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What is the Difference Between Transvestites and Transsexuals?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for PublicPeople. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon1002850 — On Mar 03, 2020

The deal with Transvestite is, the word has a negative connotation. It has been used to describe men who have a fetish for women's clothing, wearing especially very feminine under garments. The reason we have so many more men wanting to be women, in my opinion, is men wearing women's clothing is frowned upon to a very extreme degree. Some men, I believe, have a very strong desire to wear feminine articles of clothing, so much, they convince themselves that the reason for the desire is they are somehow mentally, like a female. What I am saying is most men begin with a sexual motivation to cross-dress, which later becomes an internalized belief they were born the wrong gender.

With women it is different; women who have a cross gender identity usually have a lesbian orientation and wish to abandon very feminine clothing because such clothes are not naturally comfortable, or doses not wear as well as more masculine garments do. 'Butch' women usually vary to the degree as to low male or female they appear. Women are allowed to wear masculine clothing, I have not usually laughed at,seldom threatened, or beat up for wearing men's pants and shirts, or male appearing footwear. It is much easier for a female to be accepted appearing more manly clothes, but when men appear womanly, they are severely mocked and often threatened with violence.

Men who like women's clothes are a total mystery to me, but I do know it is a bigger desire for them to wear dresses and make-up than it is for me to not have to dress this way. I also know that such men are not really more like average women because the clothes does not make a female, but being close to babies is a real female instinct, which is not present in these men!

I feel so sorry for men who love dressing like women because it has led so many to give up their natural bodies just to be free to dress the way they wish. What a terrible high price to pay! I will never laugh at such men, or take any part to victimizing these men. I wish other persons would do the same, after all, it may seem weird, but convincing physicians to give them hormones and perform surgery on their bodies is so extreme and final!

I know some will disagree with me, and some will believe I am prejudiced towards transgender persons, which I am not because to a lessor extent, I am also transgender by my social somewhat 'butch' identity. What I wish to express is an insight into a problem that is cultural more than sexual. We need to learn to appreciate both genders equally, then we will have healthy diversity.

By MisterGhosty — On Jan 30, 2014

@Confused Mom in Post 19: You are being absolutely lovely. Your son is definitely not a pedophile for wanting to dress like a chick. If he says he's not interested in guys, then he probably isn't. Treat it just like any other hobby or interest! If he's stressed, this is a good, harmless outlet for him. Sometimes having a weird hobby will net you weird friends, and likely bullies, so let him know to be safe in general. You'll be fine.

By MisterGhosty — On Jan 30, 2014

To the fellow in post 20 about subconscious childhood dress-up memories: That would certainly open a person up to crossdressing if they had fun, but it would only help *illuminate* transgenderism, not cause it. Crossdressing is an action, transgenderism is a lifelong state.

(Or you could say that "man", "woman," etc. are lifelong states, which can mismatch the body. My "being a man" is more important to me than my "being trans", if you see what I mean. As far as I'm personally concerned, once I start passing, I graduate from trans-man to just man. I already have a life partner, so I don't need to worry about when or if it's appropriate to bring genetics up or what's in my undies. My SO is already happy with those particular issues.)

By MisterGhosty — On Jan 30, 2014

Trans man here. It's really simple.

Drag/Crosdressing/TranVESTism: Chick clothes on a dude, dude clothes on a chick. Fun. It's that simple at the core. Hobby, fetish, career, fashion, or stress-relief, it's a form of acting. Most want temporary status as the other gender.

TransSEXual/TransGENDER: Born in the wrong body. Not fun. Most want permanent status as the internal gender. Some want surgery or hormones.

Gay: gay.

Anyone can be a combination of these things. If John dresses up as Sally on the weekends for fun, he's a cross-dresser. If he also does it with dudes, he's gay too.

For the ladies getting stressed about their middle-aged hubbies trying on lacy underwear while you're not looking... First of all, yes. It's confusing and scary and, to some, a tad unpalatable. But it's not something to freak out about. It's an embarrassing hobby, like collecting Star Wars toys. It's not hurting anyone. Sit down with your guy, relax and talk through it. It's not an unsolvable situation. Of course he's going to lie about it at first. It's as weird for him as it is for you. That doesn't make you or him a bad person. Also, he's probably not gay. It's probably not even a fetish. People cross-dress to de-stress. It doesn't make him less of a man, and it doesn't change who he is. Just get counseling if you can't talk about it.

