This column originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry Journal, No. 91, Fall 2000.
By Miqqi Alicia Gilbert. Ph.D.
The community in which we all exist is an extremely diverse one. It includes FTMs, MTFs, transsexuals, crossdressers, drag queens and kings, butches, femmes, intersexes, gender benders, and a host of others, both pure and in combination. The politicization of the community has led in recent years to an increased awareness of our needs and existence in the eyes of the general public and various governmental and bureaucratic agencies. As we all know, the awareness that a community exists, that it has a place within the larger society, is a crucial step toward obtaining rights, privileges and respect
Many of the advances made have been a direct result of activism on the part of the community itself. Everything from urging the inclusion of “T” in LGB organizations to demonstrating at the trial of Brandon Teena’s murderers has been a step toward recognition and normalization. The existence of the internet and its vast resources for bringing together disparate and geographically far-flung groups and individuals, offering solidarity and anonymity at the same time, has had a major impact on our ability to organize and marshal our forces and energy. In no small part, the introduction of the concept that there is a transgender community that, though diverse in many ways, nonetheless has a commonality of interest, has enabled broad support base for many issues. Organizations that had not previously been in contact or seen themselves as part of a larger movement or context now share goals and interests.
The extent of the diversity within the TG community cannot be overestimated. At one extreme there is the lifelong child-identified transsexual who has identified from earliest memories with his/her chosen sex; to the butch lesbian questioning her gender identity; to the fetishistic crossdresser who never leaves his house. These individuals and all those in between have a vast range of interests and concerns. In fact, there are people who claim the extent of the diversity means there really isn’t a community at all. But invariably, there is one group singled out from the pantheon of categories that is demonstrably less connected and more derogated than any other. This group is, of course, the crossdresser, and, more specifically the male-to-female heterosexual crossdresser.
The crossdresser is frequently not a highly respected person within the transgender world. His reputation (and I use the pronoun “his” advisedly) is of someone who has a sexual urge toward women’s clothing and whose experiences typically began early but were primarily masturbatory, i.e., a form of fetishistic paraphilia. In addition, he is generally deeply closeted, and if he does come out at all it is usually to attend restricted gatherings such as club functions or events. At these meetings he will most likely meet and interact primarily with other crossdressers.
Being closeted from an early age is an extremely formative fact for the crossdresser. The lack of interaction brings with it a minimal or non-existent socialization which often results in a caricature-like representation of the chosen gender. The transsexual, especially the child-identified transsexual, has the opportunity to inculcate feminine socialization through stealthy observation and selection. The crossdresser, on the other hand, is normally so conflicted about his gender confusion that the overwhelming shame, guilt and confusion leads to self-repression and a need to distance himself from feminine identification. Whereas the young female crossdresser can get away with a “tomboy” identification, the male crossdresser has no such youthful place to hide.
In later life the crossdresser may indeed begin to mature and learn to dress in ways appropriate to age, size and occasion, but even here there is no guarantee. The propensity for six-foot-plus 50-something male-to-female crossdressers to wear mini-skirts, big hair, and tight tops over large bosoms is definitely high (though it must never be forgotten that there are socially certified females who do so as well). The reasons for this include the initial genesis through sexual awakening and fetishism, the lack of peer socialization, and the infrequency of appearing at functions where informal or business clothes are the norm.
The average transsexual is much less likely to share this complex erotic and emotional relationship to clothing, especially if the transsexual is a so-called primary or child-identified transsexual. The difference is important: the crossdresser wears women’s clothing because they are women’s clothes, while the male-to-female transsexual wears women’s clothing because she is a woman. The reverse is true for the FTM situation, and results in a completely different relationship. Since the child-identified transsexual has often absorbed cross-gender socialization, the clothes are not exciting, but natural. This is not to suggest that a transsexual cannot get excited or aroused or feel erotic as a result of certain clothing — this is true of all men and women regardless of their birth nature or socially certified gender status. But the chances of seeing an MTF transsexual hanging about in loose sweat pants or leggings and an oversize shirt are far greater than for a crossdresser.
All of this sometimes results in the transsexual viewing the crossdresser in a derisory light, with the crossdresser considered at best a dilettante and at worst a sex-obsessed fetishist who smears the good name of transgenderism. But for most in the community, the crossdresser is, often unconsciously, sort of like an annoying little sister who wants to play with you and your friends but lacks the sophistication and maturity necessary. Yes, she needs to be around sometimes, you are, after all, related in some way or other, but her eagerness, lack of savior faire, and inability to measure up makes her an embarrassment rather than a friend. She uses too much makeup, wears dreadful clothes, the wrong shoes (usually high heels), always sports those absurd long fingernails, overacts, emphasizes breasts she does not really have, and expects to be taken seriously! For goodness sake, most of them don’t even know the first thing about feminism, let alone being a woman!
