What is a Transvestite?

Transvestite is a controversial word that has held many different meanings over the years. It is closely related to other words that describe people who are atypical in the way they present and identify.

A better term for someone who enjoys cross-dressing is a crossdresser, although that word has a slightly derogatory connotation. The Galli priests of Sumerian times, who dressed as women and identified as female, were early transgender figures.


A transvestite is a person who enjoys dressing in clothing usually associated with the opposite sex. It is a form of cross-dressing and it can be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. The older term transvestite is often considered derogatory, and it is now preferred to use the more contemporary terms cross-dresser or transgender.

Transgender is a more clinical term that refers to an individual who has a gender identity that differs from the biological sex assigned to them at birth. For example, a man who was born male and identifies as female may undergo gender-confirmation surgery or hormone therapy to transition to a woman.

The term transvestite is often used in conjunction with the word drag, which is a type of performance art that involves wearing costumes and acting in a way that satisfies sexual or other personal fetishisms. For example, drag queens dress in feminine clothes and personify female gender stereotypes, while drag kings dress in masculine clothing and represent male gender stereotypes.


The term transvestite was coined by Magnus Hirschfeld, the early twentieth-century German sex researcher and gay rights activist, in his 1910 book Die Transvestites. Hirschfeld used the phrase to refer to people who cross-dressed, but not those who underwent sex change surgery. Hirschfeld’s use of the term is important because it helped to differentiate transvestism from the more serious medical condition of transsexuality.

Throughout the 20th century, a variety of individuals became public figures with their stories of being transvestites and/or transsexuals. Although most were men, a number of them underwent sex change surgery to become females.

Despite advances in equality for LGBTQ people, many scholars feel that their work on transgender history is not welcome in the academy. One scholar describes being rejected from a journal for using the term transgender and another discusses a backlash against her online discussion group on women’s studies. The visibility of transgender issues in the public sphere has coincided with efforts to regulate their lives, from “bathroom bills” to attempts to separate trans children from supportive parents.


While the word transvestite has been largely replaced by the term cross-dresser, it is still used to describe people who wear clothes associated with the opposite sex. The vast majority of cross-dressers do not identify as transgender, and many prefer to use the term intersex instead.

Hirschfeld’s 1910 work Die Transvestiten (The Transvestites) introduced the term transvestism, though he used it to mean both cross-dressing and the desire to change sex. He also believed in a third sex that included people who were neither male nor female and whose sexual desires did not fit into either category.

In the 1970s, a group of heterosexual men who enjoyed dressing as women founded Wigstock in Maryland, and it has become an annual event that attracts more than 50,000 people from around the world. It features performances by such famous drag artists as Leigh Bowery, Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Ethyl Eichelberger, Varla Jean Merman, and Boy George. The festival also includes workshops and panels.


Historically, transvestite referred to someone who enjoyed dressing in clothes traditionally worn by members of the opposite gender. This practice is sometimes referred to as cross-dressing and it can be sexually arousing. However, today this term is outdated. It is more accurate to use the term drag queen or drag king, which refers to men and women who dress in feminine clothing and personify female gender stereotypes. A transvestite may also be involved in cross-dressing for a performance or for entertainment purposes, but this is not always sexually arousing and they are not considered part of the LGBTQ community.

The terms transvestite, transexual, and transgender can get confused and it is important to understand the difference between them. It can be offensive to trans people to be referred to with the wrong term, and it is important to respect how they choose to identify themselves. People assigned male at birth who live as a woman may prefer to be called transgender women, while those assigned female at birth who enjoy dressing as men can call themselves transgender men.