Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender

Author: Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough
Publication Date: 1993
Length: 382 pages

Review by dewdrop

This heavy-hitter of a volume is a bundle of anthropological gold. It tackles large vistas of historical and scientific data relating to the slippery topics of sexual and gender identities. From the beginning, it makes it starkly apparent that gender variance
expressed through clothing and appearance can be found in virtually all times and places
and that there is no singular reason for doing it nor way of manifesting it. It is the type of book to serve as a mainstay on the shelf of anyone interested in this field of thought or coming to terms with this lifestyle. The amount of information is overwhelming, and yet it becomes obvious that it is only the tip of the iceberg regarding a perennial human behavior that is certainly not going to disappear!

While the authors dash across an array of cultures, they come back with handfuls
of general trends in history. Of course, gender-bending does not exist in a vacuum, that
is, in order to understand its ramifications you have to first understand the society’s view of each gender when they are NOT crossdressing or otherwise crossing boundaries.

Basically, since human history is so well acquainted with men holding all forms of power
over women, men expressing femininity are easily perceived as weak, and therefore even
disgraceful since it is a willful act whereas historically, women in many scenarios were
praised for having a masculine stance in the world since it was a step “forward” as an
individual. This notion casts a new light on why crossdressing men often burlesqued
women’s conduct in theatrical jest, since comic impersonation indirectly highlighted the
fact that they were still men, rather than men hoping to become real life women which
would invite far greater backlash. Again, these are general trends, and their opposites
have also occurred. All gender ambiguity has the ability to invoke fear. One example
highlighted was a woman who in 90 B.C.E. was reported to have changed into a man and was
burned alive.

People who have never studied the topic of crossdressing, especially those who
may be closed-minded to it, might not guess that it was not until the late eighteenth
century that crossdressing was seen by society as an indication of homosexuality. Third
gender individuals, used here as an umbrella term including all substantially gender
variant lifestyles, were often understood within a religious or shamanistic context, even
within some Hindu and Muslim cultures. Lesser known traditions pointed out are the
Mahu in Tahiti, Sekrata in Madagascar, Wali amongst the Sufis, Nadles amongst the
Navajo, Acault in Myanmar, Bayot in the Philippines, initiates among Masai, Nandi,
Nuba and other African tribes, male to female transformation in New Guinea and in the
Torres Strait, Yahutian shamans in Siberia, Araucanian sorcerers in Chile, and in
Southeast Asia among the Dyaks. They suggest that one way of coping with the
perplexing existence of those not conforming to traditional gender roles is to attribute
special powers to them, whether positive, negative, or often a combination of both. It
also points out how special occasions and festivals allow the inequality of
gender norms to melt down beyond established barriers as we know even today from
times like Halloween.

In times such as the Roman Empire and today in some Third World countries,
males are prized more highly than females and as a result, there is a tendency to classify
any child with sexual ambiguities as male, without having them undergo careful

Also illustrating the historical class connection to who was able to crossdress
openly are the many examples explored of men of royalty who were very free to do what
they wished even if it included female crossdressing. Their status was a given, no one
would question or threaten it, while lower class men with such a desire had to find more
covert outlets. This began to change in the past 100 years, but before then it was the state of affairs. The majority of female to male crossdressers were of low socioeconomic
status. The latter were also more often successful in their crossdressing as far as passing goes, since it was for a more functional purpose of survival than the man dressed only for a frivolous ball or theatrical jest.

The book analyzes the various sexualities of crossdressers. Many people still do
not realize the large number of heterosexual male crossdressers. What I found most
interesting though, was the large number of homosexual crossdressers who carried out
their practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries not because it was an accurate reflection of how they felt as individuals but merely as a way to rationalize their unaccepted gay behavior to themselves and the world at large. Even more interesting was
the fact that some of the first transsexuals also underwent transition for the same reason, only to find that when they became fully women they no longer were attracted to men—they continued to be attracted to same-sex individuals!

Basically, this work begins with a ton of history, and ends with a ton of science,
all the while having a sharp sociological eye. It has no shortage of psychiatric charts and examines all angles and questions such as the pronounced separation of homosexual and
heterosexual crossdressers in Western cultures and what genetic advantage may give
birth to third gender peoples. Overall, it is mentally taxing in the best of possible ways
and a launching pad for much intellectual curiosity.

One thought on “Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender

  1. I am a crossdresser, I have had this lifestyle for over 30 years, I find that society is much more open to this lifestyle, however, religious organizations I find are closed minded and ill informed on the subject. For instance, I found that some pastors cannot seperate homosexuality and crossing, they group the behavior as one. They also look down at men who crossdress as sinners, during the time of jesus, men and women wore robes.

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