Twenty years ago sociology would not have even considered transgender, transvestism, and transsexualism. The medicalization and pathologizing of these phenomena under such categorizations as transvestism, transsexualism, gender dysphoria, and intersex ensured that cross-dressing and sex-changing were considered, in the main, to be the domain of medicine and psychology. The small number of sociological studies relating to ‘‘transvestism’’ and ‘‘transsexualism’’ was considered to be a peripheral concern of historical sociology, the sociology of deviance, and feminism and gender studies. Only Garfinkel (1967) and Kessler and McKenna’s Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach (1978) provided a hint of the importance of transsexual ism to the discipline of sociology.
This situation began to change in the mid-1980s, a development marked by the wider spread use of the term ‘‘transgender’’ among ‘‘transvestites’’ and ‘‘transsexuals’’ themselves, and the establishment in 1986 of the world’s first ‘‘transgender archive’’ housed in a university sociology department. The sociological literature on the topic is still small, but much of sociological interest is to be found in the fields of social anthropology, lesbian and gay studies, women’s studies, and (especially in recent years) cultural studies. Most recently, transgender studies is emerging as a specialism in its own right.
The inclusion of an entry on transgender attests both to the greater visibility of transgender phenomena in contemporary society and to the greater interest shown in it by sociologists and other scholars in the arts and social sciences. However, before we trace the evolution of the term transgender, its various meanings and the social phenomena to which it relates, we must go back to the end of the nineteenth century and consider the emergence within medical discourses of what came to be known as transvestism and transsexualism. The immediate origins of contemporary Euro-American conceptualizations of transgender are to be found in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a period which saw the beginning of what Foucault in his History of Sexuality (1979) terms the ‘‘medicalization of the sexually peculiar.’’ It was during this period that psychiatrists and other medical practitioners began to puzzle over the nature of people who reported that they felt like/dressed as/behaved like a person of the ‘‘opposite sex.’’ Such people were initially situated within the category of homosexuality or – in the then common terminology – ‘‘inversion,’’ but in the writings of Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis a separate category emerged. The term transvestite was coined by Hirschfeld in 1910 to refer to those men who enjoyed behaving and dressing as women, or, indeed, wished to be women, and both he and Havelock Ellis (who preferred his own term, eonism) argued that this did not necessarily involve homosexuality. Neither Hirschfeld nor Ellis employed the then fashion able language of degeneracy or perversion, but they nevertheless viewed such people as anomalies to be explained within a medical framework. Edward Carpenter in 1911 translated Hirschfeld’s term as ‘‘cross dressing,’’ a term which along with that of ‘‘cross dresser’’ has become popular in recent years, being seen to avoid the medical and erotic connotations with which ‘‘transvestite’’ has come to be associated.
Hirschfeld first used the term transsexual in 1923. The first ‘‘full’’ male to female (MTF) ‘‘sex change’’ operation (vaginoplasty, following castration and penile amputation) was performed in Berlin at Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in 1931. However, it was not until the early 1950s following the widespread publicity given to the cases of Christine Jorgensen in America and Roberta Cowell in Britain (both MTF transsexuals) that the terminology of transsexualism was adopted to distinguish those seeking to ‘‘change sex’’ from those who were ‘‘content’’ to cross dress. During the 1960s ‘‘sex reassignment’’ began to be carried out on an experimental basis in some medical centers, partly due to its legitimation by John Money’s influential ideas on the development of gender. From that decade the professional literature on the topic began to grow rapidly. At this time the work of the US based German endocrinologist Harry Benjamin came to the fore. He argued that carefully selected transsexuals could benefit from ‘‘sex reassignment’’ procedures and for a number of years his Transsexual Phenomena (1966) was referred to as the transsexual’s Bible.
In the early 1970s the term gender dysphoria entered the literature and quickly became the preferred term used in the titles of medical conferences, associations, books, and articles. However, it was the term gender identity disorder that became enshrined in the official diagnostic nomenclature (American Psychiatric Association, 1973).
