Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Transgender Studies: Literature in an Evolving Field (March 2022): Terminology

By Robert Ridinger

Terminology

A primary issue in doing collection development in transgender studies is the confusing language historically used to refer to this population. The lexicon includes words that are frequently regarded as equivalent, but which have very distinct and precise meanings. The oldest of these words, transvestite and transsexualism, were coined by German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910 and 1923 respectively; the term transsexual was introduced into English in 1949 by David O. Cauldwell in an essay in Sexology magazine titled “Psychopathia Transsexualis,” a clear homage and reference to the famed 1886 work Psychopathia Sexualis, by Richard von Krafft-Ebing.1, 2 The more contemporary transgender was first used in the mid 1960s and has since become the preferred and widely used term; its short form, “trans,” has also received a degree of acceptance and use. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, transgender refers to any individual “whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond to that person’s sex at birth.” By contrast, the OED defines transsexual as a person “born with the physical characteristics of one sex but who identifies as belonging to the other sex; living or wishing to live as a member of the opposite sex.”3 The term transsexual first entered American popular consciousness in 1966 through Harry Benjamin’s groundbreaking work The Transsexual Phenomenon, which offers a valuable picture of the state of knowledge and research on transsexuals as it existed within the medical and psychiatric professions during the 20th century. The book opens with a detailed chapter setting forth transvestism, transsexualism, and homosexuality and how they relate to one another. The body of the work looks at male transsexuals, theories of the causes of transsexualism, surgical and nonsurgical management of the transsexual condition, legal aspects (for both transvestites and men who have undergone sex-change surgery), and female transsexuals. Particularly illuminating is chapter 8, in which Benjamin reports on and evaluates the cases of fifty-one male transsexuals and their operations.

Psychiatrist John Oliven coined the term “transgender” in the second edition of his text Sexual Hygiene and Pathology: A Manual for the Physician and the Professions (the first edition appeared in 1955). In this second edition Oliven rejected the use of transsexual as imprecise, given that the key factor is, Oliven wrote, “an urge for gender (‘sex’) change.” The term was adopted by transvestites and transsexual activists over the next decade and by the early 1980s was integrated into the idea of a “transgender community”—although philosophical debate on the several meanings for “trans” and their implications for both researching and studying this community continue. Given this complex layering of terms, it is understandable that the information sources on transgender studies exhibit great intellectual diversity. The evolution of the language used to refer to persons who identify as trans also reflects the process of establishing definitions of the issues of significance to them, which serve as the intellectual framework for the discipline.


1.  David O. Cauldwell, “Psycopathia Transexualis,” Sexology v.16, 1949: 274–80

2.  Richard von Krafft Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis: eine klinisch-forensische Studie. [German publisher unknown], 1886; English translation (of 7th enl. German ed.) by Charles Gilbert Chaddock, 1894. Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/PsychopathiaSexualis1000006945

3.  “Transsexual” and “Transgender,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed June 14, 2021.