Monday, 25 August 2014

Frightening the Horses

When asked to comment on a supposed homosexual relationship between two of her colleagues, British stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (her stage name) made a comment which has become legendary.
Does it really matter what these affectionate people do-- so long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses!
Hay! How you doin'?
I suppose there are two ways to look at this comment (which has been widely quoted, misquoted, and even mis-attributed). The first is to interpret it as saying that homosexuals should keep themselves hidden from public view. The second way to interpret it (and the way I choose) is to take it as a whimsical remark saying: who cares what they do? What harm could possibly come of it?

This quote came to mind when my attention was drawn to this article, Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses, which was mentioned and discussed over on Thorin's blog. Written by Amy Bloom, and published in Atlantic Monthly in 2002, it is a ruthless (but not wholly unsympathetic) critique of male crossdressers. Bloom is observant, smart and articulate, and the article is well worth reading in its entirety. But it really hurts, and I've been struggling with my reaction to the article all week. The sub-title, taken from the body of the article, is this:
The world of crossdressers is for the most part a world of traditional men, traditional marriages, and truths turned inside out.
And the first line begins:
Bloom: Heterosexual cross-dressers bother almost everyone.
In the first half of the article, Bloom describes crossdressers. Distinct from transsexuals; distinct from drag queens. She talks to Ray Blanchard, and repeats some of his well-trodden dictums. Some of these, you will know, I agree with, including the one that crossdressers don't want to be like women; they want to be like men think women are. She talks to Tri-Ess, and quotes some of their material. So far, so non-descript. However, this material is probably new to the readership of the Atlantic, who are probably unfamiliar with the background.
Blanchard: Of course it's not relaxing. Heels and makeup and a wig and a corset? It's preposterous. Even women don't find that relaxing. Relaxing is a pair of sweatpants, clothing that doesn't even feel like clothing. Cross-dressers want to normalize this, to have it seen as relaxation and self-expression. Cross-dressing is an attempt to resolve an internal conflict, and it's not about fabric. If we had clothing for men and women that was identical in every way except men wore shirts with four buttons and women had shirts with five, cross-dressers would want more than anything to have the shirt with five. We don't know why.
Matronly: the Two Ronnies
I happen to agree with this viewpoint; it's not about the clothes! I would say that my crossdressing feelings are not about the clothes but about the role or expectations society has for me. It's a question I often ask myself (and consider on this blog): what would happen if men and women were all truly free to wear whatever they want? I think Blanchard's interpretation of the answer is as good as any other. And I absolutely do have an "internal conflict", whether it pleases me to admit it or not.
Bloom: This seems to me to be the heart of cross-dressers' dilemma, and the heart of mine in writing about them. Cross-dressing is a compulsion, but we must not see it as a sickness. A good wife should tolerate it because the man has no choice, but it isn't too hard to tolerate because it's a gift. It is about fun and pleasure—and it's a necessity. The necessity of cross-dressing is frightening to the men and to their wives, and their wish to tame it, to characterize it as a preference and a gift, is understandable.
In the second half of the article, Bloom deliberately goes on a cruise, with 25 crossdressers and their wives. She takes time to get to know them, motivated by an interest "in the less common ways in which people inhabit their gender". Bloom describes the appearance of the crossdressers.
Bloom: I have met cross-dressers whose presentation is just this side of Christina Aguilera [but] they look more like my formidable fourth grade teacher, a big, tall woman with a bolster-like bosom, thick legs, sensible pumps, hennaed hair, and twin spots of rouge on her cheeks. They have the matronly look so common to straight cross-dressers. A pronounced face requires pronounced makeup, and after the false eyelashes and even the subtlest contouring of the wider jaw and the thick brow, one can look beautiful or ridiculous, but one cannot look like most of the women around.
How they see themselves?
She describes how most of the crossdressers are eager to talk about themselves (something I can certainly relate to!) But then Bloom starts to discuss the wives.
Bloom: Sometimes the wives wish to come, to support their husbands and to enjoy the trip, or to hang out with other wives, like golf widows or wives in Al-Anon. Some come because their husbands need them to. Happy wives are everyone's favorites, but happy or cowed, enthusiastic or grimly accepting, the wives at these functions are simultaneously objects of much public appreciation and utterly secondary to the men's business.
It would be easy to dismiss this entire article as full of hostility, but I don't think it is. I think it is the result of someone who has really taken a good look at crossdressing, and come to her own (somewhat ruthless, but not entirely unsympathetic) conclusions. I suspect that Bloom and Helen Boyd would find much common ground.
Bloom: I come to see why so many women find themselves sympathetic to cross-dressers: Women are raised to be sympathetic, and protective toward the vulnerable, and there is something sweet, unexpected, and powerful about being a woman and sympathizing with a man not because he demands it but because you genuinely feel sorry for him, for his debilitating envy and his fear of discovery and his sense of powerlessness to live as he wants.
Debilitating envy? Check. Fear of discovery? Check. Sense of powerlessness? Check. Add in guilt and shame, and it would be a full house! But for me, the most powerful parts of the article are the vignettes of conversation with the various crossdressers and their wives. Here, she discusses "Felicity".
Bloom: On the third night of the cruise Felicity comes to dinner "en drab" as they say, looking like what he is— a heavyset Baptist minister who worked construction in his youth. With a flourish the headwaiter delivers roses to his wife, to applause from our four tables. Felicity puts his big hand on hers and squeezes it. He makes a toast to their thirty years of marriage and to her goodness and support. He begins to choke up; her remote look never changes. I can see that she is not pleased that he decided to dress like a man for her tonight. She is not pleased that he is so grateful to her for trying to believe that he cross-dresses only because he cannot express his warm and nurturing self while wearing trousers. Nor is she pleased, God knows, to sit with a bunch of men in makeup and dresses, some modest, some outrageous, some passable, most not, and call it an anniversary party.

