The Childhood and Family Dynamics of Crossdressers

Source: Professor at a Central Texas University

I have long been interested in the phenomenon of transvestitism. Though there is a moderate but growing literature on the subject, few if any studies have focused primarily on the early childhood experiences of men who crossdress as adults. This article summarizes the results of a sample survey conducted among some one hundred individuals with listings in issue number 59 of Tapestry magazine. Basic Characteristics. The survey respondents are basically middle-age males, with an average age of 47 years. The majority, 65 percent, classify themselves as transvestites (crossdressers); some 19 percent consider themselves to be transgendered or borderline transvestite/transsexuals; and the remaining 16 percent identify themselves as transsexuals. The majority of the respondents report their sexual orientation as heterosexual, with 64 percent so classifying themselves. An additional 32 percent identify themselves as bisexual and the remaining four percent as homosexual.

Position Survey Subjects National Sample
Eldest child with younger sibling(s) 40% 24%
Only child 19% 7%
Other 41% 69%
TOTAL 100% 100%
(p<.0001)   *J. Blake, Family Size and Achievement (1989), pp. 18-20.

Table 1. Sibling Position of Respondents Compared to National Sample (n=85) (n=26,963)

Sibling Position and Family Characteristics

One is immediately struck by the very large proportion of individuals who are firstborns, only children, or first sons. As Table 1 above indicates, fully 74 percent – nearly three quarters of the respondents – fall into one of these three categories. What is significant here is the potential for direct and continuing exposure to maternal, feminine influences and to the psychological and emotional presence of female family figures without the intervening influence of an older male sibling. Further, this pattern differs substantially from males in the U.S. population as a whole, as shown in the table below. Equally striking is the great contrast between the reported quality of the relationship of these boys to their fathers as opposed to that with their mothers. Along a continuum of a very weak or negative relationship to a very strong or positive relationship, the mothers rank very high and the fathers generally quite low.

Quality of Relationship With Mother With Father
Very Positive 45% 12%
Fairly Positive 31% 20%
Neutral 10% 31%
Fairly Negative 10% 20%
Very Negative 4% 17%
TOTAL 100% 100%

Table 2. Respondents’ Perceptions of Parental Relationships During Childhood (n=85)

Table 2 contrasts the respondents’ assessment of these childhood relationships. Fully 86 percent of the sample report a neutral to very positive childhood association with their mothers, while 68 percent report a neutral to very negative relationship with their fathers. Thus a substantial majority of respondents not only had a close proximity to female influences and role models by virtue of their sibling position in their family but also a generally distant, negative or problematic relationship with their fathers. The quality of the relationship with the mother varies significantly from a comparison group of non-crossdressing men, as seen in Table 3.

Quality of Reported
Relationship with Mother
Group (n=44)
Very Positive 45% 71%
Fairly Positive 31% 25%
Neutral 10% 2%
Fairly Negative 10% 0%
Very Negative 4% 2%
TOTAL 100% 100%
(t=3.507, p=.0003)

Table 3. Respondents’ Perceptions of Parental Relationships During Childhood (n=85)

Early Crossdressing Experiences

Respondents were asked to describe their first encounter with crossdressing they could recall and their age at the time. Nearly all the sample members (97 percent) reported that their first experience took place before puberty (which occurs generally around the age of 13); and one-half reported an initial exposure to some form of crossdressing by the age of seven. The type and extent of these initial experiences varied considerably. Some were fleeting and partial, such as having one’s nails polished or hair tied in ribbons by the mother, or trying on a mother’s or sister’s shoes, slip or panties in secret. Others involved being completely dressed by a mother, sister, or other female family member, often accompanied by wearing long hair styled as a girl’s. (Indeed, a few of the sample reported being dressed more often as a girl than as boy until beginning school, usually at age 6.)

Secret and Open Patterns

For those in the sample who crossdressed as children, the majority, 78 percent, did so in secret. Although some of these boys were “initiated” into crossdressing by women (like the painting of nails by a mother or playing “dress-up” with a sister, girl playmates or a babysitter), family members were unaware of the respondents’ crossdressing activities. These individuals make up the “secret” group. However, 22 percent of the sample members – those who comprise the “open” group – reported that their crossdressing was initiated early and openly encouraged by a mother, grandmother, sister or other female family member. Over half of this open group were frequently dressed as girls at home during the day (when the father was not present) and often taken out in public crossdressed for shopping or social visits. Nearly half (44 percent) of the open group had long hair as young boys and wore it in feminine styles while crossdressed. Most of them had their long hair cut by age 6, usually at the father’s initiative.

