November 2, 2008
Kelley Winters, Ph.D.
GID Reform Advocates
In January 2000, Peter Oiler, a married Louisiana truck
driver for the Winn-Dixie grocery chain, was fired from his job after he came
out of the closet to his boss,
“I told him ... I’m not gay, I’m
“I told him I have a tendency to dress as a lady.” 
A Winn-Dixie manager explained why Peter, an exemplary
employee of more than 20 years, was terminated:
"[Oiler] was doing something
that was abnormal in most people's opinion about what was accepted for a person
who is a man." 
derogatory public perceptions about cross-dressing and “abnormality” are promoted
by the American Psychiatric Association in the current Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), edition IV-TR.  The
diagnostic category of Transvestic Fetishism casts gender nonconformity in
clothing as mental disorder and sexual deviance. Its inclusion in the DSM begs
the question, should a clothing disorder merit medical nomenclature? Is cross-dressing
by born-males a psychosexual wardrobe malfunction or is it simply a facet of
human diversity “ubiquitous throughout human history?”
The term, transvestite, was coined by Magnus Hirschfeld in
1910 from Latin roots meaning to cross-dress. Transvestism in the DSM-III was
renamed "Transvestic Fetishism" (TF) in the DSM-III-R . The very title
equates cross-dressing with sexual fetishism and social stereotypes of
perversion. It sexualizes a diagnosis that does not clearly require a sexual
context. In fact, Hirschfeld rejected fetishism as a diagnostic label for
cross-dressing that represents self-expression, erotic or not, rather than erotic
focus on clothing itself. 
Cross-dressing very often represents social expression and social identity. People who identify as cross-dressers make up a large portion of the emerging transgender movement. The oldest U.S. national support organization for heterosexual
cross-dressers, the Foundation for Personality Expression, was founded by
Virginia Prince in the 1960s and is now known as The Society for the Second
Self or Tri-Ess.  Tri-Ess describes cross-dressers as “ordinary heterosexual men with an additional feminine
dimension.” Their vision emphasizes “Full personality expression, in a blending
of both our masculine and feminine characteristics, in order to be all we can
be.”  However, the diagnostic criteria for Transvestic Fetishism
ambiguously reduces this social expression of femininity by cross-dressing males
to sexual deviance.
Criterion A for Transvestic
Over a period of at least 6 months,
in a heterosexual male, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual
urges, or behaviors involving cross-dressing. 
Criterion A is grammatically ambiguous.  The phrase,
"sexually arousing," could be interpreted to apply to only
"fantasies" or to all three of "fantasies, sexual urges, or
behaviors" with very different meaning. The first interpretation would
implicate all recurrent cross-dressing behavior as sexual deviance. This interpretation
is promoted in the DSM-IV Casebook,  which recommends a TF diagnosis
for a male whose cross-dressing is not necessarily sexually motivated. The
second would limit the diagnosis to sexually motivated cross-dressing, as did
the DSM-III-R,  and imply the ackward phrase, "sexually arousing
sexual urges." Although labeled a "fetishism," it is not clearly
stated whether or not cross-dressing must be sexual in nature to qualify for
Moreover, coincidence is conflated with causality in the
phrase “behaviors involving cross-dressing,” which requires no actual erotic motivation.
This can imply that all cross-dressing by born-males is sexually motivated,
whether it is or not. The resulting stereotype of sexual deviance is not
limited to cross-dressers but disparages transsexual women as well. Full-time
transition to a female social role could be interpreted as “behaviors involving
cross-dressing” and therefore “fetishistic” under Criterion A.
In fact, transsexual and gender dysphoric individuals were
specifically excluded from Tranvestic Fetishism diagnosis in the DSM-III-R 
and this exclusion was removed in the DSM-IV. A major focus of the DSM-IV
Subcommittee of Gender Identity Disorders was to allow concurrent diagnosis of
GID and TF which was prohibited in previous editions.  A positive
consequence of this change removed barriers to medical transition care for transsexual
women who had been diagnosed as “transvestites.” However, it also broadened the
stigma of sexual paraphilia and deviance to include many transsexual women.
Diagnosis of Transvestic Fetishism is limited to heterosexual
males in Criterion A. Curiously, women and gay men are free to wear whatever
clothing they chose without a label of mental illness. This criterion serves to
enforce a stricter standard of conformity for straight males than women or gay
men. Its double-standard not only reflects the social privilege of heterosexual
males in American culture, but enforces it.  One implication is that
biological males who emulate women, with their lower social status, are
presumed irrational and mentally disordered, while biological females who
emulate males are not. A second implication stereotypically associates
femininity and cross-dressing with male homosexuality and serves to punish
straight males who transgress this stereotype. Author Arlene Lev noted that
the TF diagnosis is “more about sexist values and conflicts between individuals
and society than they are about sexual disorders and human distress.”  This
violates the definition of mental disorder given in the DSM, which specifically
exclude “conflicts between the individual and society” without clinically significant
Criterion B for Transvestic
The fantasies, sexual urges, or
behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social,
occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Distress and impairment became central to the definition of
mental disorder in the DSM-IV,  where a generic clinical significance
criterion was added to all Sexual and Gender Identity disorders, including Criterion
B of Transvestic Fetishism. It was an attempt to prevent false-positive
diagnosis of people who do not meet the definition of mental disorder.
