Imagine that we turn back the clock to, say, 1995. The World-Wide Web already existed twenty years ago, but it had little information. However, on the other hand, it also had a higher signal-to-noise ration: the little information that existed was rather good.
Imagine that you — born as a male, happy with your girlfriend, looking ahead to a fulfilling married life — had just given up on fighting your urges to wear female clothes. You have just taken hold of your first bra, panties, stockings. The overwhelming desire of putting them on (maybe borrowed from your girlfriend or female family member) is too much; you spend sleepless nights just thinking about wearing those clothes, and, finally, you capitulate — you simply put them on, trembling with excitement and guilt.
And it feels good.
In 1995 or 2015, for many heterosexual males who considered themselves pretty normal up to now, this strange act might suddenly make them question their own existence and their own self-image. What does this mean? Are you gay? Or transexual? Do you suddenly wish to become a woman, get rid of your girlfriend, start a new life having sex with men? What is wrong with you?
So, in 2015 as in 1995, you turn to the Internet for answers. Asking a friend, family member, or a doctor is unthinkable. A public library, where you have to ask the friendly librarian: ‘Sorry, miss, but where can I find books about men who love to wear women’s clothes?’ is simply out of the question. But the Internet is anonymous. Especially back in 1995, nobody would think of tracking you down. You’re alone, safe, and searching for information in the utmost privacy.
And what would you discover in 1995?
Surprisingly, rather a lot. The first dating site — one might claim, the first social networking website, the two terms are interchangeable, but the latter is more politically correct … wouldn’t open before 1997, so you wouldn’t be seeing pictures of guys showing their penis and a pair of stockings saying that they enjoy dressing up as girls to get laid. Instead, in 1995, you would come across the first transgender associations, like Tri-Ess, who were starting to put their first websites online. Even if you didn’t live near a transgender support group, you would still get a lot of valuable information about crossdressing and transexuality from browsing those sites. And, although there weren’t any social networking sites, there still were ‘homepages’ (what we call blogs today). Crossdressers, transexuals, and LGBT activists would put out their own ‘homepages’ and talk about their experiences freely.
The first thing that all those websites would assure you is that you’re normal. By that, it was meant that the urge to wear female clothes is not ‘unnatural’, but simply something that is innate in some males. They would explain the differences between crossdressers and transexuals, but also their common points — namely, that in both cases, it’s nobody’s fault that they were born that way, but it just happened, due to circumstances probably related both to genetics and embryology, and there is nothing you can do about it — except enjoy your extended awareness as a different gender than the one you were assigned at birth.
Crossdressers, in particular, were pictured as heterosexual males with healthy lives and caring families, usually with above-average education and income. It was carefully explained that crossdressing doesn’t imply homosexuality (nor even bisexuality), but merely as a certain mental makeup which creates this urge to manifest one’s inner female image through clothing, makeup, accessories, and adopting female behaviour. Those websites would always insist on how normal and frequent crossdressing is, how there is nothing to worry about, how one’s life wouldn’t be shattered but positively enhanced by crossdressing, and so forth. They would also offer a lot of advice in how to ‘come out’ to one’s significant other, and assure that so many have done it before, and even have enjoyed a more closer relationship than before (because, so those websites claimed, many women actually enjoy having a hubby which is fine in doing house chores and who will never complain about the money spent on clothes, accessories, makeup, cosmetics, and trips to the beauty salon!).
The sheer wealth of information already available by 1995 was actually incredible. You could get lots of stories from others who learned the truth about crossdressing, and how they dealt with it, and empathize with them — ‘this is exactly how I feel, too!’. You would get advices on what styles to wear, where to go to meet fellow crossdressers, where you could order breastforms from the first online shops. Pictures (not yet videos!) would explain how to wear a bra (or how to measure for a bra) and illustrate style options for those who had not been born with a female frame. There was a great sense of community among a group of similarly-minded people who share this urge to manifest their inner image as females; and some would even go further and try to explain how great it was to be able to successfully ‘merge’ somehow those feminine traits with the male traits.
They would also list many reasons for crossdressing. At the top of the list was mostly stress relief; examples were given from people in very stressy positions — firemen or military, CEOs from top companies, air traffic controllers — who would feel immense relief when crossdressing, especially when they were able to adopt a fragile female role, where the only decisions required were regarding what dress to wear. Also very high on the list was the erotic pleasure from wearing women’s clothes, perfume, makeup, and so forth. The ability to ‘enter the female world’ — going out with fellow crossdressers and enjoy a chat over dinner, or a shopping spree at a boutique, things that are usually not done by males, which were now available to the crossdresser. Some of those support groups also offered ‘safe’ locations to go out together, to get professional photo shoots, or even spend vacations crossdressing with others.
At the very bottom of this list was, of course, the sexual pleasure associated with wearing female clothes, especially when having a partner who enjoys that kind of fetish. But, to be honest, in 1995, while this was certainly mentioned, it was delegated to the lowest items on the long list.
A difference would be established between transexuals and crossdressers. Such websites would carefully explain that transexuals are quite different: they don’t want to be women in part-time, but full-time, and that implies modifying their bodies to get aligned with their inner gender. So, although it might sound surprising for readers of 2015, back in 1995 the classifications (made by the community, not by scientists) presented on the Internet were rather simple. If you wished to live full-time as a woman, you were probably transexual. If you wished to enjoy both aspects of your male and female persona, manifesting them both, then you were ‘merely a crossdresser’. As such, both communities apparently shared much more in common, and there would be mutual respect between both. In fact, some websites would also claim that many males might start figuring out that they were crossdressers, but, while getting used to it, and while feeling that crossdressing was so ‘right’ for them, suddenly realised they wished to spend all their lives as women, and thus ‘became’ transexuals. This aspect of ‘becoming transexual’ included serious warnings that you shouldn’t do it on your own but rather consult a medical specialist in the subject, who would do an evaluation on how ‘serious’ your commitment to live as the opposite gender was, and only after that — and the Real Life test — you would actually become a woman. Perhaps surprisingly, FtM transgenderity was little discussed, just mentioned in passing; also, there were no websites for ‘female crossdressers’, since women are allowed in our societies to wear men’s clothes and behave like men if they wish. Back in 1995, the Internet was still mostly a men’s world.
