The dictionary defines transgender and transsexual as the same thing -- someone who has transitioned or deeply desires to transition physically to the 'opposite' sex. The American Psychological Association and wikipedia define transgender as an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity/expression differs from that usually associated with their birth sex. That makes more sense to me, so in my LJ: transsexual = wanting/making physical changes to sex, and transgender = not identifying with the 'gender' of one's birth sex and identifying as trans.
Until recently I knew next to nothing about trans identities (still don't know much, but am learning!). I had always thought that transsexual people believed in gender as something immutable and inborn, since the reason I always heard for people transitioning was, "I feel [female/male] inside." Then I met someone who does not have that reason (I don't want to paraphrase zir reasons because I would surely do a clumsy job), and realized hey, people can want to change their bodies for other reasons, and there are trans people who actually feel the same way I do about gender (that it is just a set of stereotypes). I'd always thought that trans people would hate me because many cisgender people (those who identify with the gender associated with their birth sex) get angry enough at me for questioning/disdaining gender, and trans people go through so much more to create their gender, so I thought they'd be that much angrier at me. That idea was recently dismantled for me through a conversation with another transgender person I favorited on okcupid, who didn't get upset with me at all but just asked thought-provoking questions (ze had thought that ze embodied an idea I was against). Here's how I responded to that (edited slightly):
even though I don't believe in gender, I really respect people who change their sex (or apparent sex) because it's such a brave move and it shows the range of human flexibility -- I know that sorta clashes with the idea that one is simply expressing one's true gender, but it's the way I see it... It's like, ultimately I would like if everyone could express themselves without using categories, but the next best thing (in my view) is expressing oneself by exploring outside the lines of what is imposed by society -- disregarding the expectations of one's birth sex. I mean, if half of the world were transgender, then people would be forced to acknowledge that one's sex does not imply anything about their personality or behavior. People wouldn't be able to look at me and think "ze has boobs, must have been born female and therefore be nurturing, illogical, and submissive." You know? so it's sorta another way of achieving the same goal of destroying stereotypes (or at least making it more difficult to stereotype people based on appearance). But I suppose it would depend on the person -- if a transsexual person was like, "now that I have a female body, I must conform to all female stereotypes," then I would consider that probably more harmful than helpful.
So I've realized that I technically fall under the umbrella of transgender, and even though I know there are those who would consider me anti-trans, I'm feeling more and more of a sense of community with transgender people. I am not yet comfortable referring to myself as transgender because I don't know what the broader trans community would think of me, and I don't want to put myself where I'm not wanted. But realizing that some trans people might welcome me makes me kinda excited. I've never felt that I fit in any queer community because I'm not gay or lesbian and bisexuals just don't have a community. But I share a common goal with trans people (changing the current system of gender), and it's thrilling to feel so strongly about something and discover a group who ALSO feels strongly about it, and is making tangible progress.
Whether or not I consider myself transsexual is even more confusing. I don't think I'd ever refer to myself as such because it would simply not communicate what I meant -- people'd assume I want to change my body to male, which is not the case. I am perfectly happy with my female body. I like everything about it. BUT. If a body genie appeared to me and told me I could design my own body, I would choose intersex -- vulva, vagina, penis, breasts, and facial hair only on my chin (more than my 13 hairs, heh). I don't think I would want to use surgery to create that body because 1) they can't do it the way I'd want it, 2) I'm only willing to undergo surgery for a life-threatening condition, 3) I would feel like I was rejecting my current body (which would hurt my feelings), and 4) it's expensive. But if I had that shape I'd love my body even more because I'd be sure to never have sexist lovers, haha! And I'd fuck with everybody's mindsets just by being myself. And I'd get to experience the feeling of being inside someone else in that way.
Identifying as trans also becomes more complex/questionable when I look cisgender to everyone I meet. I find it really upsetting that even though it is just plain ME to wear skirts (they're comfortable and fit my shape), long dangly earrings (they're small works of art), low-cut tops (they're cool and let me breathe), colorful things (I love color), etc., people assume that I'm attempting to look "feminine" when I am simply being my human self and dressing according to my love for comfort, color, and art (I would wear the same things if I had a male body). I also find it upsetting that if I open the door for someone or offer to carry something or take the lead, they assume I am playing 'masculine' when really, I'm just expressing my human desire to show kindness and/or get stuff done. I want people to see my actions as simply me, not as performing a gender. I hate being seen and treated in gendered ways. I hate it that people assume that I'm all down with stereotypes just because I fit theirs! There are ways in which I don't fit stereotypes -- keeping my body hair, wearing sensible and comfortable shoes (only the one pair), not wearing makeup often, not covering pimples when I have them, not flattening or hiding or sucking in my belly -- but I think most people interpret these things as me being lazy or sloppy, not as deliberately transgressing gender. They see me as failing at 'femininity' rather than saying fuck you to gendered ideas of beauty. It's SO frustrating to me, because it is most me to dress the way I do, but people would interpret me more accurately if I wore pants and a collared shirt and bound my breasts and cut my hair short. Then they'd realize, at least, that I'm not playing the game by the USUAL rules (even though they'd probably think I'm switching one set for another). But what good is it to be untrue to myself in order to be interpreted more accurately? None. So I keep on with what's true to me even though I don't like what others 'read' from it; but then, will I be perceived as a pretender because I have no intention of transitioning or gender-transgressing in visible ways? I'm still contemplating (and learning).