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Magnus Hirschfeld, the early twentieth-century German sex researcher and homosexual rights advocate, coined the term transvestite—as well as the term transsexual—in his book Die Transvestiten (The Transvestites), published in 1910. As its Latin roots suggest, a transvestite is a cross-dresser, or someone who wears the clothes of the other gender. Transvestism is mainly associated with men who dress as women, in large part because clothing standards for women have become so relaxed as to make male attire on women hardly worth a second glance. Women from previous eras who dressed as men and were taken for men are usually termed passing women rather than transvestites.

Confusion about the sexual categories transvestite, transsexual, and homosexual in the popular media began in the late nineteenth century and continued through the late twentieth century. Even in the twenty-first century, few people realize that many transvestites are heterosexual men with no sexual interest in other men and no desire to become women. Differences between sex, gender, and sexuality must be clear and unambiguous in order to make distinctions between categories such as homosexuality, which is understood as choosing a person of the same biological sex for one's sexual partners; transsexuality, also known as transgender identification, which has nothing to do with object choice but is understood rather as the desire to transform one's own body into that of the other sex; and transvestism, which has nothing to do with either object choice or body modification but only concerns cross-dressing.

Even Hirschfeld conflated transvestites with transsexuals, believing that cross-dressers wanted to change their sex. Published accounts from the 1950s of America's first celebrity transsexual, Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989), described her as a transvestite. Films such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) collapse transvestite, transsexual, and woman-hating behaviors together in one murderous serial killer; a 2004 British reality television show, "There's Something About Miriam," similarly collapsed cultural notions of transsexuality, transvestism, and homosexuality together in the person of Miriam, a twenty-two-year-old male-to-female pre-operative transsexual who wooed six male contestants, none of whom were aware she had been born a man and still had male genitals. The contestants sued to have the show cancelled, but clearly the show's creators were hoping to create shock value by presenting all these problematic sexual and gender categories together in the figure of one ambiguously-gendered woman.

Hirschfeld, a transvestite, believed in three genders: male, female, and the "third sex." The last encompassed subjects who were neither heterosexual nor normatively gendered, including homosexuals, transvestites, and transsexuals. The Nazis destroyed Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research in 1933, and after World War II the notion of a third sex disappeared. Transvestism was seen until the 1960s as a sign of homosexuality, but in the 1960s cross-dressing became a sign of transsexual tendencies. Many in the gay and lesbian rights movement disassociated themselves from transvestism, except in the self-consciously theatrical spectacle of drag, or female impersonation. Drag, which was always a performance of gender meant to be read as theater, separated itself from the kind of transvestism associated with sexual arousal, which gradually became known as transvestic fetishism, and which is listed as a paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition (DSM IV, 1994).

Gradually, many heterosexual males who liked to dress as women distanced themselves from the pathology of transvestic fetishism, as well as from homosexuals and transsexuals. These men are known mostly as cross-dressers, but when the term transvestite is used to describe them, it is understood to be something quite different from transvestic fetishism, something that is not necessarily about sexual arousal or mental distress.


Transvestism as an expression of religious devotion and sexual and gender variance has been present all over the world for thousands of years. Castrated and cross-dressed priestesses of the Great Mother may date back to the Stone Age, have been recorded in Mesopotamian temple records as early as 3000 bce, and are also present in the records of Babylonia, Assyria, and Akkadia. Astarte, Dea Syria, Artemis, Atargatis, Ashtoreth or Ishtar, Cybele, Hecate, and Diana at Ephesus were all served by transsexual priestesses. The Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut (1540–1481 bce) made herself pharoah of Upper and Lower Egypt and ruled for twenty years wearing a ceremonial beard, male headdress, and male kilt. Cross-dressing and transsexualism were part of ancient religious ceremonies in China and Japan. Ashurbanipal (r. 668–c. 627 bce), the last Assyrian king, dressed in women's clothing some 2700 years ago. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus prohibit cross-dressing, probably in part to distinguish the Hebrews from their goddess-worshipping contemporaries. In ancient Greece, the cult of Dionysus had both male and female cross-dressed followers.

