This is a transcript of a talk given by Gloria Jameson to the Family Therapy Association of Ireland on their topic of "Integrating crossdressing". It provides good insight into who we are.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
When confronted by a glamorous woman who is 6’2” – plus whatever heels she’s wearing – many people may be somewhat dumb-struck.
That’s understandable. And I’m used to it. And to be honest it’s not a bad thing in an audience.
I’m also used to people being curious. So I’ll start by explaining who I am. And who I’m not.
First of all – lest there be any confusion – I am not a biological female. Discerning professionals that you are, you’ve probably already noticed that. Not to mention having been somewhat fore-warned by the advance publicity.
I am not a biological female. And nor do I believe that I was born in the wrong body.
Nor do I profess a female gender identity known from my earliest consciousness. Nor even one realised later, after many years thinking I was a man.
No, I am a man. In fact, I quite like being a man: boozing with mates, being macho, putting on the first shirt out of the wardrobe, and generally indulging in the privileges of patriarchy. Such as they are, these days.
I also play the traditional male family role. I am a loving husband and a doting father.
But I am also transgender. I am a man with a female side which needs to be expressed on a regular basis. I have a need whose fulfilment empowers me, relaxes me, broadens my mind and generally makes me a better person. And I have managed to integrate that need into a rich, varied and yet in many ways otherwise normal life.
Our topic this evening is “integrating crossdressing” and I guess I’m an integrated crossdresser. Or an integrated transvestite. In Britain and Ireland we tend to use transvestite while our American sisters prefer crossdresser.
Whatever. You may call me either. This evening I’d like to share with you my insights into the phenomenon of males expressing femininity.
I hope you don’t mind if I exclude females expressing masculinity. The phenomenon exists, of course, but the circumstances and issues are very different. Not least because traditional society tends to be more tolerant of it: Tomboys may be ok. Sissies, on the other hand, are much less so.
One could ask why. Why does crossdressing provoke such visceral reactions, especially in other males? We’ll touch on that later, but the bottom line is that widespread social disapproval of males expressing femininity is by far the biggest reason why people like you will encounter people like me.
So let’s talk about crossdressing.
Crossdressing , as in the verb to crossdress, is a very broad term. Any man, for whatever motive, who presents as female is crossdressing.
A drag queen crossdresses. A charity fun runner crossdresses. A pantomime dame crossdresses. But these people all have an explanation. They can excuse themselves to society. And to themselves. Crossdressing may give them more than they care to admit, but they don’t have to account for it.
The people I want to talk about this evening are the ones who, initially at least, find their instinct to crossdress hard to justify. Who cannot or don’t want to explain it to themselves . Who feel they have no excuses.
Justification is hugely important for everyone, not just people who crossdress. To be able to justify yourself to others. And more importantly, to be able to justify yourself to yourself. We each carry around within us an internal model of society’s expectations, against which we reconcile our behaviour. And if we cannot reconcile our behaviour, we feel distressed.
Some call this conscience, a knowing of right from wrong. As if it arises spontaneously in every individual, independently of society and independently of human nature. But it doesn’t, it’s the product of many things. A coaching of morality, certainly. But also a knowledge of what society might ridicule. And a knowledge of what society might have a visceral reaction against.
Because under the veneer of civilisation, society also retains ancient herd instincts to bully difference, that can emerge when given the opportunity. And transgressing gender norms is a major trigger for bullying.
So what drives men who crossdress without a socially acceptable reason, to do something so socially dangerous, something that could make them pariahs to others, something that could even make them feel like pariahs to themselves?
Essentially there are two entirely different motivations.
Some men crossdress for sexual reasons. Sex play often includes engagement with fetish objects. And most men have some degree of fetishistic response to items of female clothing. If they didn’t, lingerie manufacturers would have a much thinner time of it.
Sexual play also often includes the abandonment of power. Whether it’s teasing games with fluffy handcuffs, or dangerous self-bondage at the extreme end of BDSM, the common purpose is the erotic occlusion of self. And I’m sorry to say to you feminists in the audience, that many men regard being dressed as a woman as an obvious way of losing power. This desire for erotic occlusion can take many forms other than crossdressing and in fact occurs frequently in human sexuality, even if it is very often repressed.
The fact that these instincts are common, may in part explain why many ordinary men feel so threatened by crossdressing. It may unsettle them, making them aware of something inside themselves that they may be repressing. It may also lead them to ascribe sexual motives to ALL crossdressing.
But in fact they are wrong to do so. Some people who crossdress don’t do it for sexual reasons, they do it because it empowers and enables a part of them that is feminine. This is the OTHER motivation for crossdressing, the need that some biological males have to express femininity, a need that we who have that need, call transgender.
There have been many attempts to explain transgender. There are theories about genetic inheritance, hormone levels in the womb, experiences of gender roles in childhood, among other possible formative factors. Nobody knows for sure.
