Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Banishing cockroaches

TNMy Husband Betty
Last June in NYC, at the Lambda Literary Awards, I had the pleasure of meeting author Helen Boyd, a heterosexual woman married to a heterosexual crossdresser, whose book My Husband Betty was an award finalist. We exchanged books and, as I looked at its contents and cover, it set me thinking about these people and their community and the prejudices they must endure and fight to overcome. As the offspring of parents who were brutishly discriminated against in their own country, and as a member of a so-called 'alternative lifestyle' minority, I have absolutely no tolerance of prejudice and bigotry, or of people who herald these human flaws as qualities to aspire to, and shall in my own way try to shine the light of education on difficult subjects so that all cockroaches will eventually be exposed and banished.

I, too, have in my life been prejudiced against different kinds of people. It's inescapable, the product of being reared in a homogenized community. We learn it from watching our parents deal with others, from our teachers, from our vicars and priests, from all in positions of authority. I think all young people growing up in conservative communities are saddled with that burden, and we spend the rest of our lives--the intelligent, enlightened ones, at least--trying to erase the marks of that onerous saddle. With regard to crossdressers and the transgendered, my prejudice was based entirely on ignorance and laughter. By laughter, I mean laughing at, not with. I have had no dealings with crossdressers, nor have I made any attempt to befriend such people. After all, it is so much easier not to befriend those regarded as outcasts or defective by society; it saves one from having to explain how one came into contact and befriended such a person to one's 'normal' friends. In fact, until I met Helen, I hadn't pondered my prejudice about this to any degree, unlike for example, the way I occasionally ponder the paucity of black, Indian or Pakistani friends I have got, and how few of them I encounter at the dinner tables of my friends, both gay and straight, in suburban America.

My knowledge and experience of men dressing as women is limited--as will most likely be the case of my Brit and Irish peers--to bizarre and comic characters on the telly such as the effette Danny Leroux (I think that's how his name is spelled and he's Irish, I believe) and Dame Edna Everedge (Australian, and used to be pretty tight with Maggie Thatcher as their politics were the same) and the slaggish Lily Savage (now retired by her creator, Paul O'Grady) who began her meteoric rise at a South London pub called The Royal Vauxhall Tavern where I used to drink on occasional Sunday afternoons. In other words, my contact with crossdressers amounted to watching drag queens, both those on stage and the garish, sharp-tongued wags inhabiting the periphery of gay life.

My friend Lee of L&L also read My Husband Betty recently, found it fascinating and had this to say:
"The book was very funny and at times heartwrenching...the author does a wonderful job of letting us into her life both good and bad..."

So I've invited Helen Boyd onto the blog to shine a light and hope you enjoy learning about what she has to say about her friends and community.

Helen, thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions.

Thanks for inviting me.

DMN: The preface to your book begins:
"I never thought I would write a book about crossdressing, but when the opportunity knocked, I couldn't resist..."
You are a heterosexual woman who's married to a heterosexual crossdresser. Is this quite common in the crossdressing community?

HB It’s very common – since gay crossdressers don’t end up married to women, and hetero crossdressers often think that getting married will keep them from crossdressing. So a lot of women find out years into a marriage, and are upset by having been lied to. I was lucky in that Betty told me before we got married, and even though I did a lot of research, I still wasn’t fully prepared. I should add that Betty never thought of herself as a crossdresser – that was more what other people called what she did, but she didn’t use a label – and has come, over time, to identify as trans, or transgender.

DMN: Can you talk a little about your relationship with your partner and share with us some details about the community?

HB Betty and I had to forge our own community to some degree; we feel most at home with lesbians who are hip to transness, trans people who are hip to GLBT people, gay men who are hip to crossdressing, and tend to hang around most with other trans-couples (ie, where one person is trans and the other isn't, usually, like us). We think of our community as the queer community, which consists of a lot of smaller communities. We also, of course, have friends who are artists, especially actors (as Betty is one) and writers (because I'm one). But historically, the "straight" crossdressing community tends to separate itself from GLBT people, often while mumbling something about how straight they are. We found that hypocritical, and so never felt really comfortable in a community we were told we "belonged" in. Luckily, a younger generation of CDs is rejecting that homophobic and transphobic attitude, too.

DMN: What percentage of crossdressers are heterosexual and what percentage are homosexual, or is that too simplistic a categorization?