In North America, the Crow, Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Lakota, and nations from the western Great Lakes and Canada to the Pacific Northwest, Louisiana, and Florida honored "two-spirit" people who cross-dressed and lived as a gender other than the one in which they were born. The Europeans who colonized North America enacted and encouraged the persecution of two-spirit people in their own communities, and coined the derogatory term berdache, from the French word for male prostitute, to describe them. Two-spirit people were most often males living as females, perhaps because downward gender mobility was easier to achieve than upward transformation, though some tribes reported women who hunted and fought as men, such as the Crow warrior and chief Barcheeampe. Native American women who became warrior men were known as "manly-hearts," though sometimes they, too, were known as berdache. Cross-dressing and gendered work were both crucial to cross-gender male-to-female identity, whereas fewer examples of female-to-male cross-dressing are available. Two-spirit male-to-female people usually married, served as powerful and respected religious figures, and were accepted as women. They performed certain ceremonial functions such as handling the dead, tending to the sick, cutting ritual lodgepoles, and carrying provisions for war parties. Manly-heartedness was most common among postmenopausal women, as the combination of menstrual blood and reproductive fertility among younger women seems to have linked them more forcefully to female status than males were linked to male gender identity and roles through male biology.

Medieval and Renaissance sumptuary laws restricted the wearing of certain fabrics, furs, and clothing styles to members of particular genders, classes, and ranks. Sumptuary legislation in England during the reign of the Tudor kings enforced legibility and hierarchy, and Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) appears to have issued more proclamations having to do with dress than in any time in English history. Jacobean England prohibited excessiveness in dress, and James I (r. 1603–1625) instructed the clergy to express disapproval at women wearing clothing resembling male attire. In France, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 for refusing to stop dressing as a man. Cross-dressing was a vital part of carnival celebrations throughout Europe into the sixteenth century, and peasant rebellions such as the 1631 anti-enclosure riots in England seemed to favor cross-dressing as well. On the other end of the social scale, the French Chevalier d'Eon (1728–1810) became the eighteenth century's most celebrated and well-known male-to-female cross-dresser, and the Jacobite Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward, 1720–1788) seems to have cross-dressed as well.

Though sumptuary laws prohibited cross-dressing on the street, transvestism was a theatrical convention in Europe during the Renaissance because many laws prohibited women on the stage through the seventeenth century. Shakespeare's Juliet was played by a boy actor, as were Desdemona and Ophelia. In church music, women's vocal ranges were traditionally appropriated by boys and castrati (castrated male singers), constituting a kind of auditory—and sometimes visible—theatrical transvestism. Castrati such as Farinelli (1705–1782) became superstars in their day, with their extraordinary soprano voices in demand throughout Europe. The baroque castrati and the Victorian operatic "trouser role," where women played male characters ranging from Mozart's baroque Cherubino to Strauss's modern Octavian, carried the long-established theatrical tradition of en travesti into the twentieth century, and this tradition helps explain why theatrical drag, or transvestism staged as theater, is generally more tolerated than public street transvestism.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century insurgents in Scotland, Ireland, and England featured men dressed as women. In the United States, women dressed as men fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, some as decorated officers. Two nightclubs in Chicago, the Roselle Club and the Twelve-thirty Club, were closed down by police in the 1930s because they contained too many women in men's clothes. Famous twentieth-century passing women include Billy Tipton, a well-known jazz pianist and saxophonist who began passing as a man in 1933 and was only revealed to be biologically female at his death in 1989.


Transvestites are tolerated in liberal urban areas in most of the world, or wherever gender-variant people are allowed to express themselves. Outside of this, cross-dressers flourish where a religious or cultural tradition of cross-dressing retains a strong influence. Transvestite presence in religious ceremonies is still evident in western Africa, and cross-dressing features in religions derived from west-African religions in Brazil and Haiti. Male-to-female shamans are reported in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Columbia, and transgendered figures still perform religious ceremonies in Indonesia, India, Korea, and Vietnam. Female-to-male crossdressers also serve as priests among the Zulu in Africa and among the native peoples of the Arctic Basin, including the Inuit, Chukchi, Kamchadal, and Koryak.

