Transvestite, Transsexual, Transgender: Here’s what you should actually call trans people

Protesting trans rights

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Transvestite, Transsexual, Transgender: what is okay to call trans people?

While legal and other discrimination against gay people still sadly exists around the world, LGB issues have at least long been part of public discussion.

Related: The Ultimate LGBT Glossary: all your questions answered

But what about that T? While trans people have always existed, trans issues have only been thrust into the mainstream in recent years.

In part the increased exposure is due to the sterling work and activism of trans people. Unfortunately, it’s also because of a culture war spearheaded by the right-wing press.

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For those people who aren’t T, the whole issue of what you call trans people can be a bit confusing, so here’s a little bit about the terminology that may help.

Call Me By Your Name

The most obvious answer to the question “what should you call a trans person?” is “their name, silly”. Just as with anyone, it’s common courtesy to call someone by their name.

And someone’s name is what they choose to call themselves. With trans people that can often be different to their birth name.

What you shouldn’t do is call someone by their birth name (or deadname) if they’ve chosen to change it.

Deadnaming someone without their consent is not only disrespectful, but can often dox a person (make public otherwise private info about someone), or misgender them (get their gender wrong).

Transexual? Transvestite? Transgender? What’s the right word?

If you’re going to talk about trans issues though, you do need to know what terminology to use, and copping out and using “trans” every time isn’t really going to cut it.

Of course, these things are never set in stone, and they change depending on time, place, context and on who you’re talking to.

Just think about all the different words for “gay”, and how they flip from “totally acceptable” to “massively offensive and inappropriate” depending on who’s saying it, when, and to whom.

Again, the most important rule is to listen to trans people and when or if they tell you they don’t like to be referred to in a certain way, or with a specific word, then stop doing it. Even if your other trans friends are fine with it. It’s not “PC gone mad”, it’s just being a polite and pleasant member of society.

That said, there are general shifts and collective agreement on which words to use today, and what they mean, so here we go.


In the UK and US, in 2018, the most commonly accepted terminology for trans people is transgender.

A transgender person is one whose gender identity does not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth.

So if someone is assigned as male or female when they are born, but they identify as the other, or as neither (agender), both (bigender or genderfluid), or other (genderqueer, pangender), then they can fall under the trangender umbrella.

Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. So you wouldn’t say someone is “a transgender”, but instead “a transgender person”.

Likewise, the medical term “transgenderism” is often considered offensive today.

Isn’t that just transsexual?

Transsexual is a term that has fallen out of favour among most trans people.

It used to mean transgender people who have, or want to, use medical intervention – hormones or surgery – to permanently transition from the gender assigned at birth to the one they identify as.

Many trans people reject the word, some because having that word “sex” in the middle of it may suggest that being trans is all about sexuality, rather than gender identity.

Some trans people are happy to be called “transsexual”. Some will reject the word “transgender”. But it’s best to stick to the latter unless they tell you otherwise.

Are intersex people transgender?

An intersex person is one who is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.

An intersex person can be trans or identify as part of the trans community, but the vast majority aren’t.

Transgender and intersex people can often face similar issues and discrimination, but they also face different types, too, and it’s important not to confuse or conflate them.

What about transvestites?

Another word that has fallen out of favour. Because so-called “transvestism” was seen as a medical disorder, cross-dresser is now a much more accepted term.

A cross-dresser, or transvestite, is a person who dresses in and acts in the style of the gender opposite to the one they were assigned at birth. (Dressing as the opposite sex for a play, or to do an impression of someone, is something totally different).

Drag is historically based on cross-dressing.

Arguably the most famous drag queen on earth, RuPaul, caused controversy earlier this year when he said he would “probably not” let a trans person who had transitioned compete on the show and compared taking hormones as a queen to doping in sport.

RuPaul apologised for the comments after initially doubling down on them.

And the truth is that anyone can perform in drag, regardless of gender identity.

Can I call a trans person a “tranny” or “trannie” for short?

In short, no. Nope. No. Don’t do it. Ever.

While some trans people and trans activists have reappropriated the word, it’s still pretty universally regarded as an offensive slur.

Even if a trans person you’re talking to is flinging the T word about left, right and centre, it’s probably best to think once, twice and three times about doing it yourself, and then decide not to.

Do I call trans people he or she? Him or her? It?

Don’t call people “It”. It really isn’t nice. People aren’t called It (except Pennywise the dancing Clown, and he’s a weird evil alien giant spider thing, so not really a person).

Don’t go for something horrible like “shim”, “he-she” or “(s)he” either. It’s misgendering or worse.

As with someone’s name, it’s best to respect what they want their pronouns to be, be it “he/him”, “she/her”, or something else, like “ze” or “they/them”.

Yes, “they”. Despite transphobic people suggesting otherwise, “they” is perfectly acceptable English for someone of unspecified gender and has been since the 16th century.

And no, it doesn’t sound odd. If someone disagrees, tell them to go back two sentences where we said “it’s best to respect what they want their pronouns to be” and point out that they didn’t even notice.

What does “cisgender” or “cis” mean?

While it seems to flummox some people, the word “cisgender” has been around for about 20 years and been in the Oxford English Dictionary for five years and counting.

A cisgender person is simply one whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

Where does the language around trans people go from here?

Language is constantly evolving, and the time, place, context and who you’re talking to changes every second.

The important thing is to let trans people, as the all-too-often marginalised minority being spoken about, lead the discussion and dictate the terms in which they are spoken about.