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Homosexuality and transgender are two separate concepts. Homosexuality usually refers to romantic/sexual attraction or behaviour between people of the same gender, while transgender is a matter of gender identity, meaning that a person identifies as a different gender than the one they were assigned (usually) at birth. It can also refer to an individual who idenitfies as neither a man nor a woman. Clear-cut distinctions between homosexuality and transgender are often impossible to make in different cultures and across time, especially where third gender social categories or gender-structured homosexuality exist.

The L(esbian), G(ay), B(isexual), T(ransgender), I(ntersex) community

Magnus Hirschfeld was the most influential (but by no means the only) person who categorised all people who violated heteronormative rules as a third sex/gender, that is gay, lesbian and transgender people and (to some extent) intersex people. While this notion disappeared from scientific discourses during the Second World War, the notion of a "third gender" survived at least until the 1970s; and today's notion of Queer once more includes exactly these groups of people.

The LGB subculture was often the only place where gender-variant people were socially accepted in the gender role they felt they belonged to; especially during the time when legal or medical transitioning was almost impossible; or before transitioning.

This acceptance has not been ubiquitous. Like the wider world, the gay community in Western societies did not generally distinguish between sex and gender identity until the 1970s. Instead, it understood itself as a community of people who loved people of the same sex; gender variance was seen as an expression of this desire, not a trait that can be independent of sexual orientation. Therefore, gender variant people were accepted more as homosexuals who behaved in a gender-variant way than as gender-variant people in their own right.

Also, during the 1970s and 1980s, there was a considerable backlash in the gay and lesbian community towards transgender people [1], which culminated in the publication of "The Transsexual Empire" by Janice Raymond [2], a book that claimed feminine androphiliac transwomen were "tools of patriarchy for upholding stereotypes of women" and lesbian transwomen were "tools of patriarchy, fifth columnists infiltrating women's space and raping women's' bodies". It dismissed transmen as "deluded and misguided lesbians, afraid of the label 'homosexual'".

This backlash led to transgender people being excluded from lesbian communities. Within the gay community transwomen were marginalised and often just barely accepted for providing entertainment, while the existence of gay transmen was simply ignored. Only in the 1990s did this change again, with the upcoming label of "queer" once again encompassing all LGBT* people.

The semantic problem

The problem of applying the terms homo- and hetero-sexual to transgender and intersex people is deciding what exactly qualifies as same (homo) and what as different (hetero).


The term "homosexual" was coined in 1869, at a time where biological sex and social gender were not yet different concepts. Later, doctors came to believe that intersex people had a "real" and unambiguous sex and that it could be decided whether they were "really" male or female through medical means; gonads were thought to be the determining factor. At the beginning of the 20th century Magnus Hirschfeld started to realise that transgender people (for whom he coined the term Transvestiten) were a distinctive group, and he also realised that gender identity is independent from sexual orientation; especially that not all gender variant people were "homosexual". However, not until Harry Benjamin's 1966 book "The Transsexual Phenomenon" and second-wave feminism did the concepts of "sex" and "gender" become distinctively separate - a hundred years after the initial coining of "homosexual".

During this time, and until today, there was and is no consensus as to whether homo- or heterosexual merely refers to sexual acts, or also to the identity of persons committing them. The medical profession used homo- and heterosexual with regard to physical features, while from feminism, the gay rights movement and later from gender studies and the transgender movement "same" and "different" was seen from a more sociological perspective, regarding identity as a determining factor, or at least an important one.

Due to this, "homo-" and "heterosexual" can be used in reference to both sexual characteristics or to gender identity, which are either the same (homo) or different (hetero).

In recent years, "gay and lesbian" is increasingly used to describe the sexual identity of people who prefer same-gender partners, while homo- and heterosexual has been used to describe the plain biological or sexual part - because also, there is no consensus as to whether the "sex" in homo- and heterosexuals refers to "having a sexual relationship or committing a sexual act with somebody who is somehow same or different" or "having a relationship with a person of a same or different sex" (or both); and the later definition is also often understood to refer not to sex, but to gender (gender identity and/or gender role).

