"Dan O'Brien. You're free to use that name, ” Dan said in my La Pensione hotel room in Little Italy. He sat in the chair as he talked and behind him the nighttime window view of the water and the lights of the city were multicolored and festive. He volunteered to speak. I only asked him an occasional question and often only to clarify some point that he had made. Dan wore rimless glasses and had a soft, gentle face, slightly effeminate. Pale like a northern European. Over six feet tall at least. Gray short hair. Soft shoulders and a full waist, round hips. He was both a big man and girlish, too. Soft blue woolen windbreaker with a hood. Blue jeans, pink-striped shirt. I was to see that every one of his shirts, including the woman's blouse he later wore, was striped.
He looked like the brother of a young writer I know. Both have a soft, articulate way of speaking. Both are not men’s men but aren’t gay either, and both like women, it seems.
I asked if I could tape his voice, and he said yes, but not to bring the tape recorder to the transvestite dinner meeting the next night, Saturday, because people might not like it, and some people wouldn’t want their pictures taken either. As president of Neutral Corner, a San Diego cross-dressers’ organization, Dan would announce that we were there to interview people. I said, “Wouldn’t that put people on edge? Make them paranoid?” And he answered, “They’re already paranoid. So it won’t make any difference.”
I noticed that Dan didn’t smile, even once, and thought he seemed on edge himself. And who wouldn’t be? If you were a man and were going to show how you were secretly a woman inside?
Dan went on to explain that Neutral Corner, the support group for cross-dressers, was a lot like AA or NA; most used just first names to protect their privacy. “Many people might think that you’re a cross-dresser with his girl along, looking to join,” he said. “Fine,” I said; it wouldn’t bother me at all.
According to Dan, there is no female counterpart to male cross-dressing. He used the pragmatic, concrete word cross-dressing (or CD) for the act rather than the pathological-sounding “transvestite.” There is a woman in New York City, though, who leads group dates of women who dress up as males and go out, but she’s a lesbian, Dan said, not heterosexual.
According to Dan, a cross-dresser can’t stay away from it. Dan wishes he could, but he keeps coming back to it. It’s a psychological hook. He finds himself buying makeup. “The more I let it be, the more it lets me be,” he said.
Dan comes from a family of six boys and two girls. He’s not married and never has been but is heterosexual. He explained that for most married cross-dressers, the wife says go ahead and dress, but don’t let me see it. A lot do stay married. They find a way to set limits on the cross-dressing and make the marriage work. At some point, most CDs question whether or not they’re transsexuals, wanting to change their sex through surgery. This problem is like a midlife crisis. But instead of running off with a blond bimbo, cross-dressers want to become transsexuals before they’re too old to enjoy it.
“Transsexualism” is a step-by-step process established in the medical community. Counselors require potential transsexuals first to live full-time in the role of a woman. They have to show up in a dress at family Christmas gatherings, for instance, to learn how to cope with family and coworkers’ reactions in their daily life, before they make the physical change. CDs usually find out they’re not true transsexuals.
I knew that a lot of transvestites were macho dudes, and Dan said that some ride motorcycles and get tattooed. But the group encourages its members to express their feminine sides and work it into their lives. I’m a short, dark-haired, wiry guy, both muscular and slim, a blend of power and sensitivity, too. A boxer who writes poetry and likes to dance. Dan is almost a foot taller than I am.
Dan says he is physically active. He has a manly appearance because of the power of his big bones, the breadth of his shoulders, big thighs, sheer weight. He’s a big man, and a big man is a man in terms of pure power on the brutal face of this earth. This gives him manliness all by itself, whatever inner feminine inclinations he might have.
He also said he traveled a lot during college and afterwards. In 1976, when he was 24, he bicycled 5000 miles in four months across the United States. An electrical engineer, he went into military electronics in the defense industry, launching missiles. This could explain the short military-style haircut. He doesn’t drink or smoke or get high in any way. He never cared for the taste of alcohol.
He lost his job with a defense firm last year. His unemployment benefits have almost run out, though he could live for five years on his savings, he said. He loves to work around the house with his hands. He can do drywall and tile work.
His love life has consisted of sporadic affairs and a variety of experiences, some with homosexuals who looked like women. “When you dress up like a woman, do you have desire for a man?” I asked, and he answered, “No. In my sex relationships, the men I had sex with were like women. I related to them as women, not as men. I was the man. They were the woman.”
The next day, he would show me pictures he took of drag queens at a nightclub where he hung around when he first got to L.A. Most of them met violent ends. I assumed then that these were the female-looking men he was talking about.
He then told me that in the Native American society there were CDs called “berdache” who would pluck out the hairs on their faces and scratch out the hair on their legs so badly they bled. Crazy Horse is said to have had a wife like this among his other wives. Though a berdache could have sex with a man or woman, it was taboo to have sex with another berdache in the tribe. Dan was making the point that even in the so-called savage tribes of the past, the cross-dressers were a normal part of that society and were tolerated by it.
“Can you tell me something about the San Diego group called Phoenix Rising?” I asked.
Phoenix Rising is a group of transsexuals strictly concerned with persons in the process of transition, though they might not yet be undergoing operations. The person who introduced Dan to Neutral Corner is now in transition herself. There is one couple in Phoenix Rising that is a woman becoming a man and a man becoming a woman, and there is a married couple in which each became the opposite sex and married each other again as members of the opposite sex.
Neutral Corner, Dan said, is a social-context support group for CDs. He would later tell me that they named the group Neutral Corner because it was a place in which they didn’t have to fight the struggle of manhood for a brief respite. As a boxer, the Neutral Corner is where I go after I knock the other guy down. But it meant the same thing: a place where you go and don’t fight the battle.
Dan then showed us a video called Husbands and Wives, Best Friends and Lovers, in which four couples talked about crossdressing in their lives, though one husband would not let himself be filmed except once from the back as he walked away with his wife at the end of the hour-long video. As it ran, Dan would stop it and explain certain points made by men and women or elaborate on some point that applied to him.
“Some in the transgender sexual group decide not to go all the way, that is, become transsexuals. They might have cosmetic surgery or hormone treatment, but leave their sex organ alone.” Dan is a marginal TS. He’s had his beard removed through electrolysis and has taken female hormones to feminize his body, but not jeopardize his masculine role at work. He can pass as a man. He’s much more comfortable with himself now.
There’s not much need to dress up to get the sense of the woman in him because it’s now a physical part of him. He is part physically on the outside what he feels part of on the inside, a woman. He only dresses once a month for group occasions. The hormone treatment feminized his body. The hair gets finer, the skin softer. There is some breast development and he wears a relatively loose shirt to hide it. Now he has to hide the female in him that shows permanently on the outside when he had to cross-dress for that effect before.
“What about sex?” I asked.
“Taking female hormones, the sex drive goes down to nothing for six months to two years. I don’t get an erection like before. Not having a sex drive does get boring,” he said. “Though I still appreciated female beauty. There was no underlying oomph. No sexual impulse sense. There was no drive to get on it.
