Will He Be a She, or Won’t She?

Source: A Study of Transvestites by Dana, Submitted by Becky Page

Note: This paper was written by a college girl at UNC Charlotte as an assignment for her Human Sexuality class. The paper was submitted on December 14, 1992 in Dr. Lance’s class.

The word transvestism means crossdressing from a Latin word ‘trans cross, vestire’ to dress. It is not a single, unified process which is easily identified1. Not all crossdressers are transvestites. There are drag queens, professional female impersonators, transsexuals and crossdressed prostitutes; however, the transvestite crossdresses not for money, entertainment, nor because he is convinced that he is really a woman. He does it because he enjoys it. Most transvestites wear sexy feminine undergarments and sometimes wear it under normal masculine clothing1.

To date, the bulk of research into transvestism has been contained within the closed circuit of medical and psychiatric specialist journals. It focuses on transvestites in a way that places it squarely within the arena of sexual deviance; however, they do not usually seek medical or psychiatric attention unless they are disturbed or under family or legal pressure to seek such help1.

Not all crossdressers are homosexuals, in fact the majority are heterosexual. “Sexual orientation of transvestites are usually classified in five categories: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, and narcissistic, although his main category is heterosexual, according to Hischfeld”2. Today, some of them could be classified as transsexuals. Specifically, the full life history of an individual must be considered to categorize precisely a male who wears female clothing. This includes the nature of prior sexual object choices, character of past gender identification, and the presence of prior fetishistic, and the presence of prior fetishistic arousal3.

The cause of transvestism is not fully known, understood, or easily identified. The transvestite is concerned only with the culturally defined components of the sex-gender interface. For him, the one-to-one correlation of sex and gender is not the straightforward process assumed by most people. Rather, it is problematic because he desires maintaining male sex and masculine gender appearance, identity, and role, he will temporarily adopt feminine appearance1.

The cause of a person’s crossdressing is also unknown. It appears that the desire to crossdress appears early in life. Some attribute it to generic, hormonal, or other biological factors. The “chromosome push” theory, for example, contends that the developing embryo is sexually undifferentiated for the first six weeks. At that time, the male (y) chromosome “pushes” the gonads which become testes, which then generate the hormone formula to develop the male genital tract4.

The absence of abnormal patterns of sexual arousal (Paraphilias) in women and the connection between crossdressing and male sexuality are strongly suggestive of sex-linked genetic involvement which hormonally triggered. However, crossdressers are not physically or hormonally different from other men. Several decades ago, there was speculation that hypogonadism was responsible for crossdressing and transsexualism, but there is no evidence that this is the case. The interplay of biological and psychosocial factors is very subtle. The effect of genes on the organism have been likened to a puppet which is controlled with rubber bands rather than strings. For example, crossdressing has been shown to occasionally occur in men with XXY chromosome makeup (Klinefelter’s syndrome)6.

Despite the gross difference in genetic material, most have unambiguous gender identities as men. Nevertheless, the occurrence at levels exceeding chance indicates that there is a biological component to gender dysphoria of these men. There has been and continues to be a great deal of speculation that subtle hormonal imbalances during some critical phase of fetal development result in later crossdressing or transsexualism. This notion is simplistic, as it is based on animal models, which are at best only marginally relevant to humans. Certainly there has never been any concrete evidence for such “fetal imprinting.” In some instances, crossdressing may be related to adjustment difficulties, borderline personality disorders, or mental illness. Crossdressing which is ordinarily well controlled may be exacerbated in times of stress or emotional disturbance, occurring with greater frequency after divorce, loss of employment, or the death of a loved one6.

Male crossdressers are usually unremarkably masculine in appearance and demeanor. Many marry and many of these who do marry have children. They are heavily represented in masculine or even hypermasculine occupations. Many enjoy high levels of income and prestige. (This was consistent with my findings in my sample of crossdressers that I interviewed).

Although some crossdressers have had homosexual encounters, the majority are exclusively heterosexual. Many crossdressers find male homosexual behavior distasteful. Crossdressers are strongly attracted to women and to femininity, probably more so than other men. If a crossdresser is married, he tends to take his marriage very seriously and may be less likely than other men to engage in adultery. This probably, at least partially, accounts for the findings that these men’s sexual experience is with a limited number of partners. Many men keep their crossdressing from their wives for fear of destroying their marriages. Revealing themselves often dissolves a marriage. Thirty-six per cent of the divorced responders to Prince & Bentler’s survey5, of 504 crossdressers, they found that their crossdressing had played a significant role in their marital troubles. Many crossdressers would like to find a mate who will tolerate their crossdressing; however, it is rare that they find one.