It’s not surprising that, back then, looking at all those websites, reading all that information, it was clear to me that I was a crossdresser. I identified with all those concepts. I didn’t wish to live full time as a woman or go through surgery. I wanted to express myself as a woman, manifest my inner self-image in the female gender. Women’s clothes were exciting. Crossdressing was immensely stress-relieving. Sex was unimportant; I was attracted to women anyway — so much, in fact, that I wanted to be one. So, clearly, this was what a crossdressers was supposed to be, and so that’s what I labeled myself.
In the late 1990s, all the crossdressers I met online were pretty much like me. After all, we would have read the same sites, we were aware of the same information. And most of us would, in a form or another, also spread the news in the same way. As the first social websites emerged, and as Web forums started to become more popular, all those crossdressers would ‘come out’ and talk about their experience. Since we were so alike in our mindsets, this description of crossdressing became the most popular one; in fact, it was almost the ‘official’ description, and anyone not conforming with that description was outed as a ‘fake crossdresser’ and excluded from participation. This was actually very rare. In fact, the overwhelming majority of crossdressers would have much more in common with each other, and they produced almost the totality of information about crossdressing that we find on the web. Actually, even scientific research on the subject tended to be influenced by what those crossdressers wrote about themselves. Researchers would interview members of the most prominent crossdresser supporting groups, like the Beaumont Society, and all of them would agree on what a crossdresser is. Therefore, this sweet image of males wearing female clothes as a form of expressing their inner femaleness became predominant. Yvonne Sinclair (sadly departed in 2013), a prominent activist in the British crossdresser community, published a booklet where she still defines crossdressers/transvestites as
Transvestites dress in order to adopt the stereotyped image of the female, which is invariably a softer, more relaxed person.
This is pretty much how the community described itself. We, crossdressers, are in touch with the ‘gentler’ — female — aspects of our identity, and express ourselves by dressing women’s clothes.
In twenty years, the Internet became mainstream.
We like to sweep the facts under the carpet, but let’s face it — the vast majority of Internet users are just interested in one thing: sex. I’m putting it very bluntly, but that’s actually the main reason for most people to be connected to the Internet; and it’s not just males, either.
‘Sex’ is a vast, vague word, encompassing a lot of activities, not merely the physical act itself. It’s true that ‘only’ 18-20% of all traffic in the Internet is actually porn (mostly videos and images). But that doesn’t account for ‘preliminary’ activities — namely, dating. The first social networking website was a dating website. Launched in 1997, it was clearly targeted for adults in search of a sexual partner, and they were quite clear about it. Facebook, as we’re fond to forget, was created with the sole purpose of having university students announcing themselves as available for sex; that was (and still is) the main reason why it insists that people place ‘real’ pictures of themselves on the profiles. Although the media wishes to oversee this, and Zuckerberg himself plays it down, the truth is that Facebook is the largest dating service ever created. But of course it’s not the only one.
Dating sites are immensely popular, and, in some cases, highly lucrative. It’s rare that a dating site gets bankrupt; rather, they usually get forcibly shut down due to protests and/or lawsuits. Because there is a huge competition among them, it’s also possible that many simply weren’t able to struggle to remain afloat, when the competition introduced more features. In the late 1990s, these dating sites were not prominently discussed by the mainstream media, who tried very hard to suppress their existence by simply refusing to talk about them; the whole idea that a substantial part of all Internet users are using it only for dating is shrugged off by educators, media specialists, marketeers, IT consultants, and so forth, since it accomplished none of their intended goals in passing the Internet as the most amazing tool ever created.
Indeed, the image presented by the media to a mainstream audience is an Internet full of interesting information, albeit they concede that there is also a lot of ‘garbage’ floating around. The image of the average Internet user — which, today, means practically everybody — is someone who is empowered by ‘information at their fingertips’ (a phrase coined by Bill Gates in the 1990s) and conduct mostly ‘serious’ business on the Internet. Of course the media doesn’t shrug off the usage of the Internet as leisure — making sure to point out that Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. take up most of the Internet traffic. But leisure is acceptable. Even a degree of misinformation is acceptable, or at least understandable. Dating, however, is not.
Corporations like Facebook (and possibly Google) are not so naive. They have very successfully deployed an array of tools and features that allow users to find dating partners according to location and preferences. This is subtly done, so that Facebook doesn’t really look like any other of the popular dating sites, and thus enhances its reputation on the mainstream media. It’s just when ads started to fail to generate revenue for some corporations that Facebook’s model was questioned (Facebook obviously recovered by offering ads to smaller companies — many of which very keen in attracting dating users! — and did not suffer any financial setback because of that). Interestingly, marketeers tend to completely misunderstand the apparent failure of Big Corp ads on Facebook, and attribute it to all kinds of wrong causes. They fail to mention the power of Facebook as the world’s leading dating site — and when struggling to find sexual partners, users are definitely not interested in clicking on ads for Coca-Cola, BMW or IBM.
Many dating sites exist purely for the crossdresser/transgender community. However, even in generalist dating sites, the proportion of crossdressers (more than transexuals) is astonishingly high. And here we start to see a huge difference between the sweet image presented by crossdressing websites in the 1990s and the reality.
