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22 May 2012

The erasure of female transvestites

  • Elisabeth Krimmer. In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

The word transvestite has been constricted during the twentieth century to mean mainly men, and to imply an erotic involvement.   Neither of these constrictions were in place in earlier centuries.

The other distortion that has developed is the false claim that Magnus Hirschfeld coined the term 'transvestite'.  This is obviously in conflict with the legal requirement in nineteenth-century Paris that female-bodied transvestites must acquire a permission de travestissement.  In fact the various transvest* and travest* word have been around since the sixteenth century.   I have covered this before in some detail.   Click here.

The following is from Krimmer, p17-18.  She is discussing how the modern usage of 'transvestite' gets in the way of one such as herself who is writing about eighteenth and nineteenth century transvestites.   It is a pity however that she repeats the disinformation that Hirschfeld coined the term.

Until the twentieth century, male-to-female cross-dressers were the exception rather than the rule. Today, of course, the situation is diametrically inverted. The modern medical definition of transvestism all but excludes female-to-male cross-dressers. The origin of this lopsided model can be traced back to the German researcher of human sexuality, Magnus Hirschfeld, who coined the term transvestite in 1910. Thus, one might claim that Germany is not only "the forge in which modern sexuality was constructed", but also the home of the transvestite. Notwithstanding some modifications, today's standardizing definition of the term, set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-R) of the American Psychiatric Association, is essentially based on Hirschfcld's insights. According to the DSM-IV-R, a transvestite is a man who derives sexual pleasure from wearing women's clothing. Transvestites are to be distinguished from transsexuals, who conceive of themselves as female souls trapped in male bodies and ultimately seek to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Unlike transsexuals, transvestites hold on to their male identity and are mostly heterosexual. The DSM-IV-R considers transvestic fetishism a sexual disorder which calls for treatment.  Both transvestism and transexualism refer to gender preference; sexual preference is denoted by the term homosexuality.
One (among many) reasons to be skeptical of the DSM-IV-R is its refusal to include women in the category of the transvestite.  The assumption that women wear male clothing for purposes of comfort or fashion effectively denies the possibility of female fetishism. On the other hand, the modern claim that all female transvestites are to be subsumed under the category of transsexualism is based on the even more questionable premise that all women ultimately want to be men. Typically, such psychological theories are unwilling to concede the possibility that female transvestites may want to adopt a male appearance while still holding on to a female gender identity, a combination which is  essential to the definition of male transvestism. Furthermore, the pertinent literature maintains that, in a male-dominated society, the desire to he a man does not hear the mark of pathology but must he considered rational behavior. From this vantage point, female transvestism is neither perverted nor psychotic but rather a suitable strategy for dealing with unfavorable conditions.
To the modern feminist sensitivity, postulating fundamentally different motivations for female and male transvestism clearly constitutes discrimination. However, demanding equality for today's gender-benders should not lead us to transpose today's standard onto historical cross-dressers of both genders. In their study of female cross-dressing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dekker and van de Pol emphasize that historical cross-dressing is intrinsically different from its modern counterpart. If we level such differences, we fail to do justice to the specificity of a historical epoch nor do we take into account the historically conditioned power dynamics between the two genders.
One of the factors that differentiates historical cross-dressing from its modern counterpart is that cross-dressers throughout the eighteenth century were free of the restrictions imposed by modern forms of identity control such as passports. But while they were not forced to document their identity and gender, they faced other inhibitions, such as sumptuary laws.  These laws were motivated by two considerations: protection of the domestic textile industry through trade restrictions and stabilization of class hierarchies. An example of the former is Frederick William I's prohibition of the import of colored cotton fabrics from England. By outlawing foreign products, the soldier king intended to shield the domestic textile manufactures from unwelcome competition.


  1. Good points, although I doubt very much that the DSM is inspired by Magnus Hirschfeld's very tolerant and respectful treatment of transvestites and transsexuals.

    Instead it has been founded on the a theory of fetishism that goes back to -- among others -- Freud.

    Hirschfeld did certainly not reduce transvestism (which included a wide variety of transgender condtions) to a fetish.

    Moreover, he included female to male transgender/transsexual people in his studies, and would not have accepted the idea that male bodied crossdressers are sexually motivated, while female bodied crossdressers are not. To him, all expressed some kind of cross-sexual personality.

  2. The title of Hirshfeld's book is Die Transvestiten: Eine Untersuchung über den erotischen, Verkleidungstrieb. The concept that transvestity is erotic is in the very title.


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