Changing social attitudes about crossdressing and increasing involvement of wives and other partners in crossdressing organizations may make the revelation of crossdressing less distressing to the partner than it has been in the past generations. Most women are bothered by crossdressing in the men they love, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Most crossdressers do not go out in women’s clothes, but some do go out in public “dressed” on their weekend with other crossdressers. A few become quite accomplished at presenting themselves as women. Some join support organizations such as the Society for the Second Self (Tri-Ess) and socialize with other crossdressers on a regular basis.

With increasing age, the erotic aspects of crossdressing tend to fade. The individual continues to crossdress because he feels an inner sense of comfort or femininity, or to reduce anxiety. He will be less likely to show fetishistic arousal, and will attempt to perfect his feminine image. With success as a husband and father, and success in his occupation, he may become more comfortable with his feminine side and less prone to feel that something is “wrong” with him6.

Although they may fantasize about it from time to time, most crossdressers do not want to become women. Feminization of their bodies is generally limited to removal of excess body hair and perhaps piercing of ears, but the accomplished crossdressers may seek removal of his beard and softening of his body contours with female hormones, or plastic surgery. When crossdressers reach this stage, they are likely to develop problems of psychosocial adjustment related to increasing gender dysphoria6.

Transvestism will effect a marital relationship. It is rare that a wife will actively and unreservedly enjoy her husband’s transvestism. Those who do come to terms with it suffer distress.

Meetings of the Partners’ Support Group focused on the difficulties wives faced and although there were a few who were accepting, they had not always felt that way. Some women divorce their husbands when they find out. The wife usually has one of three reactions to their husbands’ transvestism: They think he is gay, or that something is wrong with them personally, or that their husband is having an affair. The wives did not like for their husbands to wear sexy feminine night clothes to bed. They did not even want their husbands to touch them, much less make love to them when the husband was “dressed” feminine with wig and make-up1.

I was able to attend a Tri-Ess meeting held in Charlotte, North Carolina. This meeting was arranged for me by Bobbi, who is a crossdresser, but did not attend the meeting. There were eleven crossdressers and three wives present. There may have been more wives there still in their rooms, but I interviewed three. The only crossdressers I had ever met were Karen and Bobbi, who came to our Human Sexuality class to talk with our class on the subject of crossdressing and transvestism, which was a well received topic by our class.

Karen met me at the main lobby when I arrived. After talking a few minutes, we went into the hospitality room where we met the other members. Initially, it was a shock for me as I entered the room of eleven crossdressed men. Karen introduced me and explained to them what I was doing there. After I explained the questions on the questionnaire and told them they would be anonymous, they answered the questionnaire and turned them in to me. I spent time with some of them talking one on one. They were very approachable and answered any question I asked. Only three of the eleven were hesitant to talk with me. I could readily notice that they were ill at ease answering questions and talking about themselves and crossdressing in general. I did not press the issue with them because I did not want to embarrass them by continuing. However, they were very polite – just shy about the subject. Another older crossdresser later told me that they were all three new members and this was the first meeting they had attended.

I understood the situation perfectly, because at first, I did not know what to expect either. The older ones were more open with me and talked easily about the subject of crossdressing. As a matter of fact, they would have talked longer if I had had more time. It seemed that they just needed someone to listen to them. After the three wives arrived, they also talked with me about their views on crossdressing.

The members of the organization get together at least once a month to crossdress, talk over their problems, show videos, shop, and go out as a group to eat. Also it gives new members a chance to ask questions and feel better about dressing in public.

They were all “dressed” when I interviewed them. Four of them would have passed as women in my opinion and the rest looked like men in women’s clothes. Karen, to me, was the one who looked most like a woman. Her wig looked real and she was dressed in trendy female clothing-stirrup pants, sweater, low heel shoes, hose and not too much jewelry. Her hands really looked like those of a female. Her wife was also there. It was unusual see them both together and talking to them knowing that Karen was really a he, dressed as a she. Her wife said that she felt that Karen was a nice looking crossdressed man who could pass easily as a woman. She supports him in his crossdressing venture and goes out with him in controlled conditions (as a group) to a restaurant that accepts them. She said that at first she thought it strange to see him dressed as a woman, but now she just wants him to be dressed properly and attractively. They are like friends when he is dressed; however, it blocks any sexual feelings that she has for him. It is like she has two mates. I noticed that she always referred to Karen as “him,” and that made me feel better when I would slip up and say “he” instead of “she” in our conversation.

