There is an old joke (of somewhat bad taste…) about the difference between a crossdresser and a transexual: “Five years”.
The “joke” is that current research has shown that gender identity is a little less constrained and limited than it used to be defined, say, a decade ago. A “classical transexual” (or primary transexual) is still defined as being someone who, from a very tender age, has always known that they have a body that is physically misaligned with the gender they identify with. This causes them extreme suffering and acute depression, in many cases leading to an absolute disruption of their ability to cope with life — studying for a job or holding a job becomes nearly impossible, and 50% of the “classical transexuals” that never receive therapy (which means facilitating transition) will end up suiciding themselves before they’re 30. This is what the extreme condition of those poor people with the misfortune of being born in the wrong body can lead to, and it’s crucial that they get support and therapy as early as possible — because over 98% (according to most studies at least), after transition, will have perfectly healthy and normal lives, as soon as their physical body matches their gender identity and they can function normally in that gender.
But the “classic transexual” is not the only case. Recently a lot of research has shown that a rather large fraction of the members of the traditionally-called “crossdresser” community are very likely undiagnosed transexuals, but of a different kind. They don’t suffer as dramatically as the classic kind; in fact, most are perfectly resigned to live in their assigned bodies, with constant crossdressing to ease the tension, and lead happy lives with their partners and family. They might fantasise about a body change; most are heterosexual or just slightly bisexual, although most would not dream about transitioning after having such fulfilling lives; they resign themselves that things in this world cannot always be what they would like to be, and this issue — dealing with their gender identity — is just another one of those things they cannot do much about, so they don’t worry about it.
Apparently, a telltale sign of those “late revealed” transexuals are having a low libido and constant dreaming of themselves as having a female body, but not feeling depressed or anxious about either situation. Because the depression is lacking, they might never be diagnosed as transexuals at all; they will never consider therapy for something as “trivial” as that, specially because many just pick up crossdressing, most often with their wifes’ consent, since the sexual predatory aspect so often stereotypically assigned to the transgendered community might be totally absent. So they’re “merely contented crossdressers”, most of the time, that would never consider themselves “fit” for any transition therapy, and adapt to their male role as well as possible.
This was certainly my case. Sure, I have this strange feeling that I was not “cut out” for a male role, and would be a much happier person if I had been born as a female, but so what? I’m a happy person anyway. I don’t suffer from depression — ever. I handle things in life with patience; I can deal reasonably well with stress, which affects me far less than most people. I’m part of the group of 2/3 of the population that never came even close to need anti-depressants (not even therapy) because, in truth, I’m content most of the time. Sure, crossdressing is an urge I feel, and I try to crossdress as much as possible. I’m very lucky to have a wife that allows me to dress at home; I’m still trying to get her to allow me to go out dressed, but she is very, very anxious — irrationally so — about what could happen to me, like a sudden meteor strike killing me while crossdressed, and the shame would be unbearable… It’s true that if work or unavoidable social events postpone my crossdressing time, I’ll be unhappy, but I won’t be crying and feeling depressed (or angry) about it: it’s just the way things are.
“This is just the way things happened to me” is pretty much my attitude towards everything: resignation and acceptance. If I had born a female, things would have been wonderful, but I wasn’t, so why worry? If I felt actually terribly depressed about “being in the wrong body”, and exhibited strong homossexual desires towards having a male sexual partner, I would very likely be a good candidate for transition therapy; but I don’t feel any kind of depression or anxiety, and I’m very heterosexual, with even a minor homophobia. Sure, I’m trapped in the wrong body, but so what? I still love and adore women, I’m totally attracted to everything feminine, so I’m actually in the right physical body for that. Shouldn’t I be glad? I don’t like anything that is male — including my own body — but so what? It allows me access to a female partner, whom I cherish, and I can still be a crossdresser to “feel like a woman” with my dresses and behaviour, but most importantly, in my mind. I can dream of being a female. Just because I’m in the wrong body, I can have all of that.
