Tuesday 28 January 2014

Homosexuality and Crossdressing

During the Second World War, Benito Mussolini's fascist government rounded up "degenerate" people, particularly homosexuals, and confined them in a series of camps around the country. One of the largest was on the island of San Domino, in the Tremiti chain, in the Mediterranean Sea northeast of Italy.

Mussolini was attempting to weed out these undesirable people, to keep the society pure and virile. And conditions for the prisoners were intentionally harsh. However, Mussolini unwittingly created a homosexual paradise, doing the prisoners the favour of confining a large group of them to a beautiful island together for the duration of the war.

Hello, sailor!
This episode is not widely known. I had never heard of it until I read about it on the BBC, and you can read the article here written by Alan Johnson. In turn, the article comes from a book, The Island and the City, by Gianfranco Goretti and Tomasso Giartosi. I have searched for the book and it doesn't seem to exist in English. I assume this is a translation of the Italian title. In any case, what follows is all quoted from Johnson's BBC article:
"We were curious because they were called 'the girls'," says Carmela Santoro, an islander who was just a child when the gay exiles began to arrive. "We would go and watch them get off the boat... all dressed up in the summer with white pants - with hats. And we would watch in awe - 'Look at that one, how she moves!' But we had no contact with them."

What this meant to the exiles was explained in a rare interview with a San Domino veteran, named only as Giuseppe B - published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia - who said that in a way the men were better off on the island.

"In those days if you were a femminella [a slang Italian word for a gay man] you couldn't even leave your home, or make yourself noticed - the police would arrest you," he said of his home town near Naples. "On the island, on the other hand, we would celebrate our Saint's days or the arrival of someone new... We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything."

And he said that of course, there was romance, and even fights over lovers. Some prisoners wept, Giuseppe said, when the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the end of the internal exile regime on San Domino, and the men were returned to a kind of house arrest in the places where they came from.
What struck me about this article is how miserable and difficult it must have been for anyone, during the War, who found themselves considered "degenerate" by society. The Brits were no better or more enlightened in their treatment of gay people. As long as he was cracking the Enigma cypher (and keeping his mouth shut), Alan Turing (one of my heroes) was allowed to work for the British intelligence services, and a blind eye was turned. However, after the War, Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality, forced to take huge doses of female hormones (as if that would cure him!) and eventually he took his own life, depriving us of his gargantuan intellect.

Vaudeville drag
But this article throws up some other interesting points. First, the Italians used the word femminella ("little girl") to describe gay men. Carmela Santoro uses female pronouns when describing the men ("How she moves!"). That's all very well. Our society uses the word sissy (a diminutive of "sister") and also uses feminine pronouns in a scornful, offensive manner when a man's masculinity seemingly fails to measure up. So we can tell little about the San Domino internees from what other people thought or said about them.

So what did they say about themselves? None of the San Domino internees are believed to still be alive, and the interview with Giuseppe B is very old. Giuseppe B says "We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything". Gay men loving the theatre? What are the chances? (And Italians fighting over love? Who would have thought?)

The reason for this post is that I have been puzzling over the relationship between homosexuality and crossdressing for a few weeks now. I have lurked for some years on an academic LGBT forum. What I find surprising is how few T people there are. When I post comments about crossdressing (as I did this week, attempting to stimulate a debate on this subject) I am treated with polite tolerance, but no real engagement. On most of the topics (relationships, coming out at work, discrimination) I seem to have very little in common with the things which trouble or preoccupy them. On the other hand, I feel sure if I sat down among them with a glass of wine we would soon all be laughing and finding all sorts of common ground.

My question to them (and also to you) is this: what is the relationship between homosexuality and crossdressing? Is there one? Are they completely separate, or is there some sort of correlation?
Sister Act

I believe that, in past times, gay and lesbian people might have crossdressed as a means of making it more "acceptable" to have a same-sex partner. I could see how a gay man, brought up to believe that homosexuality was an abomination, might not be comfortable being affectionate towards another man, but might find it a lot easier if that man were fabulously dressed as a woman. In other words, for some of those people (as was the case for Billy Tipton and others), the crossdressing may have been the means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

As just one example,  Molly houses were establishments in 18th-century Britain where gay and crossdressing men would meet up for sex. Wikipedia writes:
Patrons of Molly houses formed a distinct subculture in Georgian England. They would take on a female persona, have a female name, and affect feminine mannerisms and speech. Marriage ceremonies between a Molly and his male lover were enacted to symbolise their partnership and commitment.
As a second example, let's return to Giuseppe B. In his words, the internees of San Domino sometimes expressed themselves by "dressing as women". Is that because some of them were not "ordinary" gays, but what we might recognise as transvestites, who were all lumped in together by the authorities? Or is it because the connection between gay men and crossdressing is closer than we think?

