Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.
Classic Example of Cross-Dressing
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is one of a variety of films that contain cross-dressing as a strong thematic element. It continues to have a following, years after its production, making the film a cult classic. This kind of film, however, often fails to spell out the facts of the matter when it comes to cross-dressing. In this lesson, we're going to discuss what cross-dressing is and what it isn't.
Definition of Cross-Dressing
Simply put, cross-dressing is the name for the act of a person wearing clothing meant for a different gender. Another term for cross-dressing is transvestitism. Someone who engages in transvestitism is called a transvestite. However, the term transvestite is considered a slur word within some communities. There is a proper way to use both terms in a clinical context, and this is the context in which transvestite is used in the rest of this lesson.
Notice that the stress here is on the way a person dresses, rather than his or her sexual preferences or gender identity. Cross-dressing individuals may be homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. Though wearing the clothing of a different sex is part of the behavior of many transgender individuals, it is not necessarily the same as cross-dressing. Transgender describes people who feel that their gender identity is different from their biological sex. When transgender people dress according to their gender identity, it is not necessarily the same as cross-dressing. Some of these factors certainly may overlap and not all sources will agree with the specifics used here.
The clothing included in cross-dressing can technically be anything, but generally involves gender signifiers. These signifiers, such as the color pink, dresses, or revealing clothing are linked strongly in people's minds with their use by one particular gender. Most signifiers in Western culture are female in nature; male clothing is often considered gender-neutral. Because of this, the most visible cross-dressers are male.
Types of Cross-Dressing
If cross-dressers are not gay or transgender, why do they dress as they do? Well, there are a number of reasons, and, for this lesson, we will focus on three of them. The first reason someone may cross-dress is linked to an individual's culture. Not every culture has a distinct line between the two Western genders. Some cultures, like Eastern Indian culture, recognize more than two genders. In India and nearby countries, the Hijra are typically men transitioning into a third gender, neither male nor female. Generally, Hijra form their own communities and have been legally recognized as a third gender in several parts of the East. Further examples of cultural cross-dressing include some Native American cultures that feature men dressing as women for particular rituals and dances.
Some individuals also cross-dress as part of a type of performance art called drag. What differentiates drag from other forms of cross-dressing is that the dressing is part of a show. The performance aspect of this form of cross-dressing involves a variety of different categories of dress, from the casual to the outlandish. A major type of drag is the performance of the drag king or drag queen. A drag king is generally a female who dresses as a male, while a drag queen is a male who dresses as a female. Both king and queen are expected to play their roles in an exaggerated and sexualized manner as part of the performance. Some drag queens prefer the term female impersonator, especially if they impersonate celebrities as part of their performance.
The third major reason a person may choose to cross-dress is because he or she expects to pass as a member of a different gender. Passing is essentially the practice of changing the appearance of one's gender in order to go places one's actual gender is not allowed or expected. The most familiar version of this practice has found its way into stories as that of a woman dressing as a man in order to enter military service, like in the myth and Disney film of Hua Mulan. This practice has been woven into a variety of stories and myths over the years. Notable in history are the charges made against Joan of Arc, one of which included dressing like a man.
Further defining specific behaviors would be necessary for analysis by a psychologist, but a more pressing problem is that these terms describe groups rather and individuals. Cultural practices by groups of people are outside the range of psychological inquiry, since psychology typically deals with individuals. Drag is a form of artistic expression for the purpose of entertainment and individual artists likely vary on their inner psychology. The final category of cross-dressers we discussed here are individuals interested in breaching cultural or social norms by dressing as someone they are not. The only thing that may be said about such individuals, in general, is that they value something above and beyond the social norms they are breaking. It seems that psychology isn't much help here, so what can we say about cross-dressing in terms of psychology?
Cross-Dressing in the DSM
It should be noted that cross-dressing itself is not considered a mental illness. Cross-dressing may be considered normal, healthy behavior. The key component in determining this is harm. If a person is perfectly happy with the practice, has a more or less normal sex life, and no issues with his or her gender, then cross-dressing isn't deemed abnormal. If the person's behavior is leading to distress, psychological harm, or an inability to enjoy sex without cross-dressing, then there may be an issue. Further issues may be present in a patient that attempts to quit the behavior, but cannot. Some mental illnesses associated with cross-dressing are due to problems with how a person views his or her gender identity, rather than the act of cross-dressing itself.
A brief example from the DSM-V, the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that involves cross-dressing is transvestic disorder. This is a disorder with very specific parameters, like many other disorders in clinical literature. In brief terms, a person suffering from transvestic disorder experiences sexual arousal from the act of cross-dressing. The patient has to have been engaging in this behavior over a period of at least six months, and the behavior itself must be causing marked amounts of distress, shame, or similar feelings that interfere with normal life.
In this lesson, we have focused on the topic of cross-dressing, the main and politically correct term for transvestitism. Cross-dressing is defined only as the practice of dressing as a member of a different gender. Cross-dressing exists in historical and cultural contexts as everything from a deviant behavior to an accepted practice. Psychologically, cross-dressing is only the sign of a disorder, called transvestic disorder, if it's accompanied by the experience of sexual arousal from the act of cross-dressing, making it linked to paraphilic disorders, which involve sexual arousal and gratification that are focused on acts other than courtship, copulation, or masturbation and a threat of harm or a great deal of distress comes from that.
Cross-dressing takes on many different forms. Some of these forms include drag (which is cross-dressing as part of a type of performance art, usually in the form of men, or drag queens, dressing as women and women, drag kings, dressing as men) and passing (which is the practice of changing the appearance of one's gender in order to go places one's actual gender is not allowed or expected, like Mulan or Joan of Arc). This has become more of an issue in Western countries where gender signifiers, or things like the color pink, dresses, or revealing clothing are linked strongly in people's minds with their use by one particular gender, are more prevalent. It's actually considered normal in some cultures, like the Hijra or some Native American tribes. The most important distinction, however, is that cross-dressing is not the same thing as being transgender, which describes people who feel that their gender identity is different from their biological sex.
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