And am I really “in the wrong body”? Well… to this I have to answer carefully. Under some circumstances, I would certainly transition and take the risks. What circumstances are that? My parents would be utterly shocked and the idea would probably straight-out kill them (literally so). Nobody in my family would understand me and they would all shun me. Not a single one of my friends would remain. The only person that would possibly support me, besides my wife, is her own mother, but even so, to very small doses — she would possibly tolerate me but not exactly accept my company as she does now; meaning that she might come to have some tea with us once in a while, but never invite me again for the Christmas dinner. My neighbours would shun me completely. Although I’m lucky enough to be able to do most of my work remotely, I would never be able to go to a business meeting again (that might be an advantage!). So… am I prepared to leave all that just to enjoy the pleasure and benefits of living full-time as a woman?
I used to answer with a carefully-pondered “no”. A classic transexual, by contrast, sees that they’re ready to drop all that in favour of transitioning; everything is supposed to be better than continue to be trapped in the wrong body. It’s transition or death; and, as said, half of them prefer death anyway.
I most certainly don’t feel that way. I just look back at my tremendously short life and think, “what a waste, it would have been so much more fun if I had been female all the time”. But then I think again, more carefully, and tell myself that I’m just deluding myself. If I had been born female, I would have had different problems. If I had been born femaleand lesbian, I would not have the wonderful partner I have now; finding partners would definitely have been a problem. Born female, lesbian, and with a low libido would definitely have been terrible. I have two out of three — isn’t that enough? Is it so important to fantasise about those “what if?” scenarios? When I thought about that, years ago when I revealed myself to my wife, I was rather truthful when I answered her single question: “Do you wish to change your body?” I answered, with a short hesitation, “No. I’m not a transexual, just a crossdresser” — because, for me back then, a transexual was someone in a deep and advanced state of constant suffering about being in the wrong body, and I most certainly didn’t feel that way back then.
Let me put it into a different perspective. How many of you dream of having something different in your lives? We might dream about a new car, a new home, a voyage to some place special for us. We might read about the subject, collect images of our dream car or home, engage in online discussions about cars, homes, or travel locations, and so forth. It’s a dream, and we have basically three approaches towards it.
We can feel a sense of utter frustration for not achieving that dream. The frustration leads to depression, and we suffer so much that we can’t even function properly anymore. Friends, family, our education and work, nothing interests us except fullfilling that dream, but we have no energy left to pursue it, because we are so depressed. That’s how the classical transexual feels about their lives in the wrong body. Constantly.
We can simply accept that as a dream, but never fullfill it. It’s nice to imagine or pretend that we will actually have that fancy new home or even travel to the distant, exotic place, but since we’re aware that it is a huge effort that we are not prepared to make, we don’t really get frustrated about it. We just consider it a nice dream to have.
Or we can actively pursue the goal without feeling depressed about it. We save up money for the airplane ticket, even if that means spending less time with family and friends. We continue to work and to socialise as much as possible, but we tell our friends about the changes in priority: eventually, one day, we’ll have enough to make the voyage, and so they will have to be ready that we won’t be around any more.
The classic transexual fits the first example, and our current society has devised means to help them out to transition successfully. The huge success rates of transition are not because most transexuals get awesome, lithesome bodies of porn sex starlets, but simply because they finally can lead their lives inside the right body, no matter how it looks like. Since there is so much success in easing the suffering of all those people, medical science and legislation have taken giant steps to make the whole process as easy as possible, and every year it gets easier and easier. For instance, in my country, it just takes 8 days to change your sex and name — and you don’t need to do any hormonal therapy or SRS. You just need to get a panel of doctors to certify that you’re a transexual and wish to transition to your desired sex; surgery and hormones are unimportant. There are men with vaginas and women with penis legally registered in Portugal, and they’re very happy just being like that; for all legal purposes, they’re “men” and “women”, no matter what’s beneath their clothes, which no-one but their partners can see anyway.
Ten years ago, I thought that was all there is. There were classic transexuals, and, well, crossdressers, who can dress for different reasons. Crossdressers that don’t suffer from depression for being in the wrong body are just that: crossdressers. Sure, they’re different from crossdressers that just dress up to enhance their sexual drives, but so what? We’re all different.
