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Transvestism (also called transvestitism) is the practice of dressing and acting in a style or manner traditionally associated with the opposite sex.
Coined as late as the 1910s, the phenomenon is not new. It was referred to in the Hebrew Bible. The word has undergone several changes of meaning since it was first coined and is still used in a variety of senses.
Magnus Hirschfeld coined the word transvestism (from Latin trans-, "across, over" and vestitus, "dressed") to refer to the sexual interest in cross-dressing. He used it to describe persons who habitually and voluntarily wore clothes of the opposite sex. Hirschfeld's group of transvestites consisted of both males and females, with heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and asexual orientations.
Hirschfeld himself was not happy with the term: He believed that clothing was only an outward symbol chosen on the basis of various internal psychological situations. In fact, Hirschfeld helped people to achieve the very first name changes (legal given names were and are required to be gender-specific in Germany) and performed the first reported sexual reassignment surgery. Hirschfeld's transvestites therefore were, in today's terms, not only transvestites, but a variety of people from the transgender spectrum.
Hirschfeld also noticed that sexual arousal was often associated with transvestism. In more recent terminology, this is sometimes called autogynephilia. Hirschfeld also clearly distinguished between transvestism as an expression of a person's "contra-sexual" (transgender) feelings and fetishistic behavior, even if the latter involved wearing clothes of the other sex.
After all the changes that took place during the 1970s, a large group was left without a word to describe themselves: heterosexual males (that is, male-bodied, male-identified, gynephilic persons) who wear traditionally feminine clothing. This group was not particularly happy with the term "transvestism". Therefore, the term "cross-dresser" was coined. Self-identified cross-dressers generally do not have fetishistic intentions, but are instead men who wear female clothing and often both admire and imitate women.
This group did—and sometimes still does—distance themselves strictly from both gay men and transsexuals, and usually also deny any fetishistic intentions. It was probably this development that led to the explicit definition of transvestic fetishism as distinctively different from transvestism.
However, when this group of people achieved public attention, they were commonly referred to as transvestites rather than cross-dressers. That led, paradoxically, to yet another usage of transvestism: cross-dressing, male-bodied, male-identified, heterosexual persons. This group typically self-identifies as "cross-dressers".
When cross-dressing occurs for erotic purposes over a period of at least six months and when it causes significant distress or impairment, the behavior is considered a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatric diagnosis "transvestic fetishism" is applied.
In some cultures, transvestism is practiced for religious, traditional or ceremonial reasons. For example, in India some male devotees of the Hindu god Krishna, especially in Mathura and Vrindavan, dress in female attire to pose as his consort, the goddess Radha, as an act of devotion. In Italy, the Neapolitan femminielli (feminine males) wear wedding dresses, called the matrimonio dei femminielli (marriage of the femminielli), a procession takes place through the streets, a tradition that apparently has pagan origins.
A 19th-century photograph of a femminiello, an ancient culture of cross dressing in Naples, Italy
A 1927 photograph of Álvaro Echavarría ("El excluido") of Cúcuta, Colombia
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