Reflecting upon transgenderism

While I was on my short “forced” vacations, I had brought with me a PDF copy of Richard Ekins’ Male Femaling: A grounded theory approach to cross-dressing and sex-changing. It’s an academic study from 15 years ago, and thus slightly outdated, which tries to formulate a framework for discussing transgenderism, travestism, and transexuality, under a common label that Ekins calls “male femaling“.

Although the text is not exactly light reading, it’s also not overly complex, and definitely within reach of a non-expert in sociology or psychology. After all, as a crossdresser (who still suspects of being a transexual lacking courage…), I’m supposed to know about the subject 🙂 It’s like reading an academic book about the ‘flu while you’re in bed shivering with cold and a high fever: the technical mumbo-jumbo might not be familiar, but when you’re suffering from the ‘flu, you’ll recognise the symptoms!

Ekins has not much “technical mumbo-jumbo” in his book, so I was curious to read about his approach. At the time the book was written, experts were still fighting over the issue if TG/TV/TS are anomalies or deviations and if they’re psychological or have a physical counterpart (i.e. unusual embryo development that lead us to have a “female-y” brain). As a sociologist, Ekins steps away from those discussions, studies the community immersed in it, and just tries to figure out a theory that classifies all the many examples he’s been in touch with for an extended period of 17 years — enough, for example, to see a lot of crossdressers going through SRS, for example, and others that simply gave up crossdressing as their spouses and family basically prevented them to do so.

He postulates two or three ideas that were interesting to read. The first is no novelty, but might have been back in 1997. He defines three clearly separated axes: sex, sexuality and gender. These should all be familiar to us. Sex is the biological arrangement of our genitalia; sexuality is the kind of partners we prefer; gender is the social presentation (how we project ourselves according to the male/female social roles). While there is nothing new here, Ekins at least is very precise in separating all three aspects. This is particularly significant because he doesn’t clearly separate “transvestites” (the word crossdresser was by then just starting to get commonly adopted) from “transexuals”, and argues that the labels transgendered and gender dysphoria were brand new labels (in 1997) to try to mix all things into neat new categories. So, for Ekins, there is no problem to accept that male transexuals might wish to have their body’s sex changed to female genitalia, and appear socially as females (gender), but remain attracted to other women (sexuality). For 1997, this was pretty radical, as by then it was believed that male-to-female transexuals would always be attracted to males, pre-op and post-op, and anything else would be “anomalous” and not “true transexuality” at all. We know better today, of course, so Ekins early approach was refreshing. He also introduces the notion of “gender transience” (not his word, but of one of the TGs he interviewed) to establish the classification of any “male femalers” (i.e. individuals born with male genitalia who somehow develop the urge to adopt female behaviour, bodies, and/or dressing) who simply refuse to fit in a single category — and either go from male to female according to wish or location, or adopt an androgynous look and feel (both physical/appearance and behaviour).

Being a sociologist and not a psychologist, Ekins doesn’t want to go much into explaining the reasons for thinking or feeling that way, but he’s more interested in seeing how individualsdevelop and how they fit within society. By doing so, he establishes three new labels, which are very close to the polemic model of Blanchard, which is completely out of fashion and much debated — something I’m deeply sorry about, since it explains so neatly a lot of things.

Ekins cleverly uses a slightly different approach than Blanchard when introducing his classifications, which are: body femalinggender femaling and erotic femaling, and is lucid enough to explain that all three may be present in the same person, or that a person can move through each label as they progress in their lives (unlike Blanchard who believed that his own categories — autogynecophilic crossdresser, fetishist, and libidinous — were mostly “solid” and wouldn’t change).

Body femaling is related to the physical appearance. This is the typical wish: “I would like to be a female and change my body accordingly”. A TG interested in body femaling might not go through the whole route to SRS, but start with something simple as depilation. A lot of crossdressers won’t even go that route for fear of getting “discovered”; shaving their beard is the most that they will do (I certainly began that way!). After temporary depilation, permanent depilation might come, and then perhaps ear piercing (for wearing earrings), growing long hair, and so forth, culminating into taking hormones, and going through surgery to get a nice pair of boobs and possibly a vagina. These are merely degrees of intensity of the body femaling aspect, and in many TGs they might be totally lacking, while in others — most notably the clinically-recognised transexuals — it means a full body change, as far as modern surgery is able to provide it. Also note that for some TGs, the desire to have a different body beneath their clothes is enough; they might never feel the urge to dress and act like a woman, either in public or private. And most notably is the fact that body femalers might not associate any sexual activity with the change of their bodies; the focus is in changing the body, not the sexual partnerships; and there is not necessarily a sexual drive to change the body, but just the keen desire to feel better because one has a female body instead of a male body.

