WOMEN OF THE BEAUMONT SOCIETY (WOBS)
PUTTING IT ON
What is the lure of the size 20 cocktail frock and fluffy mules... for a man? Are crossdressers expressing a suppressed feminine side, or getting a kick which their wives may or may not share? Amy Bloom joins an outing en femme.
Heterosexual crossdressers bother almost everyone. Gay people regard them with disdain or affectionate incomprehension. Transsexuals regard them as men "settling" for crossdressing because they don't have the courage to act on their transsexual longing, or else as closeted gay men, so homophobic that they prefer wearing a dress to facing their desire for another man. Other straight men tend to find them funny or sad, and some find them enraging. The only people on whose kindness and sympathy crossdressers can rely are women: their wives and, even more dependably, their hairdressers, their salespeople, photographers, make-up artists and electrolysists, their therapists and their friends.
Drag queens (gay crossdressers) make sense to most of us. There is a congruence of sexual orientation, appearance and temperament: feminine gay men dressing as women for a career, such as RuPaul, or as prostitutes, or to express their sense of theatre and femininity. Actors best known for performing as a female, such as Barry Humphries's Dame Edna, don't puzzle us. Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire and the boys in Some Like It Hot don't puzzle us; they're men doing what they have to do to survive, learning a nice lesson about the travails of womanhood and giving us one on the benign uses of masculine self-esteem. Even the crossdressing women of history, from Pope Joan to Joan of Arc to Disney's Mulan, don't puzzle us; they chose to live as men because they couldn't otherwise have the lives they wanted.
Many heterosexual crossdressers never come out of the closet, not even to their wives; they spend their whole adult lives dressing in secret, ordering size 20 cocktail dresses from catalogues. Others tell their wives after 10, 20 or 30 years of marriage, sometimes because they've been caught wearing her clothes, sometimes because the clothes have been discovered. (The revelation that he himself is the "other woman" is a staple of crossdresser histories, and although the husbands say that their wives were relieved, it's not clear to me that they were so for more than a minute.) Second wives usually get told sooner and, as with other matters, third wives tend to know everything before the knot is tied.
But a lot of these men want to crossdress outside their bedrooms, driven by loneliness, by unmet narcissistic needs (all dressed up and nowhere to go), or by risk-taking impulses. A man who crossdresses and needs to be seen crossdressed can go to conferences, or take a cruise aboard the Holiday, a Carnival ship offering a four-day trip to Catalina out of Los Angeles, happily hosting 25 crossdressers and their spouses amid the other 1,000 guests. Sometimes, the wives wish to come, to support their husbands and enjoy the trip, or to hang out with other wives, like golf widows or wives in Alcoholics Anonymous. Some come because their husbands need them to. "I don't mind, but really, if he'd learn to do his make-up properly and fasten his own bra, I'd rather stay home," one woman told me.
I am in line ready to board the Holiday and my antennae are up. I scan the crowd for the crossdressers, but no one stands out. As I make my way to my small room on B deck, I wonder what to wear to dinner and a preliminary cocktail party in the suite of my hosts, Mel and Peggy Rudd, both blond, heavy-set Texans in their 60s. Peggy has written a number of books on crossdressing, the best known of which is My Husband Wears My Clothes, and was formerly the director of Spice (Spouses' and Partners' International Conference for Education), an annual workshop for wives of "ordinary heterosexual men with an additional feminine dimension".
Finally, I decide that silk trousers, a tank top and sandals is right - right for the level of dressiness of the dinner (which I have overestimated) and right for my own social and appearance anxiety (which I have underestimated). When I walk into the little party, the Rudds hug me and introduce me to everyone as "Amy the writer". Some men flinch, although the Rudds have told everyone to expect me. Tory, a good-looking young man from Mexico, shakes my hand: "Hello, Miss Amy." His aunt and his cousin and his girlfriend, Cory, are on this trip, his first time crossdressing in public. I meet the rest of the men and their wives. The men - to whom I will refer in print as "he", and to whom I refer in person when they are crossdressed as "she" - are not drag queens, not actors, not Vegas female impersonators. They are more like Mrs Attanas, my formidable fourth-grade teacher, a big, tall lady with a bolster-like bosom, thick legs, sensible pumps, hennaed hair and twin spots of rouge on her cheeks.