Actual current usage

In general, people usually understand their sexual orientation or sexual acts relative to gender identity (sometimes also relative to gender role) but not relative to sexual characteristics.

In contrast, older medical and scientific usage has the terms (and also sometimes more informal terms such as gay and lesbian) used in reference to the client's sexual characteristics (see below), not their gender identity. This has become less common recently. Transgender people not only usually feel misunderstood by caregivers because of this practice, it can also lead to very confusing descriptions, when for example a relationship between two people is characterised as heterosexual merely because one partner is a transman; although both have a male gender identity and live in a male gender role.

The issue is further confused when pre-transition relationships are taken into account. Many lesbian transwomen for example will have had relationships exclusively with women beforehand - many, indeed, marry. Were those relationships heterosexual or homosexual?

Groups who deny the validity of transgender and insist that people remain their originally assigned sex will use the terms "homosexual", "heterosexual", "straight" and "gay" in reference to that sex.

The biological definition

But even if homo- and heterosexual are only used to describe biological facts, defining same-ness and different-ness is often not trivial. Here not only transgender, but especially intersex people make the definition of what is sufficiently "same" to qualify as homosexual very difficult. Sex in humans is usually defined by four factors:

Each of these factors brings on its own problems when used to define same- or different-ness:


If sameness (or different-ness) is defined by chromosomes, i.e. a sexual act or a relationship is homosexual if both participants have the same set of sex-determining chromosomes, then one also defines straight XY-women - individuals raised as women and identifying as women but possessing 46XY karotype and testes instead of ovaries and a womb - as homosexual, and people with Klinefelter syndrome or Turner syndrome as almost exclusively heterosexual, because only another person with 46XXY or 46X0 karotype respectively would be "same". Even more "heterosexual by default" would be people with mosaic chromosomes. (Note: Both Klinefelter's and Turner's are currently estimated to be far more common than transgender; even the very highest estimate brings the prevalence of transgender only in the range of the prevalence of Klinenfelter's)


If sameness is defined by gonads, again, intersex people present the first problem. Some people are born either without any gonads, with non-functioning gonads, or with a mismatching set, i.e. one testicle and one ovary. Again, this would make finding a "same" partner difficult. The straight XY-woman from the example above would be still be "homosexual" since she was born with testes, a man with Klinefelter's only if he was in a relationship with a man (or rather, with a person who also has testes).

But also transgender people who undergo some form of castration present a problem, as do cisgender people who lose, through accident or illness, their gonads. In intersex people, non-functioning or useless gonads or gonads which do not fit the gender they are assigned to are also removed, raising the question of which state - the one with gonads or the later one without - is supposed to determine "sex" or "same- or different-ness".

  • If one tries to define according to gonads once present this works perfectly well for cisgender people who lose theirs, i.e. a man who lost his testes is still a man and his relationship with another man would still be homosexual. It would however make finding "same" partners difficult for intersex people born without or with both sorts of gonads.
    This definition however raises the question to which extent a person can be defined by a physical feature they once had. Logically, it would make a person who was disabled or disfigured at birth permanently disabled or disfigured, even if the problem has been corrected in the meantime.
  • If one tries to define according to gonads now present that would pose significant problems not only to cisgender people losing theirs, but relationships of transgender persons as well would change from homo- to heterosexual (or, in rarer cases, vice versa) upon removal of the gonads, without anything else changing. The same would occur if the second gonad of an intersex person born with both types, but with one removed, would be removed - as happens sometimes when the initial gender assignment turned out to be wrong, or for medical reasons.

Levels of sex hormones

Defining sameness by levels of sex hormones is even more complicated, because levels of sex hormones change significantly during the life of even a perfectly heathy person; just consider the female cycle. Also, the system of sex hormones is easily influenced by a large number of medical conditions, including most intersex conditions, but also many others; not to mention the possibility of losing one's gonads (see above) which also significantly changes the levels of these hormones.

Furthermore, the levels of sex hormones can be very easily changed intentionally. Women taking birth control pills or any hormone supplement do so, as do men who use testosterone supplements; not to mention doping. Many intersex conditions are also treated with hormones and/or gravely influenced or caused by hormones, for example Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS).