But in some ways, imagining being the opposite gender is just such an obvious thing to do. And it’s unsurprising that sometimes we might be jealous. Traditional society allocates different roles and privileges to male and female, and sometimes your temperament, or skill set, or sensibilities can seem more suited to the opposite gender than to the one you’re born in.
Also compelling is the narrowness of the traditional male gender role. Stripped for competitive action in a herd environment long gone, traditional maleness allows for no fripperies. No sensitivity. No softness. No passivity. No flamboyance. Traditional maleness is even embarrassed at knowing colour names like fuchsia or taupe or cerise.
Transgenderness can manifest itself at any age. A person can be unaware of that aspect of themselves until something triggers it. Maybe something as simple as seeing a movie. Or dressing up for Halloween. Or even a dawning realisation arising from sexual play.
Mostly, however, transgenderness starts young. In thought if not in deed. Many of us have memories of wishfulness from our early years, and of innocent occasions when we briefly seemed to experience something of what girls experience.
But most of us quickly realise that it might be unwise to share those feelings with our peers. And the impulse is repressed. This is the first point of formation that can lead to negative impact. A secret is easily mistaken for a guilty secret, even in one’s own mind.
Sometimes, transgenderness can also become entwined with sexuality, especially in the formative period after puberty. Even without repression - which frankly would be highly unusual – sexual response blossoms in feelgood scenarios, just as it does for the rest of humanity. But a cross connection can also happen in the context of risk, of transgression, and maybe of imagining being forced to do, what you don’t let yourself admit, you want to do.
This then is a possible further point of formation that can have a negative impact. Not only a guilt at transgressing gender rules, but a sexual secret on top of it. If anything, an even heavier burden. Sexuality, perhaps especially in Ireland, being such a source of guilt and depression.
So, whether the reason for the crossdressing behaviour is purely sexual, or is essentially transgender, I am guessing that it is heavy burdens of guilt that bring crossdressing to your attention as professionals. Guilt leads to non-disclosure. Non-disclosure is often seen by wives and girlfriends as betrayal. Yet the very same partners will often react with disgust and horrified guilt-by-association, the very reactions whose anticipation by their husbands and boyfriends led to the non-disclosure in the first place.
I say wives and girlfriends. It’s not that crossdressing is purely the preserve of heterosexual males, although we are very much in the majority. But gay people, in coming out, have largely released themselves from social expectation, and are likely to have already engaged with any gender non-conforming side, rather than hiding it. So I’m guessing the vast majority of people you will see will be from the conservative heterosexual mainstream.
So now crossdressing has presented itself in your consulting rooms, where do you go from there?
Before we get into that, I think we should address an issue that may be occurring to some of you. What’s the theoretical mental health context to all of this? Is this not a matter for a clinical psychiatrist?
Well, probably not.
Historically, the diagnostic manuals on mental health have indeed included crossdressing. Nowadays, however, gender non-conformity is no longer seen as a mental health condition, unless it is accompanied by distress or dysfunction.
Nevertheless a quick synopsis of how crossdressing USED to be categorised is useful as a scientific observation of the behaviour.
As I have outlined, it was placed in two distinct categories.
Sexually-driven crossdressing was seen as a paraphilia, a fetish. The category of paraphilia is a classic example of social mores infiltrating into science. Paraphilia is sexual response to unusual cues. It’s also called perversion, by those who are afraid of it.
Even back in the day, paraphilia was rare enough. For diagnosis, the particular sexual interest needed to be accompanied by a high order of dysfunction and distress. Nowadays, with the recent realisation that most of humanity has some degree of fetishistic response, paraphilias are being largely redefined to those sexual interests that put others - or indeed the subjects themselves - at risk.
The second type, crossdressing that is NOT sexually driven, was in a category called Gender Identity Disorder. G.I.D., as it was known for short, had two main sub- categories: Transsexual and Dual-role Transvestite. While their motivation was observed to be the same, the difference was that transsexuals wanted to abandon their original gender altogether, whereas dual-role transvestites wanted to remain, just as the term suggests, “dual role”.
Just like me, basically. So I could technically be described as a dual role transvestite. But actually the identity that matters to me is that I am transgender.
Gender Identity Disorder was essentially the scientific description of Transgender. But there is a crucial difference: G.I.D. was an imposed diagnosis, a pathologisation. Transgender, on the other hand, is an identity freely embraced and proudly proclaimed.
In 2013, G.I.D. was removed from DSM, the leading authority on mental health. Being transgender is no longer seen as a disorder, rather it is just a naturally occurring variation in humanity. Like being gay.
For completeness, I should mention that one diagnosis does remain in DSM. This is Gender Dysphoria, the distress that one’s body is not congruent with the gender one identifies with. Gender Dysphoria is the diagnosis that justifies medical intervention in an otherwise healthy body, and it also justifies the funding of such interventions.
So, to get back to what to do when somebody who crossdresses appears in your consulting room....
