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The term transvestism has undergone several changes of meaning since it was coined in the 1910s, and it is still used in all of these meanings except the very first one. Therefore it is important to find out, whenever the word is encountered, in which particular sense it is used. However, to understand the different meanings of transvestism it is necessary to explain the development of the term and the reasons behind the changes of meaning.
Origin of the term
Magnus Hirschfeld coined the term transvestism around 1915 in Berlin (from Latin trans-, “across, over” and vestere, “to dress or to wear”). He used it to describe a group of people who habitually and voluntarily wore clothes of the opposite sex. (The distinction between sex and gender had not been made at this time.) Hirschfeld’s group of transvestites consisted of both males and females, with any sexual preference.
Hirschfeld himself was not particularly happy with the term since he realised that clothes were only an outward symbol caused by a variety of different internal psychological situations. In fact, Hirschfeld helped people to achieve the very first gender name changes and to get the very first sexual reassignment surgery. Hirschfeld’s transvestites therefore were, in today’s terms, not only transvestites, but people from all over the transgender spectrum.
Hirschfeld operated very much in a three-gender framework, namely male, female and other, or third gender. Included in this third gender were all people who, in today’s terms, violated heteronormative rules. Again, in today’s terms, this is very much equivalent with the queer community, i.e. lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. Therefore, there was no pressing reason to find different terms for the different shades of Hirschfeld’s transvestism.
Hirschfeld also noticed that sexual arousal was often, but by no means always associated with, transvestite behaviour, and he also clearly distinguished between transvestism as an expression of a person’s “contra-sexual” (transgender) feelings and fetishistic behaviour, even if the latter involved wearing clothes of the opposite sex.
Today Hirschfeld’s use of transvestism is extinct, but the modern term transgender is used in a nearly equivalent sense.
The rise of the Nazis to power and the Second world war had brought an end not only to Hirschfeld’s work, but to also most European research in the field of sexuality. In both Europe and the North America transvestite behaviour (both by male and female bodied persons) was until the 1960s seen an expression of homosexuality or suppressed homosexual impulses. Also, the three-gendered framework of Hirschfeld disappeared, and the two-gendered framework became the frame of reference again (until the late 1990s.)
In the 1960s Harry Benjamin and others started working with people showing transvestite behaviour again. Trying to press transvestite behaviour into a two-gendered framework produced a very significant result: transsexualism. Unlike Hirschfeld, who had tried to find a social space where third-gendered people could live the way they needed or wanted, people showing other-gendered behaviour now were forced to find a way of living as “proper men” or “proper women”. And if a person could not be “cured” of transvestite behaviour, it seemed the best to make them change sex. Those who refused or were refused this “cure” were labeled either homosexuals or sexual fetishists.
Since transsexuals had and sometimes still have to “prove” that they are not “just transvestites” to get access to medical treatment, people who see themselves as transsexuals occasionally discriminate against anything they see as “transvestism” even more strongly than the public in general.
Divergence from homosexuality
Social changes brought about the next modifications.
The gay and lesbian rights movement after the Stonewall riots weakened transvestism’s association with homosexuality, since more lesbians and gays became visible and most of them did not show transvestite behaviour. The extreme transvestism that is still associated with the LGBT community, which differs quite obviously from most other forms of transvestism, became known as drag.
That left transvestism as transvestic fetishism, in which transvestic behaviour is coupled with sexual arousal. It has been a standard (and unproven) assumption of most researchers that women do not have fetishistic tendencies. However, in most western societies it became almost impossible for women to engage in transvestism, because more and more pieces of male clothing were permitted or even fashionable for them. Also, the distinctive transvestic behaviour of butches in the lesbian community became “politically incorrect” and therefore rather rare. All this led to the term transvestism being applied to men or male-bodied persons only, because there seemed to be no need for a word for transvestic female bodied persons.
Today transvestism is still applied mostly to male bodied persons. However, some researchers never stopped using the term transvestism for female-bodied persons, and recently some groups of female-bodied transvestites have started to use the term to describe themselves, although the term “drag king” is more common.
Other groups distinct from these meanings
After all those changes which took place during the 1970s, a large group was left without a word to describe themselves: heterosexual males (that is, male-bodied, male-identified, gynophilic persons) who wear traditionally feminine clothing. This group was, for obvious reasons, not particularly happy with the term transvestism. Therefore the term cross-dresser was coined. This group is quite distinct from transvestites, in that they’re not gay, transvestites, or transsexuals. Nor do they have any fetishistic intentions, either. Furthermore, a good many cross-dressers cite fashion history, in which men wore skirt-like garments for tens of thousands of years, and heels from around 1500 to the late 1800s. Many call themselves “bravehearts” after the 1995 film Braveheart, which depicted a leading man in a kilt. For this reason, the term “cross-dressing” is no longer considered to be transgender in nature. Most cross-dressers simply view themselves as heterosexual males whose personal choice of fashion attire is currently out of style for their sex.
There are many different usages and meanings of the term transvestism. Most experts agree that the correct usages is limited to:
- When people dress in clothes normally worn by the opposite gender in order to identify with that gender in some manner.
- When people dress in clothes normally worn by the opposite gender for purposes involving sexual arousal (transvestic fetishism).
- A combination of the two definitions mentioned above.