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In the last few decades, there has been a rapid change in social attitude towards so-called sexual problems. There has been a call for the freedom to live in the style of which one chooses, so long as no one else is harmed in the process. One area that appears little understood, however, is transvestitism, or cross-dressing. In order to gain some knowledge about this phenomenon, there are many aspects of transvestitism that should be examined, some being: history, societal views, the gay versus straight issue, and women dressing as men.
Transvestitism has a long history, ranging from mythical figures to medieval saints who cross-dressed; from the many instances of berdache in anthropological literature to historical figures such as the most famous eighteenth century French transvestite, Chevalier d’Eon (Bullough, 1993). There are countless examples of this in Greek Theater; the public theater of England, including Shakespearean plays; Kabuki and Noh theaters in Japan, and the Chinese opera. For years, it was considered immoral for women to act in theater, so men assumed the roles of female characters. Even after it became acceptable for women to enter acting, there are many cases of crossdressing in film. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon donned full women’s garb in Some Like It Hot (1959), Cary Grant, in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1983). Women have been known to get into the crossdressing act in film and theater as well, with the role of Peter Pan traditionally played by a woman. Marlene Detrich and Josephine Baker were also known to occasionally dress for the stage in full tuxedo, top hat and tails included.
More recently, cross-dressing has been seen in popular culture, with, among many others, drag diva RuPaul, the movie, The Crying Game (1992), and, as an example of female to male crossdressing, singer Madonna. This gives a sense that transvestitism and performing are interrelated, not merely “historically” or “culturally,” but psychoanalytically, through the unconscious and through language. (Garber, 1992) To Marjorie Garber, this represents a notion that there is a naturalness to this behavior, since the common theme crosses so many boundaries, including time. It does seem as if society is tolerant of the idea of cross-dressing for art’s sake. However, what about cross-dressing in everyday life?
Webster (1972) defines transvestitism as “the adoption of the dress and often behavior of the opposite sex.” Seems harmless enough. Why, then are most cross-dressers secretive about their affection for this? According to Dr. Peggy Rudd (1995), most are secretive, because they have many fears related to the consequences of having their “big secret” discovered. In general, non-participants do not consider transvestitism, socially acceptable. Many cross-dressers fear the detrimental effects upon other family members, and many are concerned about the possibility of losing their job as a result of “coming out.”
Some cross-dressers feel guilty because society has placed them into stereotypes, including the incorrect assumption that all cross-dressers are gay, or that all transvestites are potential transsexuals. To the contrary, while some are gay, most cross-dressers want to share their life with a woman, and the number of gay males is far less among crossdressers than among the general population (Rudd, 1995). Most identify primarily as a male who has, and retains, male gender identity. Often they are married, and the father of children. (Prince, 1971) This in itself presents the question of whether or not to tell spouses, and/or, their children about this. Many do not, out of fear of being seen as deviant, and perhaps losing those most dear to them. It is a natural thing for cross-dressers to want to share all of themselves with those they love, but as there is risk of rejection, many choose to wait until they feel comfortable that the risk has lessened, or keep it a secret forever.
Fear is not the only reason for the secrecy exhibited by transvestites. Many have feelings of shame. According to Garber (1992), many cross-dressers start early in life. Often they are told it is wrong to express feminine characteristics as a male, no matter how natural it may seem, and thus begin to mask the behavior. Many people convey the belief that the cross-dresser is in need of counseling or psychiatric treatment to find a “cure” for this
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Gender, Cross-dressing, Transgender, Transvestism, Marjorie Garber, Gender role, Drag, Gender identity, Femininity, Passing
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