Next, gender femaling can be defined as “I wish to look and act like a woman”. This is the most classical type of crossdresser, and the most well-studied type, specially in the past. The gender femaler isn’t necessarily keen in doing any body modifications (even depilation might be too risky), and is just happy with wearing some clothes and adopting a woman’s behaviour in public (which obviously includes typical stereotypical female activities — going out for shopping or to a salon, for instance, but also home chores). Nevertheless, this class includes the type of crossdresser which aims to pass — it’s not merely “casual” crossdressing for fetishist behaviour, but the desire to interact with others using a female persona which is deemed to be socially acceptable. Actually “passing” is not so important as having that as an aim; gender femalers might instead just wish to “go out with other T-girls”, where obviously everybody knows their “true nature”, but pretends otherwise (in the good sense of the word “pretending”, of course).

Finally, there is the erotic femaler. Ekins curiously has several stages or steps for “erotic femaling”, starting with just the fantasy of being a female (or looking like one) giving rise to sexual pleasure, which usually results in masturbation and orgasm. At this stage, there are close ties with Blanchard’s classification of autogynecophilia, with perhaps the difference being on the focus that the erotic femaler might not think themselves as “female” but just imagines a self-projection as female for erotic pleasure. This type, of course, includes all sorts of fetishism around “being/looking like a female” for erotic pleasure. After the pure “fantasy” phase (i.e. where everything is justimagined), many TGs turn to crossdressing as a strong fetish, catalysing pleasure by “feeling female”. This can be, as said, purely happening inside one’s mind; it can use few assorted female props (panties, stockings, a bra, and so forth); it can require full crossdressing; and of course it can also “borrow” from the other two types, i.e. sexual pleasure for acting and behaving like a female and even wishing to further modify their physical bodies to get the full pleasure of physically feeling like a female. Thus, the very old and outdated classification of “primary transexual” is pretty much the individual that has all three types of “femaling” very strongly developed: namely, desiring to have a female body, living and behaving like a woman, and employing the body and the associated female lifestyle for sexual pleasure (usually with male partners). Ekins classification, however, shows that this is just one type of several possible combinations and permutations, and limiting “transexualism” to that type is too limited.

For me, though, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ekins book is not the classification itself (his framework has more types, labels, and classifications; he’s intellectually honest enough to consider them not definitive, never written in stone, but just guidelines), but what he calls a career path. Since I’m no sociologist, I don’t know if this is a common definition in sociology or not. What he means is how an individual approaches transgenderism and how it develops. He proposes that every individual goes through several stages, from “discovery” (in his examples, always very early in their age), which he calls “beginning femaling”. This stage is usually rich with feelings of fear, guilt, and utter lack of understanding about what it is all about. Transgendered males may feel drawn to female clothes, to the female body (wishing to have one), or even to masturbation using/rubbing female clothes — this indicates that they might develop as “erotic femalers” later on. Others might depilate themselves on impulse, for example (and immediately regretting it afterwards), a sign of emerging “body femaling”. Others might never “do” anything but dream about the fantasy of being female, sometimes even imagining themselves as females when having sex with their partners. This is the second stage: after an initial contact with the wonderful and mysterious experience of crossdressing, we start dreaming and imagining about it with increasing frequency — this is the “fantasy femaling” stage. Some will never leave this stage and be content with it. Most of us who don’t live our whole lives 24h/7 as women will spend most of our time imagining about getting dressed again and how exciting it will be, with short, regular intervals where we actually crossdress.

The next stage, which Ekins calls “doing femaling”, is where crossdressing becomes more than a single, occasional event. It’s when we realise that we actually “need” to crossdress, but still don’t know why. It’s a period of confusion and constant purging — buying female clothes, wearing them once, feeling guilty about it, and throwing them away. In this period, sex/sexuality/gender may be confused as we ask ourselves why we crossdress and what for: are we homosexual? Transexual? Deviant? Fetishists? Just do it to relax? While the issue remains unsettled, we might really wander around the crossdressing world unable to figure out the answer. I remember that in my own “doing femaling” stage I initially adopted a drag queen look, to reject it after a few sessions; then purging all my clothes for a while; slowly building up a new wardrobe; rejecting crossdressing altogether for fearing it would interfere in my ability of maintaining a stable relationship with my partner at the time; then, short periods where I’d have some vacation and crossdress 3 or 4 whole days at the time and realising that this was what felt “right”, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life; and gnawing at fear of discovery when returning, feeling lost, confused, and half-crazy, seeking solace from fellow CDs online to ask them if they felt the same way.