John Leguizamo as Chi Chi Rodriguez
It certainly seems to be true that the popular media lump crossdressing and homosexuality together. To take some examples, the Sean Bean drama Tracie's Story features a gay crossdresser who falls in love with a man; the romantic film Sweet November features two gay transvestites living together, who are the supportive best friends of the quirky female lead, Charlize Theron; the iconic road movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, features gay men in drag virtually all the way through, as does its remarkably similar counterpart To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. All these works feature gay men who are portrayed as powerful, subtle, interesting characters (not simply shrieking and pouting and prancing about), but crossdressing, or drag, is a central theme in each.

In modern Western society, surrounded as we are by openly homosexual politicians and clerics and academics and entertainers (even sportspeople), surely it is no longer necessary to crossdress to attract a same-sex partner? Therefore if gay and lesbian people want to crossdress, surely now they are doing it because they like it? This may be for the performance (as in gay drag), or it may be because they enjoy it for other reasons; perhaps the same reasons that I enjoy it.

In his documentary, Grayson Perry insists in front of the schoolboys that most transvestites are straight men. In this interview on the Huffington Post, journalist and academic Marcie Bianco states the same thing:
Bianco: The largest population of crossdressers that we see in the United States is that of the heterosexual male. Drag is almost a protic performance. They are very different, and to then map on lesbian and gay onto drag, that takes it elsewhere entirely. I don't view crossdressing as a kind of protic performance. I view it as a personal aesthetic that people do to please themselves, to please the person that they are with, I mean it could be a fetish, right? Those are different concepts, different ways of being, that I think need to be distinct.
Gay comedian Julian Clary
So what, if anything, has changed in the last couple of centuries? What does everyone else think? Here are a few perspectives from people who have been kind enough to put up with my pestering questions on the subject. Let's start with Helen Boyd, taken from my interview with her:
Boyd: There have always been gay men who have crossdressed, and it’s not always drag when they do. I assume it’s for similar reasons crossdressers do – some combination of scratching an itch, connecting to a feminine self, fabulousness, and sexuality.
Another one of my correspondents, a gay doctor, writes:
Having thought about it I think the question why do men (or men and women rather) cross-dress is almost as useful as asking why are some people gay? I'm sure there are multiple reasons, different reasons for different people, and it's all a spectrum anyway.

There are serious cross-dressers and occasional or faddy "passing phase" cross-dressers. There are gay cross-dressers and straight cross-dressers. There are those certain of their sexuality and those thrown into doubt by a passing experience of it. I'm not convinced by the autogynephilia theory. It may explain some guys I've no doubt, but it doesn't explain why a gay house music club in London I went to a couple of years ago had some sensational looking cross-dressed dancers gyrating on a podium in the middle of the dance floor full of sweaty gay men. I don't think many of those men were there to get turned on by someone in women's underwear, but they were there to be entertained and have fun.

I think the answer lies in a sense of otherness - of the exotic, outre and titillating. It's different - the opposite of straight and conservative and an expression of the ultra different and liberal. I'm reminded of Cabaret and inter-war Berlin. And it's fabric on the skin that to a man is unusual, strange and soft feeling. And a bit of a laugh. It's naughty. And not to be over-analysed.