Recently, however, research has shown that things are not so simple as they once were thought to be. There is a spectrum of gender identity, and not all of it implies frustration, depression, and a non-functional life. Another analogy might be worth a try: imagine two people with the same diagnostic for an incurable, chronic disease. The first one immediately enters a depression, and that becomes so deep, that they end up killing themselves; if there is nothing worth living for, because the disease is incurable, they might stop the suffering here and now by killing themselves. The other person accepts their condition and makes the best of it while they still have time; they look at their options. Perhaps some medication can ease the pain and return them to a fullfilling life, even if conditions have changed. In most cases — sadly not all — those people can cope. They can become stronger and even happier to a degree. They have conquered something inside themselves — the tendency to get depressed as soon as something happens against their will — and just be content with being alive and going on. So… is this second person really ill, if she doesn’t show any signs of suffering from the illness?
Of course she is. But she’s coping with it. The illness is still there, she just doesn’t let it affect her so much. There is a physical cause — the illness in itself — and a mental cause — how we react to the illness.
Now with transexualism things are similar (even though the separation between physical and mental is by far not the same). All kinds of transexuals have gender identity disphoria. Some suffer from it at terminally depressing levels, often from tender age, and most certainly from their teens onwards. Others, by contrast, recognise sooner or later that they have a gender identity that is misaligned with their bodies, but they accept it. Sometimes they embrace it via (temporary) crossdressing, sometimes not even that. Crossdressing, even with the implication that it’s never a permanent solution, is often all the relief necessary these individuals need.
That’s the reason, in my mind, for two so different types of crossdressers. At one extreme, crossdressing is a very strong fetish for individuals with a very high libido and a powerful sex drive that urges them towards a feminine image. Whatever the reason driving to crossdressing, the ultimate goal is just one: having engaging, fullfilling sexual relations, with increased frequency. A second group doesn’t look at crossdressing as a way to fullfill sexual desire but mostly as a stress-relieving adoption of a role which is viewed as being less demanding that a male one; this is actually a quite frequent type of crossdresser. Sex might not be a motive, but crossdressing becomes nevertheless erotic, as we subconsciously associate sex as being a good tension-reliever, and, vice-versa, tension-relieving activities are easily tagged as erotic. These kinds of crossdressers will be very regular in their sessions, will take a lot of care with their feminine role and image — the better it is, the more relaxed they will feel, the higher their intensity of (erotic) pleasure will be, and so forth. There is no real desire to transition to a female role; these crossdressers are almost always heterossexuals with families (or planning to have families) and just found that the occasional (or frequent!) “escape” from their stress-inducing male role provides them with mental stability, relaxation, and a better ability to cope with their lives.
It’s not surprising that this group tends to view themselves as being strongly in touch with their feminine sides and able to blend male and female aspects of their minds into a single, unified personality. They become loving and caring husbands that will help at home, be gentle, display their emotions fully, love to chat and to interact socially, and exhibit a lot of traits that are usually more common (from a socio-cultural perspective) with females, but without discarding their male personalities and lives. For a long, long time I identified very closely with this group, because its description seemed to fit rather well with what I felt.
As time passed, however, and as I further analysed my own mind and its thoughts, I found that I was not being very precise in my early analysis. Sure, crossdressing is a relief. Sure, I don’t feel an overpowering urge of having sex, crossdressed or not; my libido remains low. Sure, my feminine auto-image is quite important to me, much more, say, than my male one, and the closer I achieve that ideal image, the better I feel about it. And I certainly exhibit some (often carefully disguised) female traits, even when in “male mode”. Since I have a male body, people just shrug those slight inconsistencies away. Nobody ever suspected me of being anything else than a male heterossexual; not even my wife, who would never have figured it out on her own, even after knowing me for some seven years with deep intimacy — and she usually figures out things about myself pretty instantly.
I was slightly different from most crossdressers I’ve met online (but not all!!) but not overwhelmingly different than them, so I never gave much thought besides that. Perhaps the biggest difference to most of them is my very low libido, which, to some, is incomprehensible; in fact, the thing that bothers me most on some of my CD friends is their intensely predatory, very male sexuality, because it somehow feels “wrong”; as a matter of fact, sexual predatory traits in females (genetic females, that is) always make me uncomfortable, just because I associate them with maleness. But that’s just the way I see things.