“And for a CD, hormones are a Catch-22. I want to dress up and take hormones, then don’t want to anymore because the female sex hormone decreases my masculine sex drive, and the desire to cross-dress decreases.”
“Reality diminishes the desire for illusion,” I said.
He nodded, then said, “But coming off hormones, my sex drive started to come back. It was like you could hear the sound of the waves in the distance before, and now when I opened the door it roared like the surf. And then I got used to it again. But the sex drive is an annoyance. Too distracting in my life.”
“Toward men?” I asked.
“I mean towards women, not men,” he said.
“Never?” I asked, still curious about this aspect.
He turned away toward the window, showing wide hips in blue jeans, then turned back and said, “The closest thing to homosexuality is, when I was on female hormones, my wanting to be cuddled and protected by a big guy at work, a technician.
“People cross-dress for different reasons. Most have a sex drive much in evidence. When they’re kids in puberty, they feel the desire to cross-dress, which is a temporary escape for male tensions, like having to prove manhood, etc. Cross-dressing is an escape from the male role of manhood, the breadwinner image, what you, the CD, thinks being a man is, by finding out what a woman is so you can forget the male role. Cross-dressing can be an escape from the tensions of the male role, which is self-imposed, meaning this person feels the pressure of having to be male.
“Some cross-dressers dress a lot of the time when not in the male role.” He suddenly looked straight at me from those pale eyes and said, “But most can’t pass in public, so they stay at home or go into places that are dimly lit or to some gay bar. The worst place to cross-dress is in broad daylight or wherever there are young teenage girls! They really look! Because they’re trying to fill a female role themselves. And then in public people stare and feel uncomfortable and want to know if you’re man or woman.
“But the biggest issue for a crossdresser is the isolation they feel. They think they’re the only one afflicted by this. Just seeing others like themselves at Neutral Corner, they know they’re not alone. The meetings are social and a partial remedy for their psychological loneliness. They realize that they’re really not alone. Before Neutral Corner, I’d cross-dress at home. Then I joined the group. Most people start out that way. Through loneliness. They have a need to do it with other people to alleviate the loneliness.”
“Is there any other remedy?” I asked, and he said, “We try to educate the public. The educational part is speaking to classes at local schools. A panel of three of us: a single cross-dresser, and a married cross-dresser, and a transsexual will go to a class to give them the whole range of gender issues involved.”
“What’s the difference between sex and gender?”
“Sex is biological, genetics — and gender — is the identification of who you are as a person.”
“Do you see yourself as a woman?” I asked.
“If I felt like a woman, I’d be a transsexual,” he said.
“Michael Jackson?” I asked. “He makes his face up like a woman, talks like a woman, dresses affectedly in costumes, whether on or off the stage.”
He spoke in what was probably the most emotional tone he’d used so far. “Michael Jackson is a stunted person, a pedophile homosexual who’s never committed himself to a long-term relationship to anyone else, not even in a homosexual or pedophilic sense. He’s stunted emotionally.” His mouth twisted with feeling as he spoke those words. Within a couple of days, we’d learn that Michael Jackson had paid millions of dollars to keep from having to respond to the child-molesting civil suit brought against him.
“How does cross-dressing relate to having sex in your case?” I asked. “Do you have a desire to have sex with a man when you’re dressed like a woman?”
“No, I don’t,” he said. “Even when having sex with a man, I was with them because they looked like a woman. So I was having sex with a woman in my mind, not a man.”
“With a transsexual, not a transvestite?”
“Yes. If I thought the person was like a man, I wouldn’t get excited.” Then with only the slightest hesitation, he added, “On the occasions I cross-dress, I want to have a sexual experience by myself.”
With a woman, I thought, and the woman is the other part of himself. Because of that, his cross-dressing is solitary.
“Cross-dressing is being a woman for its own sake for me.”
“The image of yourself is that of a woman, you must want to look at,” I answered. “It seems to me that it’s both, bisexual. The image is female, but the body is that of a male.”
“Heterosexual, though,” he said, paused, then added, “I clean up afterwards. First my body and then the makeup and then the house. For me, men are more visual, more stimulated by sight than women.” He looked at Claire. “Women are more into the physical senses in their sexual response. Because I’m a man, I create for me a visual sexual image of the woman that I make love to.”
Claire answered, “I’m attracted to men partly because of their masculine role. If a masculine man said he cross-dressed, my desire would die.”
Dan responded, “In cross-dressers, the wife will have sex with the husband, Jack, and have a female friendship with [his alter ego] Jill. If the wife can rely on the sex, it’s fine, until Jack becomes Jill all the time. Then the relationship comes apart.”
“But it must really be a bother to dress up in this feminine image? It’s work to me, and I’m a woman.”
A plane flew overhead and made the air shudder with rumbling sound. Dan said, “I’ve had my legs waxed, and it’s painful and expensive. My face cost me $10,000 for 300 hours of work to remove my beard.”
“How’s it painful?” I asked.
“It’s painful because they slide a needle into the hole of the hair. They give you a metal rod to hold in your hand, then shoot current through you, which kills the hair. I go for one hour every two months now to get the hair that’s growing back.”
I almost said, “Oh, the price of vanity,” but didn’t because I then knew how much deeper his suffering was than mere vanity.
Dan showed up at 9:30 on a hazy, sunny day, the following morning to take us to see his psychologist, Vince Huntington. Dan had on black shorts, a white short-sleeved sport shirt with green stripes, and black New Balance jogging shoes. He called them Nike wannabees. His legs were thick, white, and somewhat lightly haired. When he walked up the steps ahead of us from the parking lot to the office building, I saw how rounded his hips were in the shorts and that the hormones had made him thick-thighed, too, as he said.
Vince looked like a psychologist, even on this Saturday morning, without a suit on, wearing a dark-blue denim jacket and pale-blue denim pants and shirt. A full, middle-aging face, soft under the chin, pink skin, graying hair, pleasant, relaxed manner like you’d expect of a man who had to relate to people for a living.
Light from the windows gave a soft neutral tone to the room. The place itself could relax you into a state of neutrality, a neutral corner, where there would be no male-role war, and no stress and no trauma, where you might heal.
Vince’s voice makes sweeping gestures as if his body were twisting and gesticulating as he sits with knees crossed in a stuffed chair by his desk. His voice creates the effect of body movement because of the fullness, range, and sincerity of its tone. I never felt any hidden thought or feeling, unlike with Dan, who was, in spite of all his talking, quiet and reticent. The psychologist seemed confident in his life and person.
Vince is an adviser to Dan, he explained, a man with three MAs, the guy who started Neutral Corner when he was an intern at UCSD working on a project called “Identification of Sexual Identity Conflicts in Children and Adults.” A few years later he was the project’s director.
He ran a group for two years and started Neutral Corner for the benefit of his cross-dressers. He placed a classified ad: “Wanted — Cross-dressers to meet in a non-threatening environment for mutual support and education.” He was told not to expect more than a handful of responses, but he got almost 200. Vince learned later that some men changed their minds when they heard a man’s voice on his answering machine. Among the 192 men and 7 women (who identified themselves as lesbians) who responded, a great majority of the men were married heterosexuals.