At this stage emerges one behaviour which for many will take a long time: the search for a label that suits us, and that makes us comfortable with, and which somehow defines that what we do is not pure insanity — a justification for our desire to crossdress. By searching for an answer, we start to develop a personal style of crossdressing, and Ekins proposes four different approaches. He doesn’t mean that everybody goes through all four — some embrace just one approach for the rest of their lives and feel content with it. Some mix all four, or progress from one to the other.

The first one is simply “solitary femaling”. This is when we crossdress alone, in absolute secrecy, and are constantly afraid of discovery. There might be several reasons for that (Ekins doesn’t cover all of them), but being married with kids (or still living with one’s parents) is typically the biggest hurdle. Some might be able to deal with those obstacles and develop “solo femaling” — which means perfecting one’s female image to the point of going public, but to non-TG places. Instead it means going out on places where “genetic” males and females interact normally, and just being around them in one’s role as female. It might mean picking special spots where the chance of discovery is remote (or picking a time where few of our friends/relatives/colleagues are around). All interviewed TGs, however, report that once they started “going solo”, they wished to return to it more and more.

An alternative approach is “dyadic doing”. In this scenario, the crossdresser goes out as a woman with a partner, and a special relationship is involved. It might be the CD’s own wife, for example, or an extra-marital partner in, say, a Mistress/Slave scenario. It might be just a special CD friend with whom they go out together shopping or to a beauty salon; or it might be going out with a genetic female friend who understands and supports crossdressing and crossdressers. TGs in this stage point out that the excitement and fun of going out alone on their own is not particularly appealing, and that crossdressing is done within the setting of a “special” relationship, shared with a friend. Similar to the “solo” approach, the location is usually a public one with mostly non-TG individuals; but BDSM scenarios for the erotic femaling types are obviously very popular as well, even of the very mild variety, where the crossdresser just dresses up as a maid and just does various house chores without any sexual involvement; at the end of the day, they just pack their clothes and go back home as males.

The last approach is “group doing”. This means joining a TG group which goes out together regularly, or has their own TG-friendly environment (an apartment, a shop, a club/bar/restaurant). There is no problem about “passing” or “not passing”: all members in the group are themselves TG, and so there is no problem about being “read” as a female or not. Depending on the group, of course, the activities might be held in utter secrecy or be semi-public (like “drag balls” which might be open to the public, not only to fellow crossdressers), and some might be more or less sexual (although Ekins didn’t explore the erotic/sexual environments very deeply). In this scenario, the crossdresser feels little interest in staying at home alone, or going around alone with little opportunity to interact (due to stigma and fear of discovery) and finds the TG community a safe place to be with others who think in the same way and have fun together unlike any other group that the crossdresser might already belong to.

The importance of this last approach is that for some, the notion of crossdressing is always tied to “be part of a community outside the strict gender rules of normal society” — i.e. “we’re normal people who do normal things and not freaks, so we avoid the puritans who reject us and get together to have some fun and mutual support”. While Ekins doesn’t deal with this issue deeply (he gives a few examples, though), I understand that in the case of some transexuals, they actually “fear” being exposed to the “outer world” out there, and remain forever inside the TG community even after transition — because the community is supportive and understanding. Some psychologists tend to frown upon that attitude, because it might show that the person is just adopting a gender and sex change in order to feel more connected to a specific community, and not necessarily to embrace their new gender role in society. Most, of course, see TG communities as a starting point to “rehearse” their future role and are very encouraging about it. The attitude towards the TG community will define the later stages of the TG’s career path.

During this stage, no matter what approach is favoured, it’s time for the transgendered person to really think a lot about what they’re doing. This, in turn, implies grasping for a meaning — a reason, a justification, about why we feel so good about crossdressing. It’s a struggle to make sense of what happens to us that drives us towards crossdressing and finding a reason for it. The struggle can be very hard for a crossdresser in absolute isolation (Ekins wrote the book while information on the ‘net was still scarce, and few organisationshad an online presence — Tri-ESS being a notable exception); but even for solo, dyadic, or group femaling crossdressers, the question begs to be asked: is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? Do I want to do it all the time, or just switch roles every time I feel up to it? Am I transexual, “merely a crossdresser”, or a latent homosexual just wearing women clothes in order to explain my strong attraction to males? As we struggle with these questions, and find temporary answers, we slowly build up a rational explanation for our behaviour and inner feelings, and at some point, we establish — even if temporarily — a label that fits. This will kick us into the next phase: constituting.

