"What Crossdressers Want To Know"
Welcome back through the looking glass, my friends. This is the first in a series of articles I plan to write on the most common questions I hear from crossdressers. Now keep in mind, folks, that though I’m a highly qualified psychiatrist/crossdresser, I am Alice Novic, after all, and I’m not always going to give you the answers you expect to hear—or want to hear, or what your wife wants to hear, or what your brave transsexual friend wants to hear, n’est-ce pas? What I will offer you is compassion and my best attempt at accuracy based on my professional and personal experience and fairly extensive reading. Carefully researched and footnoted answers? I’m afraid not. You provide the grant money, and we’ll talk about it.
So, when it comes to the most common questions from you of the cloth, the survey says . . . the number one question is Why am I a crossdresser?
To answer that question, let me begin by asking the more basic one of What is a crossdresser? or How would I know if I am one? I define crossdresser as a primarily straight man who is profoundly satisfied to imagine himself as a woman. Does is profoundly satisfied include is sexually aroused by? You betcha, with any luck, but it’s much deeper than just that, as many of you will discover with experience and age.
Why does an otherwise normal, healthy male become a crossdresser? Information from animal research and other sources seems to indicate that something happens as we’re developing in the womb that causes the brains of crossdressers and transsexuals to develop along female lines and be inclined to female behaviors later on. For instance, if male rats are exposed to extra estrogen during one particular week during brain development, then later in life they will show a tendency for lordosis, a female mating behavior that involves arching one’s back to draw attention to one’s buttocks—like a bird shaking her tail feathers.
Just like the intra-uterine environment, one’s childhood experiences can have nearly as profound an impact on one’s behavior and mental health. However, no particular childhood events or exposures have been consistently coupled with crossdressing. I once even worked with a Latin man whose mother used to punish him by making him wear his sister’s skirts. As an adult he had plenty of relationship and self-esteem issues, but no predilection for petticoats.
Can crossdressing be acquired like an addiction? Yes, I first feared. No, I later learned. Yes in a way, I ultimately came to see. Yes, lingerie can feel like a tempting, euphoric thing. Once you break the ice, and reach into the panty drawer, you may never be able to stop. But would any regular straight man find such pleasure in panties and be vulnerable to such a substance? Afraid not. Ask a few, in private of course, so you can be more confident you’re not just getting the usual BS. Most wouldn’t even be curious enough to try on women’s underwear. The experimental few who would, might experience a different kind of fabric and feel but not the euphoria that keeps us coming back.
Okay, I say as an M.D., but not everybody is at risk for alcoholism, personal and family history have a lot to do with it. Maybe just we estrogen-tweaked pups are at risk for such an addiction. After all, once a man “borrows” his first bra, he may bring on a habit that can spiral out of control and jeopardize his marriage, job, and reputation. And that, my fine, feathered friends, is what defines addiction.
I must add two important caveats, though, that I believe keep crossdressing (or transitioning for that matter) from sharing the same category as methampetamine. 1) Aren’t our people usually more stable and content after they’ve developed a crossdressing habit? 2) And if not, isn’t it more due to the harsh reactions wives and others might have to the habit, rather than the activity itself? Which ain’t nothing and boils the whole thing down to a question like If you’re an orthodox Jew and you’ve started a family on a religious kibbutz, should sneaking some bacon be considered an addiction? I don’t know, though it’s no small matter just the same.
Because we live in a culture in which crossdressing is clearly not kosher, most of us, at least at first, want to know Is there a cure? No, there isn’t, I must report, not at this time. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a cure for being gay or albino either, at this point in time. Sure, with enough will power, support, and spirituality, you may suppress your more femme impulses, but then again, you might be able to go through life resisting your favorite sport or flavor of ice cream. There’d better be a great heaven, or you’d better get tremendous joy in living to please your loved ones, to make that worthwhile. Otherwise, I’d recommend getting as comfortable as you can with something others may find uncouth and casting your own small vote for change. You’ve got a lifetime to work on it.
Part 2: Am I Gay?
Today’s first question is Am I gay? The short answer is No, you're not, but you’re not exactly straight either.
To me and to most gay men, being gay describes a specific thing. It ‘s more like saying “He’s Mexican,” rather than “He’s definitely not from around here.” As a crossdresser, you’re clearly not gay in the sense of wanting to be a man sexually with a man and all the stuff that so often comes with it, like a head-spinning appreciation for the male form, an Oscar-Wilde-like wit, and a passion for fashion and celebrities. Oh, sure you may be loving all the little nuances of ladies’ clothing, but that’s not the same thing. Just the simple fact you call yourself a crossdresser means that you’re not gay, for most people (and specifically me in part 1 of this series) define crossdresser as a primarily straight man who is profoundly satisfied to imagine himself as a woman. So, you’re fundamentally heterosexual on some level or sorely misusing the term crossdresser.
But, are you completely straight? Well, hey, to answer that question I first owe you a definition of the term straight. Completely straight, or completely heterosexual describes a man who is only interested in sex as a man with a woman. You, my dear reader, may—despite your crossdressing consider yourself such a man, only for that to change—if you’re lucky—as opportunities present themselves. What if you had the chance to make like lipstick lesbians with your wife, another beautiful woman, a breathtaking transsexual, or another nice-looking crossdresser? Or what about my favorite: getting to be a sweet, slender girl in the arms of some giant of a man?
