Europe: France and Germany in the 20th century

In some parts of Europe, things became less grim during the 19th and 20th centuries. Homosexuality was generally accepted and transsexualism  tolerated.


In Germany, up to the time the Nazis took over in 1933, the authorities were  prepared to give out special ID cards to trans people. These did not change their birth sex attribution or name, but did form an official recognition of the fact that they habitually appeared to be of the opposite sex, through clothing and make-up. This protected them to some extent from police harassment. The sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, whose practice was in Berlin, was prepared to give letters of support. Hirschfeld was later involved in the celebrated case of Lilli Elbe, before moving to the USA to flee the Nazis.

The Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic was the unofficial name given to the State of Germany from 1919 to 1930. It was characterised by a catastrophic divide in society between conservatives and reformers. Until the Great Depression took hold, however and despite the great hardship that war reparations caused Germans, the reformers had the upper hand.

Germany experienced its own “Roaring Twenties” until they were cut short by the Great Depression. Cities burgeoned with new arrivals from the countryside in search of jobs, setting the stage for a vibrant urban life. Urban centers like Berlin became some of the most socially liberal places in Europe, much to the chagrin of conservative elites. Berlin had a thriving nightlife full of bars and cabarets. There were between 65 and 80 gay bars and 50 lesbian bars in the capital alone. Sexual liberation was a very real phenomenon, complete with a gay and lesbian rights movement led by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld who ran an Institute for Sexual Science.1

Increasing poverty, runaway inflation and social unrest — much of it engineered — however, brought Hitler and the Nazis to power and swept away the age of social freedom. Thousands of Germans fled to other countries to escape, in justifiable fear for their lives. A bright light of toleration of transsexuals was snuffed out.


Pre-war Paris had long been a haven for homosexuals and transsexuals. The French had abolished their anti-homosexuality laws in 1789 and Paris in particular had become a hot-spot, though never with the stridency that Weimar Berlin displayed. As in Berlin, a generation of young people deserted the countryside and its poverty for the bright lights of the cities, there to explore, amongst other things, their own sexualities.

Religion in Europe

The principal religion of both Germany and France was Catholicism. This, while maintaining its injunction against any form of homosexuality from the pulpit, has been less harsh in its punishments in real life.  Across the Catholic world can be seen, in real terms, a moderation of hostility towards transsexuals in particular. In the Philippines, for example, demonstrably one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in the world, with over 90% adherence. Yet here, transsexuals have been openly able to go about their lives without let or hindrance, for hundreds of years. They are no less prominent there than in Thailand, say, with its generally tolerant Buddhist culture.

This contrasts radically with the religious temper of the Anglo-Saxon world, which was exported to the USA. The Anglican Church was for centuries a relentless persecutor of any form of homosexuality and in this regard was one of the most vicious European churches, with only Dutch Lutherans being more dedicated to harming the innocent.

It seems likely that this in some part at least explains why the great European cities of Berlin, Paris, Naples, Rome, Barcelona and Madrid became the homes to so many transsexuals, as remains the case today. Until only 60 years ago, being a homosexual of any type in London was a dangerous life that could get you beaten up or killed. The great cities of continental Europe, especially the southern ones, remain essentially trans-friendly with very little hostility being visible — except, and then only occasionally, from British or US tourists.

Les Amies de Place Blanche

After the war, in the 1950s, Paris became the home of a community of transsexuals living on and around the Place Blanche. Many of them worked in cabaret, others in the sex business. They were photographed, in one of the most remarkable collections of photojournalism, by the Swedish photographer Christer Stromhölm over ten years up to the late 1960s. Some of these went on to have GRS and two actually attended Stromhölm’s funeral 40 years later, testifying to the bond he had built up with them.


