The Transvestite


There is no culture without the transvestite, writes Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Whether they cross-dress for fun or for sexual arousal, people around the world engage in this activity in a variety of ways.

Western social, medical, and cultural recognition of people who challenge gendered norms didn’t really begin until the twentieth century. Before that time, it was common to confuse transvestites with transgender individuals who received gender confirmation surgery.


Transvestites wear clothing associated with the opposite sex. In modern English, this usually means men who like to dress as women, although it can also mean females who prefer to wear clothes typically worn by men. People who do this for entertainment purposes are usually called drag performers. Those who engage in cross-dressing for sexual arousal are sometimes called transvestic fetishists and are considered to have a medical condition.

Magnus Hirschfeld coined the term in his 1910 book Die Transvestiten (The Transvestites). In previous eras, this behavior was known as passing women or travesti.

Male-to-female cross-dressing is tolerated in many cultures, especially in liberal urban areas of the world. However, it is still illegal in some places. Occasionally, it leads to mental illness in those who suffer from transvestic fetishism. This is often treated by behavioural therapy and/or hypnotherapy. This is not to be confused with a disorder, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fourth Edition, published in 1994.


In the era following the Stonewall riots, activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera established transgender activism as a potent political force. These early activists, along with others such as the drag queens of New York City’s famous clubs, were referred to as transvestites.

Today, transvestism is tolerated where gender-variant people are welcomed: in liberal urban areas around the world. A network of private transvestite social clubs thrives in major cities, and cross-dressing conventions, outings, and holidays are celebrated around the year.

The term transvestite is not as well-known as transgender, but the concept remains alive and well. Transvestite may also refer to men who comfortably fill male roles, and women who dress as women. In contrast, those who feel that they should be a member of the opposite sex are called transgender (FtM or FtF), and those who wish to undergo genital surgery are transsexuals. It is important to differentiate these different groups because they often face very different forms of discrimination and abuse.


While legal and other discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people remains a problem worldwide, transgender issues have recently been thrust into the limelight. While this increased exposure is partly due to the sterling work and activism of trans people, it also reflects the wider cultural war that has been waged against gender variance.

In much of the world, transvestism is tolerated in liberal urban areas where sex-variant people are accepted. A lively network of private transvestite social clubs exists throughout the world, and a variety of annual conventions and outings are held. One of the biggest is Wigstock, an annual tribute to the Woodstock music festival and a major showcase for transvestite performers such as Leigh Bowery, Lady Bunny and RuPaul.

In India and Pakistan, castrated transvestites known as hijras earn a living by begging, dancing at weddings, serving as prostitutes and participating in religious festivals. Their cultural intelligibility secures them a role and some measure of tolerance.


Transvestite refers to a person who enjoys wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex. People who dress regularly in this manner may have a condition called transvestic fetishism, which is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a paraphilia. The term drag is also used for this type of dressing, although it’s a form of gender performance and not a medical condition.

Most transvestites are men who find comfort in women’s clothing and do not feel a strong desire to change their biological sex. People who have these urges and a desire to live as the opposite sex are known as transsexuals, but this term is often seen as outdated and offensive.

Many transvestites prefer to use the more modern, non-offensive terms transgender man or transgender woman. They may also choose to be addressed by the name of their sex at birth, such as MtF (male-to-female) or FtM (female-to-male). These people can ask to use the pronoun of their choice and do not need surgery to become the sex they identify with.