Felicity says, "It's like there are three of me in this little boat: the husband, the cross-dresser, and the minister. I can hear the falls approaching, and I know, I know with all  my heart, one of us will not survive this ride." He begins to cry, and I get tears in my eyes. As I hand him some tissues, his wife glares at me and says, "You sure do get involved with your interviews".  She must think that some pretty fancy footwork is required to wind up so sorry for the crossdresser and not for the wife; when I look at her sympathetically, she almost spits. Pity from people like me is not what she wants either.

The men I met were by and large decent, kind, intelligent, and willing to talk openly. Their wives were the same, many of them under the additional pressure of having to make the best accommodation they can to a marriage they did not envision and do not prefer.
The final section is the one which Thorin quotes; the one where Bloom talks about crossdressing as an exclusively sexual fetish.
Bloom: The greatest difficulty people have with cross-dressers, I think, is that cross-dressers wear their fetish, and the gleam in their eyes, however muted by time or habit, the unmistakable presence of a lust being satisfied or a desire being fulfilled in that moment, in your presence, even by your presence, is unnerving. The combination of the cross-dressers' own arousal and anxiety and our responsive anxiety and discomfort is more than most of us can bear. We may not mind foot fetishists, but we may not wish to watch them either.
Wearing her fetish?
This notion touches on what another of my correspondents called, with unmatchable turn of phrase, "wanking in public". It is clear that Bloom considers this to be what crossdressing is: a sexual fetish expressed publicly. Perhaps she is worried about the horses.

So much for the article. Why does it upset me so much? Because I can see truth in it. I can pretend that none of it applies to me, but the fact that it makes me deeply uncomfortable doesn't make it wrong. I seem to fit Bloom's model pretty well: educated, professional, intelligent, kind, and willing to talk openly.

I do wonder what other people see when they see Vivienne. I am sure they don't see the same as I see. I wonder if they look at me with abhorrence, with scorn, or with pity, with silent tolerance rather than open acceptance. But I can cope with all that. What is worse is something Grayson Perry touched on: crossdressing causes everyone a lot of pain; the crossdresser himself, and his spouse (and sometimes their kids).

My wife really struggles with crossdressing, and we are a long way from her coming with me on a cruise where I can wear a dress every day. And yet a very good description of my wife would be "having to make the best accommodation she can to a marriage she did not envision and does not prefer". Grimly accepting, indeed.

I had hoped to summon a series of carefully constructed arguments to demolish Bloom's article, but I find I cannot. What she describes is not my present, but it comes uncomfortably close to what might possibly be my future.

Interestingly, Atlantic Monthly doesn't seem to have this article available in its online archives, though other articles from the same issue are available. I wonder if it has been deliberately withdrawn, and if so, why?

I can make some points, though. Whether Bloom likes it or not, my own crossdressing desires will never go away. I would rather not be this way, and I would really rather not cause anyone else (especially my wife) any discomfort as a result.

The fact that this is the way I am does not make me a bad person. It does not make me cruel, manipulative, exploitative or otherwise objectionable. Trust me when I say, I have a host of positive attributes. There are a lot of behaviours out there which are a lot worse than crossdressing, which seem to be tolerated.

I think things are changing. I don't think all crossdressers fit with Bloom's archetype (even she says as much), and I think that public crossdressing is becoming commoner (and less noteworthy) all the time. A generation ago, if we had seen two men or two women showing affection publicly, there might have been societal discomfort or even overt disapproval. These days, it's no big deal any more (though no doubt, disapproval persists in some quarters). Is homosexuality a fetish? Are gay people acting out their fetish in public? Surely homosexuality is all about sex? Actually no. But people may well have felt that way once. And in the same way, perhaps crossdressing will come to be accepted as nothing out of the ordinary. Nobody bothers any more to ask why some people are gay. The accepted answer is: they just are.

I can promise you one thing in closing. No matter what I wear, no matter how high my heels, or how red my lipstick, the horses will not mind one little bit.

===
Addendum 24th September 2014

I sent an email to Amy Bloom via her publisher, telling her the article was continuing to provoke debate, and inviting her to comment. I received this reply:
Sorry! I wish to thank you for the invitation and say that I am currently up to my eyes in a new novel. I don't have the psychic room, right now, to engage with other, interesting projects.

Regards,
Amy.
I am naturally disappointed that she has declined to discuss the article with us. If she changes her mind, I will be sure to let you know.

41 comments:

  1. I read Bloom's article today, too, and recognize a lot of things in it – in particular, as regards straight male TVs and their female partners. Well, Bloom's group are not as bad as the guys in Annie Woodhouse's book "Fantastic Women" (who are mostly complete jerks); all the same there's a whole load of entitlement going on. Partners are not obliged to do anything at all; they don't have to come along, be accepting, be supportive, especially not if doing so makes them uncomfortable (which many of Bloom's women seemed to be). It is perfectly valid for a partner to say, for instance, "never around me". They have their own self-care to consider as well, their sense of themselves, their sexual and gender identities.

    Really, I think there are two things partners need to know most of all (supposing they didn't know already). Firstly, that notions of "inappropriate" femininity are not "natural" but are culturally based. (That doesn't mean their possibly negative reactions are therefore "wrong" – a person's feelings are what they are and have to be dealt with somehow.) Secondly, that (as you say) the need to crossdress does not go away; so if a relationship is to continue, compromises need to be made – on both sides. (We can be very selfish about this stuff.)

    As for our own feelings about ourselves (as male TVs), I've not read a better description than this: ‘Mmmm-hmmm, she can hold her breath longer than anyone I know, this other me. This inside girl who won't insist on being called Woman. Just when I think she's gone for good she comes back with a vengeance, and each time reasserts herself with a little more self-assurance. Looking me in the eye and saying, “I'm not going to put up with your being disgusted with me and embarrassed by me. You might as well love me, because I'm not going to leave you.”’ (And it was actually a lesbian femme who wrote that.)