According to Vince, most transvestites begin cross-dressing at puberty, and many begin way before that time, when the practice, like much else during this period of rampaging hormones, is often eroticized. In other words, at about age 13 or 14, what had been merely a coping mechanism for dealing with perceived maternal rejection becomes associated with sexual pleasure, often masturbation, a common practice for any male during this period of his life.
What creates a transvestite? No one knows, according to Huntington, who proposes, one after the other, a nurture theory, then a nature theory, which he laughingly calls “Vince’s One-Quart Theory.”
His theory stems from research done at Johns Hopkins University, in which it was discovered that between the third and tenth week of life, male babies’ gonads produce massive amounts of testosterone, then shut down until puberty. Vince says, “The strong assumption now is that’s the trigger that tells the brain — remember, if the system had its way, all babies would be girls unless the Y chromosome is there — that, guess what, you’re not going to be a girl, you’re going to have testicles. Though this fact alone was interesting to a community that assumed that this trigger mechanism occurred in utero, what was also fascinating was that the testosterone was present in varying degrees.
“Let’s say it takes one quart of testosterone — and my tongue is in my cheek here,” Vince says, “to give us a Rambo, heaven forbid. This is the male who can’t stop being a male. Every shirt has epaulets, he can’t stop shooting someone or working out, he’s super-asshole male. If it takes one quart to do that, then maybe it takes almost a quart to give us the average man, whoever that is, heterosexual, doesn’t cross-dress, not a mean guy, but don’t push me. Now back it off just a little more, maybe we can get the effeminate man who’s still heterosexual.
“Next, maybe we get a man who every once in a while has some sense of cross-gender distortion and must exorcise it by crossdressing but is still heterosexual. Drop it off a little bit more and maybe then you get the effeminate man who is homosexual. Drop it off to zero maybe, absolutely no testosterone, and maybe then that is the male body that from earliest memory, his brain says, I’m not a boy. I’m a girl. That’s the core transsexual.”
After talking to these men in groups and in private practice over a period of years, Huntington saw a pattern. “As very young boys, less than 26 months old, the transvestites experienced some sort of trauma that involved a perceived rejection by the mother. To compensate, the little boys seized upon some transitional object, in psychological parlance, to substitute for the lost mother. Linus’s blanket, in the Snoopy cartoons by Charles Schultz, is the classic example of a transitional object. Transitional objects are those things we use psychologically as a child to help us transition away or feel connected to the mother,” Huntington explained. “Crossdressing appears to be long-term use of a transitional object.”
Very often this rejection, perceived or actual, occurred at the birth of a sibling born within 22 months of the transvestite’s own birth. (The average age spread between siblings, according to Planned Parenthood statistics, is 33 months.) But Huntington told two evocative stories which, he said, his clients remembered in vivid detail, of more pronounced traumas.
One involved a little boy named Mac who, one day when he had not yet turned two, was taken by his mother, who herself was only 17, across town to the home of a friend of hers. “While the two women visited inside, Mac was set outside to play in the small backyard. He began playing in a sandbox in the back yard, then got the idea to turn on the hose. Somehow he stumbled into an anthill, and the ants swarmed over his wet flesh, stinging and biting. He remembers the ants all over him. He remembers screaming for his mom. He remembers running up on the little step, the gray boards, remembers that the screen door was tom and had paint spattered all over it, remembers he had to pull on it twice before it opened. He remembers stepping into the living room. No Mom. Mom was not there. They’re biting him all over, he’s crying, he’s screaming for her, and Mom is not there. He remembers seeing his mother’s purse and hairbrush. He distinctly remembers picking up the hairbrush. Then Mom came in and did ail the right things. She washed him off and gave him a Snickers bar. He remembers the Snickers bar.
“After that, the hairbrush became Mac’s hairbrush. No one thought too much about it,” Huntington says. “He carried it in the back pocket of his jumpers as he played around the Iowa farm where he grew up. Pretty soon it hardly resembled a hairbrush at all, so matted had the bristles become, so pitted the handle from the indignities any object would receive in the back pocket of a little boy’s dungarees. Then one day he comes running into the kitchen from where he’d been outside playing. Uncle Bill is visiting, talking in the kitchen to his sister, Mac’s mother.
“ ‘What’s that you got in your pocket there?’ says Uncle Bill to Mac. Mac stops.
“ ‘It’s my hairbrush.’ Everybody knew about his hairbrush. ‘It’s my old hairbrush,’ Mac’s mother tries to explain. ‘A little boy shouldn’t be running around with a woman’s hairbrush,’ Uncle Bill says. ‘You throw that hairbrush away.’
“Mac remembers running to his room. He could hardly breathe with the sense of fear, trepidation, anxiety. Was Uncle Bill crazy? Throw his hairbrush away?
“Two things happened with that incident,” Huntington explains. “In that instance, Mac learned that not only would he have to hide his transitional object, because, he had learned, it was something shameful and yet something he absolutely could not conceive of living without. But also it was gender-specific. It was a woman’s hairbrush, and little Mac was a man.
“So now he hides the hairbrush and becomes a cross-dresser at puberty when most do. I could tell stories like that all day.”
He tells another: “The little boy — we’ll call him Davie — and his mother were almost inseparable. The mother gets a call from the hospital. Her husband, the boy’s father, has been in a terrible car accident and is near death. She must come immediately.... The hospital instructs her to leave the little boy at home. The mother frantically scouts around for someone to watch the boy and can only come up with a 12-year-old neighbor girl. The girl takes him outside in the backyard to play, though it is raining. She pushes him in the swing, higher and higher. At the top of the arc, he slips and falls heavily on his face, so hard that he breaks his jaw. He is bleeding profusely. The neighbor girl, freaked by the blood, abandons him and goes home. He lies there for some time in the rain, bleeding.
“Finally he gets up, makes his way into the house. He remembers to this day, just as Mac had vivid recall of the screen door, the peeling paint on the back door. Davie stumbles into the bathroom. He pulls his little stool over to the sink counter. He sees his mother’s box of face powder. Mom. He opens the lid, takes out the powder puff, pats it over his face. It smells like Mom. He gets down and staggers into the living room, where he passes out on the carpet. Later, the doctors said that the powder, which stanched the bleeding, probably saved his life.”
It also, according to Huntington, became his transitional object. Mom had not been there for him. The powder had. Later, makeup would be his thing, just as hair was for little Mac. Many transvestites have such specialties, according to Huntington. Unfortunately, Vince says, the cross-dresser won’t develop other coping skills if he has the object. And cross-dressing itself creates even more anxiety because the transvestite must hide his coping strategy and because he questions his own behavior.
For some transvestites, the anxiety builds until they conclude that what is wrong with them is that they are the wrong gender. If they get reassignment surgery, the anxiety will be released, they figure. Huntington calls it transsexual panic, an overwhelming compulsive need to have reassignment surgery right now. Unfortunately, Huntington says, many of those who elect to have female hormones or who go all the way through reassignment surgery do experience relief for even a period of years, but then that same inability to cope with anxiety or rejection reasserts itself, and still the person has not learned how to develop coping skills to deal with these problems. Huntington who, as part of his practice, counsels transvestites who want to become transsexuals, encourages his clients to develop those skills first and consider surgery second.
