Is My Husband a Drag Queen?

Most people feel some initial trepidation approaching sex therapy and often ask what happens during a session. Of course each appointment varies according to the clients’ needs; however I thought presenting a case study might be helpful for those feeling a bit shy about beginning the process.

I was contacted by a mid-forties, white, disabled woman, happily married for a number of years to a sedate, hard-working man her same age. She came to the marriage with greater sexual experience than her husband, and smiled that she’d taught him everything she wanted him to know. Their sex life was active and fulfilling.

When searching on the computer for something unrelated, my client (let’s call her Jane) stumbled onto a file containing images of elaborately and provocatively clad women. She had no problem with her husband Bob viewing sexually explicit images, but wondered why he had kept it a secret. Upon closer inspection, however, Jane noted that the women were not women at all, but men dressed as women, drag queens she thought they were called. Quite understandably, she began to fret. Jane wondered if her husband was secretly gay and their marriage was a cover. If so, what did this mean about her? What did it mean about her marriage? She said nothing to Bob, far too confused to form coherent questions. Instead, she phoned me.

At our first appointment, we reviewed the strengths and vulnerabilities in her marriage. She agreed that she must ask Bob about his interest in these pictures. I explained Kinsey’s continuum of sexual behaviour (from homosexual to heterosexual, and everything in between) and reminded her that her husband could indeed be attracted to both men and women and still love her madly. I coached her on some communication skills and she left confident that she could frame unbiased questions and hear her husband’s responses. I was confident that her healthy attitude about sex and her abiding love for her partner would help frame a successful, if difficult, discussion.

Several weeks later she called for a second appointment. The ‘talk’ with Bob had gone well, but she was surprised to learn that he was not peering at drag queens at all, but cross dressers, and the difference is significant. Drag queens are predominantly homosexual men whose sexual expression involves exhibiting their feminine sides in order to attract other gay men. On the other hand, cross dressers (or transvestites) are predominantly heterosexual men who experience sexual arousal from the look and feel of women’s clothing and demeanor. As she learned the facts, Jane visibly relaxed but struggled to interpret what all this meant. If she accepted this aspect of her loving husband’s erotic makeup, did it make her a lesbian? Did it make Bob less interested in her than in her (or his!) clothing? How could she incorporate this information into her otherwise mainstream life? She needed Bob’s input, and left the office prepared with what she wanted to ask as well as what she wanted to say.

The third time I met with Jane, she reported that Bob had clearly and calmly answered her questions and settled her fears. He admitted that he had been drawn to cross dressing from an early age, but also knew he was a straight man. He implored Jane to accept him as she knew him in either persona. Such acceptance was what he had been longing for all his life. Jane wanted to do nothing to inhibit or sadden her husband. Still, she knew that inviting Bob’s alter-ego Cindy into their bedroom meant she must examine her own sexual definitions. She confessed that she’d always been curious about making love with a woman, though she had no interest in adopting a woman-centered lifestyle.

She loved Bob like crazy and wanted to accept him as he really was. What would that mean for her personally and sexually?

I explained that when wives discover their partner’s cross dressing, they ultimately have three choices: tolerate but condemn the behaviour, leave the marriage, or accept this uncommon erotic fetish with an open heart and incorporate it into the whole of the marriage. The first choice takes longer than the second to destroy the union, but it is just as effective. Only the honest acceptance of another person’s difference allows for the couple’s growth. Statistics tell us that those wives who accept their husband’s transvestism enjoy contented, long-term marriages with grateful, loving partners. Happily, this is the path Jane took. I recommended some helpful books and sent Jane home to experiment with life with Bob/Cindy.

Bob came in next. He thanked me for making a safe place in which Jane could unravel her reactions to her unexpected discovery. He explained that he had experienced the common practice of avoiding longed-for intimate relationships for fear of discovery and censure. In midlife he met Jane and soon knew that she was worth the ever-present risk. He had purged his female clothing and limited his feminine expression to viewing other cross dressers he could readily access on the Net. He added that he felt truly loved and accepted and that he and Jane were enjoying better communication…and better sex!…than ever before.

This might have been the end of the story, except that Jane called for another appointment. She arrived looking peaceful and happy and wanted to tell me about her personal journey. I listened intently. Jane discovered that when she eliminated judgment about orientation and expression from her analysis of sex, she found that she had a ‘best of both worlds’ situation. Her disabilities, and her husband’s stout body, had made intercourse awkward and sometimes painful, and the stress contributed to Bob’s occasional inability to maintain erections. Now Bob felt freer to use his tongue instead of (or as well as) his penis to pleasure his wife, and consequently sex had become more adventuresome and rewarding for both. Jane eventually welcomed Bob’s alter ego Cindy and became involved in helping her lover ‘dress’ for their dates. When Bob appeared, they had heterosexual sex; when Cindy showed up, Jane enjoyed the thrill of ‘lesbian’ sex with her new best friend. According to Jane, this was the best discovery she could have made.

The last time I spoke with this couple, they were off to Esprit, a weeklong conference holiday designed specifically for cross dressers and their partners. Jane and Bob had already enjoyed clothes shopping, makeup classes, and wig fittings together. They presented like giddy newlyweds. My work was clearly done.

Jane and Bob made my job easy. Not all wives can set aside their sex-negative conditioning and homophobic responses well enough to contemplate the value of adaptation to this issue. Many are not sufficiently secure in their marriages to risk such change. Conversely, Bob’s willingness to tell all the truth while simultaneously allowing Jane time and space to absorb his news set the stage for successful resolution of what might have been a divorce predictor.

Bringing cross dressing behaviour out of the closet and sharing it with your mate is not something to attempt unprepared. This is an absolutely appropriate issue for which to seek professional help from a sex therapist. With delicacy, skill, and openheartedness, many such unions can experience the successful resolution that Jane and Bob enjoy.

Discovering Cross-Dressing: A Sexologist’s View

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.