Although, within the medical literature, transvestites and transsexuals began to be differentiated from one another from the 1950s onwards, the subcultural groupings that emerged around the same time included both, at least until the early 1980s, when separate transsexual organizations began to consolidate. At the individual career level there was some slippage between the two categories and a more complex picture than that provided by transvestite/transsexual began to emerge.
The medical centers that began to experiment with sex reassignment during the 1960s provided opportunities for some sociologists to encounter patients seeking such procedures. One such sociologist was Harold Garfinkel, whose Studies in Ethnomethodology with its germinal chapter on the transsexual ‘‘Agnes’’ was published in 1967. Garfinkel was interested, though, not in transsexualism (in fact Agnes was initially thought of as intersexed), but in how Agnes’s experiences demonstrated the ‘‘rules’’ of doing gender. This approach to transsexuals continued in the work of Kessler and McKenna, among others.
Two other sociologists who were able to study transsexuals via the medical centers were Kando and Sulcov. Kando’s Sex Change (1973) research began in 1968 and documented the transition of 17 MTF transsexuals who had received surgery at the University of Minnesota. Drawing heavily on the work of Erving Goffman, Kando reported how transsexuals dealt with issues of stigma and information management and how their identities were positioned in relation to the emergence of feminist critiques of traditional femininity. Sulcov, in an unpublished PhD thesis entitled ‘‘Transsexualism: Its Social Reality’’ (1973), focused on the construction of the category ‘‘transsexual’’ by both the medical profession and transsexuals themselves – a theme taken up by a number of later writers.
Other opportunities for research opened up during the 1960s as subcultural groups and organizations began to develop firstly in relation to transvestism and, later, transsexualism. An important figure here was the influential ‘‘trans’’ activist Virginia Prince, whose American organization the Foundation for Personality Expression (for heterosexual transvestites) provided a model for many others around the world. Taylor Buckner carried out a survey of 262 members of Prince’s organization for his Masters degree in 1964. Buckner’s only publication on the topic contains some useful sociological material. However, the thrust of his article (appropriately published in the journal Psychiatry, 1970) was to provide an etiological theory of what he calls a ‘‘socially induced ‘pathology’’’: an approach that by that time was out of favor within the discipline of sociology.
Two developments within sociology itself also shaped the approach to transgender phenomena in the mid-1960s. Firstly, there was the rise of the sociology of deviance and a general interest in ‘‘alternative’’ lifestyles reflecting something of what was happening in Anglo American society at the time. This led in America to a number of empirical accounts of transvestites and transsexuals and their social worlds (e.g., Driscoll 1971; Feinbloom 1976). The second influential development was the (re)emergence of the women’s movement and the interest in gender. The distinctions which writers such as John Money and Robert Stoller had drawn between sex and gender were enthusiastically embraced by some sociologists as demonstrations of the lack of a necessary link between gender roles and biological sex. Ann Oakley’s influential Sex, Gender and Society (1972) drew on this literature and used transsexualism as a demonstration of the independence of sex and gender.
The new sociologists of deviance of the 1960s were generally ‘‘on the side’’ of many of the deviant groupings who were questioning conventional norms at that time. The norms and laws relating to such phenomena as homosexuality, drug use, and abortion were seen as oppressive instruments of power against which the deviant was rebelling. The rebels against gender norms, however, were feminists and, on the face of it, transvestites and transsexuals appeared to be embracing what feminism was questioning. While ‘‘radical drag’’ and ‘‘gender blending’’ were part of the gay liberation scene of the time, changing the content of what were beginning to be called ‘‘gender roles’’ was not what transvestism and transsexualism were about. However, some commentators did consider transvestites and transsexuals as ‘‘revolutionaries’’ who challenged the notion of ascribed gender in the sense that they broke the congruity between sex and gender. These ideas would not seem out of place alongside those of some of the queer theorists that we discuss below.
