Transsexuals, Transvestites, Transgender People, and Cross-Dressers

Kara Thompson. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Editor: Valerie Steele. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Writing a history of transsexuals, transvestites, transgender people, and cross-dressers is immediately problematic because these words embody people, practices, and discourses that have indefinite meanings that, at different moments, contradict and also intersect with one another. From psychology and medicine, to activism, academics, and the personal, discussion focuses on both the terms that define the discipline and the people who enliven the discourse. By blending diverse points of view it becomes possible to situate the practices of gender crossings with the people who experience and perform them.

Transsexuality and European Science

As Joanne Meyerowitz points out in How Sex Changed (2002), transsexuality—first identified as transsexualism in 1949 by David O. Cauldwell to describe people who “sought to change their sex” (p. 5)—concerned European scientists, most notably Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hirschfeld, who founded the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin, published widely on homosexuality and campaigned for homosexual rights. In Transvestites (1910), he distinguished what he called transvestites from what he called homosexuals. For Hirschfeld, transvestites included both those who cross-dressed and those who identified with a sex and gender that differed from their birth sex and assigned gender. Hirschfeld’s transvestites included those who today would be considered transsexuals (Meyerowitz defines transsexuals as those who “hope to change the bodily characteristics of sex,” p. 9). European doctors performed the first complete genital transformations, many—including those of Americans who could only receive such surgery in the United States if they suffered from disease or injury—at Hirschfeld’s institute in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Changing definitions and understandings of sex and gender in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed to more liberal approaches to sexuality. In this period, scientists began to challenge the once widely accepted notion of “opposite” sexes and separate spheres of male and female. Some, including Ellis, Hirschfeld, and Sigmund Freud, argued for the possibility of universal bisexuality, by which they meant that all human beings exhibited combined aspects of the male and the female. In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists discovered that men and women both have “male” and “female” hormones, which supported the notion that all humans are innately bisexual. This theory reached the United States in the 1920s through medical texts and was integrated into popular sexology by the 1930s.

These innovative European concepts were primarily dependent on biological or medical definitions of sex. As Meyerowitz (2000) explains, “With hormones as the measure, sex was quantitative, literally fluid, and all humans were to greater and lesser degrees, mixtures of female and male” (p. 82). Research in social science fields such as anthropology also supported changing definitions of sex, gender, and sexuality. For example, Margaret Mead’s work in the late 1920s emphasized that men and women shared masculine and feminine modes of behavior. Her work, like other work conducted in the United States, was obviously more dependent on culture than biology, but has lent potential support to the notion of sex change.

Sensationalism and Transsexuality in the United States

During this period of new research in Europe, most Americans were unaware of the possibility of sex change surgery. Historians cite isolated cases from the 1930s of Americans traveling to Europe to seek surgery, but until after World War II, what came to be defined as trans sexualism was not a widely known or understood concept in the United States. In 1949, however, American doctor David O. Cauldwell used the phrase psychopathia transexualis in a popular magazine article to describe the case of “Earl,” who was seeking female-to-male surgery. He also distinguished transsexuals from both homosexuals and “intersexed” people (people with ambiguous genitalia). While he advocated surgery for intersexuals, for transsexuals he endorsed only psychological treatment.

In the 1930s transsexuality was popularized in the United States chiefly through personal accounts that were publicized by sensational media accounts. Magazines such as True Confessions and Your Body printed articles and letters from readers like “Miss R. R.,” who confessed that she “had … the feeling” that “her sex was gradually changing” (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 14). In contrast to earlier accounts of an individual’s biological sex being discovered after his or her death, these stories focused on the notion that the identity of one’s sex was neither obvious, nor inevitable.

Cauldwell’s attention was initially brought to the subject because of these sensational accounts. For the U.S. public, transsexuality was most significantly popularized in the United States because of Christine Jorgensen’s sex change operation, reported in the New York Daily News in 1952. In her account, Jorgensen describes a desire to be female that she had had since her youth; finally, in 1950, she traveled to Europe and sought out an endocrinologist who agreed to give her hormone treatment if she would participate in his research. Over the course of two years, she took estrogen and underwent two surgeries to transform her genitals. As is evident from the first headlines about her case, the media immediately cast Jorgensen as a personification of conventional beauty and glamour. In turn, Jorgensen’s very public experiences provided a model and language for others to question the dominance of traditional medical and psychological models.