“What are those coping skills?” I asked.
“I ask them, ‘Who are you? What do you really want in life?’ ”
Vince allows his clients to cross-dress, and then they solve their other life and personal problems, too. An executive officer of a major corporation cross-dressed until he quit his job and became a plumber and then never cross-dressed again. One man realigned his life by becoming an artist and also never cross-dressed again. Vince’s goal is to help them lose their anxiety.
For Dan, cross-dressing is a solitary act. When he was younger, it was an erotic masturbatory act. Later, when he became older it became a social act. He joined a social unit. At middle-age, Neutral Corner is the best thing for him because he can have male friends who cross-dress too. “Vince gave me permission to free my behavior, to release my anxiety,” Dan concludes.
Dan’s face is already partly transformed with makeup when he answers the door. He doesn’t smile, but he is polite and self-conscious and shy. I’m sure I kept staring at his face, trying to see what he’d done to it. He still has on the black shorts he’d worn that morning but has exchanged his shirt for a thick, gray T-shirt that shows his soft belly.
Seeing him with some makeup already on made me think. To want to be beautiful. Isn’t that what it’s all about? We all want to be beautiful. When I see pictures of myself, I can’t believe how ugly I am. I wish I were handsome; handsome is manly and beautiful for a man. I wish I were handsome like I was when I was a young man. And I see now Dan with that sorrowful face. He’s sorrowful because the beauty he seeks for himself is feminine, not masculine. There is no way I can recapture my youthful beauty because it was masculine and can’t be caught with makeup.
Dan is quiet and reserved and dour, but behind the dour face is deep sadness. This guy has suffered, but he knows how to survive. This intelligent, bland-looking gentleman, the gentle shape of his pink face, his rimless glasses, his small chin with his wide forehead, his big head. Long pink hands. Not feminine. Men’s hands. He wants to be beautiful. He wants to be striking and stunning, like the beautiful women he admired, the drag queens at the gay bar he hung around for a while.
He wants to be beautiful like them. He wants his lips to shine and his eyes to fascinate you. I would see this only when he was dressed finally, with his wig and lipstick and eye shadow. But he was sad over this, and when he finally got the lipstick on and the face transformed, he couldn’t forget the cost to him and it made him stern. So, the woman he sought to be turned out to be too stern to be…pretty.
When he meets us at the door, he looks into my eyes to see my reaction. When I look back, surprised at the feminine sight before me, he glances away and never again would look directly into my eyes the rest of the night, though I’d be with him for seven more hours.
It was the feminine face that did it, that made him shy and made me curious, curious too at the sense of my own reaction. It was so odd as to be striking. A woman’s face transforming a man’s face, the man’s face I already knew now changing into the appearance of another sex in front of me. In the first stage.
Later, in his room by his three mirrors. One a foot-tall, tabletop actor’s mirror with fluorescent tubes of light on each side. Another a miniature cheval glass, four feet high, that swings freely back and forth. By tipping it, he can see his own body. And the third a full-length mirror on a closet door under a bright ceiling light.
The room is painted pale blue on the bottom, pink on top, with a lavender line separating the two colors. Also, I see that his closet had a “his” side and a “hers” side, males’ and females’ clothing on separate sides.
Sitting down at the actor’s mirror, he explains the stages of the makeup that I had already missed and those to follow. He won’t let me take a picture of him in this stage of transition. But he does let me take a picture of the dresser and the rifles that hang in holsters right behind it. He takes one out, a pellet gun, he says, that he could kill birds with, and gets a stack of newspapers a few inches thick and shoots a pellet into it. About three inches down, he finds the pellet, which had penetrated that far. Above the cheval mirror, that very feminine object, is a picture of a clipper ship at full sail, billowing over the bounding main, a masculine object.
Right at this moment, he is both male and female.
I ask him how he makes up, step by step, and he says he starts with a bath, then puts on — because he doesn’t have to hide his beard, removed through electrolysis — a normal liquid foundation and dry powder, all flesh-colored. He then contours his face like a painter, using blush, trying to create an oval face, the idealized female face shape.
These names — foundation, blush — mean nothing to me, and he has to explain after I persist. He says a contour is anything you use to change the shape of a face — blushes and foundations. Then you use blush again for more color. Then you put on eyelashes, then eye shadow, which is a powder. Then he shapes the eyebrows with brown eyebrow pencil. Then he uses another pencil for eye liner.
He would put on lipstick last, for his clothes’ sake. Tonight he would do it sooner because of the loose blouse he was going to wear, which would go on over his head easily. Then perfume. Then, a skirt and the blouse. He wouldn’t use padded hips because his hips have widened with hormones and his thighs have ballooned. Then the wig. Most cross-dressers use synthetic wigs that run from $25 to $125. Under $60 is poor quality; but human hair is very expensive. Then his costume jewelry. He’d put on his press-on nails last, check his purse, and head out the door.
Dan talked as he transformed himself into the appearance of a woman. At the meeting tonight, there probably wouldn’t be a discussion of sex, he said. They feel uncomfortable with it. Many of the cross-dressers would be apprehensive about security and us, as journalists, and we should be announced to them. They’re paranoid anyway. Some might be more willing to open up than others, because they have an overwhelming need for a sense of approval. Most cross-dressers in Dan’s group are of central and northern European background. Neutral Corner only had two black members. (Dan said they didn’t attend anymore, but I would later see them at a meeting.) The group also includes two Asians and several Hispanics.
Neutral Corner started in meetings at private homes; they passed the purse afterwards to pay for the meal. When it grew and they met at public places, some people quit coming. They now have about 25 people who attend the monthly meeting and have committed themselves to the restaurant to pay for that number minimum.
Because Neutral Corner is a registered nonprofit corporation, officers’ names are public record and they have to use their real names. Dan is now president and chief executive officer. He didn’t campaign and won hands down because he stressed privacy and keeping the group the way it is. They now allow homosexual drag queens to join, though at first they didn’t because they didn’t want to be confused with them. Then the group decided if they wanted people to show tolerance to them, they must show tolerance too.
Dan is in front of the actor’s mirror doing his eyelashes now, and he leans his face close down to it and opens his mouth to see better. I thought of how many times I’d seen women do that putting on their lipstick. It is a feminine gesture by this big man sitting on that dressing table stool. As he talks, he becomes more and more feminine in front of me, gradually attaining the appearance of a woman. I could have been fooled if I didn’t know him or hadn’t seen the transformation. I would not have known it was Dan by the time he was finished.
“Why do you do it?” I ask, and he says that cross-dressing is a coping mechanism for him. Like when he was fed up with textbooks and calculus at college and read science fiction to escape into fantasy.
Dan says he cross-dressed with the feeling that there would be a reward for it. Like masturbation or just feeling comfortable in the role itself. “Even though it’s not you, but something you create. It’s not a search for identity but something you’re involved in.”
