For some time now the NZ AIDS Foundation has been aware of media confusion around the terms used to describe people of differing gender identities. This has become particularly noticeable with the increased media focus on gender issues since the introduction of the Gender Identity Bill by MP Georgina Beyer.
The confusion we've observed includes assumptions that drag queens and transsexuals are the same thing, or that men and women who are changing/or have changed their physical gender must be homosexual. Recent reports on the Big Gay Out in Auckland, for example, referred to well known drag performers as transsexuals, which was factually incorrect.
Correct names and terms are important. They give people confidence in the media and add credibility to the report. More important, correct terminology avoids the risk of people feeling hurt or defamed by incorrect descriptions of their status, and can help protect the media from the risk of defamation suit. (For example, a cross dressing male who is heterosexual might object if he finds himself subject to a media story that assumes/implies he is homosexual).
To help media covering the issues that are likely to come about because of the Gender Identity Bill, and/or other issues where sexuality and gender identity are part of the mix, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, after consultation with Georgina Beyer, Agender and other community and cultural representatives, has prepared the following guide to the use of gender identity terms.
We encourage you to circulate these among your reporting staff and make a commitment to getting the terminology right when reporting these issues.
Transgender or transsexual or transvestite?
An explanation of gender identity terms
PLEASE NOTE: Not everyone likes the use of 'labels' nor does everyone choose to identify with one of the definitions below. Media are strongly recommended to check with the people they are interviewing as to the term (if any) that they prefer. We also ask that media not use gender identity terms when they are not relevant to the story, or simply to add to a story's sensationalist appeal.
Traditionally used to describe someone physically changing their gender, but now increasingly seen as a broad umbrella term for anyone who falls outside of strictly male or female identities, either by identity (a gender label people give themselves, which is different to that at birth), behaviour (cross-dressers), by birth (such as hermaphrodites) or through the process of physical change (transsexuals). As a collective term it is often not accurate when applied to individuals.
Transgender people may be heterosexual, bisexual, intersexual or homosexual.
Transsexual (Tranny, MtF, FtM, Whakatane):
A person who has changed (or is in the process of changing) their gender because their personal gender identity (how they feel and think about themselves) is not the same as the physical gender characteristics they were born with.
The process of change will usually involve living permanently as the gender they identify with. A transsexual is also likely to undergo hormonal and surgical treatments to change their physical bodies to match their internal gender identity, a process often occurring over many years.
Sometimes shortened to FtM (female to male) or MtF (male to female).
Maori transsexuals may identify as Takataapui (an umbrella term for any Maori person who belongs to one of the non-heterosexual communities) and/or as Whakawahine (male to female). Sometimes Transgender people might describe themselves as 'pre-op' or 'post-op' to indicate whether their transition is at the prior to surgery stage or that surgical transformation has taken place.
Transsexual is a gender term, not an indication of sexual orientation. For example, a person who is physically male but self-identifies at their deepest level as female, might seek sexual contact with other men not because they identify as gay but because they see themselves as a woman having sex with a man (i.e. heterosexual) regardless of their physical characteristics.
Transvestite (TV, cross dresser, CD):
A person who dresses in the clothes of the opposite sex.
Transvestite tends to be seen as a psychological term and is dropping out of the common vernacular. Individuals usually prefer the term Cross-Dresser, sometimes shortened to CD. In general, Cross-Dressers usually only identify as being of the opposite sex while they are cross-dressed and cross dressing is usually an occasional behaviour - for recreational or self expression reasons or for the purposes of sexual fantasy.
Cross Dressing is not an indication of sexuality. Many straight (heterosexual) men, for instance, enjoy cross-dressing but remain wholly heterosexual in their identity and behaviour.
Drag Queens and Drag Kings:
While technically a form of cross-dressing, Drag Queens and Kings are a special category. Unlike Cross-Dressers or Transsexuals, Drag Queens and Kings rarely attempt to 'pass' as the opposite sex; rather their appearance is deliberately unreal, over the top and exaggerated. The term is almost exclusively applied to performers and drag is, by its nature, theatrical and a form of entertainment. Drag Queens and Kings usually identify as the gender they were born with, not the gender they adopt for performance (for example they would rarely wear drag at home or on their own).
The tradition of Drag Queens and Kings is strongest in the gay male and lesbian communities, but doing drag is not exclusive to these communities. Many drag Queens/Kings (or female/male impersonators) do so for professional performance reasons and are heterosexual identifying in their 'real' lives.
Fa'afafine is traditional Samoan term meaning 'to be like a woman.' The tradition has an extensive and ancient history; Fa'afafine have long been a respected and integrated part of Samoan communities. The tradition is also present, and has similar-sounding names, in many other Pacific cultures.
In modern New Zealand Fa'afafine has come to be an all-encompassing term that is inclusive of Samoan cross-dressers, drag queens, gay men, men who are simply effeminate, and any men who 'have the spirit of women.'
Intersexual (intersexed, hermaphrodite):
People who are born with mixed or indeterminate sexual physiology. Genetically, hormonally and physically these people will often have traits of both male and female.
Medically, intersexed people have frequently been considered in need of 'correction' and genders (including surgical changes) were imposed/ assigned while the person was still a baby, often with tragic results when the assigned gender failed to match the grown-up person's own sense of themselves.
While this still happens, attitudes are changing. Increasing numbers of medical professionals now recommend that children born as intersexed be allowed to grow up unaltered and let them sort out their own identity. As adults, many intersexed people choose to continue to live as intersexed (or androgenous) rather than identify as a specific gender, and do not seek surgical 'correction'.
Intersexed people exhibit the full range of sexual orientations.