What’s the Difference Between a Crossdresser and a Transsexual?

What's the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual?

It’s an old joke in the transgender community that goes like this:
Q: “What’s the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual?”
A: “Two years”

This provides some humorous levity while astutely implying a truth about transsexuals – many of them started out as crossdressers. Unfortunately, while it makes for a fun observation it doesn’t really provide any useful insights for those who are struggling with their gender identity, or for others who hear that someone they love is a crossdresser.

It’s also easy to describe the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual by sharing the definition of each word and describing transgender terminology.

It’s more difficult to help those struggling with their gender identity determine whether they are a crossdresser or transsexual, though I’ve made such an attempt a few times.

Five days ago I had sex reassignment surgery. As someone who once considered themselves a crossdresser, and now considers herself a transsexual woman without question of doubt I feel I’m in a position to provide some valuable insight for those struggling with a similar question. It goes without saying that each person is different, and this question is best explored together with a qualified therapist, after all you’ll make life altering decisions based on what you discover.

How Do I Know if I’m a Transsexual?

    • You consider yourself a woman: Crossdressers enjoy being woman for a time, but still consider themselves to be a man. Many are even happy being a man, and indulging their feminine persona a few times a week or month is all they need. Even if they fantasize about being transformed into a woman, crossdressers never seriously consider this to be a long term way of life.
      Transsexuals feel an intense cognitive dissonance between the genders of their mind and body. For me this manifested itself in a constant ‘mind static’ that pervaded every moment. I couldn’t enjoy the fullness of life because of a birth defect that placed me in the wrong body. For some it gets so serious that they seriously consider suicide as the only solution.
    • It’s about who you are, not the clothes: For many crossdressers the infatuation with the feminine revolves around their appearance. The clothes, the makeup, the impossibly high heels. Even for crossdressers who strive to blend in, it’s about being feminine. Being feminine feels good and exciting.
      For transsexuals the entire experience doesn’t revolve around the accessories of gender expression. Another common refrain is, “How do you tell the transsexuals at a transgender conference?”, “They’re the ones wearing jeans”. It’s about who you are, not who you appear to be.
    • You take the good with the bad: Transsexuals realize that there is no escaping being a woman. No time off for good behavior. We can’t decide to be a man for a certain circumstance just because it would be easier. While we may lament the discrimination we face as women it doesn’t factor in to whether we are a woman.
    • Womanhood is messy reality, not an idealized fantasy: If your sole experience of womanhood is as a fantasy, then you don’t have enough information to say that you’re a transsexual. Many crossdressers only experience what they consider the ‘highlights’ of womanhood (It’s another post as to why I don’t believe these are the actual highlights). Nights out feeling sensual, or safe gatherings dressed in their finest feminine attire. The truth is that womanhood isn’t quite as clean or elegant. Many transsexual woman experienced and embraced the messy reality of womanhood before transitioning. If you’re wondering, seek out every day experiences as a woman.

Embrace Who You Are

Gender Identity isn’t a game that you win by being more feminine. The only way to win is to discover where you are on the spectrum, and accept yourself unconditionally. If you’re not a transsexual, that’s okay. If you are, that’s okay too.

I’ve shared my thoughts on how to determine whether you’re a crossdresser or transsexual. What insights have I missed? If you’re a crossdresser and firm in that knowledge, how did you come to this realization?

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Dedicated to creating a safe, supportive and welcoming environment for everyone in the transgender community.
  1. moli 3 weeks ago

    How true luv feeling fem as a crossdresser, a little on the gay side like making out with men,hard to find men to make out with as a gurl though.

  2. Profile photo of Dianne Baldwin
    Dianne Baldwin 3 months ago

    Very good article enjoyed . I feel I fit somewhere in between feel much more comfortable dressed as woman and it’s not really sexual. If I been from different decade would have had surgery but wasn’t acceptable in the sixties

  3. Lora 4 months ago

    Very interesting article. I am a mother of a cross dresser. He started when he was very young, three years old. I had concerns and he attempted to hide it for years. I saw his struggles first hand. He has since decided to embrace his cross dressing and is completely open about it. Which is refreshing, as we discussed when he was in his teenage years, be who you are and never live in shame. Anyways, he has explained to me that for him and many other cross dressers he knows, cross dressing is like playing dress up, in a way. He says that the best way to describe his experience is that just like a preschooler dressing up like their favorite super hero a cross dresser dresses up like a woman. He also says that cross dressers have a heightened appreciation for women. He identifies himself as 100% male, never does he feel as though he is a woman, even in dress. He also considers himself heterosexual and has no interest in gay sex. He loves women, very much in every way.
    I feel as though with all the interest in transgender, trans sexual, gay rights etc. Cross dressers, like my son, have a lot of preconceived ideas, as the joke implies and it’s just not true. Just because a man puts on women’s clothes does not mean he is gay, bisexual, transgender, trans sexual or feel as though their identity is female. He doesn’t feel the desire to change his name or anything like that.
    I did recognize the part Beckie brings out regarding the sexually overt attire. He does wear short tight skirts, dresses and would never wear jeans.

    • Profile photo of Vanessa Law Author
      Vanessa Law 4 months ago

      Hey Lora,

      Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s such a blessing to have you join our community. I’d love to hear more of your experiences as a mother, and perhaps feature your experiences for others on the site – I think you’d be an encouragement to many. Drop me a quick email here – I’d love to hear from you!

  4. carryli servina 8 months ago

    I think the difference is different for everyone. While I have been a cross dresser and bi-sexual since I was 15 and prefer to be dressed I have never had the feeling that some transgendered have explained to me they have about feeling trapped in the wrong body.

    I enjoy the feminine feeling when dressed but I don’t have the feeling I should go any further then dressing.

    I respect those who have those feelings and support what they decide to do. Just as my transgendered friends support that I won’t take it farther then I do.

  5. Jenna 1 year ago

    Thank you so much for the article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, I have always questioned my gender these last few years, and where I fit in.

    Even from the very start with cross-dressing, it had to be perfect . I had to be perfect. I wasn’t going down this path because I wanted to be some guy dressed up in ladys clothes, there was always so much more. while some dressed to go out to sex on premsises at night I didn’t, dressing cheap wasn’t what it was about/ I was becoming a woman,

    Most things in my life have revolved around this part of me. at the time though it wasn’t something even thought about, though little things through life are so obvious now,

    Im deff more fem on the inside than male, though does this change things with my gender and how I look at things, will no doubt work everthing out in time


    Jenna xx

  6. rickey 4 years ago

    I been cross dress forever and as time goes on I want to get closer to being a woman but there one thing when i get high it bring the girl out of me big time and then i dont ever want to going back to be man so i say in joy what you have and have fun

  7. Beckie Cannons 4 years ago

    I really love this article (not sure about the joke though LOL) – I realized I was just a transvestite/crossdresser on my first night dressed out having spent it with two transsexuals. I was just so different. But for me the difference it’s quite simple – the desire and need to dress up is mainly a sexual one for transvestites/crossdressers – if you just look at the type of clothes transevitites/crossdressers wear as they tend to be more sexually overt (short skirts/dresses etc) even when they are too old for the look – and for transsexuals try and blend with what they wear.

  8. Sally Bibrary 4 years ago

    Very well said, Vanessa – it’s a hard line to draw, and an even harder one to explain to others, but I think you did an amazing job.

    While I’ve always know I was more crossdresser than transsexual, it was a night out with our local transgender support group that provided the ultimate revelation. It was there, looking around at my sisters, that I recognized the difference between ‘being female’ and ‘expressing femininity’ . . . and realised the two are not the same.

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