One of the best-known French transsexuals, who was one of the mothers of modern Western transsexualism, was Jacqueline Charlotte ‘Coccinelle’ Dufresnoy (1931-2006). While still a teenager, the young Coccinelle began performing in a Paris cabaret that specialised in female impersonators. Unlike the other stars, however, Coccinelle lived full time as a woman. After a chance meeting with Marie-André Schwindenhammer (1909-81), Coccinelle was introduced to the use of hormones by the older transwoman. Some time later, on tour in Nice, she met a younger transwoman, who later told her about Dr Georges Burou, who ran a maternity clinic in Casablanca. He also performed GRS, since the French legal ban on castration did not apply in Morocco. Coccinelle had her surgery there in 1958.

HSTS in the United Kingdom: A British affair

One of the great paradoxes is that, while the British exported their repressive and phobic attitudes to the United States, the influence of other cultures there meant that transsexualism was far more prevalent there than in the United Kingdom. This was not the case in the UK, where, until the 20th century, the population was remarkably homogeneous — and that meant, intolerant.

Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, all forms of male femininity were reviled in Britain and homosexual men were in constant danger of abuse and worse, violence. It was an era when hormone therapy to arrest masculinisation was unavailable and in any case, a visit to the doctor was unlikely to be any help. It was usual for adult men who confessed to being sexually receptive to be diagnosed insane and locked up; Alan Turing, the computing genius without whom you would not be reading this, was criminalised, chemically castrated, ostracised and eventually committed suicide — for being homosexual. If they were caught in the act of sex, then prison awaited them for the crime of ‘buggery’. This law was not repealed until 1967.

Homosexuality in Britain at the time had a distinctive character, partly because of the class-based nature of the society and partly because of the extreme hostility to male femininity, which impacted so heavily on HSTS.

‘Public Schools’ — Academies of pederasty

Sexual relations between males were institutionalised in the so-called ‘Public Schools’ — actually private, fee-paying boarding schools — where the elite sent their young to be educated. Boys in Preparatory school would be introduced to their sexual duties by the school masters. When they got to the Boarding School proper, they would become the catamites of the senior boys.

It is often forgotten that the epithet ‘fag’ and its familiar diminutive ‘faggot’ was originally the term applied to a junior boy whose duty it was to ‘do for’ a senior one — running errands, copying lessons, keeping the senior boy’s space tidy and, of course, providing him with sexual services!

Once the junior boy became a senior himself, he was expected to take a junior catamite in his turn. Failure to do so might lead to suspicions about his sexuality and that he was a ‘poof’, that is, someone who so enjoyed being penetrated that he wished to continue.

This illustrates another point which we’ll discuss in another piece: these pederastic sexual arrangements were often regarded, by those within them, as heterosexual. These schools were seats of Classical Education and the boys — there were few similar girls’ schools — were inculcated daily in the literature and ideas of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It is no wonder at all that they adopted many of their sexual practices too.

The principle that men penetrate

One of these is the principle that ‘men penetrate’. In this, being the penetrator indicates that one has become a man, while being penetrated indicates that one is not a man. In the Public School system, as in the erastes/erominos system of Greece, the noy is not considered a man. This makes his penetration by a man without shame and, as he matures and masculinises, his taking of a younger catamite as his receptive sexual partner is proof that he has indeed become a man.

In the broader society, upper-class males would have sexual relationships with young working men. These males had almost all gone through the Public School system. The class-based nature of this form was that the ‘girls’ — that is the receptive homosexual males — were always either peri-pubertal boys or working-class young men. It would have been completely unacceptable for a man in such a relationship to allow himself to be penetrated, since that would have meant a lower-class male penetrating an upper-class one. Which would never do.

Even cross-dressing was a crime

Mack Freedman, with regard to the UK in the early 20th century, notes:

…the situation in Britain … meant sticking with one’s biological gender…Transgender people, in fact, were arrested simply for cross-dressing, charged with male prostitution, and often convicted on conjecture. This fit into the subliminal mores of fin de siècle Britain, which punished biological males presumed to be “inverts,” people who acted effeminate or otherwise eschewed their biological gender role.i

In other words, feminine behaviour on the part of men was actively persecuted in Britain, conforming to the then extremely phobic attitude of the Anglican Church, which was dominant. This led to  transwomen hiding by appearing to be gender conforming, at least in public. It is certainly the case that many homosexual males in Britain then, who would  likely transition today, were unable to do so for fear of violence, in earlier times. Indeed, many appear not to have so suppressed their own natures that they did not recognise themselves for what they were. One can only imagine the torment such a soul must have suffered.