I meet a happy, long-married couple, Steve and Sue, who look alike whether or not he's crossdressed. I meet Harry, who is always somewhat crossdressed (women's jeans, women's sneakers); his appearance is that of an effeminate man, and he doesn't bother with a femme name or seem to have any of the common need for a more feminine presentation and feminine affectations. I would have thought that this might be easier for his wife, but it's not. "I love him," she tells me later. "I love him, but I don't want a man who is excited by the idea of being a woman. We have two kids, he's a great dad, a good provider, but I want a man who's comfortable with masculinity. I don't want to be sisters... or lesbians. If I wanted a woman, I would have found one by now. But... there's all the other things that are good." And Harry tells me later, with great sadness, "She is the most supportive person in the world, and this is a terrible thing for her. We work on it, we struggle."
At dinner I am seated at a table anchored by Peggy and Melanie (as Mel calls himself when en femme), in nearly matching vibrant floral prints. To my right are Tory's aunt and cousin, and next to them is a very attractive woman, Lori, a Lee Remick lookalike. To my left are Felicity and his wife. Felicity is a large, hunched man, made up in a conventional, slightly stiff manner. He looks like a librarian, or perhaps the strong-minded wife of a minister, and he is, in the rest of the world, a southern Baptist minister from the very buckle of the Bible Belt.
On the other side of me is a man in his late 60s, recently retired as a senior partner in a traditional law firm in the Deep South. He looks great. He looks like a Neiman Marcus matron, right down to his Chanel slingbacks, and although he seems a bit out of place, it is only because the cruise is so downscale and there are 20-year-old guys clumping around the casino in their Nascar jackets, baseball caps and hiking boots. At first I thought the matronly look so common to straight crossdressers reflected some weird attachment to the mother - hence the heavy foundation, blue eye shadow, big pearl earrings. I no longer think so. That same look is common among their wives, and among lots of middle-aged women not much interested in changing fashions.
Most crossdressers, and almost all married crossdressers, live lives in which they are not crossdressed. They don't take female hormones, they don't usually have electrolysis, even if they would like to, and they are not regular readers of Elle or Vogue. They cannot easily put together a natural, believable female appearance. First, you need beard camouflage to flatten and disguise the stubble, then powder over that and foundation over that, and sweating is a big problem. A pronounced face requires pronounced make-up for balance, and after the false eyelashes and even the most subtle contouring of the wider jaw, the thick brow, one can look beautiful or ridiculous, but one cannot look like most of the women around. Age is a great help to crossdressers. It is, for us all, the great androgyniser; the skin softens and sags, the secondary sex characteristics shrink and fade, slacken and thin. I have seen far more convincing crossdressers over 60 than under. Not surprisingly, the amount of time that many crossdressers spend en femme triples after they retire.
No one seems to have any reliable statistics about how many heterosexual crossdressers there are. "Too many guys in the closet," a voice at the International Foundation for Gender Education in Massachusetts told me. Jane Ellen Fairfax of Tri-Ess, the Society for the Second Self, "a family-oriented support group for heterosexual crossdressers", hazards a figure of "maybe 3 or 4 million, between 3% and 5% of the population. People who claim it's more, I think that's just, you know, a minority wanting to be bigger than it is. And people who say something like 1%-2%, I think those are the ones who are ashamed." Ray Blanchard, who is head of clinical sexology services at Canada's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and has been studying sexuality for 30 years, believes 3%-5% is about right, too.
There are only two real points of agreement between Blanchard and Fairfax: that no one knows how many heterosexual crossdressers there are and that all these men in dresses who assert that they are straight, are straight. They may not be straight in exactly the way that non-crossdressing men are - most heterosexual men don't look at an attractive woman and think, "I'd like to have sex with her, I'd like to wear her dress, I'd like men and women to look at me as they look at her" - but they are straight.
Tri-Ess was founded in 1976 and is now the largest organisation for heterosexual crossdressers and their spouses, by which they mean wives, and although nobody would object if a female-to-male crossdresser and her husband wanted to join, none has yet. Lots of crossdressers, however, take issue with the Tri-Ess focus on "family values" and heterosexuality. The Tennessee Vals, for instance, will welcome you "if you consider yourself a crossdresser, transsexual or any other type of gender bender... whether gay or straight, bisexual or asexual". There is a big-tent movement among crossdressers these days, and many groups don't share Tri-Ess's exclusionary philosophy.
Jane Ellen and Mary Frances Fairfax live in Texas, where Jane Ellen is otherwise Chet, a physician, and the father of three boys. He has a hearty, blunt demeanour that is sugared over in the southern manner when he's crossdressed, more emphatic when he's "en drab", but he is always smart, always tenacious and unshakable in his self-esteem and in his beliefs, which include churchgoing Christianity and the platform of the Republican party. He sees crossdressing as more than a hobby and something quite different from a problem. He insists that the wearing of women's clothes is both relaxing and expressive of a feminine self that is nurturing and gentle, and that can enhance any marriage if the wife is wise enough to appreciate it and strong enough to corral what can be, as Jane Ellen admits, a narcissistic, self-indulgent habit.