The other two wives were also supportive of their husbands’ desire to crossdress. One wife said, “This is true love.” She was supportive of him and thought he was a great looking woman. She had mixed feelings on whether or not this phenomenon is normal. She also said that he was very different when he was dressed, even his taste for food was different. She felt like they had become best friends. The last wife I interviewed said that the more she is exposed to crossdressing, the more she understands it. She said that at first she felt strange, but now she finds that if she prepares herself ahead of time she can better deal with the crossdressing. Her husband is extremely feminine when he is crossdressed. She also said that their relationship had become closer and stronger with more trust and honesty in it now.

As indicated earlier, I administered questionnaires to eleven crossdressers. The results of the backgrounds of the respondents are as follows: The ages ranged from thirty-six to fifty-four. Their religious preference: 6 Protestants, 1 Catholic and 4 no affiliation. All eleven attended college: 6 graduated, 2 received their masters degree. Their occupations consisted of teacher, carpenter, computer engineer, designer, graphic artist, government employee, retired businessman and a retired physical education coach / principal / warden. There were two no responses. The income per year: 6 made over $40,000, 1 made $30,000-$40,000, 2 made $20,000-$30,000. There were two who made under $20,000. Of the ones that were married and had children, five of the children knew of their fathers’ crossdressing. One crossdresser’s son has been crossdressing for two years. The crossdressers in my sample started “dressing” between the ages of three to twenty-four: All except one was under the age of thirteen when they started. Eight of the crossdressers in my sample “dressed” in public, one did not, and there were 2 no responses. Eight of the crossdressers have been “read,” one had not, and there were two with no response. Seven of the crossdressers I sampled have been hit on by men while being “dressed,” three have not, and one did not respond. Eight of the crossdressers indicated that they wear panties under their normal clothes, 1 did not, 1 said at times he did, and 1 did when he was younger.

The open-ended questions were somewhat varied and personal. I have included some of the results that I felt were pertinent to my paper. I asked the respondents that if they could eliminate the desire to crossdress would they? Several said they would not, some said at times they would, but when dressed, they would not. One respondent said, “No, it would be like killing a part of myself.” One indicated that his life would be less complicated, but he really enjoyed doing it. Another replied, “No, I am trying to develop my own new roles that say I’m O.K. just the way I am… I choose to be me.”

I was amazed to find that only 6 of the 11 crossdressers I sampled had sought counseling. Of the 6, most of them said that counseling helped them live with this condition. One that did seek counseling felt nothing was accomplished because the counselor was unknowledgeable in this area. One said that he was learning to live for himself instead of others. Of the 5 respondents who did not seek counseling, they simply did not feel they needed counseling.

Lastly, I asked the respondents what they felt our society should know about crossdressers. Overwhelmingly, they felt that society needed to have a better image of them. They are not mean, crazy, or criminals, and for the most part not even homosexuals. One felt that society needs to show tolerance and accept the ideas of others who may be different from them. Many just wanted society to know that they are just regular caring human beings.

Crossdressers / transvestites are probably one of the most misunderstood groups in our society. Ignorance of this subject can be attributed to the fact that we live in a society that adheres to strict gender roles. We do not like to deviate from the norm. In the socialization process, parents teach children at an early age what it is to be a “boy” and what it is to be a “girl.” Our society is known for only looking at the differences between the sexes instead of the similarities. Society usually reacts to the subject of crossdressing and transvestism with prejudice and hostility, since this considered an abnormal life style.

It is evident that it takes much education on this subject to better understand it. From the class survey, this can be clearly seen. 50% of the females and only 36% of the males were knowledgeable about crossdressing. 58% of the females and 57% of the males thought that crossdressers were gay before they were exposed to them in class. After talking and listening to these crossdressers in class, 100% of the class had a better understanding of this phenomenon; 88% of the females said their visit to class changed their opinion of crossdressers in a positive way; only 50% of the males felt the same.

After researching this paper, I have personally been enlightened on the subject of crossdressing / transvestism. I no longer feel that they are weird or crazy – they are just different! That is fine because that is what makes the world interesting. Perhaps, through education and resocialization our society could learn to accept crossdressing / transvestism.

Works Cited

1Woodhouse, Annie. (1989). “Fantastic Women: Sex Gender and Transvestism.” New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

2Bullough, Vern L. (1991). “Transvestism: A Reexamination.” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 4, 53-67.

3Wise, Thomas N. and Jon K. Meyer. (1980). “Transvestism: Previous findings and New Inquiry.” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 6, 116-128.

4“Society for the Second Self” (1988). Pamphlet: Tri-Ess.

5Prince, C. V., and Bentler, P. M. (1972). “Survey of 504 Cases of Transvestism.” Psychological Reports, 31, 903-917.

6“Discovering Who You Are” (1991). Atlanta: AEGIS.

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