The English author Quentin Crisp wrote several remarkable books about the life of a highly feminine homosexual male in England. Late in life he said that, after a life of perplexity, he at last knew what he really was — a transsexual. Sadly, he went to his grave without being able to live the life he perhaps should have, as a woman. His words are a damning testament to the cruelty and intolerance of the culture he grew up in.

April Ashley

Britain, up until the 1960s, was not at all a fertile ground for transsexualism. When April Ashley, a post-operative transwoman, made herself and her status famous during her divorce proceedings, the entire nation was shocked. People spoke in hushed whispers about such a thing; they told their children to cover their eyes for fear of seeing the news reports and turned off their radios.

I am not joking; I witnessed this myself — and, of course, it thoroughly fascinated me!

Caroline Cossey

The next high-profile British transwoman to appear was Caroline ‘Tula’ Cossey. Cossey was actually intersex, born with Klinefelter’s Syndrome (XXY). She had been raised as a male, which was normal then, and had had her penis surgically reshaped to better resemble an ordinary male’s.

Cossey eventually gave up trying to be a boy and became a girl instead; and not only that, a high-profile model and minor film star. While it’s certain that the massive homophobic and transphobic prejudice of the UK at that time prevented her from reaching her full career potential, she was and remains a major icon for British HSTS and intersex people.

While this did lead to a thawing of the ice as far as transsexualism was concerned, Britain was extremely repressive. Those young HSTS who were lucky enough to have supportive parents and who were referred in time to the right clinicians, were able to have corrective hormone and surgical therapies that would allow them to transition; but most did not have this opportunity.


For those who did succeed in making an inadequate and unsympathetic system work for them, the standard route was ‘woodworking’.  As soon as the girl began to live as a woman, she would cut off all ties with her former life. She would change her name, move home, get a new job. Typically she would maintain links only with her mother, who would be sworn to secrecy.

Her aim would be the same as any other girl’s: to find a nice man, settle down and to build a life.


Although the general position appears to have improved in the UK, HSTS there still tend to be covert. They avoid ‘LGB’ organisations, recognising that they are not themselves part of that group; they are, once transitioned, heterosexual women and they have no desire to be ‘outed’ for being something they could never have felt comfortable being. At the same time, the image that the public has of transwomen is that of autogynephilic, non-homosexual males, also known as AGPs.

These bear no relationship whatsoever to HSTS transwomen yet persist in claiming association with them. HSTS have no desire to be claimed by them and avoid being so. Quite apart from misleading the public about what a transsexual really is, AGPs are notorious sexual predators who will pursue HSTS as sexual partners — something HSTS invariably reject.

As well as by sexual predation, non-homosexual Western autogynephilic transvestites harm HSTS by erasure. Where the abuse of HSTS might previously have been due to a hyper-masculinised social ideal, fed through a culture of pederasty amongst Britain’s ruling classes, it is now non-homosexual AGPs who wear the boot.

It might be some time before genuine HSTS transwomen are able to counter this.

North America into the 20th Century

Across white North America, mores established elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon culture were strictly applied. These generally prohibited any expression of homosexuality or male femininity and, indeed, often punished it. That did not, however, mean it was eradicated; it just went underground.

In Male Sex Work from Ancient Times to the Near Present, Mack Freedman discusses the situation in the USA in the late 19th century:

‘at the Golden Rule Pleasure Club on West Third Street, (New York)… one was “buzzed” into a room with a table, two chairs, and a young man dressed as, and identifying as, a woman.’

This rise of trans sex work in the USA was noted in an 1894 medical report also cited by Freedman:

In many large cities the subjects of contrary sexual impulse form a class by themselves and are recognized by the police . . . They adopt the names of women, and affect a feminine speech and manner, “falling in love” with each other, and writing amatory and obscene letters. In New York City alone there are no less than one hundred of these, who make a profession of male prostitution, soliciting upon the streets and in parks when they get the opportunity.