The ‘classical crossdresser’ of the 1990s rarely joins dating sites. There are obviously exceptions, but they are usually not interested in finding sexual partners. Instead, they wish to discuss more intellectual subjects regarding crossdressing, gednder identity, and the practical aspects of going out as a woman. Although the online environments specifically created for this kind of crossdresser are not that many, the community is rather vocal, and, as such, it carries a lot of weight on search engines, and, therefore, it still remains the dominant (online) picture of what crossdressing is supposed to be. The ‘other kind’ of crossdressers have no time to discuss philosophical questions. They have only one purpose in mind — just like, in fact, the majority of Facebook users — which is to present themselves as willing partners looking for some bed fun.
Now, it’s important at this stage to explain two things, one of which I’m constantly repeating: I’m not a prude and have absolutely no problem in having a majority of Internet users looking for sexual partners online. In fact, I might be exactly on the other side of the spectrum: I find the Internet in general, and those dating sites in particular, an extremely important tool for such activity! Although I believe that many people might think otherwise, the truth is that at least one third of all marriages started with online dating, at least in the US. That is a good sign. Think about it: if the Internet weren’t used for online dating, all these people would never have met and would be very unhappy without a partner! Indeed, I even believe that the Internet allows us to get better partners, because there is a way to figure out their preferences before we date, and we can flirt with potential partners in a safe environment, without pressure, and be far more choosy than ‘in real life’, because we have far more options.
Just think of someone who is in search for a partner in real life. They might start among their circle of colleagues (school or business); among their neighbourhood; among their leisure activities that they might be engaged in (e.g. at the gym); in bars or clubs. But there is a limit to how many people you can meet this way. You might be ‘lucky’ to get the ‘perfect partner’ by meeting someone by chance, but that’s not so likely. In fact, just because you live in the same neighbourhood is no reason for having anything in common with someone else; while at some leisure activity you will at least have one thing in common, it might not be enough!
By contrast, when searching for partners online, you can find people who have a lot in common with you. And even if they might not be totally honest about themselves at the beginning, it’s still better than picking up a hot date on a bar, where you have a very limited time frame to ‘know’ someone and figuring out they’re the best partner for you. At least on the Internet you do have a bit more time to explore the relationship, and can also see what kind of friends they have, what communities they belong to, where they claim to live, and so forth. So I actually believe that starting an online relationship is better than just causally meeting someone in a bar.
Therefore, I also look upon dating sites (including Facebook!) as very positive tools. Of course not all dating sites are the same (I got a bit angry with the idiots at Twoo, because they recently spammed all my friends without my permission), but, in general, I find them useful.
However, dating sites suddenly tell a different story.
Setting up a profile on a dating site is comparatively easy — compared to, say, running a blog. You just put a couple of pictures, add a micro-biography, tell your preferences, and there you go, after five minutes you’re ready to search for people that interest you (and vice-versa). This means that this is much more suitable to be used as a ‘mainstream’ tool, and that, in turn, means that a lot of more people are going to use them.
And this definitely was the case with crossdressers. They started popping up like crazy on all those dating sites. Most would only show their legs on their profile pics, or possibly other parts of their bodies, wearing usually not much more than stockings and heels. Face shots were rare. In some extreme cases, you would get the sluttiest possible expressions in outfits that would make street whores blush. Then again, this was pretty much the equivalent of males looking for partners who just post pictures of their dicks, but rarely from the rest of their bodies.
It was by that time that my innocence was shattered. These were the real crossdressers — not the Disneyesque variants that I read about in those websites in the 1990s. The first-generation crossdresser websites took pains to keep the flood of ‘real crossdressers’ out of their websites — banning porn, banning anyone who would post personal ads, and trying very hard to keep them out. I remember that, for at least two crossdresser communities, I needed to write an application, explaining that I was not interested in dating and crossdresser porn — or else I wouldn’t be able to register an account. These measures kept the illusion that only ‘a few’ crossdressers were ‘on the hunt’ for sexual partners, and we, the true crossdressers, looked upon them with contempt and excluded them from our websites — and from our sight as well.
Blinded by all those measures, I failed to realise the simple reality. We are not the ‘real’ crossdressers at all. The real crossdressers are just one of many sexual kinks that are available out there.
It took me several years to actually understand what is really going on in the crossdressing world. And it should have been obvious: after all, the ratio of crossdressing friends on my list who are just out there for sexual pleasure, versus those that are interested in exploring a different sexual fantasy, is about 10:1. I just considered that a statistical anomaly. Much later, however, I came across some sociological studies that validated those numbers: 90% of all crossdressers really just dress like women to get sexual pleasure.
There are many, many reasons for that. Over the years I came across a vast variety of cases, and I will try to summarise them here.
One frequent case is a mix of ‘novelty value’ with latent homosexuality (which is typically rejected as such). These are mostly bicurious males who are after homosexual sex, but utterly refuse to label themselves as such, and, therefore, adopt a feminine persona in order to create a fantasy where a man and a ‘woman’ are having sex. By telling themselves that they are expressing an inner side of themselves, which is not ‘their true self’, but merely a projection of a fantasy, they attract male partners who have the complementary fantasy, i.e. a desire to have sex with men who dress like women.
A variant appears when a crossdresser assumes that there is, indeed, a part of themselves that is really female, and, as such, wishes to experience sex as a female, with a man. Since they have no intention to do any body modifications, that means oral and anal sex, and usually — but not always — adopting the passive role. This case is different from the first, because there is indeed a ‘female’ aspect to the crossdresser which is accepted and assumed, and enacted as such when crossdressing. Additionally, in some cases, the object of desire might be another genetic woman, or even another crossdresser — it’s not limited to conventional male/female sexuality.
Many cases are typically ‘novelty’ value. In those, the crossdresser might have come across either the BDSM or the swinger communities and experimented with both, finding them lacking. In some D/s cases, sissification is prevalent, and this is an experience which they find satisfactory, so, after toying with the idea, they start dressing up as girls in search of a ‘master’. Usually, the master is female (a domme), but this is not always the case; many will gladly accept a male master as well.