“Legitimate” Science

One of Jorgensen’s doctors, Harry Benjamin, also popularized the term “transsexual” in the United States in the 1950s. He defined transsexualism as “an extreme type of transvestism, in which men wanted to be women, even anatomically” (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 103). Benjamin challenged psychiatric models, arguing that while psychological factors contributed to the desire for sex change, psychotherapy as a treatment consistently failed and the “condition” necessitated surgery. Benjamin and others increasingly relied on the notion that one’s sense of being male or female, which they referred to as psychological sex or gender identity, was immutable, while the body could be changed.

Benjamin proved to be a significant advocate and resource for those who wanted sex change surgery and was influential in a network of doctors and scientists working on transsexualism and providing sex reassignment surgery in the United States and abroad. In the late 1940s, for example, Alfred Kinsey corresponded with Benjamin, requesting his support for Val Barry, a male-to-female who sought sex change surgery; Benjamin administered hormones and tried to find Barry a surgeon in the United States. Both Benjamin and Kinsey served as points of contact for the growing transsexual population and the doctors performing sex change surgeries in the United States. They were aided by people like Louise Lawrence, a male-to-female cross-dresser who lived in San Francisco as a woman. She had a network of transvestite friends and was determined to educate the public about transvestism. She, in fact, convinced Kinsey that cross-dressing was “worthy” of scientific study (Meyerowitz, 2000, p. 75). Kinsey focused mostly on transvestites, although toward the end of his life, he began to recognize that some individuals should be allowed to have sex reassignment surgery.

Although advocates like Benjamin worked on a case-by-case basis to help those seeking surgery, most transsexuals had limited funds and lacked available or willing doctors; often Benjamin had to help transsexuals travel to Europe to receive medical help. In 1964, however, with the help of the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF), founded the same year by female-to-male transsexual Reed Erickson, Benjamin created the Harry Benjamin Foundation to fund and coordinate research on transsexualism. In 1965 Benjamin began collaboration with Dr. John Money and a committee at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, also funded by EEF; the following year, the hospital established a Gender Identity Clinic and announced that it would perform sex-reassignment surgeries on a case-by-case basis.

Although the doctors at Johns Hopkins identified with a liberal agenda and legitimized the notion of sex change surgery, many of their practices were surprisingly conservative. For example, they often denied surgery to patients, favoring psychological “treatment” instead. The Gender Identity Clinic’s work was also continually stifled by insufficient funds. By the end of the 1960s, the Johns Hopkins doctors had received hundreds of referrals for sex reassignment surgery, yet they knew they would perform few of them, not merely because of inadequate funding, but also because their focus was on research and psychological testing in order to discover the “cause” of transsexuality.

Activism and Social Networks

Nonetheless, the program at Johns Hopkins did encourage other doctors and medical centers to focus on transsexuality and the possibilities of sex reassignment surgery. At the same time, while doctors and psychologists formed professional networks, clinics, and associations on transsexuality, transsexuals developed social networks and communities. In the process, a small but organized social movement began and the first organizations for transsexuals, including Conversion Our Goal, the National Gender-Sexual Identification Council, and the Transsexual Action Organization, appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their accomplishments include increased availability of sex change surgery and increased public awareness of transsexualism. Transsexual activist groups confronted numerous challenges, much like any identity-based group. Class, race, ethnic, religious, and other differences contributed to diverse political views. Many of the early transsexual groups disbanded in the 1970s amid internal conflict and the changing political climate in the United States. However, a renewed movement flourished in the 1990s as transsexual activists joined cross-dressers, intersexed people, and others who identified as transgender to form new organizations. Some, like Transgender Nation and Transsexual Menace, are more explicitly radical than groups such as the American Educational Gender Information Service. Both types of activists work with LGB rights groups such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to make certain that transsexual and transgender rights are recognized. Since the 1990s, the number of organized transsexual and transgender activist groups continued to grow, particularly via the Internet.