Clearly, there were vibrant and active transsexual communities within North American cities prior to the ascendancy of modern ‘LGB’ thinking with its focus on conformity to  ‘gender norms’ and rejection of male femininity.

During the Weimar Republic in Germany, transsexuals and homosexuals were centre-stage; they were the glamorous pinnacle of a culture that delighted in sex and sexuality. After Adolf Hitler rose to power, these individuals were persecuted and the clubs and bars they frequented were closed.

Many Germans at this time fled to the the United States and amongst them were unknown numbers of transsexuals, homosexual cross-dressers and drag queens. Although US commitment to the Allied cause in WW2 caused a hiatus in which all attention was fixed overseas, it is a reasonable assumption that many of these carried on much as they had before, in their adopted home.

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy

The celebrated French artist Marcel Duchamp, after arriving in the USA, maintained a second character called Rrose Selavy.  Duchamp was certainly not alone, although he was the most high-profile. There is no doubt that Duchamp lived his life as a work of performance art and his female character was a part of that.

It is not clear what Duchamp’s sexuality actually was. In this as in all of his private life, he was intensely secretive. A number of theories have been put forward 2 but we shall never know for sure.

The story of HSTS in North America is characterised as much by what was hidden as by what was revealed.

Lesbians and transmen

Writer Gertrude Stein

While the situation regarding transwomen was at least somewhat documented, lesbians and transmen were rather ignored. However,  prominent gender-non-conforming  (GNC) lesbian women like the celebrated writer Gertrude Stein (above) clearly shows that the GNC tradition of lesbian culture was strongly developed in the earlier 20th century.

Native and Hispanic influences

Two Spirit people and related  homosexual and transsexual expressions had long been part of Native American culture but these were largely destroyed by the colonists. Within Anglo-Saxon culture the predominant form of homosexuality was clandestine pederasty.

This did not lack the class element typical of Anglo-Saxon culture and, while this was not exclusively the case, tended to devolve to upper and middle-class men seeking sex with adolescent boys. This was effectively ignored in the culture, with a few high-profile exceptions such as the case of Oscar Wilde. The playwright had insisted on seducing the teenage son of a Lord of the Realm; this was a gross breach of English sensibilities, aggravated because he was Irish. In general, gentlemen were able to seduce boys without censure.

The United States, while founded on Anglo-Saxon ideals, was never a purely Anglo-Saxon nation. Especially after the end of the Civil War in 1865, huge levels of immigration, especially from other areas of Europe, brought very different mores. In many southern European cultures, transsexualism was well established as a natural expression of male homosexuality and immigrants from these areas brought their laissez-faire attitudes with them.

At the same time, the US had significant so-called Hispanic populations, which had taken on the mores both of Native American cultures (which they largely were) and those of their own colonisers, who were mainly Spanish.  This meant that within the geographical borders of the United States there were significant populations wherein homosexuality and transsexualism were commonplace; that they were disregarded by the mainstream culture has more to do with that mainstream culture than the others.

Today, increased levels of immigration from Spanish-speaking Latin America has introduced an infusion of new transsexual blood to the cultural milieu. While these cultures can be extremely macho they are also traditional ‘two-group’ cultures in which women have great power as mothers and grandmothers. No man from one of them will disrespect his mother nor flaunt her wishes.

As we discuss elsewhere, within these traditional ‘two group’ societies, there is a social space for feminine homosexual boys, especially if they are beautiful. This individuals themselves are constantly at risk from insecure men, but they are nevertheless there and supported within the culture.

When we look at the United States, we are looking at an incredibly complex cultural multiverse within which ideas and mores seep from one culture into the other.


Similarly, in Canada, there are influences from the Native American traditions, which were generally sympathetic to homosexuality and transsexualism, but these are added to by the powerful French tradition — which is largely ignored by Anglophone commenters, because they do not speak French.