In India and Pakistan, castrated and uncastrated transvestites known as hijras make their living begging, dancing at weddings, serving as prostitutes, and participating in religious festivals. Hijra is a third sex category that collapses hermaphrodite, eunuch, impotent man, male-to-female cross-dresser, and, in some cases, homosexual, into one category. While hijras remain on the lowest rungs of society, their cultural intelligibility secures them a role and a measure of tolerance in both Hindu and Muslim Indian and Pakistani cultures. Not all hijras undergo castration, but those that do are sometimes said to enjoy greater status in hijra society.

In Brazil, travestis are males who adopt female clothing and hairstyles, names, and linguistic pronouns, sometimes from a very young age. They take black market female hormones, and inject industrial silicone into their bodies to create prominent breasts, hips, thighs, and buttocks. Despite this, virtually no travesti identifies himself as a woman, and look upon any male who does so as mentally unstable.

In the twenty-first century, films such as Beautiful Boxer (2003), the true story of transsexual Thai kickboxer Parinya Charoenphol (Nong Toom), have purportedly helped create a greater tolerance for transvestism and gender variance in Thai culture. The film's tag line is "He fights like a man so he can become a woman." Nong Toom was famous for wearing makeup in the ring to enrage his opponents, and his transvestism was considered a publicity stunt until he made public his desire for a sex-change operation.

In Europe and the United States, transvestism is tolerated wherever sex-variant behavior is accepted, which usually means large urban centers. However, a lively network of private transvestite social clubs exists all over the world, which is especially advantageous to the many heterosexual transvestites who do not live near a large city. Cross-dressing conventions, outings, and holidays take place all through the year and can be accessed on the bulletin boards of many cross-dressing societies on the Internet. In the United States, drag balls have a history going back to early plantation society, and drag balls have been held in major U.S. cities for most of the twentieth century. The drag balls and voguing houses of Harlem received special attention with the distribution of Jennie Livingston's film Paris is Burning in 1990, but drag balls continue to be held all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico as independent productions and under the aegis of the Imperial Court System, an organization founded in San Francisco in 1965 that now has more than sixty chapters and sponsors drag ball fundraisers all over North America.

Some cross-dressers have attained lasting mainstream celebrity status, and drag events such as New York City's Wigstock have become yearly extravaganzas. The vocal performer and actor RuPaul Charles, who appears as both a man and a woman in film acting roles and television guest spots, exploits the theatrical aspect of female impersonation and is widely accepted across the country as a media star in drag in a way he might not be in person in a small town. Wigstock, a summer drag festival started in 1985 as an impromptu performance in Tompkins Square Park by several revelers from the nearby Pyramid Club, grew so big it had to be moved first to Union Square Park, then to the Christopher Street piers. Originally a drag tribute to the original Woodstock music festival, the event has gotten bigger, glitzier, and more commercial every year, with upwards of 50,000 revelers gathering for what is billed as the largest transvestite festival in the world. Wigstock was immortalized in 1987 in a film by Tom Rubnitz and again in a much bigger 1995 documentary of the same name directed by Barry Shils, and now has its own website. Its best known performers include drag personalities and performance artists Leigh Bowery, the Lady Bunny, Ethyl Eichelberger, RuPaul, Lypsinka, Boy George, Dorian Corey, and Varla Jean Merman.

see also Transgender.


Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Garber, Marjorie. 1993. Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: HarperPerennial.

Hill, Darryl B. "Sexuality and Gender in Hirschfeld's Die Transvestiten: A Case of the 'Elusive Evidence of the Ordinary.'" Journal of the History of Sexuality 14(3): 316-332.

Kulick, Don. 1998. Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Nanda, Serena. 1999. Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. 2nd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Whitehead, Harriet. 1981. "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America." In Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality, ed. Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

                                          Jaime Hovey