I imagine a lot of hands going up out there—and a few liars. Or, I should more compassionately say, people trying not to think too much. After all, there are enough pills to swallow in everyday life, without having to take on the hypothetical ones. Nonetheless, people, we all know that any number of these scenarios sound pretty sizzling and they may not be man-on-man gay but certainly ain’t straight either, in the sense that non-TG men take no interest in these things. Believe me I know; I work with plenty.
The truth is that, if you’re a crossdresser or even a transsexual reading this article, you may not be gay but you’re not a wholly straight arrow either. Or look at it this way: You may not be chocolate, but you’re not pure vanilla either. You’re strawberry. You are, no doubt, a love-to-be-femme (started-out-straight, secondary, autogynophilic if you must) MTF transperson. Yes, that describes the (in my view) intersex condition we share, but it also seems to shape our sexuality, sexuality in the sense of the things that turn us on.
I admit that that’s an inconvenient truth and different from what you might hear from most folks in our community. But I’m a psychiatrist, after all, not a propagandist, no matter how righteous our cause may be. I’m who you go to when the comforting illusions have fallen flat. I am strawberry, and I’m okay with it and hope the same for you, if you suspect that deep down you’re a little fruity too.
Part 2—continued: What Can We Learn From Gay People?
Though we started-out-straight TGs are rather distinct from gay men, they’re far more numerous and decades ahead of us in their fight for freedom. Though it’s no longer the novel idea I first tuned in to in the early 90s, we can learn a great deal by comparing ourselves to gay men, or more precisely transsexuals are like gay people and crossdressers are like bisexuals. In fact, the transsexual folks lobbying for us in Washington are passionate about this and are battling hard to keep us Ts among the GLB people protected by the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Though few of us crossdressers are out to our co-workers or look obviously transgendered in the workplace, we still can benefit immensely from the path that gay people have blazed. They as a group have gone from seeing their sexuality the way 1950s society did, a failing, an embarrassment, a curse, to their own fresh vision of it as a natural pleasure and special form of love. Nearly all of us started-out-straight TGs begin with a horrid view of ourselves and need to forge a new self-image if we are to stand as tall and proud as our gay friends. I personally see my being a TG as a special joy, a fresh perspective, and a colorful—though at times awkward—piece of biodiversity.
Yet, some of us seem to be taking this analogy too far. Just like the naïve notion that there are only proud, open gay men and fearful closet-cases, many transsexual women think that transition-and-surgery is the only true-blue way to go and that all other MTFs (i.e. crossdressers like me) are clinging to male privilege and traditional family life. I think that’s a bit harsh because living as a transsexual these days is not like living as a gay man. A gay man who comes out is embraced by potential partners and rarely has to worry about his job or future prospects. An MTF, though, who transitions best be prepared to live alone and to fight for respect in the workplace, and be pleasantly surprised to learn different.
So you see, transitioning is not the equivalent of coming out as a gay man. It’s not like “If you only had the guts, this is what you should do.” It’s more like “Weigh your options on both sides and see how it goes.” Perhaps that was what it was like for gay men in the intolerant 1950s, when whether to be an out homosexual vs. a married bisexual was a near toss-up and equally-able people walked both paths.
I haven’t really run into any bi men among my patients and colleagues who seem altogether different from gay men. They seem part of the same rapier-wit, passion-for-fashion phenomenon as their gay brothers; they’ve just chosen to get married and to express their feeling for men on the side. For that matter, nearly half the gay men I’ve come across are sexually capable with women, though they prefer men.
Clearly things will get better for us t-folks, as more and more MTFs choose to transition, push for legal reforms, and show the people they touch that transsexuals make the same if not better professionals and family members they made while in male form. As our gay friends have known for decades, the most important political act you can make is being authentic and coming out to people one by one as it becomes relevant. The fact that practically everybody in America now knows at least one gay person accounts for the tolerance of the 2000s.
So should all we MTFs be true to ourselves, transition, and be open about being TG—even if we end up looking perfectly GG? It would be good for the cause. Well, gays and lesbians have faced this question too and feel pretty strongly that no one should live for the cause. Though most people will be happier with each step they take toward authenticity, every man and woman should make personal decisions based on the particulars of their romantic, familial, and economic situations. Ultimately the cause must depend on a myriad of individuals making sensible decisions for themselves rather than heroic acts of self-sacrifice.
Although it’s extremely useful for us crossdressers and started-out-straight transsexuals to distance ourselves from each other, are we really so different? Aren’t we all part of that not-naturally-effeminate-but-feel-truly-female phenomenon? As they mature, most gay and bi folks learn to recognize and respect their kin. Can’t we learn to do the same? Can’t we transsexuals respect our crossdressing sisters? And can’t we crossdressers see TSs and know that their struggle is ours? We need each other now more than ever.
Alice Novic, M.D.
To learn more about me than you’d ever dare ask, please see my smart, sexy memoir, Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of Age