France, especially southern France, has always been far more tolerant of homosexuality and transsexualism than Anglo-Saxon culture, being much closer in nature to Spain and Italy, its Mediterranean neighbours. This has given Francophone Canadian culture a very different flavour, in sexual terms, from its other ones.

Considering the different cultural forces at work across North America today, it is clear that the dominant white Anglo-Saxon culture has been eroded and that other cultures have begun to assert their authority — and their appeal.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of the modern ‘LGBTQ’ movement. This is a white, Anglo-Saxon understanding. In terms of male homosexuality, it rejects male femininity and all forms of transsexualism. For the half-century between 1960 and 2010, roughly, this was absolutely the dominant male homosexual expression, simply because it was Anglo-Saxon.

Sylvia Rae Rivera

Over the last decade, this has radically changed. The contribution of transsexuals like Sylvia Rae Rivera, who comes from a Hispanic tradition, is once more being recognised.  Rivera is only one of many and the ability of accommodationist white homosexual men to set the sexual agenda for the USA is rapidly reducing. On the one hand, they are confronted by a resurgent, conservative Anglo-Saxon culture and on the other by cultures in which feminine boys are expected to be girls — and are happier being so.


20th to 21st

The triumph — albeit partial and apparently not permanent — of accommodationist homosexual thinking was always an intellectual overlay, much more realised in the writings of academics than in the day-to-day lives of homosexuals and transsexuals. As the 20th century transitioned into the 21st, a huge resurgence of HSTS and GNC homosexual identities, both in males and females, began to make itself known.

Pic: Mark Seliger




Two Spirit people of Native America

During the 20th century, extensive data were gathered on traditional practices among many tribes of Native American peoples living in the USA. “In nearly every part of the continent there seem to have been, since ancient times, men dressing themselves in the clothes and performing the functions of women …” These were the Two Spirit people.

Jessica Fox, a contemporary Two-Spirit Native American model

These individuals were and are still known by several translations meaning ‘Two Spirit’ by the people themselves. In the past they were called ‘berdache’, an Arabic epithet imported via French, by whites. Not all expressions of this were the same, but seemed most visible where gender roles and appearance between men and women were most marked. This probably is simply because of the lessened gender differences, meaning the Two-Spirit people were still there, they were just less obvious to Western observers. The phenomenon was, however, widely noted.

Two Spirit traditions have been documented (and in some cases, photographed) in nearly 150 indigenous Native American tribes and societies. In roughly half of these, female counterparts were also reported that lived and dressed as men. Included among the tribes were the Seminole, Navajo, Mohave, Crow, Zuni, Pueblo, Hopi, Kutenai, Blackfeet, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, western Algonquian and nearly half of the thirty-five tribes living along the Pacific Northwest. Two-spirit natives comprised a distinct social class within most of these tribal communities; for example, among the Hidatsa of the northern Plains, two-spirits were observed at no less than fifteen to twenty a village and typically pitched their tipis together in a group.

Two Spirit people were fully integrated into the societies and cultures they lived in. It was not until these societies encountered the toxic attitudes of the European invaders that they suffered any harm because of what and who they were. The systematic victimisation of these people remains a stain on the United States today.


Latin America: the paradox of macho cultures

Latin America is a paradox. On the one hand, it is home to some of the most macho and homophobic cultures on the planet, yet on the other it is home to huge numbers of transsexuals.

The principal colonial power in Latin America was Spain and as in the Philippines, the Pope’s embedded reporters, the Catholic priests, travelled with the conquistadores, noting and enumerating all that they encountered.

Again we turn to the research of Amara Das Wilhelm:

After his exploration of the Veracruz region of eastern Mexico, conquistador Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) informed King Carlos V of Spain: “…in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women’s attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have … intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony.” Similar reports of “hermaphrodite” natives among the indigenous tribes of Mexico, South America, Florida and the West Indies evoked great curiosity back in Spain. Eager to investigate, Spanish writer and traveler Francisco Coreal set out for Florida in 1669. Once there, he discovered a class of effeminate boys who lived with the women, made their same handiworks, wore particular feathers and served the native tribesmen in various ways that included (sex). Coreal wrote: “I believe that these hermaphrodites are none other than the effeminate boys, that in a sense truly are hermaphrodites.”