Border Wars

Historically, the languages and practices of transsexualism have been reliant on medical and technological intervention. However, since the late twentieth century some scholars and some transsexuals have understood the term to encompass phenomena outside of or beyond sex change surgery. Some, for example, identify as transsexual those people who longed to live as members of the other sex but were not able to obtain sex change surgery, either because they lived in the presurgery era or because of factors that limited their access to sex reassignment procedures. In addition, some people who do not wish to have sex change surgery nevertheless identify themselves as transsexual.

Engaging in intense debate, scholars and activists now distinguish between various types of gender-crossing. Judith Halberstam (1998), in her influential scholarship on female masculinity, discusses the virtual “border wars” that have taken place between lesbian butches and female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals. Using the term “gender variance” to encompass both groups, Halberstam explores the continuities and discontinuities between gender variants who retain their birth body and those who seek sex reassignment. As she states: “Some lesbians seem to see FTMs as traitors to a woman’s movement who cross over and become the enemy. Some FTMs see lesbian feminism as a discourse that has demonized FTMs and their masculinity. Some butches consider FTMs to be butches who believe in anatomy, and some FTMs consider butches to be FTMs who are too afraid to make the ‘transition’ from female to male”(p. 144). For complex reasons, gay men generally have not been similarly steeped in debates and confrontations with male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals. MTFs have, however, experienced conflicts with female-born feminists and lesbian feminists, some of whom resist acknowledging MTFs as women (and thus restrict MTF access to women-only events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival).

Another type of border war sets FTMs against MTFs. According to Meyerowitz, medical doctors in the past generally believed that MTFs greatly outnumbered FTMs, but some doctors today think that the numbers are roughly equal. Until Halberstam, Holly Devor (1997), and others drew more attention to FTMs, however, FTMs were often ignored or their experiences were conflated with those of MTFs. The politics of gender privilege may have had an impact on this phenomenon, as the desires and needs of biological men who want to change sex are often perceived as more legitimate, while FTMs are often portrayed as failed heterosexual women or even failed butch lesbians. Usually raised as males, MTFs may also be more accustomed to speaking up for themselves and claiming public space and voice than are FTMs, who are usually raised as females.

Conflict also marks relationships between transsexuals wishing to be known and visible primarily as transsexuals and those wishing to be known and visible primarily as members of their post-reassignment sexes. Many in the former group emphasize processes of sex and gender transformation, transition, and mobility, while many in the latter group affirm static sex and gender identifications. For related reasons, transsexuals who are seen to reify and authenticate categories of sex and gender have also experienced conflict with transsexuals and nontranssexuals who identify as androgynous, many of whom wish to do away with the categories of sex and gender. Another type of conflict within transsexual communities concerns class and race and their relationship to access to sex change surgery, which is very expensive. Meanwhile, while many transsexuals embrace sexual diversity, there have been conflicts between transsexuals who identify as straight and those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Finally, nontranssexual LGB people have engaged in border wars with transsexuals as well (beyond the wars discussed by Halberstam). Although some LGB communities and movements have embraced and included transsexuals, many have not. Some of these conflicts have concerned whether sexuality or gender should be privileged as the basis for identity and community. Some have been caused by antitranssexual beliefs, statements, and actions by LGB people and anti-LGB beliefs, statements, and actions by transsexuals. Some have been linked to conflicts about whether sex, gender, and sexuality are best conceived of within frameworks of biological essentialism or social constructionism. Perhaps the most common conflicts take place when LGB people assume that transsexuals are really people who cannot accept pretransition same-sex attraction and when transsexuals assume that LGB people are really transsexuals who lack the courage to change their sexes.