In this phase, some crossdressers might simply apply for professional counseling, or they will join a TG support group in order to reinforce their own labels and see how others have dealt with the very same issues. For some, it means relief by understanding that they are “merely crossdressers” who will need to dress occasionally (or periodically) just to feel fine about themselves, and enjoy their female role once in a while. For others, it might mean going all the way through surgery and hormones and accept transexuality. Others still might view their crossdressing as “belonging to a special community of friends”, immerse themselves in this community, and become activists or merely volunteers supporting the organisation. And some will simply realise that there is no point in going beyond fantasy dreaming and fall back to the stage where they just imagine themselves to be female but never feel the urge to crossdress again. There are a lot of different possible outcomes. At this stage, it will also become more clear what we crossdress for. Some will accept that it’s just for erotic pleasure, or even finding occasional partners that are attracted to crossdressers; it just becomes a special form of fetish (erotic femaling). Others will realise that their goal is to look and behave as a woman as closely as possible, to the point of “passing” regularly and enjoying the situation of being addressed as women while crossdressed (gender femaling). Others still will utterly reject their male bodies and wish to progress down the road of removing all remains of their maleness from their bodies (body femaling), not worried if at the end of the road they will take up male or female partners, both, or none. And others still will attempt to “fuse” their male and female personas, and present themselves publicly as either or as a mix of both.

The final stage is that of consolidation. Depending on how crossdressing has been constitued in the previous phase, the result can be one of three different modes: in the first case, crossdressing becomes “a life apart”: there is a strong boundary between “life as a male” and “life as a female”, and they don’t mix. Whatever approach is used to display one’s female image, it will never cross over to the world where the male image predominates. Thus, solitary crossdressers will remain closeted and never “come out”; while the ones engaged in group activity will never dream of inviting, say, family or friends (from their non-crossdressed spheres) to those occasions.

The second mode is substituting. This is typical for what we consider to be modern transexuals (no matter if they’re pre-op, post-op, or non-op at all): all current relationships are discarded by relationships appropriate for the adopted gender. This means “abadoning the past as a male” and embracing “the future as a female”; most bonds will not resist the change, and most transexuals will probably lose their families, friends, and jobs while they assume their new role as women in our society, and thus acquire new relationships, new partners, and new jobs, appropriate for their role. What Ekins notes in this case is that many transexuals are keen to completely erase their past — they don’t want anyone to know that they were male before, and most will not even like the “transexual” label to be applied to them: they are, for all purposes, women, and they don’t want anyone to think otherwise of them. In many cases, this might mean dropping all participation from TG-friendly places or TG communities, abandoning old TG friends who supported the transition, and associate exclusively with people and places completely outside the TG world.

The last possibility is integration: this means mostly transcending the gender duality of male/female and adopting both simultaneously (or neither), by considering that both gender identities are too limited to express themselves fully.

Ekins obviously is honest enough to explain that all those definitions are very fluid and dynamic, and that certain events might suddenly push a transgendered person from one path into another. For instance, a crossdresser living alone might be progressing along the lines of solitary, solo, and group femaling, and considering more and more the possibility of “going full-time” (even without surgery). While they progress along these lines, they might be very solid on their current definitions and know very well what they are and what they wish. Then suddenly they fall in love with the “ideal” partner — a genetic female who opposes transgenderism for some reason — and crossdressing suddenly has to be stopped, and reverted to the “fantasy” stage. Or it might stop being a “public” activity and just become something done solitarily at very limited occasions (when the spouse is away). Or the couple might have a kid, and the crossdressing hubby agrees with his TG-friendly wife that until the kid is an adult, his crossdressing has to be done in secret — afterwards, he might even apply for surgery and remain married. And, of course, for many, being “found out” might trigger a defensive response where all wishes for crossdressing are all of a sudden extinguished, and an explanation is found to “cover up” that act which is claimed to be solitary (e.g. “I made a bet with a friend that I could go out as a woman and pass”).

While of course the book is old and a lot has been further researched since 1997, I found it nevertheless very interesting, and definitely made me think quite a lot. I’m certainly at the stage of looking for a “meaning” for my crossdressing, and, while being forced to remain as a “solitary” crossdresser by my wife, I’m still keen in developing both a “solo” and a “group” style, although I definitely would love to go out in public with my wife (the “dyadic” approach). But every day I wake up thinking if I could simply discard everything in my life and start afresh as a woman. I’m definitely at the stage where I wish to talk to a professional therapist, although I’m not sure about the results: these days, a lot of psychologists working with gender identity disphoria are more prone to encourage transition than to discourage it — and I’m unsure of what I will do with the answer. There is still no “ultimate test” to tell if one’s “merely a crossdresser” or a transexual — only we can possibly know the answer, and I still don’t know my own answer.

