital surgery) and who historically have worked in the sex trade. Thus “travesti” is best translated into the word “she-male” (although that word has a negative connotation in English).


For more information, see the section about the travestis in Lynn's TS information page (see also the specifics of French translations). Meantime, the complexity and impact of the confusions surrounding just these three words (transvestite, crossdresser, travesti) exposes the larger difficulties of overall communication about gender variance across languages and cultures.

Reflecting on the larger picture:


It is also important to note that no matter how many and what types of gender variance a society recognizes at any given time, they rarely represent precisely-defined homogeneous groupings of individuals. Human diversity is far too complex for that.


It is better to think of such groupings as having porous boundaries, with people migrating back and forth among the zones, as well as between them and the zone of so-called “normality.” As in geographic migration, the motives for moving on can be extremely varied, including a change in social and economic constraints, the aging process, crises in physical and/or mental health, increasing self-awareness, exposure to educational information, and so on.

The important thing is that those who find it necessary to explore their gender identity have access to some kind of “safe landing zone” where they can initially fit in and learn about themselves with some degree of comfort and safety, even if the zone where they first land is not their final destination.


For these and many other reasons, we should avoid assigning permanent “labels” onto people regarding their expression of gender variance. Instead we should visualize such labels as verbal shorthand that helps us communicate about current-day expressions of gender variance in specific current cultures.


Links to references for further study:


1.  "Differences in the situations of TG and TS people in different countries around the world", by Lynn Conway


2.  "Historical and cross-cultural evidence of transsexualism", by Lynn Conway (containing information about the Hijra of India and Bangladesh).


3.  "TransgenderAsia", by Sam Winter.


4.  European Transgender Network (TGEU) > TS Information > Words for Gender Variance