Transgender Identities

Transsexuality is clearly predicated on notions of physical or biological change. The history of the term “trans-gender” reveals its interconnections with the language and concept of transsexuality. The term “transgenderist” was first used in the late 1980s to describe a biological male more fully committed to living as a woman than a transvestite or cross-dresser, but not interested in changing sex biologically. The concept was also applied to biological females more fully committed to living as men. The transgenderist crossed boundaries of gender, but not sex. Many who label themselves “transgender” neither want nor desire sex reassignment surgery, but their gender-crossing actions are not limited to periodic cross-dressing. Instead, they live the majority of their lives in a gender in conflict with their biological sex, and they may identify at different times as a man, woman, neither/nor, or both/and. Many transgenderists reject the label “transsexual” because they have no intention of seeking surgery or hormonal treatment. When the concept is applied historically, women who have passed as men and men who have passed as women can be regarded as transgender.

“Transgender,” however, has also acquired a second and quite different meaning, functioning as an all-encompassing term referring to the full range of gender-crossing phenomena. Ironically, this subverts the specificity originally intended by transgenderists. As used most commonly today, “transgender” is an umbrella term that describes anyone who disturbs normative gender or sex identifications or dichotomies. While an effective vehicle for building coalitions between various types of gender-crossers, this broad use of the term may simplify its important and often contested relationship to transsexuality female-to-male transsexual theorist. Henry Rubin, for example, believes that the tension between the two is the result of the transgender person’s lack of definitive gender identification, while the transsexual affirms the notion of stable gender. Yet, one could counter that not everyone who identifies as transsexual seeks a finite gender identity, while not all transgenders desire a complete gender-free society.

Leslie Feinberg is one of the most influential figures who identifies as transgender. Feinberg’s books, Stone Butch Blues(1993) and Transgender Warriors (1996). make clear the complexities of transgender identification. Feinberg “hirself” (“hir-” is Feinberg’s constructed pronoun) epitomizes the transitivity of transgender: she/he was born biologically female, took testosterone, and underwent a double mastectomy, yet later discontinued hormone treatment and now describes hirself as a trans-gender lesbian.

Transvestism and Cross-Dressing

Historically, the term “transvestite” is associated with an anti-LGBT scientific taxonomy and, therefore, is rarely used in popular discourse today. Although transvestism may be used interchangeably with cross-dressing—Marjorie Garber in fact does this in her work Vested Interests (1992)—they are distinct terms and the histories of each sometimes bring them into opposition. Garber distinguishes between the two by what she describes as “urinary segregation.” Cross-dressers who want to pass prefer to read the signs literally: “those in pants, in there; those in skirts, in here” (p. 14). However, for transvestites and transsexuals, this type of segregation connotes inflexible gender binaries. For Garber, though certainly not for all cross-dressers and transvestites, cross-dressing is implicitly temporary, an act of gender performativity, whereas transvestism is a permanent crossing. Transvestites and cross-dressers may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

The fascination with cross-dressing, transvestism, and the related phenomenon of passing precedes the formal, scientific studies of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. European and American colonists were fascinated with gender ambiguity and gender-crossing, both in their own communities and in the Native American cultures that they encountered. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cross-dressing and passing provided an important means of escaping from the confines of separate spheres for women and men. This was the case especially for women, who experienced various forms of cultural, economic, legal, political, and social oppression. Many records of female cross-dressers and passing women survive, including court transcripts and newspaper accounts of those who were discovered postmortem to have been female. For women, the military proved to be an important means of escape from traditional roles. During the Civil War, for example, hundreds of soldiers were actually women who cross-dressed and passed as men. While some presume that such soldiers were moved to cross-dress by wartime patriotism or economic necessity, there were also veterans of the Civil War who were discovered at their deaths to have been women. Cross-dressing and passing women may have enjoyed the freedom they experienced as men; they may have appreciated the opportunity to perform their desired gender identity; and they may have been motivated by same-sex sexual attraction. Men also cross-dressed and passed in order to escape the confines of culturally defined masculinity and heterosexuality.