This case is hard to classify, because these people are just into crossdressing for the novelty value. They might drift out of crossdressing after a while, as soon as the novelty fades, and some new and exciting sexual kink becomes more popular. Apparently, crossdressing is currently very fashionable. But the fad might disappear, and we might hear things like: ‘Oh, you’re still crossdressing? My, that is so 2010! These days we do sex pretending to be aliens from outer space!’
Some of you might be laughing, but it’s not the first time I’ve got a message from an old acquaintance asking me: ‘You’re still a crossdresser? Haven’t you moved on?’ and telling me what their current kink is. Perhaps role-playing as an alien from outer space is not popular yet, but there are way more fantasies out there… and who can predict which one will be popular next?
I have no intention to describe these crossdressers are shallow; in fact, the ones among them that I count as close friends are anything but that. Another common case is crossdressing due to sexual frustration with one’s current partner. A typical example is living with a ‘plain vanilla’ female partner who wears boring lingerie and cannot bother to dress up for a fancy dinner, but just goes out in jeans and a T-shirt. In those cases, the male crossdresser will project the fantasies on how they would prefer their partners to look like, and what they ought to wear, and how they ought to perform in bed, and sort of fulfill their fantasies by dressing as they wished their partners to be. This, in turn, leads to looking for new sexual partners who are willing to enact those fantasies with them, outside their relation. In fact, I can empathise with this kind of crossdresser, since one of the many reasons I started to crossdress (instead of merely crossdream) was because I would never find a female partner who would look and dress like I wished them to look and dress (and, in fact, I never did). So I thought, why shouldn’t I look and dress as I imagine the perfect woman to be?
I don’t know how frequent this type is, but I certainly came across a few; I would probably claim it’s a minority, though.
All the above cases are mostly what used to be called ‘libidinous crossdressers’, and they are, by far, the majority. A second group, formerly known as ‘fetishist crossdressers’, just wear women’s clothes because ‘looking like a woman’ is sexually enticing. Fetishism, by definition, is when the object of sexual desire is transferred to an object (or just part of a human body, like feet, which is a very common fetish) or a situation. The difference, as you can see, is very slight. In the first case, the crossdresser dresses like a woman in order to get a sexual partner; in the second case, it’s the dressing act itself that is sexually exciting. Technically, fetishist crossdressers might not even require a partner at all; they get all the sexual pleasure just from wearing women’s clothes and acting like women. In practice, of course, many fetishist crossdressers might be after ‘the full female experience’ which also includes having sex with a (preferably male) partner. So, once more, in both cases it’s really all about sex.
Contrast this with the naive descriptions you get about crossdressing on so many crossdresser sites (yes, including older articles from yours truly).
Now, this definitely raises an issue, related to social acceptance of crossdressing. Because an estimated amount of 90% of crossdressers are really just after sexual pleasure of some sort, there is a culture clash — with not only the non-crossdressing majority of the population, but also with the much smaller group of transexuals, as well as the tiny group of crossdressers for which the sexual aspect, while possibly important, can be safely downplayed. As I’ve so often reported, most transexuals do not go through transition primarily because of sexual desire; in fact, in some countries, if that’s the only reason for transition — having a better sex life — the transition is rejected. Nevertheless, there is a subgroup of crossdressers who, to get more sexual pleasure, do some body modifications as well — usually, outside established medical procedures. This often means getting at least some breast implants, possibly some hormones, possibly some facial feminization surgery, but usually keeping the male genitalia around. We know them by the name shemales, which is a derogatory term that I would prefer to avoid. But, again, like in the case of crossdressers, we can divide them into two types. A larger group, which is also more visible in the sex dating sites, has one through body modifications almost exclusively for sexual reasons, and seek partners who have the complementary fetish. A smaller group, which might, for some reason, not be qualified to go through an ‘official’ transition, might do some body modifications on their own, to fit their body better to their mental self-image as females, but the sexual aspect might not be the main reason for those modifications. We would label those types as ‘transexuals’ since they went through some body modifications, beyond merely dressing and adopting female behaviour, although from a legal point of view, since those changes have been made ‘outside the system’, society will not recognise their right of being labeled ‘female’ (on ID cards, driving licenses, and so forth).
Things start to get even more blurred when we consider the Brazilian definition for ‘transvestite’. In many countries, ‘crossdresser’ and ‘transvestite’ are synonyms; ‘transvestite’ is merely an older form of the same description, which is considered negatively charged, and, as such, has been abandoned. In my country, ‘transvestites’ are merely performers in the show business: males who dress as females on a stage, as a job. It uses the ancient definition of ‘transvestism’, and ‘transvestite shows’ are still popular. The ‘transvestite’ might not even think of themselves as female, they might be fully cisgendered and heterosexual males, but it’s just a role they play as actors in a performance; some, of course, might also have gender identity issues, be in transition, and so forth.
Brazil, however, there is a clear distinction between ‘transvestites’ and ‘crossdressers’. Crossdressers are males who dress up as females occasionally. When they start living full time as women, they become transvestites. They might even start hormones (not prescribed by doctors) and, in most cases, are after (usually male) sexual partners. Once they start doing body modifications, it means they have, very likely, passed the required medical exams that confirm a gender identity disorder, and therefore they become ‘transexuals’.
Why such a distinction? Again, the main issue here is related to the role sex plays in their lives. Crossdressers might mostly be after sexual pleasure, but many are not; therefore, they view themselves as a separate group. Transexuals, as explained above, have a diagnosed gender identity disorder, and this is usually ruled out if the person claims they want to change their bodies in order to ‘get a better sex life’. Between both extremes are those who want to live as women solely for the sexual pleasure they get when acting and dressing like women, and they wish to do so full time. Since legally they are not entitled to transition, they nevertheless live full time as women, and are also keen to do some kind of body modifications; breast augmentation, for instance, will be readily accessible, as well as phytohormones.