People attempting to date crossdressers: please check if they are gay or not. Don't assume you're in a relationship while they're spending nights with other people. Get everything out on the table. But if they crossdress and are into you, go for it! (After considering other factors like personality, etc. like always.)

Good luck you lost puppies. And remember, it's not the clothes, the genitals or the partners that make a person; it's how they are as a person. Judging is for the flawless, and that's none of us.

By anon356705 — On Nov 27, 2013

It's interesting to read everybody's opinions.

I'm transsexual, and I live a normal life, full time as a woman.

I have a "Miss" title, and a female passport. I've been on hormone therapy for some time now and pass as a woman 100 percent. I have grown my own breasts, have nice hair and my body is feminine, but I've still never had the final surgery. If I ever had to wear male clothes again I would literally vomit, and I would rather die.

A transvestite, however, can easily spend time in either gender role, and treats one as a fetish that can be put away until the next urge.

I think that explains the difference between transsexuals and

cross dressers / transvestites.

By anon344740 — On Aug 12, 2013

I wonder if any of these people were dressed up as the opposite sex as children by their parents. It is shocking how many parents would "pretend" their male child was a little girl. It's interesting to think how much this might affect the child even if they don't remember it.

By anon338341 — On Jun 13, 2013

I'm a straight guy but love crossdressing and lots of heavy make up. I have a short mini pvc dress and high heels, and would like to go out dressed up like this to get my hair cut, etc. Is this OK or can I have the views of anyone who has done this and the reaction that they have encountered?

By anon285210 — On Aug 14, 2012

I have a 19 year old son who has been cross-dressing for about four years. He says he is not gay and that he is sexually attracted to women but likes the control and vulnerability of wearing women's clothing. He suffers from very low self esteem and I am trying to understand so that he doesn't feel rejected and feels loved and accepted instead.

My other family thinks I'm blind and that my kid is a pedophile or closet gay but I don't think so. Any thoughts? He has recently gone out in public dresses in full drag. We let him wear girls clothes at home (no lingerie). Please help one confused mom!

By anon255622 — On Mar 18, 2012

"Autogynephilia" does not mean "cross dressing." It is the condition in which a male is aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman.

"Transvestite" literally means "cross dresser." The word is easy to break down: tans = across, plus vestite = dresser.

Heterosexuals may prefer the term cross-dresser, while leaving the term transvestite to gays, but the transvetitism actually has no allusion to sexual preference -- just to dressing in the clothing of the opposite gender.

A transsexual is someone who, in very basic non-clinical terms, has one gender on the outside and another on the inside. Not everyone who cross-dresses is a transsexual, and transvestites can be either male or female.

Transsexuals often adopt an identity opposite to their physical gender, and live as that person, presenting themselves to society as, for instance, Harriet instead of Harold. In the transsexual's brain, where sexuality begins, Harriet is the real person, and Harold is a genetic error.

A heterosexual who gets a kick out of dressing up as the opposite gender and going out on the town as Susie instead of Sam is not a transsexual. He's a "cross-dresser," or technically a transvestite. To him, Susie is not his true identity, but more of a sexual game.

By anon237468 — On Dec 29, 2011

That did not help or answer any of my questions! I am not uneducated about this, but I think there is something else going on with him.

By anon237251 — On Dec 28, 2011

I would like to know why it is mostly men in their late 40s and early 50s who then think they are transsexuals! I have been in a relationship for 20 years and we have been very happy with each other sexually, and in other ways, until one day he decided that he wanted to be a woman about three years ago! He is now 51 and has had prostate problems. I think he is now going through male menopause.

There was never any sign of him wanting to be a women and he says that he is not gay. What gives him the right to be so happy and make many of his family members so unhappy? I think he is being so selfish.

One other thing: he won't tell his kids, and I think he should, because we live in a small town and his kids are going to find out from someone else and it is going to destroy them. Why do transsexuals think they have the right to destroy other people's happiness?

By anon184219 — On Jun 07, 2011

anon150824(Post 11) and anon133051(Post 11) I hate to burst both your considerable sized bubbles, but you both had parts right and you both had parts wrong. My corrections are below.

Autogynephilia is one theory explaining transsexuality, posited by Ray Blanchard. It does not address cross-dressing. It's a theory about Transsexuality and on top of that there is considerable scientific criticism of the research. If indeed you were the "expert" you purport to be you would have known this. Either that, or you are not keeping up on your continuing education.