Once again, as we see time and again, homosexuality and transsexualism are seen as related.

In modern times, Latin America’s trans community, usually called ‘travesti’ have become internationally famous for their great beauty.

Supermodel Lea T (b. 1981, alias Leandra Medeiros Cerezo) is a Brazilian transwoman and she is very far from being alone. The travesti culture of Latin America should be seen, like transwomen elsewhere, as having deep cultural roots.

Probably the most thorough and at the same time, readable, work on the modern Brazilian travesti is the eponymous book by Professor Don Kulick. He spent a year living in a ‘travesti house’ in Bahia in northern Brazil and his work should be regarded as required reading.

Africa: A dark continent where some light shines

Africa has a rich history of transsexualism; but this was largely destroyed by the British and others during the colonial era. As they did in India, the British enforced a rigid religious injunction against any form of what they saw as homosexuality.

That means it’s difficult to find out about transsexualism in Africa. Even though the Empire is longs gone, the most homophobic and transphobic wings of the Episcopalian Anglican Church — the majority denomination in the old British colonies — are relentless in their persecution.

Writing for Thompson Ruters, Katy Migiro describes the case of Audrey Mbugua, an MtF HSTS transsexual from Kenya:

When Mbugua sought help to deal with her inner turmoil from a health worker, the woman took Mbugua’s hands and prayed for her to be freed from the devil’s clutches.

“She pulls open her drawer, takes out a Bible, and starts to preach to me,” Mbugua said with a laugh. “I don’t think she knew what I was going through, so to cover up, she said it’s the work of Satan.”

Transgender people are some of the most invisible in Africa, where rigid gender stereotyping continues to stifle freedoms. Many are forced to hide their identities and live on the margins of their communities or risk being vilified as immoral and unchristian by the conservative majority.2


Ethnologist Eva Meyerowitz, stationed in Ghana, in Africa during the 1920s-1940s, observed that among the Ashanti and Akan, “men who dressed as women and engaged in homosexual relations with other men were not stigmatized, but accepted.”

“In Burkina Faso of the Upper Volta River, Frenchman Louis Tauxier reported sorone within the Mossi tribes during an expedition in 1912. The sorone were beautiful boys, aged seven to fifteen, that dressed like women and served as pages and sexual partners to the village chiefs. They were often entrusted with state secrets and forbidden to be sexually intimate with women. Among the Dagara tribes of southern Burkina Faso, homosexual and transgender people served as shamans and were considered special gatekeepers who straddled both worlds in order to help sustain the universe.’ 2

Today, the huge continent of Africa is today noted for some of the most strident anti-homosexual voices in the world. Most of these come from the Anglican religious community, which was introduced by the British and has, wherever it set itself up, been a harbinger of extreme intolerance for all things homosexual and transsexual. It is a bizarre irony that the Church of England, the mother of all of this, is now quite relaxed and has an open attitude to both; but the wider Anglican community, often egged on and funded by extremist US American fundamentalists, remains as intolerant as ever.

Both homosexual and transsexual behaviour were noted across the continent in pre-colonial days. Once again, the two were not seen as separate, with transsexualism being seen as a natural conclusion to homosexuality.


Miss Sahhara, a Nigerian HSTS transwoman who now lives in London because of the discrimination she suffered at home, told the BBC:

“I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare…there’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”

Growing up in rural northern Nigeria, where homosexual activity can be punishable by death (although no executions by law for homosexual activity have been verified), Sahhara says that it was “obvious to all” that she was “a girl in a boy’s body”.

Nigeria is one 34 African countries that outlaws same-sex relationships, and since the Nigerian government tightened its anti-gay laws in 2014, punishments have become much harsher.

Oceania: the Pacific diaspora has many transwomen

Oceania is the name given to the populated, spread out, islands of the Pacific. They are home to many transwomen.

The British explorer Captain Bligh famously sailed HMS Bounty to Tahiti in 1789. A crewman, James Hamilton, noted that:

the mahu (male-to-female transwomen) of Tahiti were “like the eunuchs in India.” (By which he meant the hijra and their sisters.)