The conflict comes when such groups start demanding some rights, and here is where the main problem is. Transexuals have a clearly established medical condition, and, as such, have the right to treatment, and a right to be legally identified with their desired gender. So they get some support from LGBT groups, from the medical profession, and from jurists and legislators who attempt to provide a legal framework for their existence and non-discrimination. Crossdressers who are not mainly interested in sex will be very supportive of those rights as well, and they might desire a society change which openly allows males to dress female clothes in public and be tolerated; but, since crossdressers only dress occasionally (even if regularly), and not full-time, they will mostly understand how hard such society changes will be.
The issue comes from those part-time or full-time crossdressers who just wish a more exciting sex life, with or without body modifications. And here is the difficulty of acceptance.
Consider the most common example: in a couple, the male suddenly figures out that their sex life is not that exciting, and that even having sex outside the relationship, by itself, is not very fulfilling. By chance, they come across crossdressing, and suddenly realise that this is really what excites them and is totally fulfilling. They have three choices. The first is to reveal themselves to their partners, hoping against hope that their partners also have the complementary fetish, i.e. that they also get sexual pleasure from having sex with a male dressed as a female. Such a female fetish, however, is much more rarer than male crossdressing; it is hardly unlikely that this will work for most crossdressers, although there are certainly exceptions (I’m aware of a few!).
The second choice is to reveal themselves, but explain that they need crossdressing to have a fulfilling sex life, and, since their partner is not interested in exploring such a fantasy, they would like to try it out outside their relationship. As you can imagine, almost no partner will accept that. There are always exceptions, like solid open relationships where such arrangements actually work, but they are way rarer; and even in the most open relationships, it will be hard for the caring wife to fully accept that their husband needs to occasionally (or frequently!) have sex with a male partner outside their relationship, while dressing up as a female. This requires not only a very broad mind, but an extremely high degree of self-esteem and self-confidence; most women will automatically wonder what they’re doing wrong if their partner wants to dress as a woman and engage in homosexual activity with male partners!
The third choice, of course, is the typical one that has been made by males since ancient history: keep it secret, treat it just as a regular adultery with a special sexual fetish.
Because this is by far the largest group, it means that it is also the prevailing image that society has about crossdressing. For the mainstream, male crossdressing is merely one kind of sexual fetishism, one that usually is not shared by the female partner of the relationship, and so has to be done outside the relationship. It also immediately labels those who engage in crossdressing as homosexuals, no matter what the person thinks about it; from an outside perspective, two males are having sex with each other, even though they might be wearing female attire; after all, it’s not the clothes that label the sexual attraction, but the act itself. Interestingly enough, this is not what libidinous/fetishist crossdressers will tell about themselves: almost none (at least I never came across any!) consider themselves to be anything other but heterosexual. The difference is that when they are in ‘male mode’, they prefer having sex with females; when in ‘female mode’, they prefer to have it with males. As such, they always prefer the opposite sex, depending on the mode they currently are, and, because heterosexuality is by definition the sexual attraction of the opposite gender, this is what they perceive to apply to themselves.
In practice, in my own experience when talking with hundreds of libidinous/fetishist crossdressers over almost two decades, this is not quite the case. Almost all of them reveal an unfulfilling sexual life when they are acting as males. They might not openly discuss it — and often not even admit it to themselves! — but the truth is that they rather prefer having sex with male partners while dressed as women. Homosexuality, on the other hand, requires that the person views themselves as homosexual, which is an interesting definition: two same-sex persons can have sex together for all their lives and still not be labeled homosexuals, if they reject that label to themselves; this might sound a contradiction in terms, but it is not. It is actually historically justified, and even evolutionarily. Many higher animal forms, most particularly mammals, and, among those, primates, engage in homosexual activity in order to establish hierarchies. Some homosexual activists tend to point this out as an example that homosexuality has evolutionary roots and is prevalent in nature. They’re correct to a degree, but, in nature, most homosexual behaviour exists mostly to establish who is in charge: it is, so to speak, a form of humiliating candidates to become the ‘alpha male’ in the group. In humans, therefore, in very sexist and machist societies, it’s not unusual that a specially virile male, wishing to establish their maleness among a group, engages in sex with ‘weaker’ males of the group (always playing the active role, of course). In Portugal, for example, which until recently was a very sexist/machist society, it is still common for ‘macho’ types to qualify themselves as ‘so male that they will fuck anything, even other guys’ to prove their maleness. This is not only socially acceptable, but it also means that the ‘macho’ type will absolutely reject the label ‘homosexual’ (or even bisexual or bicurious) to themselves. Fucking other men is, for them, not homosexuality, but merely a display of ultra-male prowess. Being fucked by other males, of course, is another story!
Nevertheless, this is not what the mainstream society will see. All they see is the exterior aspect of the sexual relationship. And because homosexuality, though legally accepted, is socially still not quite tolerated, crossdressers engaging in sexual activity are discriminated.
So we jump from the psychological aspects and classifications of crossdressers to the ethical/moral issues. Adultery, except on open relationships, is still frowned upon, at least ‘to keep up appearances’. Adultery which includes apparent homosexual relationships is several degrees worse. As such, society-at-large sees all transgendered people in a very bad light. Although for decades the transgendered community took pains to explain how transgenderity has nothing to do with homosexuality, and their argumentation has definitely persuaded doctors, scientists, social workers and legislators to distinguish quite clearly between the two conditions, what society-at-large sees is just the sexual aspect of it: two guys having sex together, one (or both) of which wearing women’s clothes. Why should they have special rights or special protection?
