What’s in a name?

Transsexualism

Transsexualism (or TS) was first used in the 1950s, to describe a person whose “core” gender identity is fundamentally and irrevocably the opposite of their visible biological sex.

TS is a natural biological variation of physical sexual formation. Medical practitioners familiar with the condition readily diagnose it. For men and women who experience TS, the remedy is rehabilitative sex affirmation treatment (being those hormonal and surgical procedures also described as sex reassignment treatment) to relieve their profound discomfort with the sex assigned them at birth.

This remedy provides for a greater sense of harmony between their innate or brain-sex and their physical body. Under Australian law, these men and women can also correct their legal-identity (legal-sex).

‘Gender Dysphoria’

In 1960, Dr. Harry Benjamin coined the term ‘gender dysphoria’, to describe the main symptom of the transsexual condition. This term means a profound discomfort with the sex a person is assigned at birth.

Transgender

The term ‘transgender’ was coined in the 1970s by Virginia Prince, a cross-dressing man who wanted to live as a woman, without the use of hormones or surgery.

‘Transgender  (or TG)  is a useful term for people who do not fit the medical diagnosis of transsexualism. Many transgender people use a variety of medical and social measures in order to more fully realise their gender expression and relieve their discomfort between their gender and assigned legal-sex.

Transgender is an identity term where a person’s gender expression is contrary to their assigned legal-sex. The term ‘transgender’ covers a very broad range of identities. These identities range from people who define themselves as genderqueer, transmen, ftm, third-sex, and many other terms.

“Unlike the majority of transsexuals that “feel they were born that way” many of those identifying themselves as transgendered or gender-bending or gender-blending persons are attracted to the concept of a constructed gender and see themselves and their lives as evidence of it.

Eschewing any strict male-female dichotomy, transgendered persons instead reach for a wide range of mixtures of male and female restructured anatomies and manifest masculine and feminine life-styles. …”
— Prof. Milton Diamond, 2000

By 1981 the term ‘transgender’ was being applied indiscriminately to the whole “gender community” of cross-dressing and transgender people, including transsexuals and intersexed people as an ‘umbrella term’. This practice culminated in its inaccurate use in the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act and eventual ill-informed adoption by several other State and Territory jurisdictions.

In countries such as Australia, where the word transgender is widely used, it has often generated the perception that the experience is simply about ‘changing one’s gender’. This is one example how the term ‘transgender’ fails men and women affected by a medical condition (TS) who never ‘change gender’ but who experience the same gender since birth.

A landmark case

In 2002, in the Family Federal Court of Australia, a man affected by TS “Kevin” was granted the right to marry “Jennifer”, his female partner, based on recent understanding of the underlying biological cause to the condition. (see the ReKevin decisions)

This landmark case signifies greater community understanding and acceptance of Australians who have experienced the natural variation in physical formation called transsexualism.

Men and women affected by TS bring their physical body into alignment with their brain-sex, for its own sake and the harmony of mind and body that it brings.

Summary

In Australia, the term transsexualism is used although some groups have adopted the term ‘transgender’. The terms transsexual and transgender are not interchangeable. They mean different things, which is particularly significant in medical and legal contexts.

Further reading

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