However, it was the work of Janice Raymond that dominated discussions of the political significance of transsexualism during the 1980s, when her particular style of radical feminism was in the ascendant. Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire (1980) argues that transsexuals are among the victims of patriarchal society and its definitions of masculinity and femininity. The creation by the male medical profession of transsexualism and its ‘‘treatment’’ by means of sex change surgery obscures the political and social sources of the ‘‘transsexual’s’’ suffering. Instead, ‘‘transsexuality’’ is conceptualized as an individual problem for which an individual solution is devised; the ‘‘real’’ problem – patriarchy – remains unaddressed. Moreover, Raymond sees MTF transsexuals and in particular those who identify as lesbian feminists as part of a masculine attempt to undermine feminism. Although Raymond’s book probably had little impact on what she called the ‘‘transsexual empire,’’ it was influential in some feminist circles. Riddell’s early and detailed critique of 1980 was not widely available until it was republished in 1996 (Ekins & King 1996) and, in line with the effect of radical feminism in other areas, most critics of Raymond’s position were intimidated into silence. Stone’s (1991) landmark riposte heralded a new era of transgender activism and theorization which drew heavily on postmodern ism and the newly emerging queer theory. Since then, other critiques of Raymond’s work have been published (notably, Califia 1997).
Over the years a number of other empirical studies have appeared, mostly in America and the UK. Woodhouse (1989) reported on her research carried out from a feminist perspective into a small group of English male heterosexual transvestites and is unique for the attention given to their wives. Bolin (1988) followed a small group of North American transsexuals over a period of two years as they transformed their status from that of man to that of woman. In her use of the anthropological concept of liminality she anticipated one of the themes taken up in the theorizing of the 1990s. The first published sociological account from Australia was Perkins’s study of a group of transsexual prostitutes in Sydney, somewhat misleadingly entitled The ‘‘Drag Queen’’ Scene (1983). Lewins’s (1995) study focused on the social process of becoming a woman. This study was based upon interviews carried out in the early 1990s with over 50 MTF transsexuals attending a gender dysphoria clinic in Melbourne.
Rich in empirical data, Ekins’s (1997) study also contributed theoretically to exploring the interrelations between sex, sexuality, and gender; self, identity, and social world; and expert, member, and lay knowledge, as they develop over time. Using the methodology of grounded theory, Ekins developed the important conceptualization of ‘‘male femaling’’ which has major ramifications for both the field of transgender and for the analysis of sex and gender more generally.
One theme within the sociology of deviance that was stimulated by the labeling theory of the 1960s was the study of the origins and applications of social labels. In this vein King (1993) sought to understand the nature of transvestism and transsexualism as social categories and documented how and why they have emerged, how they are applied, and their consequences. His work was based on a study of the medical literature, a large number of media reports, fieldwork with transsexuals and transvestites, and, most importantly, interviews with surgeons, psychiatrists, and psychologists and others working in this field. More recently, the historical work of Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed (2002) has charted the emergence of transsexualism in America.
As we have seen, the terms transvestite and transsexual had emerged within a medical context and by the 1970s had become enshrined as diagnoses to designate what were seen as essentially pathological phenomena – gender identity disorders. Although used by transvestites and transsexuals themselves, the terms remained grounded in professional discourse. By the late 1980s some transvestites and transsexuals were beginning to use the term transgender in an inclusive, ‘‘umbrella’’ sense to encompass both identities. In due time other ‘‘gender variant’’ people (e.g., drag queens and kings and intersexed people) have come to be included within the umbrella term. By the early 1990s it became common to find references to the ‘‘transgender community,’’ although the use of the term has not been accepted by all. Although the term transgender has also entered medical and professional discourse (e.g., International Journal of Transgenderism), it nevertheless retains its essentially positive and non-pathological meaning. By the mid-1990s Ekins and King (1996) were able to write of the ‘‘emerging field of transgender studies.’’ This was seen to encompass the personal experiences of transgendering, the different ways in which those experiences have become socially organized, the ways in which those experiences have been controlled principally by means of medicalization, and the various political issues raised by transgendering.
