What is a transvestite?
A transvestite is a person who likes to wear the clothes of the opposite sex.
Some dictionaries add the words ‘for sexual pleasure’, but this is not really true because many cross-dressers just feel comfortable – rather than sexually aroused – when they wear the clothing of the other sex.
Transvestites often feel the need not just to dress, but to behave as a member of the opposite gender.
In recent times, many people who go in for wearing the clothes of the opposite sex have become unhappy with the word ‘transvestite’. They prefer to describe themselves as ‘cross-dressers’.
In 2012, one of us attended a conference at which it was claimed that 8 per cent of the population are into cross-dressing. However, there is at present really no way of establishing whether this figure bears any relationship to the truth.
Who is most likely to cross-dress?
Some women dress up as men, but it’s overwhelmingly men who like to dress as women.
Are transvestites gay?
Recent research has confirmed that most transvestites are not homosexual. However, some gay guys certainly like a spot of ‘drag’ – particularly in cabarets.
Do transvestites want to be women?
In contrast, men who are uncomfortable about being male, or who feel they are not male inside, are said to have gender dysphoria. (Dysphoria means a chronic feeling of unease or great discontent.)
If this unhappiness and discomfort at being male leads them to take steps to change gender surgically, they are then called trans-sexuals.
Some women also have gender dysphoria and seek to change sex, but they are a small minority of trans-sexuals.
Why do men cross-dress?
No one really knows why some men have this desire. Many men who cross-dress describe it as an outlet for stress, and they tend to want to dress up more during times of tension at work or at home.
Some men get relief from tension simply by wearing women’s lingerie (often silk) under their exterior male clothing. These guys often go no further than that with their cross-dressing.
Most transvestites, however, want to appear as female as possible in their outer garments and want to wear elegant make-up and pleasant perfumes.
Men who cross-dress are not mentally ill. Indeed, psychologists in the USA have decided that cross-dressing comes within the normal range of male sexuality unless it becomes a compulsive obsession.
Not every transvestite is a secret transvestite. The well-known medical journalist and writer Dr Vernon Coleman has often written about the enjoyment of wearing women’s underwear.
Some individuals make their livings as transvestite artists (drag queens) on stage and in clubs. Other performers cross-dress for reasons such as seeking to break down gender barriers – reportedly including the famous stand-up comedy artist Eddie Izzard.
Telling other people
Should a transvestite reveal to his friends, family or even his partner that he is a cross-dresser?
This has to be done very carefully.
Many transvestites feel frustrated that they have to keep this part of their personality a secret, and sometimes their frustration erupts and leads to very sudden and unwise confessions in the workplace. But many colleagues are simply not ready to hear that Gerry becomes Geraldine at weekends.
Telling your wife or partner is also difficult – though some women are extremely understanding about cross-dressing.
Our advice to anyone thinking of telling a romantic partner, or indeed a colleague, sibling, friend or parent, is to first seek advice from one of the excellent support groups listed at the end of this factsheet.
Many men do tell their partners, and some of these partners enter into the spirit of the whole thing and actually help their men to dress as women. These guys are very lucky as their partners frequently stop them from making horrendous style mistakes!
One of us interviewed such a couple on a television programme called ‘The Good Sex Guide Late’. This husband and wife in their 30s used to go out clubbing together as ‘sisters’ – heavily made-up and dressed in party clothes.
The wife really liked her husband’s alter ego and said that his female side was so sensitive and loving that sharing it had enriched their marriage.
But few women are quite as happy with their man’s transvestite behaviour as she was.
Sex and cross-dressing
A number of male transvestites want to go a bit further than dressing up and going out – they want to make love to women when they’re ‘acting female’.
In our experience, the majority of wives and girlfriends are definitely not happy with this scenario.
On the other hand, some women do find that having sex with a man who is made-up and dressed as a woman can feel quite a turn-on.
But far more females find the whole idea quite alarming and off-putting, and no man should attempt to force his partner into sex if she falls into this category.
Again, this is something to take advice about from people who have experience in this matter.
Dealing with guilt
Transvestites can be very calm and happy about their cross-dressing, especially if they belong to a good support group, have an interesting social life as their female persona, and have friends or family who accept their need to cross-dress.
We have recently found that the vast majority of guys like this never even think about having therapy, because they find their lives fine as they are.
However, men who feel overloaded with guilt should always seek counselling. They will invariably feel much better for talking over the situation with someone who is non-judgmental.
How to cross-dress
If you want to cross-dress in public you should be convincing. Many people cannot, or will not, understand why a man should want to dress as a woman, so it’s important that men who do this make as good a job of it as possible.
Unfortunately, many men who cross-dress fail to look like a real woman. As a result, people snigger when they see them and sometimes act in a very hostile way. Sadly, cross-dressing can provoke violence from stupid and aggressive males.
Learning the art of dressing as a woman can make life much easier for a transvestite.
Support groups can provide advice on choosing the right clothes and make-up, but start by keeping things simple.
Avoid high heels, especially with sling-backs, until you have mastered walking in women’s footwear. And avoid glittery cocktail dresses until you have practised moving, standing and sitting as a woman.
Some shops specialise in supplying women’s clothing and shoes in men’s sizes and in helping men to perfect their female look. Many sell a good range of wigs.
As a general rule, shop in a place that is liberal and accepting of different lifestyles. Clearly, if you live in a small town, you will excite comment if you shop for yourself in the local women’s shoe or dress shop.
Cross-dressing is not an offence in the UK, even under the recent Sexual Offences Act of 2003, which contains a seemingly inexhaustible list of sexual misdemeanours.
Nor is it illegal in most other western countries – though you could run into serious problems in many developing nations.
Thirty years ago it was quite common for the British police to arrest a man who dared to go out in a dress.
It is now generally accepted that if a man encounters the police while dressed as a woman, he is as entitled as any other law-abiding citizen to courtesy and consideration.
- The Beaumont Society is a very long-established organisation for cross-dressers, and also for their partners, and for all transgender people including those who have gender dysphoria. If you call 01582 412220 a recorded announcement will direct you to regional centres around the country. The website will tell you how to call their regional helplines. Currently their annual subscription seems very good value at £29.
- Transliving International (TLI) is another organisation for adults affected by issues concerning gender identity and cross-dressing. You can call 01268 583761.
- Transformation sells lingerie, shoes and clothes for cross-dressing. You can buy online and they also have shops in London, Birmingham and Manchester. They have a busy social programme, featuring weekends away and a ‘Miss Transliving’ event.
If you need counselling
- Relate offer face-to-face counselling at branches up and down England and Wales.. They also offer email counselling, online counselling and phone counselling. For more details, visit their website or call 0845 130 4016. North of the border, Relationships Scotland offers a similar excellent service (tel: 0845 119 2020 ).
- British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can help you find a therapist through their website. Or you can contact them by phone on 01455 883300.
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Last updated 13.01.2015