The other slight difference is my relationship towards transition. For most CDs I know, that’s just something to joke about, and a convenient fantasy which is very exciting for many, but not something to be taken seriously. In my case, I tend to get fascinated by the tales of courage displayed by crossdressers who, at some point in their lives, even though they didn’t really plan it that way, actually engaged into transition. While I always assumed that they were just classic transexuals, a deeper analysis showed me that was not really the case. Many dreamed of crossdressing in their teens, supressed the desire until adulthood, then started crossdressing more and more, and suddenly, one day, they made the decision to go ahead with transition. What fascinated me is that they didn’t fit in the classical case of transexuality; while they were “merely crossdressers” they enjoyed it a lot and never discussed transition openly. They were not depressed or obsessed about transition; in fact, most were quite happy persons before transition, and just became even happier afterwards. Again, they didn’t “fit” in the classical models, and this somehow made me curious about them.
Thus the old joke. Somehow, the joke is not so silly as it is meant to be. For so many of them, crossdressing was just a first stage to get in touch with their perceived gender identity and let it express itself freely. As they crossdressed more and more, they realised at some point that this is exactly what feels right for them. And one day they gathered courage, took the plunge, and simply became women full-time.
While this confused me a lot — even though I rejoiced in their courage and determination to be fully female! — I used to think in a strange way and say to myself: “What a pity that I’m no transexual. I would just love to do the same thing. It should be just wonderful to be transexual, enjoy crossdressing for a few years, and then go straight into the realm of transition. Alas, I’m merely a crossdresser, so I won’t be able to follow them in that path.”
But this is rather stupid to think (besides being very unfair for the poor transexuals and their constant suffering). I was somehow stuck with definitions, with concepts. Having labeled myself as a crossdresser, something which had already taken a few years to accept, I felt that was a definite label, and I would derive some comfort from knowing what I was. Sure, not all definitions were perfect, but “crossdresser” fit me rather well, so it was like a comfortable dress that one still wears even though it doesn’t fit; we prefer to stick with what we know best and are more comfortable with instead of dealing with the agonies of change.
But the label is coming loose… it doesn’t stick so well nowadays. If it falls off, what shall replace it? I’m definitely not a classical transexual. I never felt any anxiety. I was never depressed. I’m not obsessed with changing my own body. It’s a dream, a fantasy, but nothing else. Or is it?
A year or so ago I watched the movie Normal. It’s a very interesting story about a male factory worker who, after 25 years of being very happily married, realises he’s a transexual and goes through transition. When I first watched it, I didn’t dislike it, but I thought it was not realistic. He went through his tender years without fuss; and most of his male life was a happy and fullfilling one. All of a sudden he realises he wants to really be a woman and transitions.
Now, I said to myself, I could understand the movie if he were merely a crossdresser. But, so I went, it’s impossible to wake up one day and realise that one is really a transexual, and, all of a sudden, start transition. That simply doesn’t work like that. So the movie lost some appeal because it was so unrealistic to me.
It was just recently that I understood that the movie is quite realistic. Back then, I thought that I could have been that guy on the movie, but since I’m “merely a crossdresser”, I wouldn’t transition — that option would never be available to me. Now that I know otherwise, I started to think a lot about it.
So, am I a transexual or a crossdresser? An old way to tell the difference is asking a typical question: if there was a pill to change your body into female that would last 24 hours and then you’ll return to your male body, would you take it? Crossdressers would certainly say “yes”. Transexuals would buy the pill by the truckload. The next question would be: now imagine that the pill only works once, and you’ll be stuck in your female body forever, with no hope to turn back. Would you still take the pill? Crossdressers would say “no”: the notion that crossdressing is a “temporary” respite, but they wish to go back to their male role, their family, friends, and so on, and just occasionally dabble into crossdressing when feeling the urge. A temporary change is out of the question. While transexuals, of course, would line up in a queue desperately waiting for the shop to open to buy their pill.
I’ve always been part of the second group. What is there to turn back to? Being male isutterly boring. I would certainly take a painless pill to wake up tomorrow as a beautiful woman and spend the rest of my life like that. I have no doubts about that!