Religious issues apart, consider what happens with other sexual fetishes. BDSM and swinging might be tolerated, but as long as it’s something done in private. We don’t see BDSM activists marching down the streets on a ‘BDSM parade’, where dommes exhibit their slaves, and demand the same rights as cisgendered vanilla partners. We don’t see them demanding the right to dress up as dominatrixes and going to work (or shopping) in such clothes. Swingers don’t hold protests demanding the right to switch partners. None of these groups, in fact, demand any rights (except, of course, the right to be kept alone in the privacy of their homes). In particular, they don’t demand the right to get any therapy, counseling, or surgery; nor do they demand the right of not getting discriminated because of their sexual fetishes; nor even the right to hold a job without discrimination after publicly revealing themselves as fetishists of some kind.
So the image that the mainstream audience has is that there is a vast amount of fetishism going on, but it all happens behind doors, in strict privacy, and what people do there is up to them. ‘Everybody has sexual fantasies’ is an often-repeated mantra, which is true to a degree, and, as such, there is a general tolerance for fetishism and fantasies (at least in Western democracies), so long as they stay behind doors. I might even go as far as to argue that even homosexuality is tolerated if it’s not publicly displayed; this would lead into a long discussion about the gay culture vs. homosexuals who reject it and just wish to lead normal lives, fully immersed in the ‘straight’ culture; in my own experience, almost all male homosexuals I know are of the second group. But I digress: the point here is that, if it’s all about sex, then it should be allowed to happen outside the public eyes, behind doors, in privacy, and then it’s all right.
Crossdressers, but most especially transgendered people, challenge that assumption. Because the general public sees crossdressing as a sexual fetish — and they will be right in 90% of the cases — they cannot possibly understand why crossdressers wish to do their crossdressing in public. Also, because there are many crossdressers who go as far as to do body modifications (remember the Brazilian case), it’s hard for the public in general to understand why they have to be ‘exposed’ to one’s sexual fetishes in public, when all other sexual fetishes happen behind doors. So even a moderately tolerant person, watching a transexual in transition, might simply ask — why do I have to be exposed to a guy’s fetish of having boobs and showing them off in order to get male partners? Because we’re not subjected to female BDSMers dressing up as dominatrixes on the workplace, why should we be forced to accept ‘transgendered people’ in the workplace, who publicly exhibit their fetish for all to see?
By now you are jumping up and down and yelling, ‘but NO! It’s DIFFERENT!’ Of course it is, but remember that people cannot read our minds. If 90% of all crossdressers — by far the largest group, even counting transexuals, in transition or not — are just sexual fetishists, how can we possibly convince the public-at-large that there is a small minority of perhaps 10% who are not sexual fetishists? In fact, how can this tiny group distinguish themselves from the fetishists? Externally we are exactly the same: we were born male but dress as women. There is nothing that makes us different from the fetishists. Even if we claim not to be part of the fetishist crowd, why would anyone take our word for it? And, most particularly, when fighting transphobia, how can we make it clear to the public at large that transexuality has nothing to do with sexual preferences, but merely with identity? This is actually a huge problem for LGBT activists, since LGB are all about the right of freely choosing a sexual partner, while transgenderism is about identity. The problem is that just one out of ten crossdressers is really worried about identity issues; all others are just worried about getting sexual partners!
In the past decades, I used to be baffled why there is so much hate and anger among the transgender community — why transexuals look down upon crossdressers, and why crossdressers cannot agree among themselves. I always thought how silly it is, since, in my mind, we transgendered people have so much more in common. But that perception comes mostly from the vast amount of literature, online and elsewhere, which merely represents the views of a small minority of transgendered people — those that are all about identity issues. This minority is very vocal, and outnumbers by far, in terms of written things, what the majority says about themselves (which is not much; libidinous/fetishist crossdressers don’t bother much to write about their fetishes, except on dating sites in order to attract partners…). However, the public-at-large only sees what the libidinous/fetishist group is doing, not what the identity group is writing. So there is a clear disconnect between both groups. And, as a result, it’s no wonder that they are at odds with each other.
Let me tell you about one recent experience. I joined an organisation which actively promotes transgender rights, and gives support to transexuals who wish to go through transition. I then asked them for some help finding an appropriate therapist, noting however that I’m not planning transition. Their reply was very elucidative of this ‘disconnection’: they answered very politely that they would try to help me as best as they could, but they had little or zero experience with ‘crossdressers’. As a matter of fact I’ve been waiting for a further answer for months.
Why? It’s not fair to me to try to put words in their mouths, but I can pretty much believe that they don’t see ‘crossdresser issues’ as being ‘serious’. In fact, they might very much think that only real transexuals require help. Crossdressers, because the vast majority just has a sexual fetish, do not really require the same kind of help as people with gender identity disorder.
Maybe my approach was all wrong. I probably should have told them that I have some gender identity issues, and require some help. I should simply stay away from the label ‘crossdresser’. In that case, maybe they would be way more helpful. But because I started by stating that ‘I am a crossdresser, and I need help’, possibly they didn’t take my request very seriously. Or, even if they did, they possibly believe that all the other real transexuals have priority in getting help, and, eventually, if there is some time left, they might also accept a handful of crossdressers, too.
Now this is naturally just a very wild guess, and I have absolutely no facts to prove it. But, since that episode, I’m a bit more careful in what kind of ‘label’ I apply to myself. The trouble is, there are not many choices here. I could simply stick with ‘transgendered’, which covers such a vast variety of cases, that certainly I’m somewhere in that huge melting pot.
