Written by Joan Stevenson—
Something interesting happened the other day that got me thinking. I am a fan of a British soap opera called EastEnders. It follows the trials and tribulations of the residents of the fictional borough of Walford in East London. EastEnders is your basic soap opera drama – affairs, secrets, pregnancies, life, death, etc., but this week they introduced a topic that even American soap operas have never covered. After 43 years of marriage, the character, undertaker Les Cocker came out to his wife…. as a cross dresser. His wife Pam knew he was hiding a secret, and for a long time she thought it was an affair with her best friend, but he finally admitted to her that he cross-dresses and his alter ego is named Christine. This week, Christine introduced herself to Pam and tried to explain to her why he does this. Pam was understandably upset and in shock and feeling betrayed. She still loves her husband, but she can’t seem to come to grips with the betrayal of keeping the secret and the “habit.” She ended up packing her bags and leaving as his biggest fear was realized, the fear of losing his wife. The scene was very heartbreaking and it got me to thinking, just how many men are in the same situation?
There are millions of men who cross-dress for different reasons, but most men who cross-dress fully acknowledge that they have a feminine side to themselves and they feel the need to express and manifest by fully embracing the “her” inside. They have no desire to change their body to fully become a woman, but because this practice is not considered “normal” or “natural” or even “healthy,” most men who cross-dress carry a burden of shame and shroud themselves with secrecy.
As the character Les tried to explain to his wife, he has been cross-dressing since the age of seven, and his being “Christine” is not about sexuality or being attracted to other men, it’s about expressing another side to himself. “When I look in the mirror, I see Christine, not the cranky old undertaker anymore. I feel good like this. It’s almost that Les is the dressing up part at times. All the stuff that ties Les up in knots, makes him feel he can’t cope, I don’t do that. I talk about things.”
Society puts a lot of burden on a man. In the traditional (stereotypical) eyes of society, the man is the provider, the head of the household, the hunter-gatherer. He has to be strong, and hard – any emotions, save that of aggression, are considered a weakness. Softness, sensitivity, and compassion, which are considered feminine traits, are seen as a detriment, an aberration. I have really never understood why that is. Many men who cross-dress describe it as an outlet for stress, and they tend to want to dress up more during times of tension at work or home.
From a 1995 study, author and cross-dresser Vernon Coleman said, ” A man who is under constant pressure to achieve, to perform and to make money may find that he can escape from those pressures most effectively by slipping on silky, feminine clothes. He can change his personality and his perception of society’s expectations of him within seconds.”1
I’ve always thought it’s strange that when a woman cross-dresses, it’s more acceptable. It’s cute, it’s trendy. Remember the Annie Hall fashion trend? (Oop, maybe not, that was in the 70s). In the case of history, when a woman cross-dresses it’s to pass as a male for a job or the military, Joan of Arc lead a crusading army. They would have to have done this to pass for a man to function freely in an otherwise male-dominated world (to go to school in the case of Barbra Streisand’s character in Yentl). When a man puts on women’s clothes, it’s usually treated as comedy (Some Like It Hot, Madea, Big Mama’s House, Juana Mann, etc.), not as part of any kind of intrinsic scheme (except maybe to get out of the military), or in the case of drag performers it is appreciated as an art form, but for the heterosexual male, cross-dressing as an expression of inner self and wellbeing is looked down upon with ridicule and shame. It happens more than you think.
In 1992 Richard F. Docter PhD., clinical psychologist and gender researcher, and Virginia Price, transgender activist and founder of Society of the Second Self, a support group for heterosexual cross dressers their families and allies, conducted a survey of well over a thousand cross-dressing hetero males.2 While it’s not a wholly encompassing study it does give insight into a basic understanding of these individuals’ behavior. I find that some of this data would shatter some pre-conceived notions of what kind of man cross-dresses. Of this study group of males:
33% are age 30-40
60% are married
87% Identify as heterosexual
66% Began cross-dressing before the age of 10
When asked how you view yourself when cross-dressed, 80% said, “expressing a different part of myself.”
Why is society so afraid of unconventional expression where the subjects of sexuality and gender are concerned? Why are we so attached to gender labels? That doesn’t change who you are inside. Why the fear, and it IS fear, that society and government will unravel and the world will come to an end? Why are we afraid? And when I say “we,” I mean mostly the bible beaters, conservative right wing Republicans, Westboro Baptist Church, etc. With all a man has to deal with in this life, why should he be denied a soft place to fall just as much as a woman? All that’s important is that we love each other and treat other as individuals with all due respect.
We all have a percentage of the opposite gender within us. It’s plain biology. Every man has a percentage of estrogen within their bodies, just as women have a percentage of testosterone. That’s something to think about. I’m NOT saying this is a matter of hormone imbalance, I’m just frustrated by the way particular individuals are treated when they are trying to live their lives and be true to their authentic selves as if that particular person’s expression is just so obtrusive to their lives. Loving who you love, dressing how you dress, and expressing your inner truth shouldn’t be met with shame or ridicule or hate.
So as you live your life and make your contributions to the world, don’t diminish others who are here to do the same. These individuals are just trying to be their authentic selves and I think that’s really all anyone wants to do in life.
Shakespeare said it best – This above all: to thine own self be true.