Someone to Talk to.
Diana Aitchison (WOBS)
Women of the Beaumont Society Helpline: For more information see the helpline page.
The oft heard cry of the confused and angry wife on discovering that her husband cross-dresses, serves to illustrate the contradiction with which she is faced.
"My husband is six foot tall and built like a brick outhouse; you couldn't get anyone more manly than he is." she observes.
She will then go on to describe his masculine attributes; the sports he plays, his time served in the armed forces or his job which requires a civilian uniform, such as Police Officer or Prison Warden. For her, sexuality and gender identity run hand in hand; the opposite, the deviant, is a Lily Savage lookalike, and she can't imagine her husband falling into that category. Then, suddenly, she queries "he isn't gay is he?" but almost immediately rejects the notion.
"Of course he's not, I'd know wouldn't I!" Then, more quietly, she asks "So why does he do it?"
Until the start of the 1990's the answer would have had a nature-nurture base with nurture being slightly more dominant. It was important not to apportion blame but it was difficult to convince some wives that it wasn't anyone's fault, .... it "just is." This rather abstract appraisal of the situation was rarely totally satisfactory. If a boy had been nurtured identically to his male siblings, why hadn't they all turned out to be cross dressers? Such honest criticism of the explanation which had been offered in the absence of any other seemed fair. It didn't make sense.
Cross-dressers themselves couldn't help their wives either. They knew that it had started in childhood but had no idea why. That it was a pleasurable pastime was generally agreed on by any group of crossdressers who discussed the subject but as to "Why?" ....... none could come up with the definitive answer. Some saw it as evolving from a childhood dominated by a strict mother and where a weak father submitted to her every demand. Others described the opposite combination....domineering father with subordinate mother. Either explanation fitted in with that described for homosexual men and the link was made, at least in terms of the nurture debate.
Most crossdressers however, describe a perfectly normal childhood in terms of nurture. Subjects associate the practise with feelings of guilt and shame, confident that if caught, they will be in serious trouble. (Historically, for some crossdressers, being apprehended meant being hauled ignominiously on a visit to a wrathful priest or other religious leader who used physical punishment as a means to "drive out the devil from within". This practise has been reported as occurring as late as the 1970's.) The feelings which have been traditionally ascribed to the behaviour persist today, with a new generation of crossdressers facing the same fears as thousands who have gone before them.
The stigma which is attached to crossdressing persists in Western society but has not been a permanent feature of European attitudes. Like homosexuality, it didn't even have a name until the late 19th century in Britain, and the beginning of a pernicious labelling system which holds sway in everyday life today. The revival of religious dominance during the Victorian era as a backlash to modernity and the rise of industrialisation, meant that desperate religious leaders had to use everything in their power to keep their congregation within their grasp. Costume was therefore relegated to the music halls and theatres, where it belonged, and any appearance which it might make outside those auspices, was treated as an 'abomination'. Women would be accused under the same 'rules' when they started to wear jodhpurs to ride astride as opposed to side saddle and wear 'Bloomers' in order to ride bicycles. 'Theatricals' were accepted as eccentrics and Freud was only just inventing the word 'homosexual'. The French had been using the word 'transvestie' for centuries but in a benign way... Joan of Arc (1412- 1431) was described as 'chere transvestie' from her habit of wearing a soldiers uniform.
Given the recent 20th. Century history of cross-dressing, it is little wonder that society today still has difficulty in separating homosexuality and cross-dressing. That there are 'gay' crossdressers is not in dispute. That 'drag queens' are confused with crossdressers is understandable, yet Pantomime Dames remain triumphantly separated from labelling....... theatrical tradition still protects the grotesque.
This plethora of labels to describe behaviour which is in direct opposition to 'gender correct' masculine appearance, however, does not explain why it has made its presence felt in the domestic domain. in the guise of the heterosexual, married man. For many women it is a step too far. Nowhere in their training for life as a Real Girl has there been the remotest suggestion that the man she marries will be any different to those of her peers.
The current understanding is that the behaviour has a biological base and occurs soon after conception, in a part of the brain which relates to emotion and notions of gender identity. A mother will have absolutely no control over the mechanisms which change the always female egg to a male. She may not even be aware at that stage that she is pregnant and the occurrence remains a fait accompli, part of nature's role. The new-born son will be socialised into his male role and will start to be aware of what is a 'boy' and what is a 'girl' from about three years old. He will not, however, have an understanding of what being male or female really means until he is a few years older. Most cross-dressers recall that the first stirrings of cross-gendered confusions started to occur from about the age of seven but. others will not have been aware of differences until puberty. Not all boys (and sometimes, girls) are equally affected. In some boys the need is to wear the clothes of the opposite sex from time to time, in others there is a real compulsion to identify totally with being female. These feelings are at odds with the roles which they are being socialised into and the expectations which others have about how they should behave. The occasional cross-dresser continues his 'life training' as a male and will emerge successfully as a man to fulfill his parents' ambitions without ever having mentioned his covert behaviour. He instinctively knows that being found out will lead to disappointment and criticism from his parents and siblings. He may believe that he will ultimately outgrow the need to wear women's clothes. Many associate the compulsion with teenage fantasies, accompanied with furtive masturbation. Once they pair up with a female life partner they trust that the need will dissipate, to be replaced with a regular healthy sex life. He may never have spoken of his pastime to anyone, believing that somehow he is unique.
Western society does not make allowances for differences, unlike other (perhaps) more enlightened societies where cross-gendered behaviour has a natural place in the order of that society. In many non-Western cultures the crossdresser would be regarded as the 'Third Sex'. Sometimes they are revered, in other places they are (sadly) social outcasts. Most importantly, they are recognised as existing and grow up in an atmosphere where they can be openly monitored. Should they marry it is on the understanding that they have a 'difference' and should the marriage be unsatisfactory for either partner it can be terminated easily without loss of face. Controversially, there is a notable change in these liberal attitudes in countries where Western culture is making a 'take-over'.
Western cross-dressers do not wish to be identified as the 'Third Sex'. Their wish is to integrate and be accepted. Their biggest enemy is the culture into which they were born. This same culture, however. serves to protect family life. It is this dichotomy which creates the greatest discord in relationships. Women want what they have always wanted; a safe haven in which to nurture their chicks. Tradition plays a major part in this ambition, even though the extended family has shrunk (for many) to become the nuclear family and, at its most minimal, the one-parent family. The continuation of mother and father figures as roles for the new-born to adult remains constant in the collective consciousness, regardless of the variations which individuals claim as the contemporary family unit. Parents who decide to defy convention face criticism and sometimes, ostracism, by their neighbours. However much a woman loves her mate she is usually reluctant to defend this 'cuckoo in the nest' (as she views him). For her, the perfect family does not contain secrets; in protecting her husbands' secrets she is exhibiting an admirable loyalty to him, but is at the same time colluding in a deception committed against everyone else whom she cares about and respects.
The most accepting of wives cares deeply for her family and is prepared to openly defend her nest against all-comers. Her strength comes from having a husband who has his crossdressing in perspective; it is not the be-all and end-all of his existence. Often the gentlest of men, he makes sure that his wife never feels threatened by his female alter-ego by ensuring that her self-esteem and gender role are maintained at the highest level. Respectful of her birthright as a natural born woman he respects and admires her qualities as a person, knowing full well that he can only aspire to her femininity and womanhood. As a gentle man he is never heard to observe that he 'makes a better woman than she does' or that he 'has better legs' than she has.
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