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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19 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Danica Ashley
    Danica Ashley 1 week ago

    Thank you for sharing this. I am 54 and came out to my wife of thirty three years a couple weeks ago, although she is supporting me as I go through therapy and as I start transitioning I know she does not fully understand what I am going through. I plan on sharing this with her because it is so well written. I was one of those on the verge of suicide because I could not see a way out and did not want my wife and kids to suffer the shame of what I am. Fortunately I had enough sense to seek help and was totally wrong about everything. I did my family a great disservice by not telling them. Because now I have their love and support as I go through this.

  2. Monica Michaels 2 weeks ago

    well… i’m 42… i have been dressing since before I could tie my own shoelaces. It started w/ my sister’s things when I was only 3 or 4 or 5. Do I feel trapped? Oh my my, oh hell yes. But trapped in the wrong body? That’s hard to say. I think when transgender men or women say that, they are referring to their genitals…

    But personally, I believe that there are different levels if that ‘trapped’ feeling… I am a smaller person @ only 5’6″ tall. But despite my small frame, compared to a cisgender woman, my body has a masculine frame. It has masculine distribution and proportions of body fat. It doesn’t have a very feminine chest or backside. Oh, and it has a penis.

    Here is where my confusion really multiplies… Do I want genital surgery? No….

    However, I should elaborate. I am 17 years married. to the love of my life – a cisgender woman. She is also bi. Which is a huge reason I told her about “me” before I ever proposed marriage.

    But I digress… surgery? No… but, if I am completely honest, I would like to be able to have a small b-cup – perfect for my frame. And some hips would be lovely. if I were not married and expected to perform ‘husbandly duties”, and I could still achieve a sexual release, I would not miss my genitals at all. I am a sexually submissive person by nature so I do not associate sex w/ being dominant and I do not feel the need to penetrate to have a very satisfying sexual experience. I do not masturbate as a “true male” would and “spank the monkey”, I suppose.

    If that is TMI, I do apologize but felt it necessary to explain my own personal brand of gender dysphoria.

    So here I am now, at 42, having made the decision 9 months ago in the summer of 2015, after a low period of complete and utter shunning of my feminine persona, that its time to “come out”. Wifey is fully supportive. In fact, during that low period, bereft of gender expression, she sat me down and told me that she missed me that way. It was a big part of why she married me, she said. “And now you killed and buried her. I feel like she was just a dream”, she said…

    My wife and I both suffered personal losses in recent years which opened our eyes to the very real fact that Life. Is. Too. Short.

    She has always supported me. It was time for ME to support ME. Its easier for me because I work from my home and do not have to see colleagues ever. I haven’t been in the same room as a colleague since 2009! (tech sector, baby!)

    I told my best friend and parents back in 2007… showed my folks a few of my best pics. My friend has never seen a pic and I don’t intend to show him one necessarily, though his g/f has. Last summer when I started “coming out”, my wife and I started getting our nails done together. We still do. Mine are now long and beautiful. But aside from that, I present as male still. But the nails are there 24/7. I even wore jeggings, cute heels and a women’s hoodie to by friend’s house once while otherwise in boy bode. He said not a word about it. I have great friends, clearly.

    So my lifelong goatee is gone for good (instead of temporarily like previously). My nails are long and pretty. Legs are shaved and brows are waxed. I no longer wear men’s jeans – haven’t since last summer.

    What does it all mean? Am I transgender? I think so. Was dressing sexual for a time? Yes, but are we not sexual beings? Do cisgender women not feel sexy in their favorite sexy outfit? I haven’t dressed for sexual pleasure in years and years now. That’s not what its about… I mean I started before I was even close to puberty, so how can it be purely sexually driven? Though I admit, I don’t feel sexy as a man… but does any non TG man (a so-called real man) feel sexy? Is that feeling exclusive to feminine human beings? I don’t know because I am who I am and don’t know what it feels like to not have a feminine nature to express…

    So I am slowly “making her real”. My hairdresser has not said word one about my nails these past 9 months so last month I finally said “OK I am done waiting for you to say something – so, do you like my awesome nails, or are you just being polite and not saying anything?”. Since I am a hard rock musician, she said she thought it was just like a Marilyn Manson thing and didn’t give it a second thought. So I showed her my pic. She was blown away (everyone is – I’ve kept her hidden so well for so long that no one would ever suspect). I said – “OK now that you know, I’ve been waiting for you to notice so I could ask you if you could style my wigs”. She is 100% cool with it. The rest of the conversation was pure girl talk. It was the first time I had ever had that “total acceptance” experience with anyone other than my wife. I was on cloud nine all day from that experience. And I was in boy mode… So again, is it about dressing or how I feel inside and interacting in a way that reflects that?

    Staying out of the closet for an extended time now, I have found my own style that matches my overall personality. I am not into super girlish attire. I have more of a “rocker-chick” look… or is that “rocker-chic”? haha. Even my nail colors, etc… reflect that. Not all cisgender women are “girly”. Think Joan Jett, for instance. That’s more of how I see myself than any of her male counterparts. Feminine, but with and edge. If those traits are OK in a cisgender woman, why not me? Just because I may be transgender doesn’t mean I am Tinkerbell. But day-to-day I am more like a david bowie or dave navarro – still a man, but unafraid to blur the lines.