“What’s that you’re putting on, pancake makeup?”
“Erase-plus,” he says. It’s a stick concealer that takes out beard shadow. Pancake takes out differences in color of the skin. Dry powder goes on top of that. Then contour, which looks like stripes of rouge to me, to put hollows in his cheeks. From time to time, he might make it different, give it a heavier or lighter look for the outfit he’s wearing. He puts on the blush before eye shadow. He redefines his face, I realize, accentuates the eyebrows, thins them down to expressive lines. His lipstick is a dull pink color at this stage. He looks in the mirror and opens his mouth to put on eye shadow.
He has a cosmetic box that looks like a tool kit or an art student’s box. But it’s a fishing tackle box. Brand name: Rebel, he shows us with a smile. It opens out in two elevator sides — three tiers each. Lipsticks and rouge and lip liners. Dark pencil for eyebrows, powder puffs, and bottles of different colored face powder, white like a clown or flesh-colored liquid makeup. Pancake is in cream form. He uses a wet sponge for a dry cake makeup.
“How do the clothes feel?” I ask. The feel of the clothes is not important to him.
I thought of when I was in the nuthouse at Napa for a few weeks in 1963 for smoking pot, and they couldn’t believe that anybody could be so sensitive, so artistic and poetic and not be a homosexual. My brother-in-law Fred took me to a men’s store that homosexuals frequented that had tight-assed pants and form-fitting shirts and coats like a woman’s. That didn’t interest me, so the doctor tried to see if I was a transvestite by trying to find out if I liked to wear my mother’s clothing as a boy. And once, when I came home for a weekend, my sister Annabelle, Fred’s wife, brought up the subject of the feel of my mother’s panties. I’d never heard her speak with a sense of pity, either before or after that, of how gentle feelings and beautiful images would be considered deviant in our society.
That was in 1963, and the whole society was going to blow apart over pot and sexual freedom in a couple of years with the San Francisco rock sound and the birth of the hippie “flower children” movement, which I belonged to. So I knew what it felt like to be ostracized for being too sensitive for a conventional society.
I was told by the state psychologist, that I had to go see every week for six months, that I must be homosexual because I had long fingers and liked to dance. But I’d line up all the guys in the nuthouse ward at night after dinner and box every guy there, including a black middleweight, who was an ex-pro and an ex-con. Then, if ballet music came on, I’d pirouette around the day room where some exfemale impersonator from Finocchio’s would nod and comment approvingly at my grace. The nuthouse doctors couldn’t deal with such simultaneous masculinity and unashamed sensitivity or the desire to express my mood physically.
The nuthouse psychologist didn’t back away on this point until I found a study in the library done at UC Berkeley on highly creative people from architects to writers like Henry Miller. All of them were highly developed in their whole personality and used this wide range of sensibility to create with, though there was some social stress involved in not fitting a masculine or feminine stereotype. “You’ve made your point,” the psychologist said, and they let me out after three weeks full-time and seven weeks half-time. I was the only guy in the nuthouse, and that included most of the doctors and nurses, not on medication.
I didn’t fit a role. So, I felt myself uniquely prepared to interview this CD because I had well-developed masculine and feminine attributes myself. Fighter and writer, that’s what I was and am. I was assistant boxing coach at Cal for 15 years and developed many champions.
I tell Dan all this so he’ll understand that I know where he’s coming from, even if I now utilize all the diverse elements of my own nature. He tells me that looking for company in his loneliness, he used to hang around a gay bar and took pictures of the drag queens and street prostitutes at first before finding Neutral Corner.
I watch him shape his lips now. The face is transforming, becoming more feminine. The male that I am had a mixed reaction. My lady doesn’t wear makeup, only eye liner, mascara, and light contour eye shadow, white under the eyebrows and brown in the crease above the eyelid, she explains. So it’s shocking to me. This is a big guy called Dan. Slightly soft and rounded, not fat, in a gray T-shirt and black shorts. Hairy legs. Thick in the waist with rounded hips from hormones. He’s totally without sex to me. Yet, now in the face, the red lips, the sharp eyes that are etched into the blank look of just this afternoon past, have a feminine sexual tone. I wouldn’t say appeal because I know he is a man and most women don’t arouse that in me anyway. And, next to Claire, who is without any face makeup of any kind on her skin, not even lipstick, and who is beautiful, he’s not pretty at all. Yet there is in this heterosexual man who now picks up his pantyhose and pink lace bra and goes into the bathroom to put them on, a feminine being of some kind.
Jumpy voices and accompanying drums sing pop music on the tape deck. When Dan walks out toward me in his panty hose, his upper body shakes under his gray T-shirt like a woman’s breasts. He’s wearing two pairs of opaque pantyhose and regular pantyhose on top of them because he doesn’t shave his legs. He then puts on his blouse. It’s striped maroon and dark blue, with long ties for a bow hanging loose in front. He has so many pantyhose on I can’t really see his flesh through them when he walks by. The blouse hangs in front over his groin area.
He then puts on music from the La Cage Aux Folles stage play, which is about a homosexual marriage, then slides a pair of thick black panties over his three pairs of pantyhose, which looks like the bottom part of an acrobat’s gym suit or a bathing suit, and keeps the groin area, the male protuberance, flat. Now he slips on a skirt and pulls it up over his hips, swinging from one side to the other like a woman. Barefooted in his pantyhose stockings, he shows Claire a beaded formal dress he bought in a rental shop in a year-end clearance. Dan has a full neck that’s soft under the chin. La Cage in the background, he goes back into the bathroom, then comes out again to comment on the music and is almost there (I notice that he now has boobs, a padded, nipple-sponged bra, and that he’s fully dressed).
“My name is Ann,” he says.
Women wear padded shoulders, so he wears them too, but he’s not wearing them tonight because they don’t suit the outfit. They look too husky. He picks up a purse and puts his money in it. Then he takes out his jewelry box, two layers of trinkets. Now, he tips his head down in front of the actor’s mirror to put in one earring, but walks over to the third mirror, a door-length one under a bright light, and puts in the other one, I guess, to see how they go with the outfit. It looks like a gold conch shell. He then puts on the stereo what he says should be the transvestites’ national song, “I Am What I Am,” and makes his only smile of the night, a tiny quick stretch of his lips.
In front of the full-length mirror, he brushes mascara on the short gray hair at his temples because the gray might show under the wig and comments that no woman would do this. Then he puts on the auburn-haired wig. It’s fluffy and buoyant. He now looks like a big woman. He really does. He then bobby-pins it to his real hair. It has full, loose curls that stick up a couple of thick inches all around his head.
“I am what I am,” the music plays. Then it gets soft and sentimental, and the voices sing, “One thing I am forever.” Then he stops it, puts on another group: “Me and I,” by Abba, which also seems appropriate. He sits down in front of the mirror and brushes more blush on his face with a big artist’s paintbrush. He moves back and forth from mirror to mirror.
