Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Transsexual v Transvestite - is there really a difference

Transsexual, Transgender and Transvestite candidates for
Philippines Beauty Pageant - can you tell which is which?
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I  asked this question on RosesForum - the leading UK online forum for trans people, on 21st  December 2005 in conjunction with my masters degree in gender research. The discussion was closed a month later on 21st January, partly because of some of the passionate responses to the discussion which by this time had become one of the most active discussions of all time.

In 30 days over 500 posts had been made, many of which were 2000 word essays.  In all over 250,000 words were written on the subject with no clear consensus.

What I surmised from the discussion was that most people who identified as transvestite saw themselves as occasional cross dressers and had no intention of permanently living in a new gender or undergoing any surgical or hormonal changes to their bodies. On the other hand most people who identified as transsexual were undergoing, were planning to undergo, had undergone some degree of permanent gender reassignment.

However what totally surprised me was that a high proportion of those identifying as transvestites said that the reason they were not planning to undergo gender reassignment was due to some form of social pressure. In 2007 Stephen Whittle undertook research on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and revealed that 42% of transvestites were "too afraid to transition."

Shortly after the Equality Act 2010 was passed the Government Equalities Office (now part of the Home Office) repeatedly stated that transvestites are not protected under the Act - and strictly speaking that is true.  However this does not really help people who identify as transvestites and is really difficult for everyone else.

How would anyone know if someone was transsexual or transvestite.  Take a look at the picture of the Philippines Beauty Pageant candidates above - Which ones would have protection under the law?  All you will see is a person who presented themselves in the gender different to their birth gender. No point in asking them because if they are transsexual and have a gender recognition certificate - they are legally entitled to keep their previous gender completely secret.

Labeling the protected characteristic "Gender Reassignment" within the Equality Act was clearly a mistake. Gender reassignment is not a characteristic, it is a process. The characteristic is a persons "Gender Identity" but the government backed down on this because of pressure and the belief that this would provide protection to people who cross dressed for fetishistic reasons.

In reality it really does not matter because the definition of Gender Reassignment was also changed.  The original definition was any person who is undergoing, has undergone or is planning to undergo a "medically supervised  process of gender reassignment.  The medically supervision is not longer required so anyone who can evidence that they planned to undergo gender reassignment - whether they do so or not - is automatically protected.

All anyone needs to do is to speak to a GP or therapist about the possibility of changing gender and they would be protected as would anyone who cross dresses in public and discloses a desire to change. And this is as it should be, because we know from research that most people born gender variant would transition were it not for the social and family pressures on them.

I have a growing dislike of all labels - especially as most trans labels are medical labels and say too much about a personal medical history.  What I do with my body is a personal matter and not a topic for public discussion. Legally in the UK I have to have to identify as either male or female and with that comes a set of unwritten social rules about how gender should be performed.

I personally wish there was a third gender option and perhaps then many more people would be free to express themselves in any way they wish without breaking the gender rules and running the risk of discrimination and harassment.  Perhaps then more people would feel that they do not have to undergo surgical or hormonal body changes in order to fit in to other people expectations of them.

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