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    1. Thanks Jonathan.

      Entitlement. For me, I don't consider that I am entitled to have my wife enjoy all my habits, including crossdressing. Instead, it's the opposite. Crossdressing feels like an intimacy for me. It's an intimacy that I really wish I could share with my wife. The fact that, for her part, she doesn't wish to share it with me is terribly painful. It means I either go without that feeling; try to experience it alone; or share it with someone who is not my wife. None of those is particularly attractive.

      Helen Boyd also touches on selfishness, and points out that some crossdressers can be deeply selfish. I am all about compromise.

      Vivienne (who has had a lot of practice holding her breath).

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  2. Totally agree that crossdressing doesn't make someone a "bad person" in the sense that you mean it. I fully believe that you and I both have a whole host of positive character traits regardless of our crossdressing pasts (or present). But I believe we can like someone for who they are but still not like one thing that they do.

    I really like myself, and happy who God made me to be, but I dislike the crossdressing I did in the past. I really love my friend and he has tons of good traits, but I wish he was wiser with how he spends her money. I have a relative who is a great guy, but he drinks too much. I really like you Vivienne, and enjoy talking to you, but do not like your crossdressing. And I imagine your wife feels the same way in that she loves you greatly just not that one trait.

    Since you mentioned my post, and since my tone can come across as ruthless as well sometimes, I just want to make sure you understand what I mean. I have nothing against crossdressers as people. I want to love all people. But I don't like that one thing that they do, I find it disgusting. But that doesn't mean I hate them. Doesn't mean I won't talk to them in person. Doesn't mean I won't be their friends. Doesn't mean that I will write them off. Doesn't mean I think they are going to Hell (as I've been falsely quoted to believe many times).

    You are a loving person and don't want to cause others discomfort. But notice the key differences between you and some of the men in the article. You know your wife doesn't like the crossdressing so you don't do it around her, and you don't nag her and pressure her or force her to join in with you. We can't speak for the husbands or wives in the article, but perhaps some of them were not content to keep it secret but kept nagging and pressuring till their wives joined in, regardless of how uncomfortable their wives were. On top of that, they are crossdressing in public making other people around them uncomfortable who are strangers. Like the article implied, if you are going to look at pornography do it in the privacy of your home. But crossdressing in public makes the rest of the world observe your fetish (whether its a sexual fetish or just an obsession), and that makes people very uncomfortable. It's a free world, so people can do what they want, but they also shouldn't cry foul when people are uncomfortable around them.

    By you saying, "the horses will not mind" are you saying that you will keep your activities secret so that people won't be bothered?

    As an aside, Vivienne, please let me know if I EVER write a blog post that is too ruthless against not crossdressing, but "crossdressing people", and if I need to change my tone. I am happy to have some good accountability and reminders to be loving and gentle. So feel free to post anytime to remind me or send me a private email

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    1. Hi Thorin. Nice to hear from you.

      I get your point: hate the sin but love the sinner. My problem is that, for my wife, it seems this one thing (crossdressing) outweighs all the good stuff. It seems very hard for her to get it into perspective.

      This is a particularly powerful comment from you: "It's a free world, so people can do what they want, but they also shouldn't cry foul when people are uncomfortable around them." I totally get that, and I like to think I wouldn't cry foul provided people were polite and civil in expressing their discomfort.

      About the horses, I just wanted to finish the article with a whimsical comment which recalled the theme of the article. I intend to dress in public more often, but I intend to do it with circumspection (no tottering high heels or ridiculous lipstick for me). And horses (and I hope, other people) will not be offended.

      I do drop in on your blog quite frequently, and I don't think you are coming across as persecuting crossdressers. I think your point of view (as described here) is very clear. If I think you are being too harsh, I will be happy to let you know.

      Vivienne.

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  3. No the horses will not mind Vivienne.

    One of the most intereting things for me to note here is that everyone you quote understands nothing about the desire to crossdress; not even us.

    Neither Blanchard nor Bloom are sympathetic and they offer their own biased viewpoint. Thorin for me also represents a remorseful fetish dresser so neither will be able to give you an unbiased opinion. But in the end that is all they are - opinions.

    Your questions might be the following: who I am I hurting when I crossdress? Am I able to stop this and do I want to? If I do stop do I become depressed and despondent? Is this hard wired in me?

    Quitting to please someone else so you can conform to someone else's notions is not sound reason for me and I can tell you that cross gender expression is not rooted in eroticism otherwise the desire would not be implanted during our prepubescent years. Some do begin at or after puberty and they are motivated by fetish. If they can and wish to stop then more power to them but there are more drivers than that. The vast majority of transsexuals crossdress before transitioning and they are not motivated by fetish.

    Peace,
    Joanna

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  4. Coming to terms with who and what you are is the best solution for you and I know you will get there as I did. You will find the journey is challenging but well worth the effort!!

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    1. Hi Joanna.

      You are right that what Bloom offers is only one opinion (while repeating Blanchard's). On the other hand, it's insightful and observant and reasonably sensitive. Bloom seems to accept the "necessity" of what we do.

      I already have some of those answers. Who am I hurting when I crossdress? I like to think, nobody. However, it is clear that I will make some people (strangers, as well as my wife) uncomfortable, and this troubles me. I would rather it were not so.

      Am I able to stop this and do I want to? No and no (though I would prefer to be rid of the desire). If I stop do I become depressed? God yes. Is this hard-wired in me. Almost certainly.

      It's interesting for you to point out that cross-gender expression is not rooted in eroticism. My own certainly developed long before puberty, in fact, before I started infant school. I think it gets tangled up with our sexuality when puberty hits.