Now he sits down to put on the high heels, and when he stands up, he’s really tall, about six-four, with his heels and fluffy hair. He stands in front of the door mirror and straightens the collar of the blouse under the back of his hair, then pulls his blouse sleeves down with a shake of his arms. He puts on a song by Harry Belafonte, who sings, “Glad to say, I’m on my way, won’t be back for many a day.”
“Now I feel like I’m looking at Ann,” Claire says, and I realize that I felt the change of sex sooner, when he walked around the room with gray short hair.
“How do you feel?” I ask. “Now that you’re completely dressed?”
“Not much. Getting ready for a meeting, I still feel the same. On the way down, I’ll psych myself up a little bit.”
“By thinking light, joyful. Adjust my mental image to be like a woman’s. Try to get into the mood.”
“Balance the inside with the outside?” I ask.
“That hasn’t happened yet. I’ll work on it,” he says.
“Not particularly. Though I’ll take along some slippers to drive you guys home afterwards.”
He then puts the makeup away, with his natural-colored nails with white tips and moons. A French manicure. But he then shows us some sexy pictures of him dressed as a woman and comments that he gained weight after taking hormones. He’s dressed in different costumes, one a sexy lingerie picture. Then I thought, he makes love to himself. He becomes both man and woman, an androgynous, unisex person who doesn’t need a lover, only himself in drag. Ann, that this man, Dan, loves.
We go next door to visit a middle-aged couple, where a tiny little woman reaches up while Dan/Ann bends down and straightens his blouse bow for one last once-over. She’s a pixieish creature who says she doesn’t understand Dan’s cross-dressing but doesn’t judge it. She grew up in a tolerant place. She has her own faults, she says. Dan’s very considerate of his neighbors and lets them know if CDs are coming around. Dan himself explains his cross-dressing to his tenants who share his house, and if they don’t like it, he never lets them see him cross-dressed. One of his tenants is a member of Neutral Corner too. Dan’s father’s the only member of his family who’s seen him cross-dressed, and it didn’t bother him. He’s 82, and he even made a joke about dating.
Dan taps his temple and leans over and looks closely at me for the first time that evening. “It’s all in your head,” he says.
I’ve never seen so many big chicks in my life, I think, as we walk into the private upstairs room at the dinner house. Their size scares me. But I am bothered by the idea of seeing something strange and odd and freakish as I thread my way between the tall figures dressed like women, but with strong, male faces and big features. For a moment I regret being there. Then I realize what they have to face when they dress up, this involuntary reaction in a guy like me, who’s a poet and had a homosexual brother and who has been around feminine men and masculine women in the bohemian art world since my teens. I’m small, not tall, and when you know that they’re not drag queens but guys trying to act out their feminine side, it puts it in an even stranger light.
Dan goes to the microphone set up at a podium in the small banquet room and makes a couple of announcements. He tells them that Claire and I are reporters, and I asked to speak.
“I’ve been with Dan for 24 hours now and have a great story already. So we’re just going to hang around and enjoy ourselves and pick up on the vibes and go from there.” I don’t add, “So don’t feel threatened,” though I could have.
There are five big round tables that seat ten people apiece, with room to walk and mingle around them. Claire and I start talking to a very tall guy and an average-sized man with a blue-toned chin and cheeks. I am surprised and pleased by their normal men’s voices. There is no affectation at all, no swishy movements like a drag queen might affect. They all seemed to be wearing some kind of women’s dress suits. They are both straight and sincere. They talk like educated guys and have blue-toned cheeks and strong voices. They are heterosexuals in women’s clothing. The average-sized guy, Charlene, says that he has a job, but only his girl knows he’s a cross-dresser. Jenny, the tall guy, says in a deep voice that his mom “semi-knows.” When he told his girl, she said, “So? Go dress up for me,” then complained that he had better clothes than she did, so he married her. He works with an attorney service. They both seem to be well-spoken people.
Charlene says that members don’t inquire about each other. Everybody there went through a lot, everybody else knows. So there’s no need for questions. It’s quite a frightening thing to find out at puberty that you like to wear women’s clothes. Charlene is married and has a girlfriend now. This is his third meeting. He found out about it through Tapestry magazine, published for transvestites and transsexuals.
So we see these women sitting around five tables: blonds and brunettes and one carrot-topped redhead. It looks like a ladies’ luncheon. Then you step close, you look close and the square jaw shows up, the blue tone beneath the makeup, features that are too big, even with makeup, to be women. Not that they have to be pretty, it’s just that their faces are too big. The illusion has the undermask of big bone, strong nose. They’re not really pretty, even if feminine, but not funny-looking either, just strange, until the voices speak to you and the timbre of the voice rings true, not false. Appearance vanishes, replaced by the human soul. It gets down to just being the human that they already are, have been. It’s the only way to speak if you’re good and need to reach out and touch each other.
In the end, there is no appearance. There is only substance. There is only spirit. There is only soul.
At dinner, Charlene says he feels bad to dress in women’s clothes, but the feeling good outweighs the bad. He’s forward and it hurts. The clothes aren’t that comfortable. They’re not shaped for a man’s body, for its design, and wearing a full corset all the time hurts, too. Women put fat on their hips and their legs, and men put it on their bellies, so they get squeezed more.
One guy who sits across the table from me has heavy beard shadow and a very black wig that curls in a pageboy above his shoulders, like Cleopatra. Black bangs sheared straight across his forehead. He seems totally afraid. He keeps completely silent. He wears a deep-purple blouse and a black jacket with sequins and brass buttons. His strong jaw is square, like a football player’s. Dark eyes peek out of the eye shadow. He never speaks at the table and only says his name at the introductions.
I want to take his picture but don’t dare ask, and I want to ask him some question about “hurt,” but I twist my tongue when I speak so that any words on how the pain of wanting to look like a woman made a person scared and mad and mean and hating the real man, the reporter, me, at the table, never come out of my mouth. His silence keeps me away, and I never write his name down or ask him a question and feel instead the stillborn love of man lying dead between us. Later, when I don’t get my dessert because I am busy writing, he says, “Here, you can have mine.”
“Thanks,” I say, surprised “What’s your name?”
“Tina gave me his dessert,” I say, speaking it out loud, and everybody at the table laughs, including him.
Another older man, who introduces himself as being from a club in Cleveland, says that the man’s voice is the biggest problem. It is hard to disguise because it sounds so phony. Yet to me it was their natural voices that showed their humanity.
Dan goes to the mike after we’re through eating and speaks as a woman, Ann, to say that there will now be announcements from various members. A husky broad who walks like a man, in long, strong steps, even in red high heels and red dress suit (it is tight across the stomach), who has a hooked nose and thin mouth, steps up to the mike. But there is a feminine tone to his voice, small for such a big guy. When he walks away, I can see he is built square in the back like a man, without curves.