Possibly, however, we will need a few more classifications in the future — now that the Internet dating sites are being swamped with sexual fetishists that label themselves ‘crossdressers’. We might need to re-classify those ‘old school crossdressers’ — the ones the websites in the 1990s talked about — and give them a new name. In essence, we need somehow to split the transgendered community, 90% of which are sexual fetishists of some sort, and focus on the remaining 10%. Of those, half will be transexuals — diagnosed with gender identity disorder. The remaining are just crossdreamers who are manifesting their inner identity as the opposite gender by adopting their roles, dress, and habits. Some do it part-time, some do it full-time. But using the term ‘crossdreamer’ is too vast: crossdreaming doesn’t imply that the inner identity as the opposite gender requires a physical manifestation (and, as such, Jack Nolay’s term is very useful to encompass a much wider audience). On the other hand, one might argue that all crossdressers, fetishists or not, do manifest themselves in some way. Crossdressing fetishists, after all, in their majority, will express themselves according to the opposite gender role, and identify with it when searching for partners, and during the sexual act. It would be unfair to claim that they do not see themselves as women — here is actually where there are a few subdivisions in that vast group, for instance, between clothes fetishists (they are pleased by focusing on the thrill from wearing women’s clothes, and might not require a sexual partner for that) and the more frequent libidinous crossdresser (who might certainly get some excitement from wearing women’s clothes, but the focus is in having a sexual partner who appreciates them as they are). Clearly, fetishists/libidinous crossdressers are crossdreamers as well. The difference is way more subtle — in most cases I personally know, they are quite clear about their gender identity. They might claim the existence of an ‘inner woman’ in themselves, but it’s actually interesting to note how this ‘inner woman’ almost always has very male traits and attitudes. There is certainly an inner image of what a woman ought to look like (thus validating the idea that they are crossdreamers as well), but, strangely enough, that ‘inner woman’ is fully male in mind and behaviour, even if not in the way it dresses — which is clearly female, even if overdone (such as drag queens do). To make matters even more complicated, there are not that many objective differences between the way the genders think and behave — in spite of whole books having been written claiming the contrary! I personally claim that almost all gender behaviour is mostly acquired (i.e. by imitation and education) and not actually biologically determined. This hypothesis is not very easy to ‘prove’, especially in the case of the MtF crossdreamers, because our society doesn’t allow males to explore their ‘feminine side’ openly. By contrast, females are fully allowed to do the reverse, and have been doing so for at least the past two hundred years — we can see from the literature how so many women were ‘tomboys’ during their youth, although later on they were discouraged to keep expressing themselves in such a ‘male’ way. These days, however, there is nothing wrong if a woman wishes to continue to be a ‘tomboy’ all their lives.
There is obviously some behaviour that is biologically conditioned. If it weren’t the case, we wouldn’t be able to have tests which differentiate between male and female, based mostly on different ways the brain work. Many crossdressers and transexuals will often be classified by these tests according to the gender they identify with; some might be ‘neither’, or score well on both ‘male’ and ‘female’ tests. However, scientists are still divided on the issue of the difference being more ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’. Whatever the reasons for the differences, I’m siding with the group that claims that it’s more nurture than nature. However, it’s definitely not only nurture, or transexuality wouldn’t exist!
A recent article on Jack Nolay’s blog, based on a discussion on Reddit, exposes a variant of this issue regarding ‘wrong’ classification among the transgender community, and its consequences. Here, the argument is made that by labeling those who might have gender identity issues as anything but ‘transexual’ could actively prevent them from seeking help and possibly transition. Effectively, the argument is something like, ‘oh, I’m just a crossdreamer/crossdresser, I’m not transexual, so what I feel and do is supposed to be fine — but I’m still frustrated/depressed about it. Still, there is not much I can do about it because I’m not a transexual and therefore don’t want/are unable to follow the same route that transexuals usually take’. One wonders how correct this point of view is; my personal experience has shown that by labelling myself as ‘crossdresser’ I might not get the same kind of support and help that ‘transexuals’ get. In fact, I just get assigned to the much vaster sexual fetishist group, who definitely don’t have any gender dysphoria, nor do they question their identity at all — they mostly just wish to have some fun in a different way.
It was also a source for deep reflection when I realised that the vast majority of crossdressers I know are essentially very happy people, while most pre-transition transexuals are not (they become happy during and after transition). There seemed to be a slight gap between both groups, and this is just apparent for those who crossdress and question their gender identity, but never take the next step — either because they don’t want to or because they cannot do so (and sometimes both!). On the other hand, just because one questions one’s gender identity, this is definitely not a cause for suffering for all. Except perhaps for some initial confusion and anxiety, when the questioning begins, the truth is that the vast majority of crossdressers, even those who are not fetishists, are in general very happy about being how they are. The phrase ‘having successfully integrated both genders in their identity’ comes to mind, allegedly the ‘secret’ behind the ability to cope with it: integration.
On the other side of the coin, there is the group that somehow rejects their current gender (as opposed to integrating it with the opposite gender) — to a smaller or larger degree — and apparently this is what is usually termed gender dysphoria. Now, allegedly — and this is mentioned on the Reddit discussion — there are certain degrees of gender dysphoria, and they manifest themselves differently. Extreme cases are the ones for which transition is the ‘cure’. Milder forms are often simply shrugged off. I’m told by my friends in transition that their biggest anxiety was that they were not deemed to be ‘enough gender dysphoric’ to be able to get proper treatment of their condition (i.e. transition) and would have to continue to suffer. Also, apparently, it requires a very thorough test — way more thorough than anything that is available online — and several diagnosis from independent experts in order to confirm gender identity disorder. I’m actually curious about hearing of anyone who was deemed not to be enough gender dysphoric to be allowed to be treated. Such cases seem to be rare, or maybe, like everything else on the Internet, such people might simply not be vocal enough to be noticed. We just hear about the success stories.