The Attraction of Feminine Clothes

The great majority of the sample respondents, 78 percent, reported that certain items of clothing had been especially attractive to them as children. In general, this attraction seems to be related to those items associated with their first recalled crossdressing experiences. For example, those who first tried on slips or panties retained a special affinity for these items later on. As might be expected, various items of underwear (the quintessential feminine garb) led the list of especially attractive feminine items.

Reactions to Childhood Crossdressing

The sample members were asked to describe their recollection of their feelings about being crossdressed as children. As Table 4 indicates, the majority reported positive emotions associated with their crossdressing: It brought enjoyment and happiness. A much smaller group reported negative feelings: They felt guilty, ashamed, even “crazy.” Others expressed ambivalence: They enjoyed it but also felt strange or guilty. And a last group (most of whom identify as transsexuals) reported no particular feelings associated with crossdressing.

Category of Reaction Percent Reporting
Positive 55%
Ambivalent 19%
Neutral 12%
Negative 14%
TOTAL 100%
(t=3.507, p=.0003)

Table 4. Respondents’ Emotional Reactions to Childhood Crossdressing (n=67)

Reasons for Crossdressing

There is considerable ongoing debate as to the factors or experiences which lead to crossdressing in adult men. One explanation (the argument from “nature”) suggests that genetic factors such as hormonal imbalances, chromosomal patterns, or perhaps a genetic predisposition, play a role. The popularity of this view with regard to transvestitism, however, is waning in light of recent medical research. Another explanation stresses the importance of environmental, family and social learning factors (the “nurture” argument). Members of the sample were asked, in an open-ended question, what they thought was the main factor which had influenced their crossdressing.

Category Percent
Family dynamics/environment/gender envy 27%
Sensuality or erotic appeal of feminine items 22%
Genetic or internal factors 21%
Affective factors (happiness/attention/excitement) 6%
Other 7%
Don’t Know 17%
TOTAL 100%
(t=3.507, p=.0003)

Table 5. Respondents’ Assessment of the Major Influence on Their Crossdressing (n=85)

As Table 5 indicates, most members of the sample attributed their crossdressing to environmental or external factors such as family dynamics. These dynamics include, for example, the dominant role of the mother, the remoteness of the father, or being surrounded by female extended family members; envy of or a special attraction to women in general, i.e., “gender envy;” the sensuality or eroticism provided by wearing female clothing; and the attention and happiness (affective factors) experienced while being crossdressed. Relatively few attribute their crossdressing to internal or genetic factors such as feeling they were men trapped in a woman’s body or that “I was born with it.” These interpretations are consistent with the proportion of transvestites and transsexuals in the sample. Transvestites, who are largely heterosexual in preference, find stimulation, eroticism, and often anxiety reduction in dressing as women. Transsexuals feel that their gender is actually female and rarely derive sensual pleasure from crossdressing; it is a “normal,” appropriate behavior. This is borne out in Table 6 which compares the respondents self-identification and their sexual preference.

Sexual Preference
Heterosexual (n=52) 75% 17% 8% 100%
Bisexual (n=25) 56% 24% 20% 100%
Homosexual (n=3) 0% 0% 100% 100%

Table 6. Sexual Preference of Respondents (n=80)

The majority of both heterosexuals and bisexuals identify themselves as transvestites, whereas all of the homosexuals identify themselves as transsexuals. The category “TV/TS” includes those identifying themselves as marginal TVs, a middle ground between transvestite and transsexual. In interpreting these relationships, it is helpful to refer to the work by Richard Docter, Transvestites and Transsexuals: Toward a Theory of Cross-Gender Behavior (New York: Plenum Press, 1988). Docter’s developmental model suggests two basic types of transsexualism – primary and secondary, a distinction accepted by most scholars in the field. Primary transsexualism has its roots in homosexual preference, whereas secondary transsexualism is seen as a developmental stage among those with a primarily heterosexual (or possibly bisexual) orientation.

Docter suggests that a large number of young boys are exposed to factors which lead to attraction to women’s clothing, but most of them do not become crossdressers. However, those who do begin crossdressing encounter a unique set of social learning experiences and reinforcements and develop fetishistic, partial crossdressing during ages 8 to 18 or so. Many of these partial, fetishistic crossdressers go on later to crossdress completely and to develop a “feminine self,” i.e., a cross-gender identity. Most are able to integrate their “feminine self” into their personalities and become fetishistic transvestites (the majority of our sample). Some, however, for a series of complex reasons not yet understood, have greater difficulty integrating their feminine self and become what Docter describes as “marginal” transvestites or transgendered individuals. These men may live occasionally (or for extended periods of time) as females, experiment with female hormones, and frequently experience gender dysphoria (dissatisfaction with their male gender). Of this latter group, some eventually become secondary transsexuals and may later seek sexual reassignment surgery.