      I don't intend to quit crossdressing to conform to anyone else's notions. On the other hand, I think it's appropriate for people to act with consideration to those around them. My own journey is still proving to be very challenging!

      Vivienne.

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    2. Nothing wrong with challenging and at some point it will all click into place for you - of that I am certain. This is certainly rooted in biology and yes our sexuality becomes mired in it when we enter puberty. Some of us realize that there is much more to it than we realize and we end up being transsexuals. It is a graded spectrum.

      There are however fetish dressers who begin at or after puberty and they have little to do with our condition. Unfortunately they confuse other young dysphorics into thinking that they can stop because they think the activity is rooted in sin or sexual addiction which is why I have a lot of problem with them. You will invariably find them running a "How I stopped crossdressing site" and often they will themselves believe that all transgender and transsexual people are also just like them - sexual fetishists.

      Keep on going in the right direction!

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  5. Well Vivienne, as usual you managed to grab me and shake me up with this latest article. I tried to look away but like a messy traffic accident I just couldn't. So now I'm faced with the idea that my desire to crossdress in public is a fetish. That's heavy. I think I'd better sit down. I'd love nothing more than to dispute Amy Bloom's argument for that idea but like you, deep down, I find it hard to do so.

    Of course I've often acknowledged to myself (but rarely to others) that crossdressing, in at least some ways, is a fetish, but until today, honestly, I never gave thought to the prospect that crossdressing in public was also part of the fetish. Damn it if it doesn't make sense though, at least where I am concerned. I know many crossdressers will dismiss this observation as rubbish written by someone who really doesn't understand what being a crossdresser is all about. But really, don't we need an occasional outside perspective to provide us with an objective view unclouded by our own built in biases? Of course we do, and we'd be remiss if we didn't accept such perspectives with an open mind. I've learned a lot about my own crossdressing through introspection but I've learned so much more by listening to the ideas and thoughts of others.

    And really, crossdressing being a fetish, if it really is, doesn't make the condition any less legitimate does it? I don't think so. Like Amy stated in her article and you also pointed out in your comments, in and of itself, a fetish isn't necessarily a bad thing. So who cares, anyway, how we got to the point of crossdressing or the fact that many of us need to do it in public. The driving force doesn't really matter. What is important is that we deal with it in a positive way and since the desire isn't going to go away, that we learn to live with it, enjoy it and embrace it.

    Thanks again for another wonderfully insightful article.

    Hugs,

    Sally

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    1. Hi Sally. I am delighted that you agree with me in finding some truth in this article. I sometimes feel that I am sticking my head above the parapet in admitting how articles like this make me feel. As you say, an outside perspective (especially one as clever, insightful and articulate as this one) is often helpful in showing us our own biases.

      I don't see Bloom's article as trying to show crossdressing isn't a legitimate form of expression, just that it makes some people very uncomfortable, and why.

      Your post reminded me that I was going to mention in the article that people used to consider homosexuality a fetish-- even a pathological disorder. Homosexuality? Why, that must surely be about sex. Nowadays, though, homosexuality is (basically) normal. And it may be that crossdressing is recognised to be not just about sex, but about gender role, sensuality, and a non-binary identity. Live with it, enjoy it and embrace it? I am right with you!

      I have gone back and added some of this to the second-last paragraph.

      Vivienne.

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  6. It’s all about perspective guys!

    Yes, its pretty clear that CDing arises from an altered form of heterosexual attraction. “Altered” because in addition to urging us to mate with the opposite sex, it also urges us to “become one with it” in some way.

    Just because this is labeled as a “fetish” does not make it unhealthy, unnatural, or wrong. Natural variance is what makes our world beautiful. Yes, there are some malignant variations out there but gender non-conformity is not one of them.

    The main fallacy of the article is the assumption that because CDing desires is caused by a fetish, that means CDing in public is nothing more than a fetish. Not necessarily, because there could be intermediate causes. For me, arousal from CD thoughts came from a very early age, but my “inner girl” sense of identity developed much later. So while I can say this inner girl was probably born out of the “fetish”, I feel that my CDing in public is caused more by the inner girl than the fetish itself. So yes, the fetish caused my public CDing, but indirectly.

    I feel that this is an accurate, non-distorted interpretation of my own feelings. It is pretty easy for me to differentiate the sexual and identity components at work, and for me I really feel that public CDing is mostly a result of a self-created identity that doesn't match my physical body. The fetish may come into play a little because I enjoy being perceived as an attractive female, but that’s really just at the prospect of having a sexual/romantic partner loving my truest self.

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    1. Hi Danny. Thanks for your comment. See above for my reply to Sally, where I realise that "fetish" is a purely subjective judgment. It is not universally agreed upon what constitutes a fetish or how it manifests.

      It's absolutely true, that while crossdressing provides an undeniable frisson, there are many other pleasures and positives to it as well. For me, at least, it isn't "just a fetish", and I can relate to some of the other motivations you describe.

      I find it extremely difficult to present an "accurate, non-distorted interpretation of my own feelings". I really can't get any objectivity at all. That's one of the reasons this blog is so helpful. Writing the articles (and considering the comments) really helps me to find clarity.

      Vivienne.

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  7. Damn, there's a whole load of defining what cross-dressing is in these comments. I don't think that's ever very helpful or meaningful. This is deeply personal stuff, so we can only really talk about ourselves here. In other words, whether or not cross-dressing is "sinful", a "fetish", an "altered form of heterosexual attraction" (or whatever) is an entirely subjective matter. If it is whatever it is for you, that's fine. But it's not for any of us to impose our views of our own (or other people's) cross-dressing on everyone else. We can only speak our own truth.