I'm sorry if I sound like I'm belittling the topic. I'm not meaning to, but all I'm trying to say is that I don't think it's easily analysable. I think it's often just done for a bit of fun, to prove you're not mainstream, to mess around. But I'm sure different people do it for different reasons, and I'm sure there's a transsexual overlap. But it seems a bit like trying to analyse why gay people are gay!!
Molly, a transgendered woman, writes:
I don't know any gay men who used cross dressing as an entry path to being gay.  I do know a few gay men who have cross dressed from time to time, usually on Hallowe'en or a special event, more for a lark, usually more drag than realistically, and in any event not as part of the social life or their primary relationships.  Doesn't rule it out, just not something I have heard of. It just isn't what it means to be gay.  Gay is about sexual attraction and most gay men are very secure in their gender.  I do know at least one gay man who discovered over time he was trans but it was a very slow, evolutionary process and he was ostracized by his gay friends for a time because of it.  Gay men can be as gender binary as female spouses.
And Janice, another transgendered woman, writes:
About a year ago I was testing the waters, so to speak, and was talking to a gay friend of mine at work about cross-dressing. He got very angry and told me he just couldn't understand why any man would want to put on a dress. I thought, mistakenly, that since he was gay that he would be more understanding and since we are good friends that he would be someone I could come out to.  I was wrong and I dropped it right there.
I must say that I am not really much further forward. I have asked a lot of people what they think, and they seem to think it's not really important. Perhaps it isn't! Perhaps I am just over-thinking it. Comments and perspectives are welcome!


My thanks to Tasi Zuriack of Sister House for drawing my attention to the Huffington Post interview.
My further thanks to Janice for reminding me about The Birdcage, another wonderful movie which reinforces the stereotype of the crossdressing gay man.


  1. This was an excellent article. You are likely closest to the truth when you concede that the subject does not lend itself to resolution through analysis.

    On those rare occasions when I can go out I will often go to LGBT friendly bars. I find that I feel safe in those places since many of the L and G folks there are sensitive to discrimination.

    I also find that most gay men are as clueless about crossdressing as the rest of society. They are not interested in me as a hetero CD. There attraction is towards other men...not men dressed as women. The same is true of lesbians. They are attracted to other women...not men dressed as women. As the hetero CD I am the odd duck who can simply hang out at the bar, have a few drinks and engage in non-pressured conversations on any of a myriad of subjects.

    People who have encountered me find that I am a 'safe' conversationalist with not hookup related interests. When I first started going out I did note that some of the gay men avoided me. I think that they do not want to be perceived as having an interest in a CD. While I do not think that I pass and I try not to live in "fool's paradise" regarding my appearance I do dress nicely and do what I can to blend in as an older, and somewhat larger, women just out for a drink and some chat.


    1. Hi Pat. Thanks for your insightful comment, and your kind compliment.

      I am inclined to think that T people are "lumped in" with LGB people by society as a whole, rather than all the LGBT people deciding to go it together. I think that what T people have in common with LGB people are feelings of isolation, discrimination, doubt, loneliness, and perhaps even guilt or shame. Those are negative things in common, rather than positive things in common (which might be attraction, shared goals, shared motivations, and a sense of belonging or feeling right together).

      That might explain why LGB and T people who have worked through that negative stuff might find they have nothing much left in common (except, I would hope, an ability to like one another as people without judgment).

      As for what attracts gay men, one of my other correspondents, Wilhelmina, says that in German gay bars, the gay clientele actually do hit on the trans clientele, who themselves may be curious about sex with a man from the point of view of a woman. I am reasonably certain that model would apply in other places too.

      It's great that you are known in that bar as someone whom one can just approach for a pleasant conversation, without being hit upon. Acceptance is high up my list of needs too.


  2. This makes an interesting counterpart to my observations about being shunned by (presumably straight) crossdressers who are offended that I choose to wear the frilly dresses but still present as a man. In the same way, the gay community doesn't really know what to make of us.

    I think, too, that for some of the "deeper" crossdressers -- the ones who want to live as a woman all the time -- the line between gay and straight is a bit crooked. If you are physically a man but consider yourself a woman and you are attracted to men but only while you are dressed... are you gay or not?

    1. Hi Ralph,

      This is a question which has also occurred to me. It seems quite possible for two people who are anatomically male to have sex with each other, while each insists they aren't gay. Some branches of the medical profession have attempted to get around this by using the term "MSM" to mean "men who have sex with men" as a means of moving away from what you actually call it; on the other hand, perhaps the people in the example I have given would say: "I am not a man! And neither is my partner!" which brings us back to square one.

      A crooked line indeed!


  3. Grok posting. I recall a web site...where it was commented that the different L, B, G, T groups don't necessarily understand each other.

  4. Jennifer Yager had trouble posting her comment, but she writes:


    You nailed it on the head. LGBT is really LGB with the T kinda tossed in because we like four letter acronyms. The transgender community in general gets poor to no support from most gays. I notice that gay rights is a big issue, but transgender rights almost never comes up.