It is evident that the medical categories of transvestite and transsexual did not encompass the whole range of what we now think of as transgender phenomena. Although some of those who sought sex reassignment had been or were involved in female impersonation for entertainment purposes, the phenomenon of drag itself avoided the medical gaze. With the exception of Esther Newton’s important ethnography (Mother Camp, 1972), drag also avoided the gaze of social scientists until the 1990s. Since then, Tewkesbury and Gagne and Schact and Underwood have updated the story. Similarly, those people with physically intersexed conditions were absent from the social science literature with one notable exception – Foucault’s study of Herculine Barbin (1980). Born females who ‘‘transgendered’’ were dealt with mainly in the literature on lesbianism. Little reference was made to the literature on transgenderism in non-contemporary western cultures, except to point to the ubiquity of the phenomenon.
A number of these gaps in the literature have begun to be filled since the early 1990s. There is growth in the literature on ‘‘transgender’’ related phenomena in non-western cultures. Most of this literature has focused on North American indigenous cultures (e.g., Fulton & Anderson 1992), although there is work on other cultures. Recently, there has been a surge of anthropological interest in transgender, principally in Southeast Asia and in South America (Kulick 1998). Some of this literature has focused on conceptions that have developed without the influence of western medicine, such as the idea of an institutionalized ‘‘third’’ gender or liminal gender space. Nevertheless, it is also evident that western discourses of transgenderism have been exported to many parts of the world and are usurping or are heavily influencing more traditional notions of gender and ‘‘transgender’’ phenomena.
Academic attention has also begun to focus on those people with intersexed conditions. This has been partly stimulated by the development of a more visible and vociferous intersex community. One of the main issues here has been to question the practice of surgically forcing intersexed infants into sexed categories where there is no medical need. Kessler (1998) discusses the ways in which intersex ‘‘transgressions’’ call into question the whole system of binary genders.
One option that was not covered by the medical categories of transvestism and transsexual ism was the possibility of living as a member of the other sex without undergoing genital surgery. It was known, of course, that this was a route taken by many transgendered people. Indeed, for most female to male (FTM) transsexuals it has remained the only option because of the inability to surgically create a satisfactory penis. However, what was not considered was that this possibility – women with penises and men with vaginas – might be an acceptable status in its own right. Virginia Prince had argued consistently that transvestism was not about sexuality (the erotic) or sex (the body), but was about gender (the social). She argued that it was possible for a man to be a woman socially without altering the body – something which she herself has done since the late 1960s, when she began to refer to herself and others like her who lived as members of the other sex but without surgical interventions as ‘‘transgenderal’’ and, later, as ‘‘transgenderist.’’ Prince explicitly distinguishes this group from transvestites and transsexuals.
Until the early 1990s FTMs and cross-dressing females were not very much in evidence in either the literature or in the transgender movement. Since then, FTMs or, more accurately, ‘‘female bodied transpeople’’ to use Cromwell’s (1999) term, have become a more visible feature of the transgender community and in fact have come to play key roles within that community and within transgender politics. They have also been prominent in the emergence of transgender theory. Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998) is a key work in this regard. More specifically, it is female bodied transpeople who have led the way in linking transgender to revolutionary socialism (Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, 1996); to radical body configurations and pansexualism (Del La Grace Volcano’s Sublime Mutations, 2000); and to the beginnings of a hitherto neglected transgender approach to class, race, and masculinity (Halberstam 1998).
The rise in popularity of the term transgender has paralleled the rise in academia of queer theory, within which crossing the gender border is seen as subversive and transgressive. Much of this work falls outside the boundaries of sociology and is to be found within what has come to be called cultural studies. This approach has been particularly influential with some trans activists and academics and raises radical questions about the binary and fixed nature of gender categories themselves. Especially influential was Judith Butler’s work on gender as performativity. Also influential was Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests (1992), which drew on examples ranging across history, literature, film, photography, and popular and mass culture: from Shakespeare to Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, through transsexual surgery and transvestite support groups, to Elvis Presley and Madonna, indicating the ubiquity of transgender phenomena. In a phrase echoed in a number of other writings she argued ‘‘transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but a crisis of category itself’’ (p. 17).