    I know that was kind of all over the place… sorry. Just trying as we all are, to find my place and help others if they find my experience to be similar or helpful.

    ~Monica M

  3. Profile photo of Karyn Lobelia
    Karyn Lobelia 3 weeks ago

    The most important thing is to love yourself and have empathy for yourself and others . I feel cross dressers or femmes simply want to be feminine and live or dress in a way that expresses who they are , they are not masculine and want to live and dress as a lady . In Apache culture their were only two jobs , warrior and squaw . No Apache warrior would except a feminine man to be anything other than what he was a woman or squaw doing or having that role . We are all actors in life , femmes want simply to play the part of a lady . Transvestites seem to me to be overly sexual and enjoy dressing up for partying , clubbing , etc. I am not judging just observing . I do not want ever to look like I am in drag , though if that is your cup of tea , please yourself . I simply want to fit in and live as a normal lady . Some people would call that a SheMale if you have not transitioned , but again that is a label . Do not label yourself . If you transition or become a transsexual you will be no more a women than someone who is femme and takes hormones and tester one blockers . Nothing will ever change the fact that you will always have XX chromosomes . Hopefully , the world can except the really that some men are feminine with or without a sexual preference that fits into a label . Take exastasacy or a similar drug in psychiatric sessions and you will learn what this generation learn about empathy at raves . We all have a life story that does not fit into a box , we can all love each other , if we let our thoughts balance what makes our Body feels that makes our Mind knows that the two are one . Take the Sacred Mushroom in nature and you find that their is no separation between mind and body . Want to feel good , love people , be kind , want to have a peaceful mind , love people eat good food and exercise , stop buying the brainwashing in the media to sell you on a ideal OF WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSE TO BE TO BE HAPPY . Be know nod , do not gossip , never be rude , learn tithe Laws of Attraction and hang out with Spiritual people that value people for THIER mind , not THIER possions or looks . Do not kid yourself that if you eat crappy industrial food that you are going to feel good no matter how much you exercise . You exercise for your mind , not just your body . Learn Blue Dragon Qi Chong and yoga , takes hikes in nature , for goodness turn off the news . Visit with old people , help the homeless , do something to make the world a better place . Giving to others is their blessing to you , never except anything in return . IN THE END ALL THAT WILL MATTER IS HOW YOU LIVED YOUR LIFE HOW YOU LOVED AND HOW YOU LEARN TO LET GO . God is Love and Love is God . Love yourself and you will know everyone else is your vision in your mind of your desires or aversions , Love everyone and accept that we all are fre to choose . Put love on as a perfume each morning . Live your life , it is the only one you have , let others live theirs without your expectations . Kisses and Hugs .

  4. Profile photo of Jenny
    Jenny 3 weeks ago

    Very interesting article and comments. I am very new to crossdressing so I really don’t know which direction I am going at this point. As far as the type of clothes I wear, heels, panty hose, bra and panties, and a dress. I think I might dress less extreme, but that’s all I have for now. I recently separated from my wife because of my crossdressing. Since I am now living alone in a hotel (for now until the divorce moves further), I dress every day and can’t wait to get home from work so I can dress. I don’t think it is a sexual thing though. It just feels good and it relaxes me. In this short time, I have been doing a lot of thinking but I still just don’t know where I am going. I have often wondered if I was transsexual. Would I go through HRT? As far as living my life wishing I was a girl, I can’t say that I did. I do remember as a child thinking that, but as I got older, it didn’t really cross my mind. I remember at about 10, trying on mom’s panty hose and skirt but I never did that again until very recently when I decided I wanted to try my wife’s panty hose. I was never the macho guy. I am somewhat strong due to my size but I never thought myself as one of the guys and never had the desire to go drinking with the guys or be interested in sports. I tried some sports in school, but I was horrible at them all. I did band and theatre instead and did pretty well I those. I am fortunate to be living in a large city so the support resources are plenty. I have gone to meetings designated for crossdressers and meetings designated with transgender or transitioning. I felt very uncomfortable at the crossdressing meetings but felt extremely comfortable at the transition meetings. Even though I cannot say I have wanted to be a woman all my life, I have identified with the people in the transition meeting much more than the crossdressers. No offense towards crossdressers (I am one for now) but I felt the people in the crossdressers meeting were acting and the trans people in the transitions meetings were real. Somehow I just felt more at home with the transitioners. I felt like I belonged there where I felt like a visitor at the crossdressers meeting. So what does all this tell me? I don’t know. I think I would enjoy being a woman. I am jealous of what they get to wear on a daily basis, casual or dress. I want to be like them. The strange thing is I have only really been thinking of this for a very short time. My wife has always said that I have kept everything inside and never expressed emotion what so ever. When I was young, I was the cry baby. At about junior high somewhere, I decided to stop crying and to do that I cut out emotion and basically did what everyone said I should in life. However, when I came out to my wife as a crossdresser or gay or who knows what, it was an uncontrollable urge to say something and if I didn’t, I felt like I would explode. Now, after the fact, I understand that I did it wrong and should have seeked counseling before I said something but I fear if I did, I might have never come out. Even though my life has been flipped upside down, I am glad I did come out. I feel like I am finally realizing who I am. Still not sure if who I am is a woman, but the thought has crossed my mind a lot in the month since we separated after 21 years of marriage. I am 52. I said at the transition group that I wish I would have come out earlier and pretty much everyone said they wished the same thing. Well, I have rambled enough here so I will stop typing. If anyone has any advise for me, I would be greatly appreciative. Thanks for listening (reading). Jenny

