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transvestitism Cross-dressing in the clothes of the other gender is a practice dating back into pre-history, though it can only occur in a culture in which the sexes dress in distinctively different fashions. Ritual transvestitism has been associated with magic and shamanism, and also with the more general disguise, and inversion of conventional roles, of the carnivalesque. There is a long theatrical tradition of travesty in many cultures: the classical Greek and Japanese drama relied on male actors to incarnate often powerful female roles, and the women's parts in the drama of the age of Shakespeare were, of course, played by boys. With the entry of actresses into the profession, the ‘breeches part’ became a titillating device, though there is some perhaps anecdotal evidence to indicate that women as well as men found the woman masquerading as male alluring. The British pantomine, with its male caricature of mature femininity in the ‘Dame’, and the traditionally female ‘Principal Boy’, perhaps draws at a distant remove from the midwinter Saturnalia carnival.

Developing definitions

These overt and culturally accepted traditions, however, are a rather different matter from the private and sexual practice of cross-dressing. Reports on the phenomenon in early sexological literature, such as Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, deemed all transvestites to be ‘sexual inverts’ or homosexual, in keeping with nineteenth-century concepts of homosexuality as due to a pronounced feminine component within the male (and vice versa in the female). However, both Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld found that many of the cases which they encountered were heterosexual in general sexual orientation. Ellis additionally suggested that ‘Eonists’, as he termed them (after the eighteenth-century French cross-dresser, the Chevalier d'Eon), were characterized by a low sexual drive and were often somewhat indifferent to sexual relations.

A number of phenomena are conflated under the general term of transvestitism. There became in the late twentieth century perhaps a clearer distinction than in earlier times between the transsexual — who believes him or herself to have been born into a body of the wrong gender, and may seek surgical and hormonal gender reassignment — and the transvestite, who cross-dresses but does not desire to change his or her physical body. However, since the possibility of transsexuality has only been created by developments in endocrinology and reconstructive surgery, it is dubious to what extent one can really speak of ‘transsexuals’ before the mid twentieth century.

Gender differences

There are a number of cases recorded in history of women passing as men. It is debatable whether their motivation was sexual (either lesbian or a fetishistic fascination with male dress), due to existential dissatisfaction with their own gender, or economic and practical. When certain professions were closed to women, and there were considerable differences between male and female wage-scales, some women dressed as men to pursue an occupation either more congenial or better paid than they could have aspired to in a skirt. There are instances in which women even married other women, who were reported as being unaware of their ‘husband's’ true gender (this may reflect levels of sexual ignorance, or the furtive, concealed way in which any conjugal rights took place).

For some men wearing female clothes is a form of fetishism: the clothes are experienced as sexually arousing; this form of cross-dressing is a specifically sexual act, either leading to masturbation, or being a requirement for successful intercourse. The converse is seldom the case in women. Other (male) transvestites lead a double life as normal heterosexual males, with an alternative identity dressing and passing as women. There are also homosexual transvestites who cross-dress, but in such cases there is often an element of deliberate impersonation and even caricature (‘drag queens’): this can be deployed as a critique of existing gender norms but can also be an expression of misogynistic hostility.

There is little evidence that for women transvestism involves the sensuous and erotic response to the garments of the other sex that is reported in many male transvestites. However, whilst it has become increasingly acceptable in Western societies for women to wear trousers in a wide variety of social settings, social custom is still hostile to men wearing skirts, unless they are Highlanders in full kilted regalia. Male clothing is often perceived as a practical choice for the active woman in modern life, whereas female dress tends to be coded as impractical, decorative, and constricting — factors which are often sources of gratification to the male cross-dresser.

Possible explanations

The aetiology of transvestitism is complex. Because it has been recorded in most societies (and in some cultures is even a recognized social role), and throughout history, it has been hypothesized that there must be some innate biological component. While there may be some predisposing endocrine or neurological mechanism involved, the research findings are extremely ambiguous, and no factor has been found to account adequately for its development. The influence of social and cultural factors is more marked: cross-cultural research indicates that discomfort with biological gender is more common in societies with rigid expectations about appropriately gendered behaviour. Thus the inability of the accepted male role to incorporate qualities perceived as ‘feminine’ may lead to various forms of identifying with the appurtenances of femininity.

However, it would appear that individual psychological factors also play a significant part in the development of quirks in gender identity. Boys who later become transvestites or transsexuals may manifest ‘feminine’ behavioural characteristics from early childhood. In a significant minority of cases, being cross-dressed as a child by a parent or other relative seems to play a part. What is not clear is why in some cases this ‘feminization’ leads to the development in the adult male of a homosexual identity, in other cases to transvestitism with heterosexual orientation, and in others to full transsexualism.

As with many categories of sexual behaviour, ‘transvestitism’ as a classification is a lumping together of diverse phenomena, not only in the different sexes, but among members of the same sex obeying different biological, social, or psychic imperatives resulting in phenomena which are only apparently similar.

Lesley A. Hall

See also sex change; sexual orientation.