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social sciences

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As to why these men cross-dress, the literature has historically cited sexual excitement as their primary motivation. But more recent studies conclude that cross-dressing also enables individuals to express another aspect of themselves and to develop a cross-gender identity. While cross-dressing may begin as a source of arousal, many of the men state that other factors become more important over time, such as achieving a feminine sense of self and temporarily escaping from masculine gender norms.

The little research that has been conducted on female cross-dressers concludes that most feel more comfortable in traditionally male clothing, but are not aroused by the practice. In a study of fifteen women who typically dressed in male-identified clothing and were often mistaken for men, Holly Devor found that the women chose to cross-dress because it gave them a sense of freedom and fit with their way of life. Most identified as lesbians and found acceptance in the lesbian community, where gender expectations are generally less rigid than in the dominant society.

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Perhaps because of this acceptance, female cross-dressers have felt less of a need to organize support groups than some male cross-dressers and, as a result, often continue to be ignored by researchers and the general public. In the last decade, though, female cross-dressers have become more visible with the rise of a drag king culture.

Contemporary Psychiatric Views

The survey research involving members of cross-dressing clubs helped change the medical community's image of transvestites from homosexual to heterosexual men. However, many psychiatrists continue to view cross-dressing as a compulsive fetish.

Since 1987, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the profession's guide to mental disorders, has included the diagnosis "Transvestic Fetishism," which it defines as a heterosexual male who has "recurrent intense sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies involving cross-dressing" and "has acted on these urges or is markedly distressed by them."

The most recent edition of the DSM (1994) acknowledges that some transvestites are attracted to others of the same sex and that the fetishistic aspect may diminish over time, but the clinical definition of transvestism remains a heterosexual male who has a perverse, compelling desire to dress in women's clothing because of the erotic pleasure he derives from doing so.

Because "transvestite" connotes a perversion and excludes female, gay, and bisexual male cross-dressers, as well as heterosexual men who cross-dress for non-sexual reasons, the term is rejected today by many transpeople in favor of "cross-dresser."

Representations of Cross-Dressing in Popular Culture

Cross-dressing by heterosexual men is also often stigmatized in popular culture, as something either to laugh at or to fear. In movies such as Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (1982), Chris Columbus's Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and Wallace Wolodarsky's Sorority Boys (2002), men who are not cross-dressers are compelled by circumstances to temporarily masquerade as women to great comic effect (Some Like It Hot and Tootsie have been considered the funniest American films of all time).

Actual cross-dressers are rarely represented on the screen, and when they are, as in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991), they are often portrayed as psychopathic serial killers.


Cross-dressing is a common practice with a long history, yet a lack of knowledge and understanding persists, both among doctors and the general public. Until cross-dressers began to organize in the 1960s and 1970s, little accurate research had been conducted on their lives since the groundbreaking work of Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910.

Scientific studies are now beginning to provide more insight into the experiences of cross-dressers, but a sickness model continues to hold sway in the medical profession and is reinforced by stereotypical images in the mainstream media. Clearly, cross-dressers and their allies will need to do much more educating and agitating in order to change the negative image of cross-dressing.

Brett Genny Beemyn

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social sciences >> Overview:  Aversion Therapy

A form of behavior modification that employs unpleasant and sometimes painful stimuli, aversion therapy was one of the more popular treatments for homosexuality and cross-dressing in the 1950s and 1960s.

literature >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

In literature, the gay male cross-dresser and the lesbian cross-dresser are depicted quite differently.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators

A recent arrival in the drag arena, drag kings are part of an international drag movement that emerged in London and San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity, but it has for a long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender

"Transgender" has become an umbrella term representing a political alliance between all gender variant people who do not conform to social norms for typical men and women and who suffer political oppression as a result.

arts >> Overview:  Transvestism in Film

Too often cinematic drag is reduced to a mere joke, a harmless tease that tacitly reassures us that people can change their clothes but not their sexual identities.

arts >> Carstairs, Marion Barbara "Joe"

Marion Joe Carstairs, a colorful gender-bending figure of the twentieth century, first gained fame as a speedboat racer in the 1920s.

social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.

arts >> Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von

Preservationist and museum founder Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was admired by many for her bravery in the face of persecution and for her openness as a transgender public figure in perilous times.

social sciences >> Prince, Virginia Charles

Virginia Charles Prince has been a pioneer in organizing social and support groups for heterosexually-identified male cross-dressers.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 3rd ed. rev. Washington, D. C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1987.

_____. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, D. C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Bullough, Bonnie, Vern L. Bullough, and James Elias, eds. Gender Blending. Amherst, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Cromwell, Jason. Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Devor, Holly. Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Docter, Richard F. Transvestites and Transsexuals: Toward a Theory of Cross-Gender Behavior. New York: Plenum Press, 1988.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross Dress. Michael A. Lombardi-Nash, trans. Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991 (originally published in German, 1910).

Tri-Ess, The Society for the Second Self:


    Citation Information
    Author: Beemyn, Brett Genny  
    Entry Title: Cross-Dressing  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 28, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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