Where the doubts start to appear is when I consider that there is no magic pill. There is… transition. A long, painful process, where your own willpower is tried to the extreme for an extended period, during which you will not look like a woman but will have to live like one anyway, and suffer the consequences of ostracism, rejection, prejudice, and even physical pain. After that, a long period of all kinds of surgery, depending on how male your body is. And only after that, you’ll get a simile of a woman’s body: your skeleton will not change. Your voice will not change. If you go through SRS, in 80-90% of the cases, you will just get a neovagina that looks exactly like the real thing, but might not even give you any pleasure at all. In summary, if you start as an ugly, broad-framed male, which nevertheless will not attract a second glance on the street, you’ll end up as a very ugly, broad-framed female, pumped up with hormones and probably nice breasts, but not much more to show than that; you’ll get all the attention on the street, and most of it will be anything but flattering. Is it worth the whole trouble?
For a classical transexual, the answer is “of course it is!”. For the secondary transexual, like I seriously suspect to be, I have a lot of doubts. Sure, I can pass on webcam, half the time at least; it’s easy when you know which angles look better, and have appropriate makeup which looks good on a camera. But when I dress casually at home with just a wig, a corset, some boobs, and no makeup, I look like a monster from a B series Hollywood movie: I don’t even look like an ugly female, I just look like an ugly guy. And this is how I would have to face the world, every day, after transition.
It’s a huge step to take, and I’m not sure at all I wish to go through that. Perhaps what worries me most is the “real life” test: two whole years of going out as an ugly male in drag, just to somehow make a point to the therapists. After that, assuming I “survive” the test, I can get as much surgery as I can afford to improve my appearance. Somehow, this sounds backwards to me: I see it as much logical to get the best possible female appearance first, and only start the real life test as soon as there is a remote chance of not getting bricks thrown at me on the street. But it’s not how it works! I suppose that the purpose is to deal with prejudice and rejection under the worst possible conditions first, knowing that after those two years things can only improve (namely, with surgery, and for some, a slight improvement with hormonal therapy). So hmm… am I really prepared to do all that??
Of course I can just try to take some hormones for half a year for starters and not “reveal” myself (except in private). At my age, hormones will not make a huge difference. I won’t grow insanely large breasts: except for my aunt, every female in my family has tiny breasts, so it’s unlikely I’ll get anything special. After six months on hormones, the only change that might be apparent is a slight redistribution of body fat, and that is easily disguised under loose male clothing; I’m sure that not even my own mother would notice. My skin might become smoother, but except for my wife, nobody will know that. And I’ll get a terrible temper and mood swings, to the chagrin of everybody around me, but I’ll just be prepared to apologise as much as I can.
After six months of that, what next? My already very low libido will probably go down to zero. I will still look ugly and male, even though I might get good skin, and my hair will stop falling. So what? Putting on a dress without makeup and all my “enhancements” will still not make me look very female; so I will need to use all of that and hope for the best. After six months, I should have completed the removal of most facial hair, so at least I might save a lot of time dressing up, and if I start the real life test after those six months, I’ll certainly spend some money on getting a proper hairdress (with extensions) and permanent long nails. All that will at least shorten the time I need to get dressed, and those will certainly be advantages: I need desperately to cut down that time to, say, one hour at most (I usually take 2 1/2 hours at least) so that I can go out every day looking as best as the makeup industry can help.
But it’s not a very nice and encouraging future to look up to. Again, as said, primary transexuals have no such qualms; anything is better than being trapped in a male body. I have asked a local researcher about how many give up the real life test, and she told me that the numbers are negligible. The few that stop are the ones that suddenly have to take care of an elderly parent for a while, or lose their jobs and need to pick another one still as males. None ever turns back if the decision is just up to them. The only cases with little success are with the non-classical transexuals: those are the ones that suddenly realise they have made a big mistake and return comfortably to their male roles (before hormone therapy becomes irreversible) and to the occasional crossdressing. That might happen to me as well.
I simply don’t know.
But I intend at least to ask around for advice from some specialists, and, if and when I make a decision, I wish to make it as informed and well-prepared as humanly possible.