Regarding the issue of nomenclature and labels, there are many opinions on this particular subject. Invariably, few agree. I suggest a compromise, based on the acceptance that we have differences, as well as similarities and shared experiences.

Confusion abounds in many minds regarding the words transgender, transsexual and intersex. All too often they are used interchangeably by journalists, bloggers and others. Doing so is inaccurate and not only leads to misconceptions, but ends up fracturing the fragile alliance that exists between members of these communities.

The word transgender was coined by Virginia Prince; the original intent was to contrast those who wanted surgery from those who didn’t. As defined by Dr. Harry Benjamin, a true transsexual was someone who identified as a member of the opposite sex and was desirous of surgery for congruence. In recent times, the use of “transgender” has gradually and consistently been enlarged for the sake of inclusivity. Consider that the word used most frequently by clinicians and society up until the last 10 or 15 years (and today, still, some places in the world) was “transvestite,” a word generally carrying a pejorative connotation. That wasn’t Magnus Hirschfeld’s intent when he coined it. In today’s world, the term transgender seemed far less judgmental.

Sadly, when transgender came to be used consistently as an umbrella for all persons whose gender identity and/or expression were perceived to be non-normative, individual experience became homogenized. The fallout is that many have rebelled against the use of the word. Rather than uniting themselves, gender-variant people have become utterly factionalized, each group attempting to express a rationale for its self-validation and self-determination. Perhaps we’d have been better served if the metaphorical umbrella had never been used. No one should be forced to amend their understanding of themselves merely to accommodate convenience.

Different persons eschew the umbrella concept and the word transgender, with many and varied reasons. Some consider themselves to be transsexual. Here are several commonly heard rationales: Those living full-time feel their lives to be different from persons living part-time. Or, some who have had surgery(-ies) feel they have a greater congruence and/or commitment than those who desire no surgery. Others assert that they have a birth defect which can be fixed and that they are not transgender. Some individuals who consider themselves to be transsexual embrace a gender binary. Some trangender persons eschew binaries in favor of gender fluidity. Some are in the middle…some don’t know…some don’t care. Most of these viewpoints are autonomous expressions meant to explore an individual’s individuality and authenticity. Too often, however, semantics and rhetoric rule; too often some establish arbitrary rules and hierarchies and force others to conform. This is where self-validation crosses a line and becomes elitist and separatist.

I fail to see why anyone would insist on value judgments; all that’s needed is to accept that there are differences and similarities. The reason we find ourselves treated similarly is that transgender and transsexual individuals often receive similar treatment — jobs, health care, discrimination and violence. We are minorities who society has relegated to being “different” because of what it perceives to be gender anomalies. Yes, we are individuals who share some common experiences, and, yes, I believe each person alone has the responsibility for their own self definition. But I would hope that there’d be more of an emphasis on being one’s genuine and authentic self, rather than establishing a gender caste system.

There seem to be “two sides” here: so-called inclusionists and exclusionists. In reality, neither has a paradigmatic mandate. Both can be useful and/or detrimental. It depends on our ability to see the other side and compromise…and a little common sense.

As is often the case, when we try to understand and define ourselves, it may imply delimiting someone else vis a vis how they are and are not similar or dissimilar to us. I suspect that our intersections in this regard are both the cause and the solution for our lack of a common understanding; this and the fact that society has pre-conceived notions about gender variance and has lumped us together as “different.” These impasses give us starting points to honestly discuss our differences and similarities. Questions that need to be asked are: How can we reframe the issues? Is this possible? What are the values, detriments and limits of labels? If there is a reason for using the word transgender, what is it? And, If there is a better way, what is that?

Misunderstandings between trans and intersex are even more contentious, often with good reason. Intersex has traditionally referred to anatomical conditions; there can be a variety of etiologies: genetic and/or chromosomal, for example, or as a result of prenatal conditions, such as the administration of DES to the mother. Transsexuals have traditionally not been diagnosed with intersex conditions in cases where there appears to be no anatomical evidence. Many trans persons, however, make the case that there are, conceivably, intersex factors in play which do not necessarily show up in anatomy. They may be genetic, hormonal or both. There may be other prenatal factors. Science may be getting closer to being able to substantiate these claims. It would seem prudent, however, to only accept “intersex” to be defined by anatomical structure until we have further evidence that conclusively makes the case for hormonal, neurological and/or genetic intersex conditions. Yet, it would be premature and mistaken to exclude the possibility that one day intersex may mean more than anatomy.

Disagreement appears when transgender, transsexual and intersex issues intersect. There is no inherent mutual exclusivity here, but given the evident divisiveness, it’d be easy to assume that some actually believe there is cause for militant separatism. Again…I think some kind of compromise is necessary. Can we not agree that these points of intersection are where we must set differences aside and work together? : :

— Comments and corrections can be sent to To contact Robbi Cohn, email

This article was published in the Jan. 9 – Jan. 22 print edition.

5 replies on “Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex”

  1. As a male journalist who writes frequently about LGBT topics, I am still confused by the semantic difference between transsexual and transgender. I have a friend who formerly presented as a male but now presents as female. But she does not take hormones nor plans surgery. She has described herself as “gay” or “lesbian” (attracted to women) but has never used any “tran” word, as far as I know. How would the “tran” linguistics experts categorize this person if transvestite is now off-limits as impolite? I simply refer to my friend as “she” and do not attempt to get any more specific than that.

  2. To “beachcomberT”; my friend, you are doing exactly the right thing when you refer to your friend as “she”, and “her”. I will say thank you to you for her, for your kindness and your friendship. Both of these are so valuable and rare, yet most won’t simply let a person exist.

    robbie cohn; If people would just ask most of us with a little courtesy, so much pain could be avoided. Thank you for pointing out that the easiest way to avoid preconceived notions, and learn about us is to ask us honest questions.

  3. I don’t think this is a Battle that will ever be successfully brought to an end….therefore the best one can do is live their own life and try to stay as far out of the drama as possible. I do however feel that those who self diagnosis and go around the SOC and who either do a partial transition or none at all do hurt the legislative efforts around the country…. society is only going to bend so far in it’s acceptance of what is normal…I also feel that those who live as women and refuse gender surgery have male gender Identities thus male brains furthering the misconceptions people have about everyone who gender variant as do the ones who cross dress often they go to far and as a result they bring further shame on everyone since we’re all lumped together by the general population..there should be far much more self restraint by everyone concerned when choices what to wear and how to act in public. The best possible answer to any of this is if one has completed transition and can go stealth and live a normal life then do so..cut the ties to the trans community and the drama and enjoy life for it’s far to short and is wasted on such things as arguing over this or that.

  4. I have dealt with this fight over labels for some time. When transgender became a blanket term, it opened a floud gate. Cross Dressr stated they were not transgender, transssexuals were not transgender, and Intersex was not either. Makes me wonder how it became a blanket term.
    As an Intersex, who had physical differences, bubt wanted to be other than Intersex. I spent a long time accpeting myself for who and what I was. I learned I was not transsexual. The issue arises when people use Intersex as a means to justify who they are, when by definition, they would not be. Even though I believe there is a biological component to not just transsexualism, but others along the gender spectrum, to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual.
    At first I did not care who used Intersex as a label, until I was at the doctors and some woman was throwing a fit because they would not classify her as an Intersex Person, because she idenified as male. The test did not show she was, she threw a fit. A further problem occurs when people think they above one or more sub-communities of the gender variant community. In some aspects, I actually have a disadvantage, so I would never consider myself better than anyone.

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