The next person at the mike, Gina, has on a full wig that hangs down over her shoulders, bangs that reach her eyebrows, and a flowery print miniskirt and jacket, with a white turtleneck blouse. She is probably the prettiest one there. I wondered if it was a woman at first, when she stared at me from the table as other people spoke. Gina looked at me from the table on the other side of the small room like a woman interested in a man. That’s how I first noticed her, staring at me. “Oh, a woman,” I thought, and an attractive one, too, though the last phrase wasn’t conscious. I’d turn and see these pretty eyes on me and I began to wonder. The face was fine and slender and well-shaped, but strong in the chin. Now that she is closer to me, I see that the chin is a little too strong, that the fine jaw is steel hard. It is a man I see under all the feminine grace.
Gina speaks in a sharp, clear voice, with a low timbre at the end of each sentence. She announces she is going to be in charge of the transsexual part of some Valentine’s Day convention. So that’s why she seems more feminine than the others, I think. She is biologically — through surgery and hormones — indeed more feminine. I later would learn that her whole table is transsexuals. When she walks away, I notice she has a tight ass, curved like a woman’s, with a curvy body and curvy legs like a woman. Some of the transsexuals look at me the way women look at men, but none of the transvestites do.
Dan/Ann announces that Debra is going to be a father. Then he says we should all introduce ourselves, and Major stands up, an African-American with large boobs (which Dan/Ann announced were real). When I ask him later, Major says he’s had them for 25 years now. A huge blond, Angela, stands up, looking feminine from a distance.
The official announcements over, the crowd breaks up into chattering groups, and I speak with a transsexual couple in which the man is becoming a woman and the woman a man. I take their picture, and they are quite charming and friendly and seem truly at ease in their transformation. The man becoming-woman shows me a government form with which his name and sex will be changed forever.
Then I talk with Melanie, a short, fair-skinned Hispanic who introduces himself to me. He says that Neutral Corner has a mailing list of 100 and a membership of 85. Thirty to 35 come to meetings; most stay home because of tricky marital situations or because of work responsibilities. They can’t afford to take the risk to go out dressed, which they call “in face.” Their only contact is through the group’s newsletter. Melanie says that “CDs are like snowflakes, no two of us are alike.”
The commonality of dressing is what they share. But there is a politics of the transgender community. “Some are TVs and some are TSs [transsexuals],” Melanie said. “Some TVs look on TSs as the woman they’ll never be, and this leads to conflicts. Some TVs think they’re TSs but aren’t. To a TV being a woman is a fantasy. They like the idea of it, a temporary thing — man in a woman’s body for a fleeting moment. The transsexual has a serious conviction. He feels he is meant to be a woman. The difference between them is that the TV wants to dress and look like a woman. The transgenderist [the person in the first stage of transformation] says, ‘I want to live full-time as a woman.’ And the transsexual says, T am a woman and have always been a woman.’ ”
The TV thing is an intense fantasy, and a TS thing is a sober and painful reality.
“Why is it painful?” I ask.
“It’s painful because they have to deal with the fact that the inner woman has a man’s body. There’s a debate on the difference between them in the transgender community. Some want to emphasize the difference and some the similarities. This TV/TS cleavage is one of the major dynamics of the gender community.
“Sex is the biological state and gender is a social role, and they can be different. The TS tries to harmonize them. The commonality of all of them in the gender community is that they’re gender dysphoric, which means to dress as or be as a member of the opposite gender.”
The public awareness of transgendered people, up to the mid-’80s, was minimal because they were closeted. But from that time, the explosion of talk shows suddenly brought the CDs to the public on TV. The public saw the talk-show hosts making self-serving hay out of it, but they did a service, Melanie says, and brought the issue out of the closet, into people’s living rooms. They sensitized the public to the transgendered individuals. Melanie’s grateful on one hand and on the other feels they trivialized the CDs, held them up as freaks. His own feeling is that the good outweighs the bad. For every 1 in public, there’s 20 in the closet. But there are so many of them out there, your next-door neighbor could be a transgenderist and you don’t even know it. The problem is not cross-dressing, the problem is society’s nonacceptance of it. He wants the public to know that CDs are responsible people who work, have lives and families, and are productive members of society.
On the concept of passing: To pass means to go out in public and not be recognized. To be seen as an ordinary, average woman. “Being read” is the worst nightmare, according to Melanie. That’s when someone recognizes your manhood and it’s pointed out, laughed at, or even threatened. It’s terrible. It happens to everybody. Most CDs won’t go out because of this fear. Some spend a lot of money to be passable. They study wardrobe, makeup, voice, body language, and go to special lengths to make themselves presentable as women. The biggest hurdle is beard cover.
“Let’s face the reality,” Melanie says. “Women have smooth, beardless faces with smaller pores. Men have stubble. A male has to give himself that smooth complexion to pass, which means shaving as close as he possibly can, putting on beard cover, which is clown-white makeup or Derma-blend to get the smooth effect. They put makeup on over that. As a result most TVs have heavily made-up faces that stand out. Therefore, many of us don’t go out in the daytime, only at night.”
Women should appreciate them, Melanie said, because cross-dressers are more sensitive to women than most men. They know what it’s like to spend hours putting on makeup, getting an outfit ready. Every TV says the same thing: “I’ll never criticize my wife or girlfriend again for taking so long to get ready.” They know the price.
At this dinner meeting, Claire seeks out women married to cross-dressing men. Sandy, expensively dressed, well-groomed, pretty, the wife of a doctor who is now attired in a mini-skirt, black blazer, and long, frosted wig, had to painfully witness a slow deterioration of her husband’s personality before she understood that this was not going to go away and that she could no longer force him into the closet, at least as far as their marriage was concerned.
Sandy first found out her husband was a cross-dresser when, cleaning the bureau, she found a letter from him addressed to her. He had written many before this one, he told her later, but had ripped them all up. In it, he confessed that he was a transvestite and that his greatest fear was that he would lose her if she found out. “He was scared to death that I would pack up and be gone,” she says.
In some cases, the wife not only packs up but gets on the phone and tells the boss, family, friends. But Sandy didn’t. What she did was bury the knowledge. Her conscious mind actually forgot, over a period of eight years, that her husband was a confessed cross-dresser. Meantime, his moodiness, anger, and frustration increased. “I had shoved him in the back of the closet,” she says. Then “the realization began to dawn: I am going to lose this man one way or the other.” It was not a pleasant realization. He was the only man she’d ever dated; she’d been with him since she was in high school.
One night they went to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which devotees dress up like the characters in the movie and shout their lines from the audience. “When the character Frank threw off his cape to show himself dressed in garter belt, heels, and corset, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, my husband is one of these,’ ” Sandy recalls. “From that point on, I thought, ‘I better start dealing with it.’ ”
“We started talking about it little by little. I wanted information. He had very little. He hadn’t plugged into the community. It took several years to plug into the gender community.”
The granddaddy of gender organizations, according to Sandy, is Tri-Ess, a name that grew out of the acronym for Society for the Second Self, a national organization for heterosexual cross-dressers and their significant others. It was through Tri-Ess that she found out about their annual convention, California Dreamin’. She and her husband attended, and she grabbed all the literature she could find there. That information put her feet on the ground.
With the acceptance that this was not going to go away and a new appreciation of the large numbers of cross-dressers, she began to make peace with the fact that her husband was a transvestite and that she was the wife of a transvestite. She has worked through the denial to a realization that his cross-dressing need not affect her own sense of self.