Though Docter’s developmental model is not universally accepted, it does provide a context within which to interpret the data from the sample group. We note, for example, that all those who express a homosexual preference in Table 6 identify themselves as transsexuals (they are the primary TS type). Those individuals who identify as heterosexual or bisexual and also as TS form the secondary transsexual group. Put another way, as the identity of the sample group moves from transvestite to borderline TV/TS to transsexual, there is an increasing tendency to identify as bisexual or homosexual and a decreasing tendency to identify as heterosexual.

There are some interesting and statistically significant relationships between one’s self-identification and his perception of the quality of his childhood relationships with his parents. In general, the stronger and more positive the childhood relationship with the mother, the greater the tendency for the respondent to identify as a transvestite; the weaker or more negative the relationship with the mother, the greater the tendency to identify as transsexual.

General Observations

One is struck by the proportion of the respondents in the overt group (nearly a quarter of the overall sample), who were crossdressed as children by their mothers or other female family members and presented to the world as young girls. During the time most of the men in the sample were growing up, mainly during the 1940s and 1950s, the classic nuclear family model reigned – a working father and a mother/housewife at home with the children. Divorce was rare. One can speculate that some of these mothers may have been compensating for their disappointment at having had a boy rather than a girl and the solution was simply to turn the male child into a girl, at least for a while. Or perhaps their disappointment in their relationship with their spouse led them to transfer their need for intimacy and affection to their sons – overpowering them with their femininity. These pressures, as well as the remoteness from their father reported by so many of these men, may have stacked the cards, as it were, in favor of the feminine.

The findings of this study, combined with those of others, may help us better to understand the familial seed bed from which transvestitism may flower. Beginning with birth order, one can speculate that those boys who are the first male child may be more at risk for the development of transvestic behavior than those lower down in the sibling hierarchy. Another contributing factor is likely a much closer relationship with the mother than with the father, a phenomenon identified in this and most other non-clinical studies where the quality of parental relationships has been measured. Yet another may be the existence of a parental pattern where the father is perceived as ranking higher than normal on the “feminine” characteristics of dependency and affiliation, as several researchers have found.

To this constellation may be added a strong, perhaps overwhelming attachment to a first son by certain mothers. Here the psycho-dynamic work of Robert Stoller on transsexualism and gender disorders is especially relevant. Young boys, in contrast to young girls, must struggle to separate from the early symbiosis with the mother to establish their gender identity. Identification as a male, as being of the opposite sex from the mother, requires individuation and separation from her. “Depending on how and at what pace a mother allows her son to separate, this phase of merging with her will leave residual effects that may be expressed as disturbances in masculinity (Presentations of Gender, 1986, p. 16).”

Stoller found that mothers of transsexuals became passionately involved with their sons, merging with them intensively – too intensively to allow for normal individuation. The core gender identity of the transsexual, developed in the first year of so of life, remains female. An “excessively close and gratifying mother-infant symbiosis, undisturbed by father’s presence, prevents a boy from adequately separating himself psychically from his mother’s female body and feminine behavior. The hypothesis predicts that the more intense these family dynamics, the more feminine the boy will be (Ibid. p. 25).”

Though Stoller’s analysis is not without its critics, it suggests that transsexuals may represent the far end of a continuum of disturbances in the process of a boy’s normal gender development. Granted that a number of other factors, such as those outlined by Docter, likely guide the later stages of this development, perhaps nuclear transvestites, marginal transvestites, and transsexuals are not so much discrete syndromes but rather occupy clusters of behavior on a differentiated continuum from “normal” gender identity development at the one pole to transsexualism at the other. Support for this notion is suggested by the data. Note that the comparison group reported a more positive relationship with their mothers than any sub-group of the sample. Among the sample subjects, the relative strength of the (already rather remote) paternal role is not significantly associated with the members’ self identification, but the relative strength of the relationship with the mother is quite significant. As one moves from nuclear through marginal transvestites to the transsexuals, the mean rating of the relationship with the mother significantly decreases. One interpretation of this trend is that the subjects’ evaluations reflect increasing degrees of difficulty in their individuation from the mother. Such individuation is easiest for the comparison group, whose strong paternal relationships facilitate a less troubled individuation from maternal influences. Separation from the maternal image evidently becomes increasingly difficult for the nuclear and marginal transvestites and most problematic of all for the transsexuals.

Finally, it is possible that there may be a greater-than-average frequency of narcissistic personality disorder among these mothers. They drew their first sons into its vortex and made it difficult for them to individuate normally – especially when paternal influence was weak and remote. Where this pattern was coupled with a perturbed spousal relationship, the son may have been “triangled” into it in an attempt to assuage the resultant anxiety. This interpretation, at least, offers the prospect of integrating the findings of this study and several of the other non-clinical studies reviewed above with the insights of a psycho-dynamic approach.

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