Mahu in Tahiti

Hamilton described how they lived and dressed as women, sang and danced along with them and excelled in all their tasks. Upon hearing that the mahu were hermaphrodites, Bounty commander Captain Bligh asked one of the Polynesian “eunuchs” to remove his loincloth. Bligh’s report noted that the native’s “yard” [penis] was not absent or deformed but very soft and small, having been customarily tied up against the groin. He also observed how the native women treated and respected the mahu as one of their own.

In the Hawaiian Islands, whose inhabitants are believed to have originated from Tahiti, the mahu were also present along with the aikane—sexually related or “friendly” men that were essentially masculine-type homosexuals and bisexuals. In Tuvalu, the word pinapinaaine substitutes for mahu, as does the word fa’afafine (“like a woman”) in Samoa and fakafefine in Tonga.

Fa’afafine in Samoa

All of these various terms refer to the same thing: males who appear to be and live as women.

Newhalf: Transwomen of Japan

The modern history of Japan’s transwomen, commonly known in the West as ‘newhalf’ dates back to 1965, when police raided a bar in Tokyo’s Akasaka district and arrested 10 women on charges of prostitution, according to historian Junko Mitsuhashi.

However, three of these women were male on paper, but had undergone GRS to remove their external male genitalia. We do not know if this amounted to full vaginoplasty or rather, was simply a complete castration. Japan’s prostitution law meant that the police could not charge them with prostitution, as only women could be charged for this.

In the early years of the 20th century, newhalf became better known outside Japan, often performing in porn movies. Inside the country, many work as prostitutes but these constitute only a part of the broader trans scene. We don’t know the relative proportions of HSTS and autogynephilic transvestite forms, but we do know that both exist. No research has been done that might inform us as to the total numbers or the breakdown.


The phenomenon is much older than this, though. Kabuki theatre first appeared in Japan in the early 17th century, at which time it was performed entirely by women, who played both male and female roles. However, in 1629, the authorities banned this, which immediately promoted another form of kabuki, in which males played all the parts. Those who played women in the theatre were called ‘onnagata’ and were seen not as actors playing women, but as real women.

This association of transwomen with theatre and entertainment persisted right up to the modern era. However, kabuki itself is related to an even older tradition of entertainment, geisha. This had already appeared by the 13th century. While geisha became open to women in the 17th century, prior to this, all geishas were male, called taikomochi. These still exist within contemporary geisha, though there are few left. Taikomochi have traditionally appeared to be, and lived as, women.

Westerners usually think that geishas are a form of courtesan, that it is, essentially, very glamorous sex workers. But this is not exactly the case. Geishas are entertainers, not prostitutes. On the other hand, sex work itself is a form of entertainment, principally for men, and there has always been a link between geisha and sex, however much it might be denied. While today’s newhalf of Japan may work in sex and in porn, this is an extension of the notion of entertainment. So their connection to the earliest forms of geisha and kabuki is clear.

When we think of ‘sex work’ we in the West immediately think of the physical act, but it is much broader than that. Geisha fits into a ‘hostess’ tradition found all over Asia. In this, women are retained by bars and clubs to entertain male clients, often just by sitting talking to them. The man buys the woman ‘lady drinks’ which are more expensive than ordinary ones, and she takes the difference. In addition, tipping generously is encouraged, with big tippers becoming ‘celebrities’ constantly surrounded by women or transwomen, depending on the venue and his tastes. Whether or not the relationship extends to actual sex is between the customer and the hostess; in many cases it does not.

Ray Blanchard noted the propensity of HSTS to be involved in sex work and, while this is absolutely not true of all, many are. More importantly, perhaps, they enjoy it and feel affirmed by it. After all, what stronger reassurance could a person have that she is a beautiful woman, than that a man would pay to be with her? It is easy to see the parallel between the satisfaction of stage entertainment, the rapturous applause of the audience, and being showered with gifts, money and even offers of marriage by men. Every society has niches where transwomen can feel fulfilled and have good lives and newhalf occupy one of them; they fit into a global pattern of similar lifestyles.