HB It’s too simplistic. There are definitely both types, but any guesses at what the percentage is – even if you were to force all of them into one category or another – is unknown. A lot of crossdressers’ sexualities involve feeling “like a woman” sexually, by which they mean being somewhat coy and submissive, and being the one seduced. Some of the “straight” ones, as a result, end up experimenting with men not so much because they’re sexually attracted to men but because being with a man makes them feel like a woman. Some of them probably like men, too, and crossdressers will often have sexual relationships with each other, too. Sometimes they’re bisexual but their bisexuality is dependent on their gender presentation. And others, like Betty, only love women. (The whole “opposite sex” idea gets pretty complicated when someone switches genders, as you can see.)

DMN: Is it fair to say that the world of crossdressers is not discussed often in Western culture and is thus misunderstood? If so, what are the major misconceptions and how do you and your husband try to overcome them?

HB I think most of the time crossdressing is dismissed as a kink, or an eccentricity, but the feelings behind why people crossdress are much more complicated than that. It’s not like collecting vintage ties, and it’s not a “lifestyle.” It’s more a quality of life kind of need, along the lines of being gay or lesbian – yes, it’s something people can and do repress, but doing so isn’t a good way to be mentally healthy. But it’s also not entirely about sex, either, though it can be deeply connected to sensuality. I think the one thing I can say for sure is that most of what people think they “know” about crossdressers isn’t always right, and probably isn’t even usually right. Very few crossdressers fit the textbook definition of seedy men getting off on wearing women’s underwear. For some, the crossdressing is an outlet for gender dysphoria, and for others, a way of embracing sexuality in ways they can’t as men. Basically, there are as many reasons to crossdress as there are crossdressers (which is usually estimated at somewhere between 2 – 5% of the male population.) Many crossdressers are starting to identify as transgendered – either because they feel dually-gendered or because they have deep feelings of being gender dysphoric – that is, that they were assigned the wrong gender at birth, or that their gender is not the one that their genitalia presumably indicates.

DMN: What do you hope to achieve by writing My Husband Betty?

HB Four things: 1) to provide crossdressers and their wives useful information, 2) to dispel larger myths the public has about who crossdressers are and why they do what they do, 3) to provide a book for counselors, therapists, sociologists, etc., who wanted to more more from an insider’s point of view, and 4) to provide anyone interested in unusual love story a good read.

DMN: How have you been received by your heterosexual peers and people whom you meet along with your husband for the first time?

HB Our heterosexual peers are pretty open-minded, and I haven’t lived a particularly white picket fence kind of life – so my friends were fine with it. And Betty’s friends like her, so they were sometimes surprised but were also supportive – like good friends, they wanted their friend to be happy. Strangers who meet us for the first time usually can’t figure us out, and keep their distance, but it’s kind of remarkable: if we’re at a party and one person works up the nerve to ask us what our deal is, a crowd will gather pretty fast. So mostly, strangers are curious. Het women generally respond better than het men, but that really depends on the situation.

DMN: Can you share a funny incident or two as well as some that made you sad or were particularly hurtful?

HB ThereƂ’s one incident that’s both sad and funny, depending on how I’m feeling. Betty was in male mode one day when he decided to try on a pair of pumps at a small boutique here in Park Slope (a neighborhood with is very GLBT-friendly). The woman who owned the shop nearly hurt herself being open-minded, and immediately went into her best gossip-dishing I’m-speaking-to-a-drag-queen chatter. Then I said something about how the shoes fit, and she looked at me as if I’d beamed into the store at that second; she’d welcomed us when we both walked in, but after Betty asked to try on the shoes, I became invisible. So it was funny in the sense that people will go out of their way to be welcoming, often in ways that show they’re also nervous or uncertain, but sad because when someone assumes a man who wears pumps is gay means our relationship disappears.

DMN: Have you experienced overt discrimination or prejudice as a white heterosexual woman who happens to be the partner of a crossdresser?

HB Not discrimination, no. Lots of misunderstanding, and I’m occasionally challenged in difficult ways. Some older gay men apparently think I’m the biggest fool that ever was, as *they know* that men who wear women’s clothes are always gay and that I’m deceiving myself. Lesbians likewise often look at me like I’m the biggest closet case that ever was. Wives of crossdressers and crossdressers themselves often assume I’m a lesbian because I’m okay kissing Betty when she’s en femme. None of these things are true, and it often makes me feel quite lonely – but hardly discriminated against.

DMN: Are you working on anything new?