Drag Performance and Impersonation

There is also a long history of male and female impersonators on the American stage and in other aspects of entertainment and leisure culture. In the first part of the nineteenth century, male impersonators were probably more common, but toward the end of the century, female impersonation became more dominant. Both were primarily performed through burlesque or vaudeville acts, particularly as a network of railroads developed in the United States. Although many grew concerned that cross-dressing and drag shows were actually covers for homosexuality, these shows became even more popular during and after World Wars I and II. Female impersonation also increasingly appeared in American bars and nightclubs; these performers were often associated with the gay community, though not all performers identified as gay. Nevertheless, drag queen shows played an important role in the proliferation of gay public spaces. Before LGB bars could advertise publicly, for example, some announced performances by female impersonators, covertly signaling that LGB people were welcome. Esther Newton’s study of female impersonators (1972) discusses the social networks they formed, in part to teach each other about stage performance and passing both on and off stage. Newton’s work makes clear that male cross-dressers have a much more elaborate subculture than male impersonators.

Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning is an archive that reveals the limitations of clinically defined terms such as “transvestism.” Livingston’s film follows several members of Harlem’s drag community, most memorably as they prepare for their drag balls. Most of them are poor, homeless, and/or prostitutes, but they all belong to subsets of their larger community, like the House of Pendavis, run by “mothers” or drag queens who have matured in the extensive nonbiologically defined kinship system. Drag balls are actually an integral part of Harlem’s history. The Hamilton Lodge Ball dates back to 1869, and in its early years the attendees were mostly working class. The popularity of the balls increased in the 1920s and early 1930s, but they were then forced underground because of continual harassment and raids by New York City police. Cross-dressing and transvestism are ultimately dependent on clothing choice. Some personal narratives of cross-dressing convey the sense that temporary, occasional, and periodic dressing in feminine or masculine clothes allows the narrators to achieve satisfaction. Yet for some, cross-dressing proves to be an initial step in more permanent transgenderism. Feinberg points out, for example, that because “it is our entire spirit—the essence of who we are—that doesn’t conform to narrow gender stereotypes, many people who in the past have been referred to as cross-dressers, transvestites, drag queens, and drag kings today define themselves as transgender” (p. xi). Her statement makes clear that, while many additional permutations exist, none of these definitions, as categories or practices, are immutable.

Right and Wrong Bodies

In many transgender and transsexual narratives, individual subjects identify a growing sense of being in the “wrong body.” In many autobiographical accounts, individuals attempt to describe the ways in which their performative gender does not align with their biological sex. In her memoir Crossing (1999), Deirdre McCloskey recalls trying on her mother’s underwear and experiencing sexual arousal. Yet, her intense desire was to actually be a woman, not just perform a particular form of femininity. McCloskey reiterates throughout her narrative that she was a woman born with a man’s body. More recently, some have raised concerns about the “wrong body” trope that has come to define discourses and ontologies of transsexuality and transgenderism. As Jay Prosser (1998) has argued, transsexuality first entered the lexicon as a medicodiscursive sign of extreme transvestism, with the body’s clothing—literally the skin—seen as something that needed to be changed (p. 69). Christine Jorgensen was initially classified as a transvestite before “officially” being described as transsexual. “As a formula that continues to trope transsexuality in its medical narrative version, being trapped in the wrong body has become the crux of an authenticating transsexual ‘rhetoric’: language, narratives, and figures that the subject deploys to obtain access to hormones and surgery” (p. 69). Prosser’s point elucidates the continued reliance on, and entrapment of, those who identify as trans to and by medical institutions and authorities that, from the beginning of its history in the United States, have had the power to authenticate and legitimate the feelings and experiences of gender variants. Autobiographical tropes as resources are infinitely important to the histories of transsexuality, transgenderism, cross-dressing, and transvestism.

The complicated and politically laden dilemmas of authority, authenticity, objectivity, subjectivity, and historiographical bias are increasingly discussed and challenged at the academic level. Who, for example, can be a “trans scholar” and who has the authority to write about transsexuality? Trans studies is both moving toward and resisting disciplinary definition. Scholars such as Jay Prosser and Jacob Hale are producing innovative and important work that makes trans more visible while they also question how the politics of visibility interpolates trans-identified people in yet another discourse.