About the term "Transvestite"

The word “Transvestite” has held and continues to hold several different meanings throughout history. There have also been other words to describe a group of identities and behaviors of people in relation to gender presentation and identity. It’s important to clarify what people in interwar Germany were talking about when they used words like “transvestite” and how it has been translated on this site.

The entire conversation about this word revolves around Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1910 book, The Transvestites1, in which he deliberately chooses the word to describe what we’d today call binary transgender people. But first, a quick history of the various terms.

Travesti

Prior to Hirschfeld, travesti was a term used to describe any time a person wore clothes of “the opposite sex,” e.g., a man wearing women’s clothes.

Transvestite prior to Hirschfeld

Similarly, transvestite was used in several languages (including in classical Roman texts) to describe the same phenomenon as travesti.

Transvestite according to Hirschfeld

In The Transvestites, Hirschfeld found that the gender binary was too simplistic, that there was a large diversity of biological sexes, sexual preference, gender identity, and gender expression. He pointed to other cultures around the world that didn’t adhere to the same gender binary of the Western world.2 He also tried to classify people who wore clothes that differed than what society would expect given their birth-assigned gender. On the one hand, there were those who cross-dressed for purely fetishistic purposes. On the other hand, he chose the word transvestite to classify people whose inner identity didn’t match their birth sex or assigned gender:

What is common, what is typical that distinguishes the group of people described here from other people? In all cases we are confronted most clearly with the violent urge to live in the clothing of the sex to which the affected persons do not belong according to their physique. For the sake of brevity, we shall call this drive transvestite (from trans = opposite and vestis = dress). It should be emphasized from the start, which will have to be explained later, that the dress does not … appear “as a dead thing”, that the type of costume is not the arbitrary extrinsicity of an arbitrary mood, but rather as a form of expression of the inner personality, as a sign of their senses.

Later, he talks about how he came to the term transgender:

… it seems appropriate to give the new form a new name, a special scientific brand. I took the designation from the outwardly most prominent feature in the symptom displayed, which apparently also forms the main content of their feelings and thoughts in the person concerned, the urge to wear clothes of the opposite sex and named the persons after the Latin trans = opposite (cf.trans - versus) and the participle vestitus, “dressed around,” which is also found as an adjective in Roman classics, transvestites.

He even laments that the word he chose is insufficient:

A disadvantage of the word is that, even if it hits the most obvious side of the appearance, it by no means exhausts its inner content.

That is, focusing on outer appearance obscures the person’s inner drive led by their gender identity.

Eonism

English sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis used the word eonism to describe all cross-dressing as an act of emulation based on neurotic tendencies. He knew of Hirschfeld’s work but disagreed with his analysis.

Transsexual

As the earliest gender confirmation surgeries were being performed, doctors used the term transsexual to describe those who had had their genitals and/or sex organs modified to match those of the opposite sex.

Transvestite in the post-war US

Some people who chose not to have gender confirming surgery but did wear clothes of the opposite sex preferred the term transvestite for themselves. In many cases this term was used by those who may not have had a “trans” gender identity, but simply wore clothing of the opposite sex for comfort or for fetishistic reasons.

Transgender before the 1990s

The first appearance of transgender in the 1960s had the same meaning as transsexual - those who received gender confirmation surgery. However, Virginia Prince soon after claimed to have coined the term to mean something completely different: those who did not seek out surgery but had a gender identity different than their birth assigned gender.

Transgender - the modern definition

In the 1990s, transgender was reclaimed by others as an umbrella term for all of the aforementioned identities and behaviors, as well as non-binary identities. Some people still use the terms transsexual, transvestite, and cross-dresser for themselves, but the majority of people today use transgender as an umbrella term.

Terminology in this site’s translations

Because Hirschfeld’s definition of transvestite most closely matches the modern definition of transgender in the sense of one who’s gender identity doesn’t match their birth-assigned gender, any time this term is encountered in the original soure it is translated to transgender. This is to eliminate confusion with modern interpretations of the term transvestite, as well as to highlight how well Hirschfeld (if not also many German trans individuals) understood biological sex and gender identity.

  1. Ger. Die Transvestiten. The original German version can be found at the Digital Transgender Archive

  2. It’s important to note that Hirschfeld’s study of other cultures was problematic. His research relied on the oppressive imperial German colonial projects in Africa. As a eugenicist, he also seemed to tacitly acknowledge the racist ideas of the time that non-white people were inherently inferior. See The Hirschfeld Archives by Heike Bauer.