It is within this context that the phenomenon of the ‘‘drag king’’ has emerged. The western world has been familiar with drag for a long time, but the term has most commonly been applied to men performing in women’s clothes, although it has also been used to apply to women in men’s clothes. Only recently though has the use of the suffix ‘‘king’’ emerged. Apparently beginning in the late 1980s with the term becoming more widespread through the 1990s, drag kings entered the academic literature with the publication of Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998). Usually viewed through the lens of queer theory, drag kings are viewed not simply as the female counterparts to drag queens, but as a much more subversive phenomenon because of the mainstream view of masculinity as non-performative.
Stone’s (1991) article can also be seen to provide the starting point for the emergence of a postmodernist approach to transgender, which is now seen by some to be at the very cutting edge of debates about sex, sexuality, and gender. This approach has achieved a position of prominence in a number of recent contributions to cultural studies and queer theory. Stone’s image of transsexuals as ‘‘outside the boundaries of gender’’ chimed in well with many of the themes in cultural studies and queer theory, and provided an approach that has been developed extensively in recent years. This idea points to the position of trans people as located somewhere outside the spaces customarily occupied by men and women, as people who are beyond the laws of gender. The assumption that there are only two (opposite) genders, with their corresponding ‘‘masculinities’’ and ‘‘femininities,’’ is opened up to scrutiny. Instead, it is suggested that there is the possibility of a ‘‘third’’ space outside the gender dichotomy to make sense of various gendered identities that transcend dimorphism. Within this approach the idea of permanent core identities and, for some, the idea of gender itself, disappear. The emphasis is on gender transience, fluidity, and performance, as in Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw (1994).
Despite this late modern/postmodern approach with its emphasis on diversity, fluidity, and moving beyond the rigidities of the binary gender divide and its celebration of new combinations of masculinity and femininity, for most, in the professional and transgender communities, as in society at large, the binary view of gender prevails.
- Bolin, A. (1988) In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage. Bergin & Garvey, New York.
- Bornstein, K. (1994) Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. Routledge, London.
- Califia, P. (1997) Sex Changes: The Politics of Trans genderism. Cleis Press, San Francisco.
- Cromwell, J. (1999) Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders and Sexualities. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
- Devor, H. (1997) Female to Male Transsexuals in Society. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
- Driscoll, J. P. (1971) Transsexuals. Transaction (March/April): 28 37, 66, 68.
- Ekins, R. (1997) Male Femaling: A Grounded Theory Approach to Cross Dressing and Sex Changing. Routledge, London.
- Ekins, R. & King, D. (Eds.) (1996) Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross Dressing and Sex Changing. Routledge, New York.
- Feinbloom, D. H. (1976) Transvestites and Transsexuals: Mixed Views. Dell, New York.
- Fulton, R. & Anderson, S. W. (1992) The Amerindian ‘‘Man-Woman’’: Gender Liminality and Cultural Continuity. Current Anthropology 33(5): 603-10.
- Garber, M. (1992) Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge, New York.
- Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
- Jackson, P. A. & Sullivan, G. (Eds.) (1999) Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand. Harrington Park Press, New York.
- Kando, T. (1973) Sex Change: The Achievement of Gender Identity among Feminized Transsexuals. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.
- Kessler, S. J. (1998) Lessons from the Intersexed. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.
- King, D. (1993) The Transvestite and the Transsexual: Public Categories and Private Identities. Avebury, Aldershot.
- Kulick, D. (Ed.) (1998) Special Issue: Transgender in Latin America. Sexualities 1(3).
- Lewins, F. (1995) Transsexualism in Society: A Sociology of Male to Female Transsexuals. Macmillan, Melbourne.
- Stone, S. (1991) The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto. In: Straub, K. & Epstein, J. (Eds.), Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gen der Ambiguity. Routledge, New York.
- Woodhouse, A. (1989) Fantastic Women; Sex, Gender and Transvestism. Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Back to Sociology of Gender