Transgender and transsexual can refer to a person who has a different gender identity to the sex a doctor assigns them at birth. However, many people find the term transsexual outdated and offensive.

This article discusses the definitions and differences of these two terms and whether the term transsexual is offensive.

We also look at which terminology a person can avoid alongside the resources available for those who are transgender.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Transgender is an umbrella term that people frequently shorten to trans.

The LGBTQIA Resource Center state that if a person identifies as transgender, their gender identity differs from the traditional expectations of the sex that a doctor assigns someone at birth.

For example, transgender may refer to a person whom a doctor assigned as male at birth, but that person identifies as female, and vice versa.

However, transgender does not always refer to the binary transition between male and female.

Some people may refer to themselves as transgender as they identify with a gender that is neither male nor female, a mix of the two, or someone whose identity changes from male to female at different points.

Some other genders that fall under the transgender umbrella include non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, no gender, or multiple genders.

A 2015 review notes that, for decades, the term transsexual referred to people who had undergone medical procedures, such as gender-affirming surgery, to match their gender identity and physical appearances.

GLAAD note that transsexual is an older and outdated term that originated in the psychological and medical communities.

Some people may still use transsexual to refer to a person with a different gender identity to the sex a doctor assigned them at birth. However, the newer definition of transgender does not imply that a person has undergone gender-affirming medical procedures.

According to GLAAD, the main difference between the two is that, unlike transgender, the term transsexual is not an umbrella term.

Some people, including those in the medical and psychological fields, still prefer to use the term transsexual to refer to those who have had gender-affirming medical interventions, such as hormones and surgery.

However, most medical professionals will use whichever term the individual prefers.

Some people who do not identify as transsexual would not use this term, preferring the term transgender, which is more inclusive and affirming.

It is important to ask each person which term they would prefer.

Although medical professionals initially used the term to categorize people who had received medical or surgical intervention to match their bodies to their true gender identity, it has crept into everyday use to describe all trans people.

However, many people, including those who do not want or need to undergo these medical procedures, find the term transsexual offensive.

A 2015 review reinforces the view that many of the terms people use to describe people are now outdated and how their continued use increases the stigma and oppression experienced by people who are transgender.

The best way to avoid offending someone is to not refer to them as transsexual unless they say otherwise.

There are several terms that people should avoid when talking to a person who is transgender or when discussing them with other people. These words are often hurtful and can be transphobic.

Cissexism is a form of discrimination and exclusion where people believe that there are and should only be two genders — female and male. They may also believe that a person’s gender is inseparable from their sexual characteristics.

Referring to a person as male because a doctor assigned them as male at birth even though that person does not identify as a male is an example of cissexism.

The best way for a person to avoid using an offensive term is to ask themselves whether they would ask the same questions or use the same words to a person who is cisgender. Cisgender refers to those who identify with the sex a doctor assigned them at birth.

For example, a person would not ask a cisgender person what genitals or secondary sex characteristics they have. It is an inappropriate question to ask both a person who is cisgender and a person who is transgender.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of terminology to avoid with explanations why these terms are hurtful or transphobic:


While some people in the trans community may reclaim this word, people should not use it to label another person or use it as a joke.


When using this term, people are invalidating a person’s identity and any pronouns they use to self-identify.

Saying that a person does not look male or female

This phrase is offensive because it assumes that everyone should fit into societal expectations of gender.

All expressions of gender and identity are valid, and this phrase invalidates a person’s identity.

Using the wrong pronouns

A person should always respect the pronoun that another individual uses to describe themselves.

Deliberately using the wrong pronouns, such as referring to a person as he or him when they know that the individual prefers to use they and them, is insulting and invalidates a person’s individual choices.

Asking people their real name

Asking a person their real name or their name at birth is offensive because it insinuates that their identity is invalid.

This invasion of privacy also presumes the right to know personal information about another person.

Learn more about deadnaming here

Asking personal questions about a person’s body

Asking a person whether they have had gender-affirming surgery or what genitals or other sex characteristics they have is highly inappropriate.

People who are transgender have different preferences about how they self-identify.

Some may prefer people the term transgender. Others might prefer a different term, such as non-binary, genderfluid, male, or female.

The best way to know how to refer to a person who is transgender is to ask.

Some people may also change their pronouns. Common forms of pronouns include she, he, and they. However, some people may prefer different pronouns.

The best way to know which pronouns to use when referring to someone is to ask.

Learn more about gender pronouns here.

GLAAD have a directory of transgender resources, including frequently asked questions, tips for allies, and various resources and organizations that provide advice, help, and advocacy for people who are transgender.

Certain resources that may be helpful include:

If a person lives outside the United States and wants more information on resources, The Trevor Project have an international resource list available on their website.

The terms transgender and transsexual have their own definitions, and some people may prefer to use one term over the other.

It is often better to avoid calling a person transsexual unless they prefer that term, as some people may find that term offensive.

There are various other terms and phrases to avoid, as some words can hurt and offend people who are transgender. It is always best to ask a person which terms they prefer.