The words Blanchard uses when he talks about crossdressing - "fetish", "continuum of gender dysphoria", "erotic self-absorption" - are words the Fairfaxes don't ever want to hear. It upsets them to have crossdressing viewed as being about sex, which they try to get as far away from as possible. When you say "crossdresser", Jane Ellen and Mary Frances want you to think only of a guy relaxing in a dress. "Of course it's not relaxing," Blanchard says, with some heat. "Heels and make-up and a wig and a corset? It's preposterous. Even women don't find that relaxing. Relaxing is a pair of sweat pants, clothing that doesn't even feel like clothing. I've had people say to me, 'You know, I bet if there wasn't all this stereotyping, these people would not choose to wear a dress.' I say that's nonsense. The crossdressing is an attempt to resolve an internal conflict, and it's not about fabric. If we had clothing that was identical in every way, except men wore shirts with four buttons and women had shirts with five, crossdressers would want more than anything to have the shirt with five. We don't know why."
Heterosexual crossdressers are disproportionately represented among the retired military; they are often first-born sons, and often quite masculine-looking, which is why the rest of us struggle so with their appearance. Blanchard says, "All of these men will tell you, 'I had to hide my femininity. I became a cop, a firefighter, a black belt in karate, a construction worker, in order to compensate, in order to put these fears to rest and to hide my true nature.'" Blanchard thinks that what they fear is actually ridicule and exposure - not of their own femininity but of their drive to crossdress. They want to believe that their wearing of women's clothes expresses this femininity rather than an erotic compulsion. "These are masculine guys, for the most part. There's no contradiction between 'I feel like a woman' and 'I drive a tank, fly combat', but there is a contradiction between those activities and 'I am a very feminine person and always have been'". This is the only world I know in which heterosexual men argue that they are more feminine than they appear, and their critics and judges argue that they are less so.
It is Talent Night aboard the Holiday, and I am having dinner at the Rudds' table before the show. Felicity and Merrie, a large, sweet engineering professor, take turns dominating the conversation. There is a great deal they both want me to understand, and they are gratified by my attention. I come to see why so many women find themselves sympathetic to crossdressers: women are raised to be sympathetic, and protective towards the vulnerable, and there is something appealing, unexpected and powerful about being a woman and sympathising with a man not because he demands it and you must offer it, but because you feel genuinely sorry for him, for his envy and his anxious and powerless state of mind.
Peggy Rudd, the boss and the model for the wives, says, "My next book is on joy. The difference between the level of joy that crossdressers experience" - she holds her hand up over her head - "and the level of joy that their wives experience." Her hand drops to her waist. The crossdressers around us say nothing. They nod, joyous astronauts sympathising with the poor wives left behind and trying not to show how much more fun they're having. Peggy turns to Lori. "You are so special," she says, as she does every night. "You are just the most beautiful crossdresser I've ever seen. Everyone wants to sit next to you, you're so beautiful."
Lori is a preoperative male-to-female transsexual, accompanying one of her best friends, a crossdresser whose wife couldn't make it. The implication of Peggy's flattery is clear: your performance as a woman is so good. I don't think Peggy means to offend; she can't help it. Transsexuals make crossdressers nervous: maybe there is a continuum, maybe crossdressers just feel more mildly what transsexuals feel so deeply, and maybe those feelings will become overpowering if not reined in by wives and children and Tri-Ess's marital guidelines.
After dinner, we make our way to the theatre for the talent show. It is an amazing evening, beginning with a small man who approaches us from behind potted plants leering like Groucho Marx, murmuring, "You ladies look lovely tonight", with the hopeful fatuity of John Cleese. The show opens with two couples from Japan demonstrating the rumba. Afterwards, an Israeli man plays a homemade drum with his mouth, an accountant sings Heartbreak Hotel badly and a lady in her 70s sings I Believe and clutches the emcee's hand.