Anyway, so here is the issue: there is a clear disconnect between the two types of crossdressers. One type, by far the largest one, lead very happy lives and enjoy their fetishism fully. Even though they are not vocal — outside profiles on dating sites — they represent a certain image of what people think that crossdressers truly are: fetishists searching for willing sexual partners. Unfortunately, we use the same name — ‘crossdressers’ — to designate another kind of person, a small minority that is not actively looking for sexual pleasure, but merely to express or manifest their inner self-image as females. This much smaller group is nevertheless the most vocal one, to the extent that even on scientific research articles, they tend to be over-represented. There is a blurred border between this kind of crossdressers and people with true gender identity dysphoria. Put into other words, there are different levels of dysphoria, some of which are mild and not deemed worthy of any kind of ‘treatment’ (and these might just push individuals to occasional crossdressing), while other cases are severe and the ‘treatment’ might include transition. This, however, is not exactly how medical science sees the division. Perhaps to help to illustrate the difference of classification, the following graphic might be useful:
The width of the bars is supposed to represent the overall percentage of each type. As you can see, on my own proposal, I bundle those who have some kind of gender identity dysphoria in the same group. At the ‘mildest’ level, they are ‘merely crossdressers’, although they are still a separate group from the rest of the crossdressers. At the ‘most severe’ level, they’re clearly transsexuals and require transition to live their lives. Somewhere in the middle are all the other types, where some form of ‘treatment’ is required — from merely shaving all body hair to some hormonal therapy — but the individual might not desire a full transition.
The latter group, according to my suggestion, is the one that also requires more protection in a legal framework that establishes some rights. At the extreme level, of course, is the right to be legally known by the gender they identify with, and to be protected against discrimination. At the mildest level, I have no idea what ‘rights’ are appropriate, although a general principle of non-discrimination is certainly adequate. The other kinds of crossdressers already have the two rights they need: the right to choose a consenting sexual partner, and the right to do whatever they wish in the privacy of their homes (or similar private environments). The dysphoric group, however, even on the ‘milder’ end of the spectrum, might also require the ‘right’ to be able to go public with their dysphoria, even if they only occasionally manifest themselves as females (as opposed to the extreme cases, where full transition is the only solution, and the right to display themselves as females in full time is already established in law).
While we have the notion of ‘partial crossdressing’ in the community — someone who does not require full crossdressing to experience their desires/fetishes — there is no concept of ‘partial transsexuality’. Transsexuality only makes sense in the context of ‘full transsexuality’, because the medical treatment during transition (hormones, surgery…) are not immediately reversible: you either go through them or you don’t. You can obviously abandon transition and de-transition (which takes about the same time!), and, in some countries, you’re allowed to decide how much you wish to transition (e.g. not doing surgery, or just doing some types of surgery but not others, or skipping hormonal treatment), but the whole point is that this group wishes to be classified under a single gender, be it male or female.
I might claim that the more modern legal frameworks are moving towards this gradation approach to gender dysphoria. Unlike what happened in the 1980s, where you either were a transsexual and had all the surgery and hormones, or you weren’t a transsexual and would not get anything, today things are (fortunately) a bit better, and you have the option to decide how far you wish to go. The only prerequisite, of course, is getting the diagnosis for gender identity dysphoria. If you don’t, you don’t get anything, except perhaps some therapy to help you deal with your case.
In my mind, however, I think there ought to be a bit more than this. Consider, for instance, the case of allergies. Extreme cases of allergy are totally incapacitating — you might have to live inside a super-clean environment in a hospital, forever. These cases are very rare, but they do exist. Under those extreme circumstances, in those countries with a good welfare system, government will endeavour to support the costs of someone who is unable to function in society. Not-so-extreme cases might require moderately clean environments, and this might mean that these individuals will only be able to afford to work in certain kinds of places but not others. As we go down the level of intensity in allergies, you just get ‘allowances’ — for instance, someone who has asthma might be allowed some (paid) days to stay at home during a major crisis. Some kinds of allergies can be treated (a process known as ‘allergy desensitization’), and such treatments might be provided by welfare, since after such a treatment the person is not allergic any longer and can function normally. At the lowest end, one might just have something like chronic rhinitis, or food allergies, and that just means carrying an anti-histaminic at all times and avoid exposure to the allergen that causes an allergic crisis — and most work environments, for instance, might easily accept such special requirements (e.g. having offices free of those allergens, special food at the cantina, and so forth). So the whole broad spectrum of allergy is usually covered well.
The same applies to many mental diseases. At the extreme level, as with allergy, it might mean permanent removal to a special institution. At more moderate levels, it just might mean medication and therapy, but the individual might still be able to lead a relatively normal life and nevertheless get a job — during extreme crisis, there will be some tolerance. As the levels become less and less serious, the worst that might happen is stigmatization — someone who is chronically depressed might still get some ‘allowance’ during those periods where they cannot work at all, but they might not be viewed with the same respect as others. On the other hand, even less serious cases — occasional depression or anxiety — are definitely tolerated and accepted (‘it could have happened to any of us’).
My challenge is to devise a similar framework for gender identity dysphoric individuals, especially for those on the ‘milder’ way of the spectrum. I believe that the first step is to properly educate the public — as we did with allergies and many mental diseases. There has to be a way to make sure that the public-at-large understand that just because a male needs to dress up as a female, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s something sexual in nature, but merely a form of self-expression — even it a rather unusual one. At the same time, it’s also important to defend the right of those crossdressers who wish to engage in sexual activity in the privacy of their homes, and reinforce the idea that we all have our sexual fantasies, and none is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others — all are acceptable, so long as they’re done between consenting adults and don’t break any laws (which is most definitely the case with crossdressing!).
In short: for most crossdressers out there, it’s all about sex, and that’s more than fine. But for a small slice of the crossdressing population, it’s not only about sex, but about something which runs much deeper. And we have to somehow make sure that this becomes more widely known, understood, and eventually, accepted.