Transgender people often do not need any hormone blockers, but merely an appropriate dose of cross-gender hormones to achieve a perfectly normal level of sex hormones for their target sex. There are also some rare cases reported where, without any intersex condition diagnosable, after some time of treatment with cross-gender hormones, transgender people have a normal or almost normal level of sex hormones of their target sex without any further treatment with hormones.

Attempting therefore to decide same- or different-ness by levels of sex hormones would be rather difficult - it would for example make a relationship between a non-intersex woman with a woman suffering from AIS or the relationship between a post- and a pre-menopause women heterosexual.

Attempting to go by hormone levels naturally present would be even more difficult than the similar attempt with gonads, not only because of the natural variations, but also because such a "natural" state could only be reasonably determined after puberty. Not only would the lesbian relationship with the AIS woman above still be heterosexual, also many intersex children and increasingly transgender children today are treated before or with the onset of puberty, making it impossible to determine such a "natural" state in the first place.

Sex organs

If sameness is defined by sex organs, one runs into a combination of the problems mentioned above:

  1. To a large extent, through sex reassignment surgery, those sex organs can be changed. While it is not possible to artificially construct gonads or a womb, virtually all other sex organs can be surgically shaped, bringing up again the questions of which state should count - the "original" one, or the "current" one.
  2. Many intersex people do not have unambiguous sex organs or primary sexual characteristics at birth. Even if this is "corrected" shortly after birth or later in life (see intersex for a discussion of the problems associated with those "corrections"), it is very difficult to argue that the results of this "correction" of an intersex person's sex organs are to be regarded as defining factor in deciding same- or different-ness, while sex reassignement surgery in transgender people is being ignored and the original sex organs are regarded as the defining factor of same- and differentness (as is often the case).
  3. Sometimes, non-intersex cisgender people also have to undergo a removal or reshaping of sex organs because of accident or illness.
  4. Even if one regards the current state of the sex organs as the deciding factor, the problem remains that in such a case, any change of those sex organs, be it a transgender person undergoing SRS, a "correction" of an intersex condition, or a similar surgery on a non-intersex cisgender person, would change a relationship from homo- to heterosexual (or vice versa), without necessarily any other thing in this relationship changing.

Combining physical factors

Combining any of those physical factors, even with an "x out of four" approach, usually does not solve the problem, either, as should be obvious from the above. Again, both the possible combination of these factors in intersex people (and there does not seem to be any combination that does not exist at least once), and the changeability of three of the four factors make this approach at least problematic.

The "bio-social" or "historical" definition

Sometimes people try to avoid the traps of a purely biological definition by defining people's sex by their birth sex, "once male, always male" (or female). Often this is coupled with a reference to the upbringing as a man (or woman); as in "used to enjoy male privileges". (Compare for example Michigan Womyn's Music Festival)

However, this does not avoid the problems of the purely biological definitions mentioned above - it merely moves the biological problem back to the time of birth, and usually ignores intersex people. It also completely denies the possibilitly of gender identity being independent of sexual characteristics, regressing to a "biology is destiny" ideology, and furthermore, if coupled with references to "male privileges" or "oppression as a woman", ignores the fact that almost all transgender people experience these things distinctively different from most cisgender people. For example, the "male privilege" is not bestowed on just any person with a male body, but only on men who "play by the (male) rules", therefore not available to many transwoman, namely those who never managed to live in a "normal" male gender role, in the first place. And even if she had access to them at one point, she would have traded them in for being able to live in a female gender role, and in fact does or did so when she transitions.


Both the problem of a purely biological definition and the question to which extent gender identity and even gender role are part of defining same- or different-ness make it obvious that if homo- and heterosexual are applied to transgender and intersex persons, there needs to be a clear definition in exactly what regard one considers the participants of a partnership or a sexual act as sufficiently same or different to apply the term.

Increasingly, instead of homo- or heterosexual, the terms gynephilia and androphilia are used to describe the sexual orientation of transgender and intersex people.

See also

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