What's The Difference Between A Crossdresser, Drag Queen, And Being Transgender?

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drag queen

One of the subjects that comes up frequently in my conversations with my parents is one I also see playing out on the internet daily: language and how we use it when we are talking about identity, persona, and performance in the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The most common thing I have to explain is the difference between transgender vs. transvestite vs. drag queen. 

There are some issues I try not to talk about with my parents. He's a priest, she's a librarian, and I'm a writer, so I imagine you can probably see where things could get tricky.

Don't get me wrong, though. we totally love and respect each other, even when we don't quite understand the other or see things the same way. I try to educate them about the issues that matter in my world, and I hope they feel like they can do the same with me.

Even if, in the end, neither party walks away from the discussion feeling any more convinced of the other's position than they were when the dialogue started. That's what unconditional love and acceptance are all about, am I right? 

There are major differences between the terms transgender, transvestite, and cross-dresser — so if you want to be a better ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, you owe it to yourself and the world at large to get the words (and their meanings) sussed out properly. 

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Transvestite / Cross dresser Meaning:

A transvestite means a man or a woman (though typically a man) derives sexual enjoyment from dressing in clothing traditionally worn by the opposite gender.

You know how a scented candle and the dank tones of John Tesh can put some people in the mood? For others, it's donning clothing traditionally worn by members of the opposite gender. 

It's typically viewed as a kink and can sometimes have comorbidity with fetishes like foot fetishes or stocking fetishes. 

Tranvestites are now called crossdressers because the term "transvestite" is largely seen as outdated and offensive.

What is the difference between transgender and transvestite? Well, just because there is a "trans" in front of the word, that doesn't mean that a man who dressed up as a woman for his own sexual pleasure identifies himself as being a woman. 

However, when it comes to labels, it's best to take it on a case-by-case basis.

The comedian Eddie Izzard for many years was an out and proud transvestite. More recently, a newspaper identified him as being transgender, a term that, back in days of yore, was used solely to note transsexuality.

I contacted Eddie about this on Twitter and he says he uses transgender as the umbrella term and transvestite as a subgroup. That said, he still uses cis-male pronouns.

Like I said, on a case-by-case basis. These are just the general guidelines to make things a little bit clearer for you.

Drag Queen Meaning:

A drag queen or a drag king is a person (male or female) who adopts a costume and a persona and performs on stage as a singer, a comedian, or other character. 

There is a long and storied tradition of drag, and if you want a taste of it, go watch Paris is Burning immediately. 

Most people associate drag with men dressing up as women, and that's largely in part due to the success of drag performer RuPaul Charles. RuPaul's popular show RuPaul's Drag Race has mainstreamed drag in a totally revolutionary way.

It makes sense then, that RuPaul himself has spoken out on the important distinction between performing in drag and being trans. 

"Drag is really making fun of identity. We are shapeshifters. We’re like ‘okay, today I’m this, now I’m a cowboy, now I’m this.’ Transgender people take identity very seriously — their identity is who they are. I come from the school of 'I will do whatever I want to do, at any time, and change — whatever!'” 

For a drag performer, drag can be an escape, a performance, a form of self-expression, or it could make them feel more like their true self. 

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Transgender Meaning:

A person who is trans was born into the wrong body. While they might have been born biologically male or biologically female, they are simply not the gender that was assigned to their body at birth.

A trans person can undergo surgery to correct their body to match how they feel internally, but they don't have to.

The difference between a transgender person and a non-trans person is the choice to differentiate your assigned sex at birth. Trans people know they were assigned different sex that they don't identify with and some choose to undergo physical surgery or go through sex-change operations so they can feel like their chosen sex with the proper male or female genitalia.

You can be a trans person, ask to go by the pronoun of your choice, and never undergo any surgery at all. Just like how being born, say, with a vagina doesn't mean that a person has to be a woman, neither does surgery have to happen to make them "really" a man. 

A trans person can choose to dress in clothing that they feel is appropriate to their gender. This isn't cross-dressing, and they are not transvestites: they are trans people wearing clothes. That's it. 

A person who is trans can be gay or straight. You know, because they are a person, and people have a sexual orientation. Members of the trans community have been included under the LGBTQ umbrella because much like every other member of the community their identity is not universally accepted. 

Can a drag queen be a trans person? Yes — drag is a performance, not an identity. 

I'm a straight woman, but if I were to decide to go to a drag show as a man, it's still just drag. The same goes for anyone else. 

For some drag performers, the freedom provided by drag can give them the confidence necessary to fully embrace their true gender identity. But this is not the by and large rule.

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Unfortunately, there is still controversy surrounding the terms and their meanings — even within the LGBTQ community itself.

People who are performing in drag do not "wish they were women." They are playing pretend, poking fun at the status quo, and giving the construct and constraints of gender the middle finger in a fun, larger-than-life way. 

RuPaul's show has attracted controversy for its use of the words "tranny" and "she-male" on their show. These words are often used by drag performers to mock or deride another performer's look.

Lately, members of the trans community have asked that these more hateful terms be removed from the vernacular. Some people in the drag community agree while others, who feel that drag is about subversion and shock, see nothing wrong with using those words. 

So, let's sum this sucker up: Not all trans people are drag queens, but some drag queens are trans people.

It's not okay to use the words "tranny" or "she-male" to talk about another person's appearance unless you're a seasoned drag performer and gay person willing to stand up and make an argument about "taking back" the words.

If you are a cis-gendered person, don't make assumptions and don't use language if even a part of you has concerns that you're using it without the full context. 

Now sashay, away. 

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Batman. For more of her work, check out her Tumblr.