The next guest is one of ours. I noticed Ted the first night, a small, dapper, blond man in a tux. Unlike the other crossdressers, he comes to dinner every night in black-tie drag: exquisite bouffant wigs, perfect make-up, three-inch heels and form-fitting dresses that cling to his padded bust and bottom. His wife looks pleasant and sensibly dressed, except for the one night when he is in a tux and she in one of his outfits. Ted's performance is Marilyn Monroe doing Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. Ted asks the emcee for his hand, and the emcee backs away, miming horror. The audience laughs, but they're puzzled. It is not entirely clear to them that Ted is a man - maybe the emcee pulled away his hand because she's such a femme fatale? - but it is obvious that this is someone who has violated the rules of homespun minor talents. Ted's is a minor talent, but his production values, from wig to beauty mark, are high; too high for this crowd. Ted flirts with the emcee, but the emcee is stone-faced. I cannot tell whether the hostility in the air is a response to Ted's semi-professionalism, his artifice or his maleness, but there is something ugly. It is not abusive and not challenging, but there is a coolness, an unwillingness to engage with him as he is.
The evening after the talent show, Felicity comes to dinner en drab, looking like what he is, a heavy-set Baptist minister who worked in construction in his youth. The head waiter approaches the table bearing roses, and with a flourish delivers them to Felicity's wife, to applause from our four tables. Felicity puts his big hand on hers and squeezes it. He makes a toast to their 30 years and her goodness and support. He begins to choke up; her remote look never changes. It does not please her that he decided to dress like a man for her tonight. It does not please her, God knows, to sit with a bunch of men in make-up and dresses, and call it an anniversary party.
Later, when Felicity says his path may be to minister to the transgendered, his wife puts her hand over her mouth and says, quietly, "Jesus will show us the way." And means, unmistakably, that the way will surely not be this one. Felicity says, "It's like there are three of me in this little boat: the husband, the crossdresser and the minister. I can hear the falls approaching, and I know, I know with all my heart, that one of us will not survive this ride." He begins to cry, and I get tears in my eyes. As I hand him a Kleenex, his wife glares at me and says, "You sure do get involved with your interviews." For the remainder of the trip, Felicity seeks me out and his wife avoids me.
I do better with the wives, overall, at Fall Harvest 2000 in St Louis, Missouri. The first people I meet in the cavernous lobby of the Henry VIII Conference Centre are my host, Marcia Lynn, and his wife, Barb. Marcia Lynn is president of the St Louis branch of Maggie (Mid-America Gender Group Information Exchange). The professional service people for the crossdresser community are also here: Absolutely Picture Perfect, providing videos and formal portraits; Barb's Large & Lovely lingerie; the IFGE Book-store; Shoe Express, ladies' shoes in sizes 11 to 15.
When the day of the Miss Fall Harvest Pageant arrives, Jim Bridges is busy doing makeover after makeover, on his feet from 9am-8pm. The suite has the whiff of a locker room without any sense of team. Each of these men is on his own journey and although they are kind to one another most of the time, and encouraging ("You go, girl!", "That wig is really good!"), there is no feeling at all that they are in this together or that it is fun. Jim says, "I want you all to look fabulous. Maybe someone'll get lucky tonight." There is a round of masculine chuckles, and one man says, "I'm all for that!" I ask, "Who would you all want to get lucky with?" and there is complete silence. Jim lifts one eyebrow but says nothing. If he thinks that some of these men have a more ambivalent relationship with their sexuality than they acknowledge, he certainly isn't going to offend them by saying so.
The talent portion of the pageant ranges from the excruciating to the pleasant (a dark, strong-featured black crossdresser belts out a gospel tune, and the mere fact that it is actually sung, not lip-synched, brings down the house) to the complicated. Jeanette, a crossdresser I met on the first evening, is in the show, and I wish he weren't. In his everyday androgynous wear, he looks like George Peppard in his late-40s prime. In drag, he looks awkward, and I blame his girlfriend, Marianne. Jeanette tells me that Marianne sought him out; bisexual and dominating, she loves having a man to dress up. If she's so happy, I think, why doesn't she dress him right? He's in a strange 1970s sort of wig, a rayon jersey dress, dark tights and make-up that distorts his features. If he were a woman, someone would have said to him by now, "You have strong features, make the most of them." He should have a Diana Vreeland or Gertrude Stein look, powerful and emphatic, with no attempt to take off the edge. Jeanette reads from Dorothy Parker's short stories and poetry, and the audience is puzzled, very much as they would be at Miss USA or Miss World. When they say "talent", they don't mean reading.
The final three are selected. There is generous applause for the gospel singer, for the old magician, even for Jeanette. Finally, music begins, and for a moment the judges and the crossdressers and their wives are standing on the dancefloor snapping photos, hugging and kissing, sipping their drinks. Within five minutes, all the crossdressers are back to their tables or pouring out into the lobby. It's too hot and hard to dance in corsets, padding, three-inch heels, heavy wigs and beaded evening gowns. Even more than that, dancing would melt the make-up and ruin the illusion. Who would they dance with? In the moment of fantasy, even men who don't desire a man as a sexual partner need a handsome man as a prop; a wife is not at all the perfect complement to a ballgown. And so I am out on the dancefloor doing the macarena with 12 tired, cheerful wives, all of whom have kicked off their shoes and are getting down, hands on rumps, laughing and drinking, until it is so late that we close the joint.