HB I’m working on a book now called Boy Meets Girl, which is about the things I've learned about gender in relationships as a result of being with Betty and as a result of meeting a lot of gender variant people since I published My Husband Betty. What I've noticed is that until or unless there’s a problem with gender, it’s invisible. We make huge assumptions about who a person was and who they’re supposed to be as a partner and lover based on gender – and I came into this relationship thinking I was pretty smart about gender, and didn’t do any of those things. But when your husband starts wondering if he should transition (that’s the PC term for a ‘sex change’ these days), you have to think a lot harder about gender, and learn a lot more. Boy Meets Girl will be a memoir of my struggle to figure out what it might mean to our romance if my husband became my wife, and how what I learned in the process might help others in relationships of all kinds.

Helen also runs a blog Myhusbandbetty.

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Rachel said...

I really appreciate this post, Damian!

As a transgender woman myself (though my gender presentation is more permanent than a crossdresser's), books like My Husband Betty are always welcome news, trying to let the straight community understand that the concept of gender is not as simple as it looks.

There is a lot of BS involved in being transgender, or being married to a TG. None of the BS is acceptable, and I really hate the homophobic US politics and culture which are really transphobic, if you really think about it.

I'll be checking out the book's blog now. Thanks again.

Damian McNicholl said...

Helen Boyd is a skillful writer who writes truths from the heart. I can't imagine who wouldn't enjoy reading such material?

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Zoe Brain said...

There's a difference between crossdressers and those who are transsexual.

For example, about 20% of transsexuals don't crossdress.

Worse, there's a large degree of crossdressophobia amongst MtoF transsexuals. Transgenderphobia too. People who are TS are so strongly gendered - albeit of the gender opposite to their body - that they suffer a degree of misery and discomfort so strong as to often lead them to substance abuse, and undertaking expensive and sometimes risky surgery to mitigate their misery. They see themselves as being of one gender, and work very hard to annhihilate all traces of the original natal appearance.

Though even that's a simplification : a significant number, possibly as high as 10%, of TS people were born Intersexed, with ambiguous genitalia. It appears that gender is set by congenital development of the brain, though this is only proven on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond all doubt. The point is, it is still common practice to surgically assign a gender in accordance with the available material, and sometimes the surgeon guesses wrong.

Crosssdressers and the Transgendered do not require medical intervention. The Intersexed and Transsexed do, and the confusion between the groups doesn't help.

Crossdressers are interested in changing their clothes, and to a degree, their culturally conditioned societal role. Transsexuals are interested in changing their bodies to match their minds.

As for me - I'm a woman with an unusual medical history. Accent on the his. Hormonally intersexed too, to confuse the issue, and one of those few whose hormonal balance changed over time. Medically speaking, I'm female. Yet I'm also a father. Just 13 months ago, I used to look unequivocally male, despite some anomalies. In 6 months time, after a bit of reconstructive surgery, I will look uniquivocally female, and have always identified as such.

My picture was taken just 4 months after the change started, and only 1 week into the Hormone Therapy that attempted to stabilise the dangerous instability in my metabolism. I'd lost 1/3 of my weight by then.

As I said, TS and IS are serious medical issues, and have little resemblance apart from superficial similarities to CD and TG situations.

Tiffany Meadows said...

Hello. My name is Tiffany, and I am a 26 year old wife to a wonderful heterosexual crossdresser named Joe/Jennifer. We have an 8 month old daughter and a new baby due December 8, 2007.

I am bisexual and have alot of experience with alternative lifestyles..... I have even dated gay men. My husband, however, grew up in a very conservative environment and has been made to feel quite a bit of shame about crossdressing, which he has been secretly doing since he was 8. He even hid it from me until a few days ago.

Now that I know, I am dedicated to helping my husband feel comfortable and accepted. Not to mention that his crossdressing is actually a HUGE turn on for me. He's not a full on drag queen. His crossdressing is pretty purely erotic and he prefers to keep is "in the bedroom" so to speak, although he has mentioned that he'd like to go out on a "date" with me dressed up. I think that's great, but it's going to be awhile before he is comfortable enough to really go out in public. Afterall.... I only JUST found out and no one else knows.

I'm going to definitely check out the book and the rest of the blog. I think it will really help my husband. I know about sexual discrimination and gender identity issues. I've been living with is since I came out as bisexual to my (southern preacher) father when I was 13. It is EXTREMELY tough. I'm thankful that blogs and books like this are available and I hope that my husband can make the adjustment from WAY in the closet to out and proud very quickly and easily.


Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks for stopping by and your comment, Tiffany.