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Cross-Dressing  
 
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Cross-dressers, commonly defined as individuals who wear clothing and take on an appearance and behavior considered by a given culture to be appropriate for another gender but not one's own, have often been misunderstood and maligned, especially in societies with strict, dichotomous gender roles.

As a result, many cross-dressers choose to hide this part of themselves and sometimes internalize a sense of shame and guilt. The individuals who were tormented by their cross-dressing were more likely than others to seek the assistance of doctors, leading many medical authorities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to view cross-dressing as a mental illness. Not until the 1960s, when generally well-adjusted cross-dressers formed support groups and became more visible to researchers, did cross-dressing start to become less stigmatized and more accepted.

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Many psychiatrists, however, still consider cross-dressing to be pathological, and cross-dressers frequently continue to be stereotyped as having a perverse fetish.

Cross-Dressing in History

Accounts of women and men who cross-dressed have appeared in newspapers, legal records, and medical journals in the United States since the sixteenth century. For example, white explorers and missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found that many Native American tribal cultures recognized multiple genders, including "women-men" and "men-women" who took on cross-gender roles, often involving cross-dressing.

In the nineteenth century, European and American sexologists discussed cases of individuals who cross-dressed, typically categorizing them as "homosexuals" or as having a "contrary sexual feeling."

Like sex researchers, many contemporary historians have contended that men and especially women who cross-dressed in the past did so as a cover to pursue same-sex relationships or, in the case of women, to take advantage of male privilege, such as being able to escape narrow gender roles or enter traditionally male occupations. These women are said to have "posed" or "passed" as men and to have been in a lesbian relationship if they lived with another woman. There is no consideration given to the possibility that they identified as men or felt more comfortable dressed in traditionally male clothing.

Toward a Definition and a Diagnosis

In order to distinguish gender expression from sexual behavior, German physician Magnus Hirschfeld coined the term "transvestism" (Latin for "cross-dressing") in 1910. Hirschfeld, a cross-dresser himself, argued that transvestites were not fetishists, but were overcome with a "feeling of peace, security and exaltation, happiness and well-being . . . when in the clothing of the other sex."

Challenging the claim by other sexologists that cross-dressers were homosexuals and almost entirely men, Hirschfeld demonstrated that transvestites could be male or female and of any sexual orientation. In fact, most of the individuals he studied were heterosexual.

After Hirschfeld, most of the work published on cross-dressing through the 1960s was by psychiatrists, who, based on the distressed patients in their care, considered cross-dressing to be a perversion treatable through psychotherapy. Ignoring Hirschfeld's groundbreaking research, they argued that transvestism was a male phenomenon often associated with fetishism. Psychoanalytic literature tended to explain cross-dressing as either a form of homosexuality or an escape from homosexuality resulting from castration anxiety.

Cross-Dressing Clubs

Prior to the 1960s, there was little organizing among cross-dressers; many doctors even urged the cross-dressers who came to them to hide their transvestism and avoid contact with other cross-dressers. A new era began in 1960, when Virginia Prince began publishing Transvestia magazine and helped found the first national organization for cross-dressers. Known today as Tri-Ess (the Society for the Second Self), the group has more than 30 chapters in the United States.

Prince publicized the idea that most transvestites were "normal" heterosexual men who needed to express the "woman within." She did not acknowledge female or gay male cross-dressers and excluded them from the society. The cross-dressing clubs that formed in subsequent years often followed suit, so that the burgeoning cross-dressing movement consisted primarily of married, heterosexual men and their wives and children.

Research on Cross-Dressers

As the number of clubs grew in the 1970s and 1980s, researchers were able to conduct surveys of cross-dressers who were not patients and thus were more comfortable with their cross-dressing. The fact that most club members were white, middle-class, heterosexual men meant that the resulting samples were still not representative of cross-dressers as a whole. Nevertheless, these studies provided the first scientific look at the experiences of a significant segment of cross-dressers.

Research on heterosexual male cross-dressers finds that most began cross-dressing clandestinely before puberty, with some starting as early as their preschool years. Contrary to the popular belief that their cross-dressing was first initiated or encouraged by a parent, the studies show that the youths decided to do so themselves and never told anyone else about their behavior. Rarely did cross-dressing begin in adulthood, but as they grew older and had greater autonomy, they were able to cross-dress more completely and more frequently.

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This photograph of a cross-dresser appeared in 1902 in the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen published by Magnus Hirschfeld.
  
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