    In that spirit, speaking personally: Yes, there's a sexual component to my cross-dressing, but "fetish" is not the right word or concept. I've not misdirected (or sublimated) my sexuality into something "outside" me; I'm expressing something inside, crucial aspects of my personality, which incorporate (and intertwine) both sexuality and gender. I'd describe that as a particular type of femininity and (mostly dormant) sexual responsiveness. (Actually, I describe this as "femme", but you probably won't know what I mean there.) Society largely regards this expression as inappropriate because I'm male, but society can just sod off with that, basically.

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    1. Hi Jonathan,

      I understand your reluctance to be compartmentalised, but the truth (at least as I see it) is that there are broad and reproducible patterns of behaviour among people born male who wear female clothing. Of course everyone is different, but I am generally in support of the patterns described by Blanchard (and Bloom). They certainly seem to fit what I see going on out there.

      I understand your resistance to the term fetish. I can't say I am thrilled about it either. If by femme you mean the opposite of butch then I think I do know what you mean (although if not, you might enlighten me). One of the themes of this blog is the needless (IMO) proliferation of terms for us each to describe ourselves in very specific terms, so that we can at once insist we are like this but not like that. I see this as a way of us all pretending how different we all are while simultaneously ignoring the many things we have in common.

      And it's all very well to tell society to "sod off". I think a reasonable measure of that is helpful from time to time. But some of society's rules and standards are acceptable. For example, society thinks it isn't OK for me to steal your car. I expect you wouldn't tell society to sod off with that viewpoint!

      Vivienne.

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    2. Hi Vivienne

      It's not a reluctance to be compartmentalized as such, or "labelled" if you like. It's more that other people's understandings of what they're doing don't necessarily match mine, nor vice versa. So to say "this is what it is" or "this is what we are" erases both individual experience and understanding, and the assumptions made are (in my experience) usually false. Yes, we can look at each other's lives and rationalizations, and relate to them to some (often considerable) degree, but whether they actually fit each of us as individuals is only for us to say. (On my own blog, I mostly write about "I", but when I use "we" it's an opt-in "we"; i.e. it only includes the individual reader if they say it does.)

      As for Blanchard: his "understanding" (as an outsider) doesn't come anywhere near close, in my opinion. Yes, he can describe what he observes, and there's something for us to relate to there to some extent, but I think his interpretation of it all is completely erroneous. Basically, his theory (AGP) just reflects his own primary interest: sexology (and especially non-normative sexuality, which he continually pathologizes). In our case he's seen some sex-related behaviour, assumed (because this is his focus) that it must be the root cause of everything, developed a silly theory about it, and given it a silly name. Whereas the sexual aspect of cross-dressing (where there even is one) is not so easily isolated, either as cause or effect. Bloom, on the other hand, is only describing what she sees; that's fair enough. And yes, I recognize some behaviour patterns there too.

      On "fetish": I don't resist this word because I regard it as pejorative. There are aspects of my sexuality which could well be described that way. But fetish is not what my cross-dressing is about, so to call that fetishistic is just wrong. Whereas "femme" is correct for me. Yes, that's using the term as part of a butch/femme binary, but it has more resonance than just a sort of masculinity/femininity; it's also an erotic identity. The combination of gender and sexuality in this particular way only made sense to me after reading a whole load about lesbian butch/femme and then extrapolating from there. But my adoption of "femme" isn't about rejecting other identities, to say "that is not me" as it were. I accept numerous other labels anyway, such as trans, transvestite, cross-dresser, genderqueer. But those are approximations, indicating a group affiliation (and recognizing things we have in common); it's only femme that really fits.

      As for telling society to "sod off": no indeed, that wouldn't be a very acceptable viewpoint on stealing cars. But society has no business policing people's gender. So yes, society can sod off with that, I think.

      Jonathan x

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  8. Even more terrific insights from you and your readers, Vivienne. I won't repeat the blather I have contributed elsewhere, but a few thoughts come to mind sparked by this thread that I had not considered in my other responses.

    First off, this line from Bloom:
    [...]the wives at these functions are simultaneously objects of much public appreciation and utterly secondary to the men's business
    I don't think it's fair to make this sound like a trait peculiar to crossdressers, or some proof of a negative quality.

    There are thousands of special interest groups in the world -- chess clubs, sports teams, glee clubs, vintage car restoration clubs, etc. I belong to a couple myself. We have, usually once a year or so, a big party together where we bring the spouses and/or children to clink glasses in celebration of our common interest and let the uninvolved spouses meet and laugh about our silly obsession. In every case, the spouse who has no interest in the hobby is "utterly secondary to the [participants'] business". The husbands and wives of the club members aren't just being dragged along as mute trophies (well, perhaps some of them are). We bring them because we want to share a festive evening with them and show them how much we enjoy our hobby, but in the end the only reason we're there is to celebrate goldfish racing or whatever. My wife belongs to a professional organization that used to hold frequent dinners to thank her and her colleagues for their support, and she took me to those dinners where I sat idly downing margaritas and overeating while they talked shop for several hours. Was I utterly secondary to their business? Of course I was! Would I rather have stayed home? Not on your life. I had a nice dinner out of it (free food is always a bonus for me), had interesting conversations with other spouses, and most of all I got to see my wife in her element. She thoroughly enjoyed a chance to talk about her shared expertise with other professionals, and she rarely gets to do so. Seeing her like that gave me vicarious joy because what makes her happy, makes me happy.

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    1. Hi Ralph. Thanks for your input as always.

      You are right that there are many situations in which the wives are basically passengers or onlookers. Provided this is balanced by situations in which the husband is the onlooker (or designated driver or whatever), I don't really see a problem.

      I sense that Bloom was suggesting that it seemed as if, among the crossdressers she met, the direction was all one-way. This may or may not be true depending on the individual couple.

      Onto Part 2!