Also, I have this keen feeling that “time is running out”. My so-called “best years” are over: I’m about the age where a woman can still use some makeup to look interesting and attractive even without surgery. In ten years, I will need to get regular surgery to cover up wrinkles, and most likely I will need hair transplants or use a wig every day. In twenty years, my favoured style of dressing will not be appropriate for my age any longer; although fortunately the “classical” and “elegant” styles can continue to be worn by women with 60 and 70 years, it mostly implies short hair (which I hate) and uninteresting hairstyles. My body will start to wither and wrinkle up on areas where medical science has made no progress in reverting — arms, legs, hands. Pain and disease will become constant, and no matter how many hormones I’ll take, with old age the glamour of the female image will fade into an androgynous look, until I’ll be stuck to walk around bent and with creaking joints, losing all remains of “glamour”, except for the ability to wear some nice dresses. I know, this might sound too scary and disgusting for some, but it’s the reality that none of us can really escape from. So my best 20 or 25 years are over, and I might have, with luck, some 15-25 years ahead of me to enjoy being female, followed by a slow decline where age will simply be torture and suffering and thus remove all fun from presenting myself as a female. For some, 15-25 years is more than enough, and there certainly are a growing number of males who go through transition way later in their lives, and all of them report that it was worth waiting for. I’m definitely not so sure.

My biggest obstacle right now is definitely my own wife. While she’s still rather young, she already suffers from three medical conditions that will deteriorate over time, and that deterioration is very likely not reversible. None are life-threatening, but all mean frequently going to several different doctors. She will require more and more time from me, and that means even less time for myself. On top of that, she remains an incredibly anxious person, even after three years of therapy. We certainly discussed briefly my own questions about transexuality, but I could feel that she wasn’t taking it very seriously, but just accepting it as another stage where I question myself (and she is probably right!). At this point, to make matters worse, and although we’re both fortunately employed, we’re going through a stage of utter poverty which prevents us to spend any extra money — all goes straight into food and medicine and there is little left besides. Buying a simple lipstick means spending the equivalent of three or four meals, and at this stage, I really have to be careful about that. I had her “permission” to start doing some laser hair removal half a year ago, but I decided that we couldn’t really afford that luxury (and now it’s high summer, the worst time to do that); similarly, I hoped to be able to set a few appointments with a gender identity specialist, but postponed it for better days. Now, I’m not a pessimist, and I’m aware that a few things will change in the next few months that will allow us to pay back a lot of our debts and return us to a comfortable level, but of course I’m also weary of overspending. These days, the economy is way too tricky, and things change too quickly. Spending a lot of money in researching my potential transexuality (and eventually finding out that I’m not up to it) just seems wasteful. Similarly, even if I just wish to go out crossdressed more and more — and just limit my transgendered activity to that — this also means revamping my wardrobe. I’m fortunately losing a bit of weight, which also means that some dresses at least need some fitting, and some items — like the corsets — simply need to be replaced because they don’t fit any longer. But if my wife persists in not allowing me to go out, what’s the point? I can always mix and match my old styles if I just remain at home; I still have a lovely 15-year-old fake velvet black dress which now fits me perfectly, as I’m back to the figure and weight I had in 1996. So currently I just replace minor items — stockings that tear, fake nails that break, the occasional makeup — but postpone any “big changes” in my wardrobe. This year I only bought one pair of shoes; last year, I had bought three plus a pair of boots.

So, well, I’m not stopping my crossdressing. This year’s summer is mild again — great for us crossdressers! — so, after recovering from my own exhaustion, I’ve decided that I will crossdress more and more, even at home, even though my wife will frown upon it. Since I take so much time in dressing up, I need to speed up my routine — and I’ve found out that body hair removal will take at least half an hour, sometimes more, so body hair will have to go away 🙂 With no facial hair I believe I might just need one layer of foundation, so it will certainly speed up things (I have always to wait for the first layer — mostly just red or orange lipstick over the bluish beard area — to dry first). Nails are a problem, because either painting my natural nails or applying fake ones take always a lot of time. Anyway, my goal is to be able to get fully dressed in one hour (I usually take 2½ hours): that will allow me to enjoy crossdressing a lot more often. Even if I eventually go full time, I don’t wish to spend more than one hour every day dressing up!

And I certainly have to devise a way of going out and remain crossdressed for more than half a day. My goal in this area is to revert back to my 1997-1999 period, where I would go away from home for a week or so, and spent half of that time dressed (those days I had to wait for the beard to grow, because I still favoured one, and friends would find it strange if I came back from vacation beardless). Currently, I cannot afford that, but, as said, things will change soon. We’ll see.

Also published on Medium.