  5. Profile photo of Ema
    Ema 1 month ago

    Well after reading this article I’m not sure what I am anymore. I have a man body but inside I know that I am a woman 100% woman 100% feminine , I been cross dressing all my life I always wanted to change my body to look like a real woman but I never had the opportunity or the money to do it and to be honest I never had the courage either so I just be happy to cross dressing living in secret and in fear. I might have a man body dress like a man pretend to be a man but in my heart I’m 100% a woman and 100 % feminine and no bodies can get that away from me when I cross dress I don’t dress to look like a sexy girl I dress to be pretty and cute it makes me feel so happy feel alive. My dream is that one day I’ll become a beautiful princess like a Disney Princess or a barbie princess I believe there is life after death and I know that my dream will come meanwhile I will have to be patient live the rest of my life as a man and cross dress every time I can. So I don’t know how you call that but this is who I am.

  6. Tasi 3 months ago

    With all due respect to my many transsexual friends, you beg the question with this constant barrage that it’s all about the clothes for the crossdresser. For some it may be admittedly, but for many of us, it’s just an expression of femininity and that doesn’t mean overtly sexual or just blending in either. Of course feeling feminine is good and exciting, but in case you haven’t noticed, what the heck do you think genetic women are doing. Some of the outfits they wear are hardly meant to blend in and in fact, I don’t think that should be our objective either. Check out my Stylish Crossdressers on Sister House http://www.sisterhouse.net/dressingroom/ These women are style icons of our community because their outfits are put together. They take the time to be womanly, not sexual, in their appearance, although I would argue that a stylish woman is very sexy too.

    I have a good TS friend that has been female for 20 years now and she loves to dress sexy, for work, for her boyfriend, and in everyday life. So differentiating yourself from crossdressers based on the clothes you wear holds little water unless you enjoy looking dowdy or like a slob. In fact, psychology tells us that we are most often judged by first appearances. and we get treated accordingly. I dress well and am treated well. What about you?

  7. Profile photo of Patricia Marie Allen
    Patricia Marie Allen 3 months ago

    If you’re transsexual, that OK. If you’re a cross-dresser, that’s OK.

    If you’re an androgyne, that’s OK too.

    The thing I hear trans women say is that they were born in the wrong body. Some say they reached a point where it was transition or die, they just couldn’t go on living as they were.

    I don’t believe there’s a cross-dresser in the world who would get that radical about how the feel about cross-dressing. But what about those who reach a point of not being able to go through a single day without expressing the feminine nature within, but still maintain a heterosexual male body? What about the males who have no issues with the body, only with the lifestyle?

    That me, an androgyne. Having nearly equal parts masculine and feminine within the psyche. Here I am, driven to express my feminine nature, and unwilling or not desiring to give up my male body. That leaves me in a never-never land of genders. Never fully feminine and never fully masculine.

    According to two well know tests, one scientific and one not so much though still mostly accepted in the trans community I have nearly equal parts masculine and feminine parts to my psyche with only a slight edge toward feminine.

    As a result I dress nearly 90% of my time feminine and the time I’m dressed masculine, I do so in masculine cut women’s clothes.

    How do I know if I’m a transsexual? I’m not because the idea of sexual reassignment surgery is totally foreign to me. That said, I’m also not a cross-dresser, because I dress to blend in and just do thing any other woman would do. Did I just say “any other woman” and include myself with those women? I guess I did. But dealing with this in my life for the better part of 70 years (I didn’t start really dealing with it until I was 25) I don’t think another two years is likely to put me in the TS camp, especially not since I like it right where I am now.

  8. Tristan 4 months ago

    Honestly, I am a crossdresser.I don’t do it 24/7,because for me it is just sexual. I’m actually dating a mtf transexual, so I can understand the difference.

  9. Profile photo of
    Jennifer Hopkins 5 months ago

    I have always felt that i should have been a girl. And the need to dress has always been there but i want to be blending in not stand out like a beacon. I like to dress my age and yes when i have sex i am always the submissive female but its not only for sex. I want to be female in all daily aspects good and bad.

  10. moli 6 months 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.

  11. Profile photo of Dianne Baldwin
    Dianne Baldwin 8 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

  12. Lora 9 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 9 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!

  13. carryli servina 1 year 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.

  14. 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

    Love

    Jenna xx

  15. 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

  16. Beckie Cannons 5 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.

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