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  9. [continued, thanks to Blogspot's limit of 4096 characters per response]

    "wanking in public": That's exactly how I see Bloom's perception of crossdressing, and one of the reasons I take issue with her hostile attitude. I won't deny that to some crossdressers, the act of crossdressing is a sexual release and doing so in public fuels the excitement with the added risk of physical danger. But devotees of many activities wear their devotion on their sleeves. If a diehard football fanatic goes about in his Man City jersey do we accuse him of "wanking in public"? "Oh," but my straw man representation of Amy Bloom might argue, "but that's a socially acceptable activity so he's not promoting any sexual desires wearing that shirt."

    I don't care. The point is, there are a number of other reasons for wearing one's hobby out in public besides some perverse exhibitionism. Some crossdressers don't feel validated unless they can pass -- safely get through a public place without drawing attention to themselves. Some need the external validation of a compliment on their appearance, or even the flirting attention of someone who is attracted. Is that any more wanking than when a lady dresses to enhance her figure and enjoys the compliments she gets walking out in public? I submit to you that it is not, particularly when the crossdresser is not dressed provocatively, but in a manner to blend in with the way others are dressed in the same place.

    You said: "... just that it makes some people very uncomfortable, and why." That's an excellent point, and reminds me not to be so defensive towards Bloom personally (especially since the original article was from some years ago). Whether those attitudes are justified or not, whether they accurately reflect what crossdressers really think or not, it's how the general public perceives crossdressers. We can argue all we want against Ms. Bloom and perhaps convince her that we are all the salt of the earth enjoying a completely harmless albeit eccentric hobby... but until we can convince the entire world of that, what we do will put us at odds with society's expectations of us.

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    1. Having grown up in central Scotland, where football is a religion, there were plenty of people who defined themselves by what team they supported. Not content to wear the scarf or the jersey, they get the tattoos, they buy a licence plate for the car with their team name, and they even name their children after adored players.

      To meet such a person (and here in NZ I came across a car with a licence plate naming a Scottish team) makes me instantly uncomfortable. I associate this behaviour with violence, with religious sectarianism, and with all kinds of unpleasantness. It might be that the owner of that car is a knuckle-dragging lout far from home, but it might equally be that they are a perfectly balanced person whose sole gesture of homesickness is that plate.

      Is that person "wanking in public"? I am not sure. They are certainly broadcasting a message very clearly, and they must be aware that message will attract a certain type of person, and repel a certain type of person (while others will be completely oblivious).

      In the same way, I think a man who wears women's clothing in public is broadcasting a message. Some people will think it's cool; others weird, and still others will be oblivious. I am sure you are right in what "most people" think of us, and, as Thorin said, it's not OK for us to "cry foul" if it makes some people uncomfortable.

      Vivienne.

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  10. Crossdressing can be a harmless act for fun, it can be for sexual purposes and for gender dysphorics an issue related to identity. Very young children who are not gender dysphoric will have no problem dropping this harmless bit of play as they get older but dysphorics will continue to need to do it in order to bridge the gender incongruity in their brains. The most extreme dysphorics will end up as full blown transsexuals; the vast majority of which have a history of cross dressing.

    The important thing to know is to analyze the impetus behind your dressing and understand it. If you are a fetishist then you will likely be able to moderate your behavior relatively well should you desire to.

    However, if your crossdressing is a symptom of gender dysphoria then there is a bigger issue to address.

    I strongly recommend that you stay tuned to jack molay's Crossdreamers site for the results of his survey. I think you will find the results to be very intetesting.

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    1. Hi Joanna. So many websites, so little time! I have been to Jack Molay's website a few times, and found much there which is of interest.

      Vivienne.

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  11. PS. The people who comment on your blog are awesome.

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    1. Hi John. I wholly agree! Vivienne.

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  12. Vivienne,

    As usual, you have once again provided another interesting, and thought-provoking blog post. FYI, the article referenced was re-published in a book of essays by Amy Bloom titled "Normal", about a year after the essay appeared in The Atlantic. That may be why it no longer is available on The Atlantic archives. The book I believe is still available for purchase through Amazon and perhaps, other sellers as well. Take Care.

    John

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    1. Hi John.

      That makes sense. I have heard of the book, but I don't own it. I suspect I would find it quite upsetting if I did read it!

      Vivienne.

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    2. The book is on Amazon and since I'm familiar with the Bloom article, I ordered the book. And incidently, you might want to check out the survey by Yvonne's Place done in the late 90s about crossdressers here http://www.sisterhouse.net/library/category/transgender-resources/all-about-crossdressing/?numtoshow=3&archive=yes. It would be interesting to compare the results with Mollay' s survey although I suspect the differences would be in part due to the difference in time periods. yvonne's survey had 1300 respondents.

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  13. Vivienne, please correct my references to the Atlantic Monthly as The Atlantic. I believe they are two different journals. Sorry and thanks.

    John

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    1. According to Wikipedia, the journal started off as The Atlantic Monthly but was rebranded as The Atlantic at some point.

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  14. Hi Vivienne,
    This is my first public post. I hope to e-mail you a longer reply to yet another brilliant insightful blog. I have read Amy Bloom's article and I am with you in that it makes me feel uncomfortable in that it contains many truths, particularly about the feelings of the wives of cross dressers.
    I checked out her website and wonder whether she would be open to one of your thought provoking interviews and whether her views have moved on in the last 12 years.
    Sam

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    1. Oh, yes! Make it so... I would dearly love to see one of your terrific interviews with this lady.

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    2. I am way ahead of you both! I have tried to get in touch, but her PA says she is in Europe on a book tour.

      As for an interview... I will ask her!

      Vivienne.

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  15. Hi Vivienne,

    Frighten the horses? Unlikely.

    I read Bloom's article quite carefully.