First of all, whatever the motivation, it needs to be emphasised that crossdressing is part of who the person is. It’s not something that can be cured, nor should a cure be attempted. People need to be reassured that it’s ok to have the feelings and needs that they do.
If the crossdressing is essentially sexual, then the solution must lie in the regaining of respect and intimacy, and the negotiation of sexual needs between partners. And I would suggest that, rather than pushing the crossdresser halfway back into the closet, the solution may more often lie in releasing the partner from her own inhibitions.
If on the other hand, the crossdressing is transgender in nature, then it’s much more than a matter of bedroom negotiation. Of course respect and intimacy need to be regained, but it’s also a matter of negotiating much broader needs. Transgender people need to develop an understanding of who they are. And why they are. And they need to express their transgenderness.
This is best done in community. And I don’t mean the online community. The internet is great in many ways but its effect on transgender people has been very mixed.
The internet is good for information. In fact I’ll take this opportunity to plug a website I run myself called Sí, about transvestism in Ireland. Thehiddenpeople.ie. But there are many other good sources too.
But on the downside, the internet is full of negative messages for us. Internet porn has become ever more exotic and, just as it objectifies women, it also objectifies transgender people. Encountering this is very destructive of self-worth when you are vulnerable and unsure.
Possibly as a result of that, but also because it is so difficult to be secure in the face of widespread hostility in real life, the internet is also full of needy transgender individuals, recruiting others to their own positions and misrepresenting other positions. For those trying to find themselves, this is unhelpful, to say the least.
Transgenderness is a continuum of different experiences, a spectrum with unique individuals at every point. The apparent divisions in the continuum are largely brought about by a tendency to cluster around particular narratives.
When I came out twenty years ago, it was a good time to be a transvestite. We were indisputably transgender, we had a place on the LGBT rainbow, and although an increasing number of us were declaring as transsexual and “going fulltime” (as we informally referred to transition at the time), we were essentially one unified community.
How things have changed. We transvestites are still here, of course, although, for some, the term is beginning to acquire dubious resonances as a result of characterisation by others. To the point where some, who might in the past have identified as transvestite, choose other ways of describing themselves, such as “transgender spectrum” or “Bi-gender”.
An even bigger change is that numbers of transitioning transwomen have hugely increased, and many never even encounter the transvestite community. And they don’t call it living full time any more: Most profess a female gender identity and are women, just as much as any other woman. Therefore they are not crossdressing when they wear women’s clothes.
I have no issue with this. In its practical effect, it suits me too. When I present to you as a woman, I expect to be treated as a woman.
But the all-or-nothing narrative of gender identity, and its tendency to erase other narratives, is proving problematic for emerging transgender people. It pulls some towards it, who might have integrated their transgenderness into their lives in a simpler way. And it leaves others bereft of a feelgood explanation of who they are.
At its simplest, this can be put down to the apparent incompatibility of the concept of “gender identity” with the concept of “gender expression” which we transvestites use to explain ourselves.
But it is also down to media coverage. Far too often, transgender is simplistically equated with being “born in the wrong body”, with no acknowledgement of the spectrum.
So as I said, the answer for emerging transgender people is in community, in face to face social contact, and the sooner the better. There is a thriving transvestite scene in Dublin – which is really the only Irish city big enough for anonymity - and people come to socialise here from all over the country.
We meet in clubs and some of the more experienced of us also go out in public. It can be hard to make contact, because it’s essentially an underground that doesn’t draw attention to itself. But you can find contact information in the Irish Resources section of the Sí website.
One could also contact Teni, the umbrella transgender group which has been doing sterling work for the rights of transitioned trans people. Be aware, though, of the tendency in transitioned trans culture to favour pursuing one’s gender identity over integrating one’s transgenderness into an otherwise normative life.
In the past, transgender peer counselling tended to advise AGAINST transition, to ensure that those who transitioned really needed to, and were ready for it. But that doesn’t happen much any more. People are encouraged to look into their own hearts and be themselves. Which would be fine if what they find there has arisen spontaneously. But one would worry rather, if it has merely been put there by the zeitgeist.
Of course, it’s possible that your crossdressing client will ultimately find a female gender identity within, and go on to transition. It happens quite a lot. And it’s even possible for marriages to survive that, but frankly, many won’t.
So it’s worth trying to be a transvestite for a while. There was an old joke in the community: “What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?” The answer being: “About five years”. But in fact the professional experts in G.I.D. regarded dual-role transvestism – the more numerous condition, by the way – as stable and integratable. In fact, they often advised transvestites to stop worrying and go join a club.
It’s good advice. In community we can find solidarity and meaning. We can find the tools to integrate our unusual natures. We can find wisdom, and the insight into the human condition that comes from breaking boundaries. And we can find the sheer joy of finally being ourselves.
Not to mention the wonderful sense of humour that comes from seriously discussing one’s bra size with other grown men.
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