The Third Gender [Preview]

Transsexuals are illuminating the biology and psychology of sex—and revealing just how diverse the human species really is By Jesse Bering

The reigning queen of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the “Baroness” Titti Von Tramp, a deeply bronzed, thoroughly waxed and statuesque figure approaching seven feet tall in stiletto heels, wearing tinted couture glasses and crowned with a perfect platinum mane. On any given night, you can find the bosomy Von Tramp at one of the local nightclubs, pursing her strawberry-colored lips in a photo-op for one of her many fans or perhaps making an Ulster businessman turn bright red by deviously running one long, manly finger down the man's cheek and judging, “That's a good year.”

For many people, the term “transvestite” is synonymous with such larger-than-life characters, an entertaining coterie of mostly gay men and their oversexed female alter egos. But as with any human demographic, transvestites are a very diverse bunch, and it is only a select few who can turn their minority status into such a lucrative career in drag theatrics. For more modest individuals, the limelight is hardly a desirable place to be. Furthermore, the psychological motivation to dress or act as the opposite sex varies widely—transvestism is but one of the many manifestations of cross-gender behavior in the human species.

As researchers probe the biological, psychological and cultural underpinnings of transsexuality in its myriad forms, they continue to be astounded by the individual variation they find. And many scientists believe that this incredible diversity offers an important opportunity to unravel the subtle threads tying together biological sex, gender and sexual orientation. In fact, it is only because these traits occasionally fail to match up along predictable lines in a single individual that scientists fully realize how very distinct these variables are from one another.

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