“You drop a lot of garbage about other issues in society,” she says. “I realized I was carrying around a lot of junk. I’m my own person. I make my own decisions. I’m not always worrying about what everybody thinks.”
Now, as contact person for California Dreamin’, she encourages other wives of transvestites to get rid of the idea of the stigma in their own heads. “You have to be able to tell society to stuff it.”
“We have not known anyone who gave it up permanently,” agrees Janet. She’s a small-boned woman with chin-length blond hair, bangs, wife of the treasurer of Neutral Corner, a massive man, six-foot-four easy in his pumps, wearing a light turquoise dress, pearls, and a champagne-colored wig styled in an old-fashioned beauty-salon-type set.
“It seems like it’s something that needs an outlet,” she went on, adding that the price of suppression is destructive behavior.
“A lot of cross-dressers dress out of the back of their cars, feeling they can’t tell their families. Some men go on periodic purges in which they throw out all the clothes, makeup, wigs and jewelry, vowing never to dress again. But they always come back to crossdressing.
“I feel sorry for the guys who can’t tell their wives. We knew this guy — he went fishing a lot.” She laughs.
Wives who find out after marriage — most cross-dressers stress that fiancées should be told before the knot is tied — have to assimilate something their partners have taken years to get used to.
Most transvestites, however, do not take that step, though Cindy, wife of a CD and a slender, soft-spoken, confident strawberry blond, says that is a wife’s biggest nightmare.
The other fear wives have, according to Melanie — who is Neutral Corner’s newsletter editor, a vibrant and verbal person who nevertheless wouldn’t wish his transvestism on anybody — is that their husbands are gay.
“The drag queen stereotype is all you’re familiar with,” agrees Sandy.
Most husbands, however, are heterosexual, and, according to Cindy’s husband, Linda, are among the most loyal and faithful of husbands. “It’s pretty hard to play around when your legs are shaved and your toenails painted.”
As for how this affects their sex life, “A lot of wives will accept their husbands’ cross-dressing but draw the line at the bedroom,” Sandy says. “It’s okay to have boundaries. My advice to wives is to be honest about what you can handle.”
“This can be a lot of fun in bed,” Linda says. “Cross-dressers can have more fun than anyone — you’re basically two people.” “The biggest fantasy of a man is to be with two women,” says Liz, a vibrant, confident woman in black jeans, green blouse, her long dark hair swept up on one side in a clip. “Think of a transvestite making love to a woman. He looks in the mirror and sees two women so the male persona gets turned on. So it’s still a heterosexual relationship.”
But what about the heterosexual woman making love to someone wearing false eyelashes, a long wig, and female lingerie?
Jean, who, with her short, plump figure and long, graying brown hair is the perfect match for her husband, Jessica, confesses that though her husband’s cross-dressing in general didn’t affect the way we thought about each other sexually, on one occasion, “I kissed Jessica dressed. It bothered me.”
“My husband said we could be lesbian lovers,” Janet said. I said, “I’m sorry. You didn’t marry a lesbian.”
Cindy tries to explain how she and Linda handle sex. “Linda thinks of herself as a male lesbian, and I think of her as my husband. You shouldn’t feel that it is another woman you’re going to bed with. It’s still your husband. Women feel so often that they are lesbians, but they’re not. You’re not a lesbian just because you love your husband who is wearing a dress or gown.”
Many women find this kind of integrated man very attractive. Dollie, a round-hipped, short-haired woman with an open smile, says her transvestite husband is “sensitive to my needs.” She’d had experiences with macho men ordering her around and hadn’t liked it. Other women, Sandy among them, speculate that their ability to communicate with their husbands as they do with other women is what attracted them to the men in the first place.
Carol says that he and his wife play friends when he cross-dresses. There’s no competitiveness or combativeness — two stereotypically male traits that are tough on relationships.
Women who accept their husbands’ cross-dressing find that their husbands look to them as experts of achieving a feminine look in their hair, clothing, jewelry, nails, and makeup. Most can use the help. Transvestites have notoriously poor taste, Dan confesses.
“We’ve never gone shopping together with him dressed,” Sandy says of her husband. “I’ll grab an armful of stuff, and he’ll kind of slip over to the men’s section and duck into a private booth.
“Men without sympathetic or in-the-know wives or S.O.S (significant others] have to estimate sizes and take the outfits home to try on, which often means a second trip back to the store to return the items. Some sales clerks, though, are quite helpful, even offering use of storerooms for trying on outfits.
“I’m certain that anybody who works in retail for any length of time figures it out,” Sandy says. “Most of the time you get a positive reaction from salespeople. Most are very helpful and don’t pass judgments. Plus, they’re making a living and they know that a man’s income is often higher than a woman’s.”
Sandy and her husband tend to limit their excursions out to conventions, when they are accompanied by a group of similar couples. She finds that she feels very protective toward him when he is dressed, a feeling echoed by other wives. Jean always drives when her husband is dressed, afraid that they’ll be stopped for a ticket or an accident and her husband will be blamed because of the way he is dressed. Janet found going out with her husband so nerve-wracking because of her protective feelings toward him that now she refuses to go. He goes out regularly with his sister, who’s closer to him in size and appearance than his petite wife, but he never drinks, afraid to be vulnerable.
Liz and Julia go out all the time. When they go dancing, they go to lesbian clubs. Regardless of where they are, they hold hands publicly or touch legs under the table: People think we’re lesbians, she says with a laugh.
Melanie understands that many women may feel threatened about this. Wives may think husbands are gay or turning gay. Girlfriends may feel their boyfriends are competing with them. Melanie respects this, but he’d plead to all wives and girlfriends of CDs, “Please understand us. Don’t feel threatened, because we don’t mean to threaten you or hurt you, but have to, need to do it. If they’re willing to give understanding and makeup tips, we’ll pay you back by being much more sensitive to your needs as women.”
Wives need to understand this won’t go away. Most people see in TVs “threats and perverts because CDs are an unknown quantity.” They don’t say much about themselves because they’re still in the closet. In the absence of any concrete image of TVs or transgenderists, the public makes up its own sensationalist view of weird-sex people, which is not true. “We are your supervisor. Your brother-in-law. Your neighbor. We’re your friend — not aliens, but good people. We are not freaks but are a sexual minority, people who suffer from gender conflict. We’re not out to shock or hurt or scare little kids. All we want is the opportunity to be who we want to be and to go out in public in the appearance of the opposite sex and not be hassled.”
As I listen, I think how strange at first to see the clash of man and woman in them, like alien creatures, and then with talk they become human. The strangeness recedes. The human steps out — the feeling person hidden behind the mask. This is the fronting of an illusion. The triumph of appearance, where the identity disappears for a hidden moment in the long scheme of eternity. The exaltation of transcendence. They call it transformation. They escape into their fantasies. They get to live the not-real: the blending of gestures and gender. This is/ all there is/ in the end. They live one moment of fantasy. Fantasy reigns. This is the ultima thule. This is Seventh Heaven.