After the cruise, after follow-up emails with Melanie and Peggy, and more phone calls with the Fairfaxes, I found I had more to say than I had thought, and more concerns about saying it. I did not want to demonise or pathologise any sexual preference or behaviour that doesn't hurt anyone. I didn't want to make fun of fetishists. I wanted to focus on people such as Steve and Sue, happily married for 30 years and not caring that, with waning hormones, they are now often mistaken for a lesbian couple; or Tory and Cory, with their buoyant puppy love. I wanted to see crossdressers as so many of them saw themselves.
And I did - but I also saw many of them very differently. The men I met were, by and large, decent, kind, intelligent and willing to talk openly; their wives were the same, many under the additional pressure of having to make the best accommodation they can to a marriage they did not envisage and do not prefer. But it seems to me that a passion for a person, or a capacity to love people, is different from a sexual impulse directed toward an object or an act, and greater than the desire for any person. And although one could argue that all desire focused on an object or even an act is a fetish, I don't think so - any more than I think that gender reassignment surgery (even when it's known as gender confirmation surgery) is no different from a tummy tuck.
The greatest difficulty people have with crossdressers is, I think, that crossdressers wear their fetish, and the unmistakable presence of a lust being satisfied or a desire being fulfilled in your presence, even by your presence, is unnerving. The mix of the crossdressers' own arousal and anxiety, and our responsive anxiety and discomfort, is more than most of us can bear. We may not mind foot fetishists, but we may not wish to watch, either. The crossdressers of Tri-Ess insist that crossdressing is not about sexuality, and therefore not about sex. But their assertion that crossdressing is their creative expression of both genders is unsettling because it is at such odds with their behaviour, their natures and their marriages.
These men are as far from gender warriors and feminists as George W Bush himself. As one wife said to me, "For 20 years he couldn't help with the dishes because he was watching football. Now he can't help because he's doing his nails. Is that different?" For these men, the woman within is entirely the Maybelline version, not the Mother Teresa version, not the Liv Ullmann version and not even the Tracey Ullman version. There is no innate grasp of female friendship, of the female insistence on relatedness, of the female tradition of support and accommodation for one's partner, and of giving precedence to the relationship overall. If there were that kind of understanding, these guys would be unable to ask their wives to go through this crossdressing life with them, and everyone, husbands and wives, knows it. They know that, if the women insisted on wearing three-piece suits or baseball uniforms in public, and asked their husbands to accept hairy legs, hairy underarms and jockstraps as part of their sex life, the husbands would not be rushing off to join spousal support groups.
As with the Ladies' Home Journal of the 1950s or Cosmopolitan in the 1970s (and 1980s and 1990s), when I read Tri-Ess's advice to wives, I don't know whether to laugh or cry: it's probably your fault but you can fix it, he really needs you but he may not show it, your love will overcome his problem, and a good man is hard to find. The widespread assumption is that these crossdressers are hypocrites: publicly lambasting deviance of all kinds and dressing up in private like Little Bo-Peep. There is still plenty of Bo-Peep, but the lambasting has died down over the past 30 years. All the crossdressers I spoke to expressed admiration for the gay rights movement. Gay men and women are their role models in terms of self-respect and civil rights, even if the crossdressers are aware that the gay community offers them tolerance, not a warm welcome.
Almost everything Tri-Ess says about its members is true: they are straight, traditional men who love their wives and wear dresses. And its Christian, conservative, Republican men have more in common with other Christian, conservative, Republican men than with anyone else. Their wives are not women with their own incomes and career paths. They try to make their marriages work, and if the price of a good provider and a decent man is not much sex and a certain amount of constant pain, it is not an unfamiliar bargain. The wives are not uniformly overweight, motherly and devoid of self-esteem (as some mediocre research has suggested). Juggling the limited resources of time, money and pleasure, balancing dominance and fear, self-deception and love, selfishness and generosity, crossdressers and their wives struggle with one big difference - his compulsion - and otherwise they are just like everyone else.
This is an edited extract from 'Normal: Transsexual CEOS, Crossdressing Cops And Hermaphrodites With Attitude', by Amy Bloom, published by Bloomsbury on June 2, 2003, priced £6.99.
© Copyright Women Of the Beaumont Society (WOBS)
1999 amended 05.09.04, 09.03.05, 26.03.07