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The Evolution Of Transgender Terminology

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The word “transgender” has faced several variations throughout the years. However, it is solely now, in the 21st century, that this concept is finally self-addressed as a relevant matter. It is intriguing the history and origins behind the term used to describe someone whose, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond to that person’s sex at birth, or which does not otherwise conform to conventional notions of sex and gender”.

Historically, the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have been used as one, nevertheless their usages have become more and more distinct, and it is imperative to know the differences between the two in order to discuss such topic: ‘sex’ refers to the biological variations between males and females, such as the genitalia; “gender”, on the other hand, is harder to define, but it can refer to the part of a male or female in society (gender roles), or a persons’ own concept of themselves, or gender identity.

This essay searches to follow and perceive the evolution of the transgender terminology.

The Beginning

Since its negative use in medicinal texts within the 1960s to the implementation of the term to represent both a concept and an identity, the term “transgender” has made many progresses.

There are two major derivation points of the etymology of ‘transgender’: in 1965, Dr. John F. Oliven published a medical text that covered one of the first recognized uses of the word ‘transgender”: “Where the compulsive urge reaches beyond female vestments and becomes an urge for gender (‘sex’) change, transvestism becomes ‘transsexualism.’” The term is deceitful; in fact, ‘transgenderism’ is what is meant, since sexuality is not a main factor in primary transvestism. At this point, Dr. Oliven used the word “transgender” as an alternative word for “transsexual” regarding those who transition through surgical procedure.

Virginia Prince, activist and trans pioneer who popularized the term through her advocacy and journalism on the 1970s is the other major origin moment for the word “transgender”. In 1969, Prince used the term “transgenderal” for the first time in order to differentiate herself from transsexuals, or those who used surgery to transition. Her employment of the term “transgenderal” visibly distinguished the methods people decide to transition.

I, at least, know the difference between sex and gender,” she wrote, “and have simply elected to change the latter and not the former. If a word is necessary, I should be termed a ‘transgenderal’.

The same year that Virginia Prince used the term “transgenderal,”, was, as well, the year that the Stonewall Riots[footnoteRef:1] started the modern gay rights movement. This moment marked the transformation in terms of broader prominence for the LGBTQ+ community. A few years later, in 1974, social employees, medical experts, and activists produced the first Transvestite and Transsexual Conference, at the University of Leeds. The earliest seminar literature on the market on trans wellbeing, made obvious distinctions amongst transvestites (people who dressed as the opposite gender), transsexuals (people who transitioned genders through surgery), and transgender people who did transition but did not choose to endure surgery. [1: Spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that began on June 28th, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City.]

In 1975, another huge achievement: the first-time protections for the transgender community were established into the civil rights law. Minneapolis was the first city to do so by approving a nondiscrimination ordinance preventing prejudice on the premise of “having or projecting a self-image not associated with one’s biological maleness or one’s biological femaleness.”

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Throughout the 1980s, artists like Bruce Laker, also known as Phaedra Kelly, had created alternative terms such as “gender transient” to refer to being transgender, which was still different from “transsexual.”

By the 1990s, the distinction concerning “transgender” and “transsexual” began to disappear. According to Jonathan Dent, the Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer, this happened once the broader LGBTQ+ community began to take into account “trans” as an “umbrella” term that would “cover a wide range of identities” that might not fit with “traditional notions” of gender, parallel to “queer” for sexuality.

“Trans” is merely a prefix, from the Latin for “across,” as opposed to “cis,” which implies “on the same side.” For instance, the word “transparent” derives from the Latin “parere”=“to appear” which generally translates to, “appear from the other side”. For that matter, once it involves gender, one either falls underneath the transgender umbrella or one is cisgender. Whereas transgender can mean many things, hence the “umbrella”, cis signifies only one thing — one’s gender aligns with the binary sex appointed at birth (male or female).


A few extra terms that may fall under the transgender umbrella are: transsexual, intersex, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary, genderfluid, agender, drag queen and genderqueer among others (see annex 1).

Because the trans umbrella grouping is thus new, there is nonetheless some debate as to who is or is not trans. Drag queens are considered by some people to belong under the trans umbrella, for they are gender nonconforming. Others, as RuPaul (major drag queen figure), have notoriously disagreed, alleging drag as an art for cis queer men only.

You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body, it takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.”

Nonbinary people, too, may or may not identify themselves as trans. A trans nonbinary person is usually someone who does not identify with the sex that was assigned to them at birth (hence, trans) but also has a gender identity that cannot be labeled as entirely male or female (therefore, nonbinary). Some nonbinary people who are not trans identify somewhat with their assigned sex at birth, even though not identifying as precisely male or female.


Ultimately, transgender is a key word that symbolizes both a notion and a series of certain identities. In its most broad usage these days, transgender means to cross the edge of one’s original or assigned gender.

The transgender umbrella covers many identities and those individualities can now be labelled due to the progression of society’s mindset and to the always growing language that allows more inclusive terminology.


  1. G. G. Bolich, P. D. (s.d.). Transgender History & Geography: Crossdressing in Context, Volume 3. Psyche’s Press. Obtido em 11 de 12 de 2019, de
  2. GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Issues. (s.d.). Obtido em 11 de 12 de 2019, de Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation:
  3. Levin, S. (s.d.). Who can be a drag queen? RuPaul’s trans comments fuel calls for inclusion. Obtido em 11 de 12 de 2019, de
  4. Oxford Dictionaries – The World’s Most Trusted Dictionary Provider. (s.d.). Obtido em 11 de 12 de 2019, de Oxford University Press:

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The Evolution Of Transgender Terminology. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
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