In the last few decades, there has been a rapid change in social attitude towards so-called sexual problems. There has been a call for the freedom to live in the style of which one chooses, so long as no one else is harmed in the process. One area that appears little understood, however, is transvestitism, or cross-dressing. In order to gain some knowledge about this phenomenon, there are many aspects of transvestitism that should be examined, some being: history, societal views, the gay versus straight issue, and women dressing as men.
Transvestitism has a long history, ranging from mythical figures to medieval saints who cross-dressed; from the many instances of berdache in anthropological literature to historical figures such as the most famous eighteenth century French transvestite, Chevalier d’Eon (Bullough, 1993). There are countless examples of this in Greek Theater; the public theater of England, including Shakespearean plays; Kabuki and Noh theaters in Japan, and the Chinese opera. For years, it was considered immoral for women to act in theater, so men assumed the roles of female characters.
Even after it became acceptable for women to enter acting, there are many cases of crossdressing in film. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon donned full women’s garb in Some Like It Hot (1959), Cary Grant, in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1983). Women have been known to get into the crossdressing act in film and theater as well, with the role of Peter Pan traditionally played by a woman. Marlene Detrich and Josephine Baker were also known to occasionally dress for the stage in full tuxedo, top hat and tails included.
More recently, cross-dressing has been seen in popular culture, with, among many others, drag diva RuPaul, the movie, The Crying Game (1992), and, as an example of female to male crossdressing, singer Madonna. This gives a sense that transvestitism and performing are interrelated, not merely “historically” or “culturally,” but psychoanalytically, through the unconscious and through language. (Garber, 1992) To Marjorie Garber, this represents a notion that there is a naturalness to this behavior, since the common theme crosses so many boundaries, including time.
It does seem as if society is tolerant of the idea of cross-dressing for art’s sake. However, what about cross-dressing in everyday life? Webster (1972) defines transvestitism as “the adoption of the dress and often behavior of the opposite sex. ” Seems harmless enough. Why, then are most cross-dressers secretive about their affection for this? According to Dr. Peggy Rudd (1995), most are secretive, because they have many fears related to the consequences of having their “big secret” discovered. In general, non-participants do not consider transvestitism, socially acceptable.
Many cross-dressers fear the detrimental effects upon other family members, and many are concerned about the possibility of losing their job as a result of “coming out. ” Some cross-dressers feel guilty because society has placed them into stereotypes, including the incorrect assumption that all cross-dressers are gay, or that all transvestites are potential transsexuals. To the contrary, while some are gay, most cross-dressers want to share their life with a woman, and the number of gay males is far less among crossdressers than among the general population (Rudd, 1995).
Most identify primarily as a male who has, and retains, male gender identity. Often they are married, and the father of children. (Prince, 1971) This in itself presents the question of whether or not to tell spouses, and/or, their children about this. Many do not, out of fear of being seen as deviant, and perhaps losing those most dear to them. It is a natural thing for cross-dressers to want to share all of themselves with those they love, but as there is risk of rejection, many choose to wait until they feel comfortable that the risk has lessened, or keep it a secret forever.
Fear is not the only reason for the secrecy exhibited by transvestites. Many have feelings of shame. According to Garber (1992), many cross-dressers start early in life. Often they are told it is wrong to express feminine characteristics as a male, no matter how natural it may seem, and thus begin to mask the behavior. Many people convey the belief that the cross-dresser is in need of counseling or psychiatric treatment to find a “cure” for this aberrant behavior (Rudd, 1995). Due to this, the dominant judge and jury is frequently found from others rather than from within the individual.
Cross-dressers may become confused because they feel a high and perhaps erotic pleasure from wearing women’s clothes. Many do seek psychological help to understand the emotions of both guilt and pleasure that tend to accompany this. However, good counselors and psychiatrists realize that there is not, or even necessarily need be, a cure. They, therefore, provide help not to change the person, but to change the cross-dresser’s way of adjusting to a possibly hostile social environment.
Ideally, after examining these feelings, the cross-dresser will begin to develop a self-awareness and become comfortable with their true self, despite social opinion. This self-awareness and acceptance is the most important hurdle to overcome before letting others in on this way of life (Garber, 1995). Dr. Peggy Rudd, author of Crossdressers: And Those Who Share Their Lives (1995) is also the wife of a crossdresser. Upon first learning of her husband’s secret, she admits to feelings of resistance and negativism.