The Philippines and southeast Asia

The Philippines, an extensive archipelago that forms the Pacific barrier of the southeast Asian subcontinent, were colonised by the Spanish after Magellan’s ‘discovery’ of the islands in 1521. Prior to this, the islands had already been exposed to Islam, but the underlying culture was animist. This is a belief in nature spirits and deities. The Spanish brought with them, and eventually enforced, Roman Catholicism, which is now the religion of 95% of Filipinos.

Despite this, transsexualism has a long history in the Philippines too. We know this because the Spanish conquistadores were accompanied by priests. Their job was not just to minister to the unfortunate people who found themselves under the heel of the military invaders, but to report back, to the Pope, everything that was discovered. This was so that the Papacy would receive its due share of the spoils! Nevertheless, they also reported on cultural and other phenomena they found interesting. Amongst these was an understanding of gender that was much different from their own.

At least one insurrection was led against the Spanish by ‘men dressed as women’ and there were tribes where more than two genders were normal. These seem to have been similar to the present-day Bugis people of Indonesia, who claim five genders. In fact, however, these devolve to two, masculine and feminine. They are: man born male, man born female, woman born female, woman born male and all at once. These last are the priests in the culture, which is animist.

Research conducted on the Philippines’ island of Negros in the 1950s and 60s by anthropologist Donn Hart reveals a longstanding presence of homosexual and transgender individuals in the region, from the slightly effeminate dalopapa or binabaye to the fully transgender bayot. Similar third-gender subcultures can be found throughout the country’s many islands, each with its own set of local categories and terms.

Today, there are huge numbers of transwomen in the Philippines. While these are of both types, HSTS and AGP, the former are conspicuous. Every town seems to have a population of them.

In Indonesia, transwomen are called ‘Waria’ which means. roughly, ‘man-woman’. This is a predominantly Muslim nation yet the Waria tradition is tolerated. In non-Muslim areas such as Bali, there are considerable numbers of transwomen much more like those found in Thailand.

Quite why southeast Asia has so many trans people is not fully understood. Clearly, there is a cultural input. This area has traditionally been far more relaxed about male homosexuality than almost any other in the world. At the same time, homosexuality and trans are seen as the same thing and gender-conforming homosexual males are somewhat looked down on by others.

Thailand and the Kathoeys

Today, one of the best-known centres of transsexualism is Thailand. This is only partly because of the large numbers of transwomen — and transmen — in the country. That is has become a popular tourist destination has made it appear much more important than other areas in south east Asia, but this is incorrect. Across the region, transsexualism is remarkably common.

In his book ‘The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand’s Ladyboys’, Richard Totman discussed the background to Thailand’s transwomen, often called ‘kathoey’. This term in actual fact covers a range of presentations including gay men, but the author concentrated on the transwomen who make up the best known part of the group.3

Although we sometimes still hear the claim thay transsexualism in Thailand is recent and goes back only to the 1960s and the Vietnam War era, when US servicemen were on leave there, this is untrue. Totman documents kathoey being recorded in Thai culture for hundreds of years and other sources provide similar information. In fact, transsexualism in Thailand probably goes back thousands of years, into the pre-historic period.

A  transwoman in Thailand photographed around 1890

Thailand’s religious culture is called Theravedic Buddhism. The name ‘Theravedic’ is important as it means ‘derived from the Vedas’. In other words, this is a culture that understands exactly the same classifications that we’ve already seen in Indian Vedic culture, and transsexualism is a part of that.

Totman cites examples of kathoey being observed at traditional weddings in Thailand hundreds of years ago, and also performing other roles, as entertainers and so on. These are very similar to the roles they play today. Theravedic Buddhism has been the basis of Thai culture for at least 2000 years and  kathoey have been a long-standing part of this. However, the general prevalence of transsexualism across the region, in countries that are not majority Buddhist like Thailand, suggests that there might be an underlying cultural influence at work, or perhaps even a genetic one.