Transgender is generally used as an umbrella term. Transvestites, cross-dressers, transsexuals, drag queens, drag kings, gender queers, etc. are all transgender. All transgender means is that the person the label is applied to transgresses their society's gender norms and/or do not subscribe to a binary gender model.

A transvestite and a cross-dresser are the same thing: someone who wears clothing of the opposite sex. The only difference between these two is their sexual orientation. A transvestite is gay, whereas a cross-dresser is heterosexual. The term "cross-dresser" came about because heterosexual "transvestites" wanted to differentiate themselves as not out for gay sex. That's the only difference between the two.

A drag queen/drag king is a straight/gay/lesbian person who likes to dress over the top. They don't identify as the opposite sex. They are merely playing a role for fun and pomp. Or they are a performer.

A transsexual is a person who is so unhappy with their assigned gender role that they seek medical intervention to correct it.

This is misleading, however, because there are some statistics (good stats on transpeople are hard to come by so take this with a grain of salt) that indicate that the vast majority of transsexuals do not seek full sex reassignment surgery (some 85 percent ) but instead stop at hormone replacement therapy. Much of this may be due to more enlightened psychotherapy, which has abandoned the notion that a trans woman must "pass" at all costs and instead focuses on addressing the shame and internalized transphobia that afflicts many trans people.

The bottom line is that transgendered people are complex and very diverse beings. Just like everyone else is. I'm working with a gender therapist who has worked with trans people for 12 years. She told me that every single one of them has been different.

So I encourage you to use the labels to help get your head around the concepts, but don't abuse them in order to dismiss or put people in tidy little boxes. I've met a lot of transpeople in my life and it never ceases to amaze me how "normal" and wonderful they all are when you get past the "transgender" label and actually get to know them.

By anon158664 — On Mar 08, 2011

My name is gerry. When I am in male mode and sarah when I am dressed as a woman. I started cross dressing at an early age and often purged my pretty things and swore to give up cross dressing, but in my later years the urge returned stronger than ever and I sought the company of girls like me. Very quickly I established a sexual relationship with these girls and found I preferred to be the passive partner in the sex act. It was a small step to start having sexual relations with dominant men and I now find that being dressed as a woman and being made love to by a man is the only sexual contact I crave and I seek it as often as I can.

I am fairly promiscuous, but practice safe sex almost all the time but I have been known to get so aroused that I submit completely and fully to a man and have gone all the way. I have a couple of steady guys in my life now and we have been tested for STDs and we make love fully as a man and a woman would.

I am going out in public dressed now and present very well as a woman except for my height, but who cares? I am a proud transvestite and I am now where I want to be in my life. Yesterday I went swimming at a public beach and one man noticed there was a little bit too much bulge in my bathers and he followed me around for hours but didn’t speak to me.

Is there a large number of men who desire girls like me? I never seem to be short of dates. I don’t know if this is a fetish or what you would call it, but being treated like a woman by a man sexually is my love in life and I will never be able to give that up. I know that now, so there it is. That’s how this transvestite feels and I think you will find there are many like me. Thank you for reading my story. Sincerely, Sarah.

By anon150824 — On Feb 09, 2011

@anon133051 (Post #11): Sorry to doubt your *professional* opinion, but your claim is neither clear nor entirely true. "Cross-dressing" is the act of one dressing as the opposite sex, which is done by both transvestites and transsexuals, though for different reasons.

Also, it's funny how you manage to use so many words, yet still say nothing (in everything except for the false claim).

A transvestite is one who dresses the part of the opposite sex in order to receive some sort of sexual gratification.

Cross-dressing is not done at all times. Typically, one will only do so to receive such gratification. Transvestites are (usually, and in the general sense being discussed here) are cisgendered. That is, they identify (in terms of gender) with their biological sex. For this reason, transvestites usually will not go beyond cross-dressing in an attempt to present more as the opposite sex. Transvestitism IS often considered a fetish.

Unlike transvestites, (all) transsexuals are transgendered, identifying (again in terms of gender) with the opposite sex. They almost always cross-dress and adopt behaviors of the opposite sex in order to "pass" as that sex in public.