    The assertion "The only people on whose kindness and sympathy crossdressers can rely are women" is fundamentally wrong. For one thing, there is a history of outright hostility towards transgendered women, male crossdressers (use your own words) etc from certain feminists, some very influential. Perhaps those attitudes are less common in feminist circles these days but they still exist. Transfeminism is an anathema to some even now.

    Bloom's point about female to male cross dressing as about women doing what they need to get by puts me in mind of a Camille Paglia quote -

    "A woman putting on men's clothes is merely stealing power, but a man putting on women's clothes is searching for God."

    Peter

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    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for dropping by.

      I think most crossdressers (myself included) are so drawn to women that they seek the sympathy and acceptance of women, so that they can belong. I think you are right that it's not only women who can provide that acceptance, but I don't feel that I really want to be accepted as a woman by my male friends-- not half as much as my female friends anyway.

      There certainly is considerable hostility-- and I've seen some of it-- to MtF trans people from some radical feminists. While I don't have time for their scorn or their hostility, I do have some sympathy with their insistence that transwomen are not the same as genetic women.

      I haven't come across this quote before, but I think it does point out that women and men crossdress (in the main) for wholly different reasons. I have written an entire blog post about Women who Crossdress which considers some of their motives. There is power involved, but that's not the whole of it: http://bluestockingblue.blogspot.co.nz/2012/10/women-who-crossdress.html

      I think men who crossdress are not searching for God, but they are searching for resolution to a powerful inner conflict; the assuaging of yearnings, and the deep psychological peace which results from that.

      Vivienne.

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  16. I happened across this blog in a very random way and found myself sincerely enjoying reading this post and following comments. I am a femme queer girl but interested in the broad spectrum of genders/sexuality. I guess in a way I can understand you. I also enjoy very much the feminine ritual. The makeup and perfumes, the swishy skirts and pretty underthings, primping and pampering. And I am also exclusively attracted to females. The obvious is that while I often become invisible in public because of the way I present, you as a cross dresser might stand out. But I certainly do not see myself nor any cross dressing male as somehow bringing a unwholesome fetish to the public eye. Do I sometimes go out showing a little cleavage and rock some killer shoes? Yes. Does it touch on as being sexually exciting when I do? Yes. Couldn't this be considered as a fetish as well? Most people would say no because I happen to be displaying and expressing a "normal" stereotype for my gender. Deviance from any "normal" society expectations is often immediately labeled as a sexual disfunction and the judgements come down harder always on males. A straight woman can wear a suit and tie, cut her hair short and wear cologne in public and, while a few may say a couple of unsavory things, I don't believe anyone would accuse her of inappropriate public display of a fetish. Maybe she feels powerful in that suit. Maybe she likes the way people interact with her differently than if she wears a skirt.

    I really believe gender and/or gender expression are independent of sex and sexuality. Of course there is influence of one on the other but to reduce it to such simple terms as "all men must love dressing manly and acting manly and love coupling with only very feminine acting women at all times everyday. If they stray from this is any little way, they are SICK" is just ridiculous.

    I don't know if my comments add to the discussion but I thought I would add my two glittery pink cents. Lovely blog you have here!

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    1. Hello and welcome! (Would you mind signing your posts with some sort of name just to differentiate yourself from others who prefer to post anonymously?)

      Yours is a very interesting viewpoint, and I am sure that you will find many here who agree with it. Many crossdressers would say exactly the same: "When I dress, I enjoy the way it makes me feel beautiful and sexy. Why is that different from how a woman feels when she dresses the same way?" You will also hear them protest that women are allowed to wear jeans, shirts or suits, (in other words, crossdressing) whenever they choose, and nobody bats an eye. Where a man in a frock provokes discomfort and sometimes outrage.

      It's also very interesting to hear you describe the things that attract so many of us ("makeup and perfumes, the swishy skirts and pretty underthings, primping and pampering") in such glowing terms. In my limited experience women don't usually describe their relationship with cosmetics and clothing in the same way.

      I am firmly of the opinion that gender and sexuality are quite distinct, though (as you say) they usually coincide reasonably well in most people. And you also touch on the unforgiving and somewhat immature attitude which is quite prevalent in some places. Someone who is different isn't just unusual, they are "weird", or "sick".

      Your glittery pink cents are welcome any time. Feel free to have a browse around. The previous post on Bathrooms might be a good place to start.

      Vivienne.