She did not relish the idea of spending the rest of her life with someone who went against social norms and her own social conditioning. As she had no knowledge of his crossdressing prior to marriage, she felt resentful of what she perceived as “an unwelcome, and uninvited dilemma. ” Rudd had to make the conscious decision to look beyond outside influences, and her ideology, and thus finally leaned toward empathy and compassion. She soon came to realize that her husband had not chosen crossdressing either, and also felt pain.
With this realization, Dr. Rudd was able to view crossdressers as a group of people who deserved respect and understanding. Despite the possibility of losing one’s spouse as a result of sharing this lifestyle, there are several cases, as in Dr. Rudd’s, where spouses not only accept cross-dressing and the associated behavior, but claim the relationship with the husband has grown more strong and connected upon learning of it. They believe the man can more relate with their feelings, and enjoy the feminine traits that may come about, such as compassion, tenderness and nurturing, often not expressed by men.
Once the barrier of his secret life is lifted, a more open and honest relationship ensues. Some women not only accept crossdressing and the associated behavior but also seek out males having those needs and traits and actively participate in the “game”—sometimes with each partner reversing roles in both social and sexual situations. Many transvestites describe the longing to dress in a feminine way as the ultimate way to emulate and, thus, express their love and appreciation for women.
They see themselves as a group of normally heterosexual men who admire and envy women so much that they greatly enjoy the opportunity to temporarily leave their everyday masculinity behind and “enter the fascinating world of femininity” (Prince, 1971) It is not unusual for the transvestite to use items of women’s apparel as aids for sexual gratification in the early stages of sexual awakening (Bullough, 1993). The apparel becomes a symbol of the longed for female sex partner.
This practice may continue into late adulthood, with an item such as a bra or panties becoming a fetish item required to be worn for, or at least close by, during completion of a sex act. Sex, however, is just one aspect of the pleasure derived by transvestites, either gay or straight. Many cherish the escape from their expected gender role just as much. In an article by Matthew Gilbert (1993) RuPaul stated: “It is not a sexual fetish for me. Drag is the ultimate in power dressing. When you’re in drag, any drag, you become the God of your imagination, and that’s powerful medicine, baby. With my drag, I encompass both male and female.
I become a microcosm of the whole universe, the yin and the yang, and people pick up on that and are enthralled by the power. That’s what got me addicted in the first place. ” Garber (1995) believes that transvestitism has become more prevalent in the media because “the current roles of men and women in society, maleness and femaleness and personality, are all very much under question. ” More women are “wearing the pants” in the family, and more men are becoming more hand on with child rearing. Although this may be true, it does seem as if a woman assuming characteristics of a man is much more accepted than that of the reverse.
In the 1950s, Mary Tyler Moore caused much controversy by wearing Capri pants on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and even then was allowed by the studio to wear them during only one scene per show. In the 1970s, women rebelled from typical gender roles by burning their bras, often seen as a symbol of gender restraint. These are just two examples of how women have changed views enormously over the years. It is now common for women to adopt traditional male clothing for everyday wear. It is a rare double standard, with women being accepted in this behavior, and often even encouraged for breaking gender barriers, whereas men still are not.
Fetishistic cross-dressing in women, however, is so rare it is almost nonexistent (Stoller, 1992). Dr. Stoller did extensive research on the subject, and was able to site only one case study in which Gutheil (1930) reported of a woman who admitted deriving sexual pleasure from the wearing of male apparel. The woman claimed that: “Simply putting on my suit can provoke an orgasm… The transvestiture has a far greater pleasure-value in my eyes than any intercourse, and I could easily forgo the latter in favor of the former. ” As previously stated, this case is a rare documentation of such.
Most women studied sited comfort as the main reason for preferring male clothing to female (Stoller, 1992). Sexual pleasure was seldom a factor. This may be one of the reasons for the before mentioned double standard. People generally do not view women wearing men’s clothing as sexual in nature, thus it is not considered deviant, and therefore more accepted. There appears to be several facets to transvestitism that may be overlooked at first glance. It is the subject of much controversy, and conflicting viewpoints. Throughout history, society has embraced cross-dressing in the form of art, however, shunned it in everyday life.
This may be viewed as hypocritical, especially with today’s more “liberal” and accepting attitudes. Transvestitism seems to be an unobtrusive way of life, yet is still viewed as a whole as deviant behavior. Practicing men often still feel the need to keep it secret from even those most close to them, so as not to risk ridicule and possible destruction to their business and personal lives. Lack of understanding and compassion may be at fault, and it looks as if time has done little to change this. It seems as if the old adage “live and let live” is quite appropriate for this lifestyle. Unfortunately, most of society has yet to adopt this view.