Unfortunately, this attitude permeates, often unconsciously, numerous organizations, projects, and undertakings. It is not unusual for crossdressers not to be invited or involved in political, artistic and scholarly events not primarily organized by and for crossdressers, and when they are, there is not infrequently a subtle form of marginalization. I’ll share one example that happened to me when I traveled from Toronto to Oxford, England for the 3rd International Congress on Gender and Sexuality in September of 1998.
The paper I was presenting at the Congress was a fairly technical discussion of the concept of selective socialization with the framework of social construction theory (I am a philosopher, remember?) This was new research I had been thinking about for some time, and to the best of my knowledge no one else was discussing this particular issue. I knew from the program listing that there were quite a few young academics presenting papers and holding discussion in the area of social construction, and I was very excited to share my work with them. That did not happen. I had forgotten to take into account the fact that I am “just a crossdresser” and could not, therefore, have anything really serious to say about transgender theory. When I arrived, I examined the program and found the session in which I was placed. It was not with the transsexual scholars talking about my subject. Instead, I was sandwiched between someone discussing crossdressing in Shakespearean theatre and someone else talking about the history of petticoating. Needless to say, while there was a goodly audience and the presentations were interesting, the people I most wanted to hear the talk were not present. Yes, it’s very difficult to construct a conference schedule, but the consistency with which this sort of categorization occurs is too frequent to be coincidental.
In fairness, the crossdresser has not always made things easier. There are organizations, for example, that exclude transsexuals from membership for reasons which range from the members’ discomfort about homosexuality to concern about significant others’ fears of slippage into transsexualism. In other words, rather than educate their members and their families about transsexuality, it’s easier to remain exclusive and discriminatory. This can result in transsexuals not having a strong organizing base, and often being isolated due to insufficient resources. This attitude on the part of some crossdressers underscores the idea that crossdressers are not serious about their gender theorizing, and are not reflective about their role as gender outlaws and their place in the wider transgender community.
Ultimately, it is the community as a whole that suffers from this divisiveness. With widely divergent groups that can but do not always help each other, we hamstring ourselves. Crossdressers need to realize they are transgendered, and that, hello, no one really does know if you will wake up one day and want to go full time or sign up for SRS. Adult-onset transsexualism does happen, and it happens to crossdressers who were certain all their lives they were just having fun with their “hobby.” Transsexuals also have to understand there is a large number of crossdressers who are changing their self-definition, for whom the terminology of “crossdresser” is becoming too narrow or restrictive. Many of us are making great efforts to grow toward a transgender ideology that goes well beyond any reasonable conception of mere fetishism. Many crossdressers are highly reflective about who and what they are and how that relates to femininity, womanness, and the concept of gender.
A well-dressed crossdresser
There needs to be a serious reaching out by all parties in the transgender world. This includes not only the MTF transsexuals and crossdressers, but FTMs and the intersexed as well. No one has a lock on righteousness, pain, suffering, or the right way to be gendered. By beginning to trust each other we can create a much stronger base from which we can make the world safe for gender freedom. It does not matter if you, a crossdresser, never want to go to work or the movies crossdressed, and it does not matter if you, a transsexual, blend in perfectly with total acceptance as your chosen gender. What matters is that if we respect and help each other we will be stronger and safer. This has to be done not with words, but demonstratively. Clubs need to embrace the whole spectrum of the community. Our Toronto club, Xpressions, has a wide range of transgendered people on its board of directors, and this has brought many new members to our club. We also have an annual fundraising dinner for a program that offers support to transsexual street youth. The first time we did that there was utter disbelief that a club based around heterosexual crossdressers would lift a finger, let alone raise several thousand dollars, for transsexual street kids.
Crossdressers fear being considered transsexuals or gay men. Transsexuals fear being considered fetishists who want only to get off. FTMs fear being lost among groups that have been long-organized around MTF issues. Intersexes fear being misunderstood and classed as gender dysphoric. Everyone has fears, far more than I can list here; but isn’t it interesting that we all have them? Being gender diverse with a rigidly gender bipolar culture is, after all, terrifying.
Maybe if we come together and learn to be less afraid of each other, we’ll also learn to be less afraid of the outside world.
Miqqi Alicia Gilbert is a Professor of Philosophy at York University, Director of the annual transgender event Fantasia Fair, and a board member of Xpressions in Toronto, Canada.
Comment by Tasi on this article: I took umbrage once again at statements by “those in the know” that cross-dressing is all about satisfying sexual urges. It’s only recently that I came to a more fuller understanding of our community and unfortunately for many cross-dressers that’s what it is. Still, those of us that are somewhat past puberty and understand we have a feminine side, it’s about releasing that feminine side through clothing. I guess that I’m in the grey area group that’s somewhere between CD and TS, hence I relate to be transgender. Overall the article is balanced and I’m linking to it from my Yahoo group, The TG Woman. It will make for interesting discussion
Mikki’s Website Mikki’s Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org