Trans Segment #39: Myth: Crossdressers are weird and freaky.
Myth: Crossdressers are weird and freaky.
Reality: The ones that are “weird” and “freaky”—and of course it depends on what you mean by those words, but I am going to presume you mean the kinky kind—are far more likely to stay at home or maybe go out to a club every once in a while to get their jollies. I promise the world isn’t really like Rocky Horror Picture Show. (If only, right?) Most people are pretty quiet and private about their sexual fetishes and aren’t likely to share that news with everybody.
There are also a lot of heterosexual cis male crossdressers who are actually very homophobic and transphobic and don’t want to be outed, lest they be thought gay or trans or otherwise “a pervert.” These folks aren’t likely to even go to the front door or have the blinds down at home when they’re dressed up.
I think people believe this myth because male crossdressing is regularly associated with slapstick humor, sexual fetishes, and serial killers. While it’s true that crossdressing can and does make an appearance in all of these, these are only a few manifestations of a very basic and normal behavior. Put another way, eating is an activity, but going to McDonald’s and eating a home-cooked meal, while they are both eating, are quite different experiences. So it is with dressing. Sure, there are crossdressers who look like Beyoncé or do drag like Divine, but have you ever seen a Tri-Ess meeting? The folks there dress their femme personas in similar aesthetics to their male modes, which can be quite conservative. They are more likely to look like Julia Sugarbaker or the Church Lady than come strutting in with skimpy clothes. Unless it’s Halloween, of course. ;)
We call this behavior crossdressing because of its cross-gender form, which is taboo, but it’s really only dressing. Clothes are not inherently for one sex/gender or another. Clothes are just clothes, and they can be worn by anyone who likes them, and they can like those clothes for infinite reasons. Sometimes it has a sexual component—mostly because women’s clothes are designed to be sexier than drab, utilitarian male clothing—and can be stimulating in erotic ways, but is that why most cis women wear women’s clothes? No, they do it because they like the way these clothes feel and look. Crossdressers aren’t any different. That is why you are just as likely to see a crossdresser who dresses to the nines and passes as a woman en femme as you are to see one who proudly sports his beard while he wears his blouses and peasant skirts.
Besides, even if it has a sexual component for someone, that doesn’t mean that this is their only motivation for crossdressing. Wearing women’s clothing can make them feel like they are sexy (and hey, what’s so wrong with that?), but it can also make them feel open, fashionable, liberated, well rounded, awake, relaxed, and happy.
I think for a lot of folks the thought process is as follows: “If a man dresses like a woman, he must be crazy and trying to sexually attract and deceive other men, which must mean he is gay.” This is wrong on so many levels, and it’s pretty epic how it is homophobic—gay men are perverts and rapists on the hunt for straight men—and transphobic—a “man” who “looks like” a woman is deceptive—and ableist—the mentally ill are dangerous—all at the same time.
There are many myths circulating about crossdressers, including all of the above. Here are a few others:
* They are gay and feminine. -> In fact, most of them are heterosexual or bisexual. Did you know that there are even straight and bi drag queens? Yep, they’re not all gay! Lots of crossdressers are married to women, and one of the main concerns you hear in crossdressing support groups, which fetishists and performance-based crossdressers like drag artists don’t tend to frequent, is how to come out to their wives and girlfriends. Gender expressions can vary, so some are feminine, some are masculine, and some are androgynous, whether they are in male mode or en femme.
* They are trans women in denial. -> Some trans women come out as crossdressers before they realize they are trans, but most crossdressers are, remain, and wish to be seen and treated as cis males. This is similar to how many gay and lesbian people come out as bisexual before they move into a stable gay/lesbian identity, but how most of us who identify as bisexual maintain this as our stable identity.
I personally believe that just because something is a temporary identity for someone doesn’t make it invalid or necessarily “a phase.” We choose terms that we feel reflect and resonate with us on some level, and we also evolve and change as people over time. If we have gone with a label, it must have felt right in at least some way at the time, and that is valid. We don’t have to hold onto those labels forever. We just use them until they are no longer useful or accurate in describing us. That is okay! It’s called life.
* It’s a mental disorder. -> On the contrary, most crossdressers are quite normal and do not significantly differ in mental health from the general population. There is controversy over the inclusion of “transvestic fetishism” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), but more and more therapists are finally beginning to catch on that this category is so vaguely written as to incorrectly imply that any man who has an interest in crossdressing is a fetishist. Even if it is specifically a fetish, it is harmless. Including it in with paraphilias involving harmful behaviors causes needless confusion and panic. Should everyone who engages in adult, consensual BDSM be considered a dangerous pervert as well? There is also mounting, though by no means conclusive, evidence that cross-gender behaviors have aspects that are as hard-wired as handedness.
* It is a lifestyle. -> Are we really not over the “lifestyle” comment? I guess every sexual and gender minority hears this at some point. For some crossdressers who adopt part-time femme personas, it could constitute a sort of lifestyle, although that can mean many different things to many different people, but how exactly is it a “lifestyle” for someone who dresses once every six months at home or to go out to a club?
* They are criminals. -> What is this even supposed to mean? In the United States, some places do still have archaic and largely unenforceable laws on the books about crossdressing and disguises. People are free to make their own fashion choices and as long as they are not otherwise doing something illegal, those choices should not be subject to law enforcement. Mirroring the general population, only a small proportion of crossdressers are criminals.
I think what this myth aims at is portraying crossdressers as “perverts”: rapists, child molesters, flashers, peeping toms, and the like. But that is because we culturally associate cross-gender behavior with sexuality and with all things weird and taboo. So, throwing in a dose of the usual fear of the unknown, what better combination of sexuality and taboo ignites the flame for hatred and shaming than people who truthfully are dangerous? Still, crossdressers don’t differ from anyone else. Just because Ed Gein crossdressed doesn’t mean all or most crossdressers are serial killers. Most serial killers wore jeans too. Is everyone who wears jeans a serial killer?
There’s also the association with prostitution. Some men do crossdress and take on female characters for the purposes of sex work. Keep in mind that these people are engaged in sex work and other street economies for the same reason most other people are: lack of conventional economic opportunities, poverty, homelessness, and untreated addiction issues. Crossdressing is nothing remarkable. It only speaks to there being a market for crossdressing prostitutes. Why would these prostitutes be “perverts” and cis female prostitutes not necessarily? There are a number of deep-rooted social issues with sexuality and economics here that could make several posts of their own, so I will just leave it here.
* It is an addiction. -> It can have a compulsive aspect for some people, but crossdressing is not itself an addicting behavior. It is just a personality trait and a kind of self-expression. Crossdressing is also a completely benign behavior, and it does not have the physically and psychologically destructive properties of addiction. “What about problems in relationships?” you ask. That has more to do with the social stigma attached to it and the unwillingness of people to accept crossdressers as a normal part of society.
* It is selfish. -> All self-expression is selfish in a certain regard. Not all types of selfish are bad selfish, you know. Once again, crossdressing doesn’t hurt anyone. They are seriously just clothes!
Here are some good resources for crossdressers:
1. http://www.mycdlife.com/ Gabrielle Hermosa’s very insightful personal blog
2. http://www.mycdlife.com/2009/08/crossdressing-myth-7-its-just-a-sexual-fetish An in-depth look into the sexual fetish myth
3. http://www.crossdressers.com/forums/index.php Popular CD forum