Sometimes I’ll get a call from a frantic woman who has just discovered her husband’s cross dressing. She has no idea what this means about him or her relationship. She usually wants me to assure her that she is normal and he is sick. When I suggest the interpretation is less simple, her anger flares at me and the educating begins. Though not an ideal learning situation, she eventually calms sufficiently to consider alternatives to the divorce and/or homicide she was contemplating when she first rang up.
There’s also the call from the man tortured by his secret life, wanting to share with his beloved wife the truth about his feminine side but fearing what it can cost him. Or the call from the man who has been outed, humiliated and frightened that he is about to lose all he holds dear.
Regardless of who makes the call, I know the discovery is never simple or easy.
Despite its benign nature, the issue of cross dressing causes considerable distress for both men and women. It’s illogical, really, when we consider how we fight for gender-neutral toys, education, and opportunities. I suspect that men’s feeling comfortable in women’s clothing triggers some misogynistic alarm that confuses us. Despite women’s advances, males and masculine values remain dominant. Defiantly, cross dressers favour the feminine look. That is difficult for most of us to understand.
Then there’s the question of sexual orientation. If a man dresses like a woman, does that mean he wants to be sexual like a woman, ie: with another man? The answer is no…who you want to be is called sexual identity, compared to who you want to be with, which is called sexual orientation. If my male lover dresses like a woman, does that make me a lesbian? No, again, unless you are sexually attracted to women as well as to men.
What do we know about cross dressers? Almost all are heterosexual. They tend to be well educated, professional, loyal family men. They are described as gentle husbands and attentive fathers who enjoy a small circle of close friends of both genders. Their cross dressing generally begins in their youth with the pilfering of Mum’s or Sister’s undergarments which they use for role playing. They are—initially at least—erotically charged by the forbidden aspect of what they are doing. Throughout their lives, slipping into female mode brings them relaxation and comfort. They live in fear of discovery and go through repeated bouts of acquisition and purging of their carefully chosen wardrobes. They generally tell no one their secret, though they long to do so.
When their secret is discovered, often after years of marriage, they face relief and terror simultaneously. It is often at this juncture that they seek counselling, sometimes learning for the first time that they are not alone. Their mate’s response dictates the course of their relationship.
Both the cross dresser and I as the therapist must now be ready for the partner to go through a grief process before she can think rationally about the marriage/relationship. Her eventual decision will depend upon a complex interplay of factors including her feelings, attitudes, and sexuality as well as the history of the relationship prior to the discovery. In many cases divorce will be the answer. In others, the marriage not only survives, but thrives. Regardless the outcome, the husband will be out of the closet and experience a metamorphosis.
Cross dressing is not a psychological problem; it is a social disorder. A hundred years ago women would be slandered for wearing trousers. The Victorians were so obsessed with sex that even the legs of furniture were concealed so as not to inflame the prurient sensibilities of the household males! Though we’ve still a long way to go, eventually, gender-variant clothing will become simply another sexual expression.
Until then, education is the key for cross dressers and those who love them. The unprepared discovery of such a misunderstood behaviour unleashes a swarm of fears and myths. When those are countered with reason and facts, the relationship crisis can be shrunk to manageable size and, with sensitive and informed professional direction, the couple can get on with loving each other, not as before, but now with a new dimension of understanding and acceptance that oftentimes deepens the commitment beyond what they had once thought possible.
It’s a cold wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. This is one situation where that old adage is sometimes true.