Unfortunately, Criterion B does not specifically define
distress or impairment for the TF diagnosis. It does not allow for the
existence of healthy, well-adjusted male-identified heterosexual cross-dressers.
Moreover, Criterion B makes no distinction between internal clinical distress
and that caused by external prejudice and discrimination. Tolerant clinicians
may infer that transgender identity or expression is not inherently impairing,
but that societal intolerance and prejudice are to blame for the distress and
internalized shame that transpeople often suffer.  However, clinicians
intolerant of gender diversity will infer the opposite: that cross-gender
identity or expression by definition constitutes impairment, regardless of the
individual's happiness or well-being.
Dr. Kenneth Zucker, chair of the present DSM-V Sexual and
Gender Identity Disorders work group and Dr. Raymond Blanchard, chair of the
DSM-V paraphilias subcommittee, were critical of including the clinical
significance criterion for Transvestic Fetishism and dismissed it as “muddled” and
having “little import.” They reasoned that “individuals with TF who consult
mental health professionals are presumably, in some respect, distressed or
impaired by their condition.”  This circular logic is even more
concerning, because “… adolescents with TF rarely self-refer. The initiative is
invariably on the part of an adult.” . This implies that cross-dressing
youth who are subjected to intolerance by parents or authorities are classed a
priori as mentally disordered.
Ironically, the clinical significance critera for five other
paraphilia diagnoses in the DSM-IV-TR, Exhibitionism Froteurism, Pedophilia,
Sexual Sadism and Voyeurism, were revised with more precise wording to limit inappropriate
diagnosis.  The APA apparently had no such concern for false-positive
diagnosis of gender nonconforming males who meet no definition of mental
In the supporting text of the TransvesticFetishism
diagnosis, behaviors that would be considered ordinary or exemplary for genetic
women are presented as symptomatic of mental disorder on the basis of born
genitalia and sexual orientation. These include collecting and wearing female
clothes or undergarments, dressing entirely as females, wearing makeup,
expressing feminine mannerisms and "body habitus," and appearing
publicly in a feminine role.  It is not clear how these same behaviors can
be pathological for one group of people and not for another.
More disturbing, the supporting text lists "involvement
in a transvestic subculture" among symptomatic "transvestic
phenomena." Psychiatric diagnosis on the basis of social, cultural or
political affiliation evokes the darkest memories of medical abuse in American
history. For example, women suffragettes who demanded the right to vote in the
early 1900s were diagnosed and institutionalized with a label of
"hysteria.”  Immigrants, Bolsheviks and labor organizers of the same
era were labeled as socially deviant and mentally defective by psychiatric
eugenicists.  In truth, transgender support organizations worldwide are a
primary source of support, education and civil rights advocacy for gender
variant people, families, friends and allies. Their necessity is a consequence
of social intolerance, not of mental deficiency.
The Transvestic Fetishism diagnosis is currently classified
as a sexual paraphilia, defined in the DSM-IV-TR as
“recurrent, intense sexually
arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors generally involving 1) nonhuman
objects, 2) the suffering or humiliation or oneself or one's partner, or 3)
children or other nonconsenting persons” 
Sexual paraphilias in the DSM include such terribly stigmatizing
disorders as Pedophilia, Exhibitionism, Fetishism, Frotteurism, Sexual
Masochism, Sexual Sadism, and Voyeurism. This placement of the TF diagnosis
serves to legitimize false stereotypes that unfairly associate cross-gender
expression with criminal or harmful conduct.
Lacking a clear justification for the Transvestic Fetishism
diagnosis according to the definition of mental disorder in the current DSM,
its authors resorted to the heteronormative presumption:
“If the phylogenetic function of
sexuality or eroticism is reproduction, and if its ontogenetic function is to
enhance pair-bond formation and intimacy, then TF clearly is problematic at
both levels of analysis.” 
This is essentially the argument used to justify the
classification of homosexuality in prior editions of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual [28-30]. In proclaiming gender role nonconformity as mental
illness, the authors of Transvestic Fetishism fail to mention the role of
intolerance, prejudice and sex stereotyping as barriers to intimacy and
pair-bonding in a species as diverse as ours.
Speaking at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American
Psychiatric Association, Dr. Charles Moser noted, “Diagnoses should be removed
if they cannot be shown to meet the definition of a mental disorder
unambiguously and be substantiated by appropriate research.”  Arlene Lev concurred
for the case of Transvestic Fetishism:
“transvestic fetishism is a normal
human behavior transformed into a mental illness. … it should not be listed in
a manual of mental disorders.” 
Perhaps Peter Oiler said it best,
“I'm tired of the closet. It's
dark and musty and I want out! I want to settle some issues I have with myself.
I want to tell everyone in my situation, "you are not alone." It
doesn't make you a weirdo to put on a dress or pants.” 
With publication of the DSM-V, it is time for the American Psychiatric Association to remove the anachronistic and sexist diagnosis
of Transvestic Fetishism. Nonconformity to gender stereotypes is not mental
illness; difference is not disease.
 GenderPAC, “GenderPAC National News Interviews Peter
Oiler,” Feb 2001, http://www.gpac.org/archive/news/notitle.html?cmd=view&msgnum=0275
 K. Choe, American Civil Liberties Union, “Why We're
Asking Courts and Legislatures for Transgender Equality, ” Where We Are
2003: The Annual Report of the ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project, Jan
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 V. Bullough and B. Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex and
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Copyright © 2008 Kelley Winters, GID Reform Advocates