However, transsexualism is not a fetish; instead it is due to gender identity disorder. Many transsexuals feel that they are a "man trapped in a woman's body" or vice versa. This often results in bodily dysphoria, especially during intimacy. To resolve this issue, many transsexuals take hormones (estrogen for MTFs and testosterone for FTMs) and undergo partial or full sex reassignment surgery, often including chest and genital reconstruction, so that they can live out their life as a member of the opposite sex.

So, in short: Transvestites dress like the opposite sex in order to receive sexual gratification, while transsexuals feel they were born into the wrong body and cross-dress (and take other measures) to "pass" and live as that sex.

*Note: Although transvestites and transsexuals are generally thought of as being biological males, this is not always the case. There are many female transvestites and female-to-male transsexuals as well.

By anon133051 — On Dec 09, 2010

@dill1971: Frankly, you obviously know little about the topic and as such, you should refrain from speaking on it except to ask questions. Cross-dressing is a fetish, plain and simple, technically called autogynephilia. If you want to know psychology's views these issues, you should ask me. It's what I do.

Transsexualism is a wholly separate condition that has nothing at all do with sexuality or erotic drives. Its actually an extremely complex physical event. Even the earliest sexologists, Hirschfeld in 1905, for example, believed that there was a biological component. Nearly 100 years later we have the science to prove it. I'll refrain from getting too technical but I assure you the science is available for your review. Please educate yourself before speaking. Spreading ignorance is a terrible cancer in this world.

By gg20 — On Nov 18, 2010

RE: Transgender activities pervading lifestyle. I wish people would educate themselves thoroughly about transsexualism before posting articles such as this.

Me being a woman, me being female is not a "lifestyle".

Since when is being a woman a "lifestyle"? Geez.

By anon125915 — On Nov 10, 2010

I recently discovered that my husband likes to wear women's underwear. We were not sexually active prior to this incident and since the incident occurred I become totally disgusted every time I look at him. I wonder what other secrets he is hiding from me. I stay in the marriage only for financial reasons.

I do not love this man due to his odd behavior and the lies he told to try and cover things even after I found out. I think it is so unfair when a person hides such behavior from their spouse. I am the one who has the right to determine if I can live with this person knowing about his disgusting behavior.

By anon124942 — On Nov 07, 2010

I feel that people who are transvestites should be honest with their partner prior to marriage. I have been married for 30 years and my husband is a transvestite. It has destroyed our marriage.

We are still together playing the part for our children and family, but I am completely disgusted with the entire situation. We haven't had sex in 11 years. He says it's no big deal. Well, it's a big deal to me.

By anon109989 — On Sep 10, 2010

I am confused. I know a man who is interested in me, but I have found out that he is a transvestite. To what extent, i have yet to find out.

I just have this feeling that I couldn't cope with it if he were interested in men as well. I don't want to go down this road unless i am completely sure that he doesn't fancy men and isn't gay. I am not being offensive in any way to Transvestites, I just don't understand it.

By anon103732 — On Aug 13, 2010

I am dating a transvestite and he is kind and affectionate but has no interest in sex. However, he has advertised for someone to meet him for romantic encounters. He tells me this is just to dress and compliment each other on how beautiful they both are. Do you think he is gay?

By christym — On Jul 11, 2010

The difference has to do with gender and sex. Gender identity and sex is not the same thing. A person’s sex has to do with having a penis or vagina. Gender identity is one’s sense of self. True enough, in most people, gender and sex go hand in hand.

Transsexuals are merely people who were born one sex but feel very strongly that their gender does not agree with their bodies. Some feel so strongly that they undergo medical procedures or drug therapy to physically change their bodies. There is an emotional disconnect between their body and the gender that they identify with.

By dill1971 — On Jul 11, 2010

@alex94: There really isn’t a good answer for that. No one really knows why some men have this desire. Many cross-dressing men describe it as a stress reliever. They tend to want to dress up more when they are under a lot of stress. Many men get their relief from wearing women’s lingerie up under their own clothing. They usually go no further than that.

Men who dress in women’s clothing are not mentally ill. Many psychologists say that it is within the normal range of male sexuality.

By alex94 — On Jul 11, 2010

Is there anything in particular that makes a man want to dress in women's clothing? I mean, is it something in their genes?

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 11, 2010

Many people say that pronouns are the biggest difference regarding transvestites and transsexuals. A transvestite is referred to by their genetic gender. A person who is born a male and dresses in women’s clothing is still a he. On the other hand, a genetic male transsexual is a she because she considers herself a woman and wishes to live completely as a woman.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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