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The Complex History of Cross-Dressing

The Complex History of Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressing is generally defined as “wearing clothing typical of the opposite sex.”  In practical practice, cross-dressing is essentially a part of daily life, with many people dipping into slight apparel practices of the opposite sex.  However, cross-dressing has a very long, complex history around the world; some of which conflicts with the current era of gender norms and its relation to cross-dressing.  

Cross-dressing goes back as far as the Biblical times, with the Bible condemning it in the Old Testament.  Even with the early Christianity stance against it, cross-dressing was a part of many early cultures and civilizations.  Early Norse/Scandinavian and Chinese literature tell of both male and female cross-dressers (such as the Norse mythological tales of Thor and Loki, and the 6th Century Chinese poem “The Ballad of Mulan”). (A Brief History of Cross-dressing, 2018)

While cross-dressing continued to be looked down upon by Christianity, it became a common practice amongst many developing cultures around the world.  In England, during the Queen Elizabeth I era, because women were not allowed to participate or perform onstage, men would portray both male and female characters in theatrical productions (“Molly Houses,” male brothels consisting of cross-dressing, mostly gay men, would be born out of this and grow to be an important part of gay sub-culture in England nearly a century later.)  While men cross-dressed for leisure, women were forced to cross-dress due to restrictive gender roles that forbid them the same luxuries men were afforded.

Across the Atlantic, indigenous North Americans almost universally incorporated “two spirits” within their tribes.  Two-spirits were individuals that didn’t adhere to male or female gender roles. They were thought to be a highly blessed figure.  

As Christianity, Catholicism, and other orthodox, European religions began their reign of imperialistic conquest of the rest of the world, the views of cross-dressing changed.  Cross-dressing became associated with immorality, sin, and prostitution. The once loved and accepted identities became social and cultural pariah and a form of deviant behavior.  

Swift anti-cross-dressing laws and legislature followed this rhetoric, with many countries creating laws that followed strict hetero-normative cisgender norms for men and women.  These laws were a very flexible tactic for police to use to reinforce normative gender roles and to essentially keep non-gender-conforming persons in-check. These harsh laws were in effect even into the recent past (and in many places, still in effect).  In Malaysia, in November 2014, an appeals court overturned a state law that barred Muslim men from dressing as women. Even stateside in the United States, in New York City, a person perceived as male could be arrested for “impersonating a woman” or dressing in clothing designed specifically for women as recently as 2011 (remnants of a 19th-century law forbidding one from wearing “the dress of the opposite sex.”  (Arresting dress: A timeline of anti-cross-dressing laws in the United States, 2015)

As the laws and attitudes about cross-dressing changed, so too did its classification.  Cross-dressing originally started as an act done primarily by cisgender, heterosexual men, but became linked with trans-sexuality as a gender/sexual identity, as well as homosexuality as a sexual orientation.  Even today, as we have made strides to broaden our spectrum of gender and sexuality, cross-dressing has still remained a vague, taboo topic that is still misunderstood, misclassified, and misnomered.

Taking a look into our history not only can teach us valuable lessons but also can be a pathway into showing us alternative ways of life and ways of dealing with identity.  And that way is not simply the way of tolerance, but of true acceptance, understanding, and integration into society and the world.


Works Cited

A Brief History of Crossdressing. (2018, February 9). Retrieved from All That's Interesting: https://allthatsinteresting.com/crossdressing-history

Arresting dress: A timeline of anti-cross-dressing laws in the United States. (2015, May 31). Retrieved from PBS: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/arresting-dress-timeline-anti-cross-dressing-laws-u-s


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