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    2. Amy Bloom’s The Atlantic article is published in her 2003 book Normal, which looks at various manifestations of gender non-conformity.
      She is uncomfortable with the contradiction she finds in a club of Tri-Ess crossdressers. They are from the southern Bible belt of the United States, conservative Republicans in outlook and married. “Family Values” form their unstated ethos: patriarchal power, sentimentality and nostalgia for America’s 1950s family life which never existed beyond televised sitcoms. The contradiction lies in Tri-Ess’s attempt to squeeze gender nonconformity into this very conformist culture. Those with whom the attempt works the least are the crossdressers’ wives.
      Bloom has no axe to grind with drag queens, transsexuals, the intersexed, gays, or women who crossdress to gain the wider choices of male life. What she does not like is the husband whose closet crossdressing is sprung on an unwitting wife who has been made hostage to the marriage and the secret. Patriarchy ensures that the husband’s opinion will prevail, even when he’s dressed in crinoline. Conservative “family values” insist on the wife remaining supportive. The husband will dress as a woman occasionally, but never clean the toilet. The wife will not be allowed to dress as a man, which would tip the power hierarchy away from natal males. Bloom believes the dishonesty of living in this closet permeates the whole of the closet dweller’s life.
      While there may be as many gender nonconformists among women as among men, the dilemma is more acute for males. Men who abandon male privilege to present as female are stigmatized for moral failing, sin, effete weakness, betrayal. One initial reaction to stigma is defensive secrecy. What society deems unacceptable is consigned to the closet. In the case of Tri-Ess, the bigger closet of monthly dress-up meetings is available.
      Membership seems to be mainly middle class, white and of course male. Tri-Ess wives also inhabit the closet by sharing the secret. In exchange for closet complicity, the wives receive social status, relative wealth and the moral power to enforce conventional norms. They are the wives of CEOs, military colonels, civil engineers, lawyers, Baptist ministers. But behind this conventional conformity lies the spectre of the husband in a dress. There is a price to pay for duplicity. Amy Bloom sees this in the wives’ faces. Their pursed lips hold something back. They lack the sparkling eyes of the husbands living out a fantasy. They are suppressing anger which has turned to bitterness and resentment. Their support is reluctant. They are hostages to the social compensations of the family values they and their husbands espouse.
      In Bloom’s view, Tri-Ess requires the indulgence of three lies: crossdressing is a hobby, not a compulsion; there is no erotic component to crossdressing at any point; the crossdressing closet is harmless.
      If we can tell ourselves these lies we can also uphold the conventional wisdom which informs society. So compulsions are bad. Yet if we are prevented from breathing or from being ourselves, the desire to do so becomes strongly compulsive. So eroticism is bad. Yet we inhabit highly sensual bodies. So secrets are harmless. Yet they throw a widening gap between our sense of self and our relationship to others.
      The gender nonconformists that Bloom likes are open and honest. Their partners, if they have them, have chosen to stay after free consideration, without co-dependent moral and social trade-offs that lock them into a compromise toxic to integrity. Their life is congruent. They are living fully, not pretending to live one way and reaping its privileges while secretly living another.
      Bloom’s challenge is for us to be both free and honest. Where stigma stands in the way of honesty and openness, our task is to fight it. We can’t fight from the closet.
      Carole Fraser

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    3. Carole Fraser....all I can say is wow....nice analysis!!

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    4. Carole, I am sorry I didn't reply sooner, but this is a truly spectacular comment.

      Vivienne.

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  17. After reading Carole's commentary, I had to go back and reread the Bloom article again. Bloom's view is a bit skewed by her exposure to Tri-Ess who size has been diminishing in the years since the article. There is much that I would now challenge in the Bloom article, not that her observations were untrue, but that they don't represent the greater truth that I see in the TG community now.

    I would caution all readers to investigate these observations further and a good place to start is the Library section of Sister House (www.sisterhouse.net/library/) and specifically transgender resources on The Wives Speak Out and all about crossdressing and all about transvestism

    I have a problem with words like compulsion, and hobby, and I can hardly fault men whose own understanding of who they are didn't come until later life. More than half of our population is now men over 50. And there is an erotic component in all crossdressing although somewhat minimal in those that have come to acceptance and understanding of our gift. And the practice is not necessarily harmless when it leads to a marriage breakup either through a narcissistic husband, an unaccepting wife, or a counselor who can't tell the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual

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    1. Hi Tasi,

      It's quite possible that things have changed since Bloom wrote her article, but my impression is that it is still the norm for untold thousands of us.

      I think it's also very reasonable to point out (as Carole does above) that Bloom's article doesn't cover all male crossdressing behaviour (not then and certainly not now), although she may purport that it does.

      I have no experience whatever of Tri-Ess, but I was a member of the Beaumont Society while I lived in the UK. I am delighted that Beaumont seems to be rebranding itself to be a bit younger and cooler and sassier than its previous "twinset and pearls" reputation.

      I really wish Amy Bloom would engage in a little debate with us about the topic. On the other hand, maybe the reason she doesn't is that she has become fed up with people ranting on about their inner woman without actually stopping to listen to other views.

      Vivienne.

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  18. Stumbled on this late in the game (wife of crossdresser trying to make sense of it all) and I really liked the Bloom article as it fits my own observations of my husband.

    I feel pity, too, if I'm honest. It might be hurtful to say, but I find his crossdressing need sort of pathetic. He reminds me of a confused child rifling through his mother's closet because she's left for the day and he's in need of comfort. I can almost taste this desperation in him, and the sexual side...that is always lingering even though he, and it seems many others, deny that is what it is about.

    I don't know how I feel about public crossdressing, if I'm honest. If it were something my husband desired I guess I would need to consider leaving him. I'm really not interested in continuing marriage with a person so clearly conflicted as to who he is. Other men dressing probably wouldn't draw my eye too much, but they would bother me a little, as Bloom mentions. Mostly it's like feeling witness to another persons pain. Their thoughts and fantasies. The straight married man who dares to walk the streets in a wig and dress is sadly going to appear quite odd and even damaged to most everyone who sees him. He is literally wearing a compulsion in public, as though he is so controlled by it, he can't even keep it contained. I think most people will find such a thing a little frightening.

    It is great that everyone here wants to find acceptance for this behavior. I hope, for your personal sanity, you do. As a wife, I doubt I will ever find such happiness by accepting it in my own husband. I don't want to spend a life wondering why he has such an incongruence of identity, and why he feels this need to emulate my gender as though I am an outfit to put on and off. The entire thing makes me a little sick, and I can't see my marriage lasting. Sad, but true. But Bloom really noticed how resentful and trapped this entire thing can make a wife feel. It was nice to feel understood for a change.

    And for the record, I'm on Thorin's side, in that I don't think the way forward is integrating crossdressing into society. Society can only bend so far and I suspect crossdressing is just that bit too much. I think there needs very real science involved to figure out why on earth this happens to men in the first place, and find a way to prevent it. Crossdressing doesn't make my husband happy. It controls him and goads him and pushes him on to do more and more. But at the heart of it, even if he crossdressed every minute of his life he would still feel envy and loathing and he would still want more, and he will never be truly content. Thus, neither will I.

    Thanks for listening.

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