    Part of the problem in my opinion is many transgender and most crossdressers (not to lump them together, I'm a crossdresser and don't consider myself transgender) are straight. They don't identify at ALL with the gay community. Personally, I find a lot of gay activists annoying. As for gay marriage, my perspective is to let states and local governments figure it out and it really not be a national issue, mainly because there is no right to marriage (I'd be happier if the government had nothing to do with marriage). And while I am my own unique snowflake, I think there are plenty of crossdressers that don't really identify at all with the gay community, and thus they don't bother hanging out. So the few that do are patted on the head and tolerated, but really they aren't part of the party.

    The other part of the problem is organization. Gays are very organized. It's amazing to me how much money can be raised for any homosexual cause. Good on them, but crossdressers? Nope. No organization. Partly its because most people are in the closet, but I think it is a big reason for the disparity between the two. If crossdressers were more organized, you'd likely see the T in LGBT drop off and be its own organization.

    I've found it hard to connect with other crossdressers. Many are older and don't use chat. Most don't want to give out a cell number (not surprising, I can understand). And to meet in person? I agree, having a complete stranger you met on a forum or through the internet is scary, but we seem to be OK with meeting people in bars (and I've NEVER had a good date from a bar). Not sure why, but as long as crossdressers stay divided, they'll continue to be ostracized. In that respect, maybe its better to be attached to a stronger organization like LGBT and be along for the ride.

    Thanks for your blog, it's awesome, I love reading it.


    Many thanks for taking the time to comment, Jenny. I think there are a lot of older crossdressers who have become Internet savvy just to get in touch with others!


  5. Vivienne,

    I applaud you for tackling this subject because I have often wondered if there is a correlation between being gay and being a crossdresser. Every year I attend, with many of my T-girlfriends, a black tie fund raiser that supports a local LBGT coalition. My girlfriends and I are very well received, I'd even say embraced by our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

    Anyway, there are usually at least a couple of gay men in attendance that dress as women. These men are not doing drag in the classic sense either. Instead, they present as women without mocking or sensationalizing the look. So, I have always wondered if the reasons they like to dress as women are similar to my own.

    If you take the view that being a crossdresser has nothing to do with sexual orientation, however, then it actually makes perfect sense that being gay doesn't necessarily prevent you from also being a crossdresser. In my mind, a person can be gay or straight and still find the same satisfaction from presenting as a woman.

    Thanks so much for the great blog post. I always find your comments interesting and thought provoking.



    1. Thanks for taking the time to post, Sally. I too have met a gay couple who crossdressed for fun among a group of predominantly straight crossdressers. They were made quite welcome, of course.


  6. Grok posting. I doubt that lumping T with L, G, and B is well thought out. In may simply be a way of classifying people as nonconformists.

    1. Hi Grok. I agree that it seems something imposed from without, rather than something we chose from within.


  7. Your point about the motivation for gay men to cross dress in the past makes some sense to me, But I don't really know the history.

    But it makes sense to me that they wouldn't be very interested today.

    A lot of cross-dressers do it to get in touch with their feminine side. But that's already more okay in the gay community because they are already outsiders. And one of the ways that heterosexual men prove manhood is by demonstrating that they aren't femme or gay -- obviously, gay men don't have to deal with this.

    Plus, a lot of cross-dressers are motivated by a sexual fetish which is very heterosexual. The straight men are attracted to women, and wearing the clothing of women becomes a turn on. Clearly, that wouldn't work for gay men. I was reading something that talked about how if you look at Internet searches gay men have a strong preference for macho men.

    1. Hi Georgia, and thanks for your post.

      It seems like a common-sense assumption that gay men would automatically be accepting of cross-dressing men. I am not sure this is always true, as the comment from Janice suggests. However, perhaps as a group they are more accepting than the "general" population.

      I believe you are right, that most gay men are not necessarily attracted to feminine men, but prefer masculine men. On the other hand, I am sure that this is not true of all of them. (Analysing internet searches is prone to an inescapable sampling bias: the result cannot be shown to be true of all gay men, just those gay men who use internet search engines).

      In my article about the actor Jaye Davidson (who is gay but looks very feminine), I quoted him saying that he had trouble finding partners, because most gay men are not attracted to androgynous or feminine men like him, but prefer more traditional images of masculinity. I guess he would know better than most.

      But few things are as true of humans as variety, which means we will certainly find feminine gay men, as well as masculine gay men attracted to them.