The Three Myths of Transvestism

Vernon Coleman

I was reading a recent biography of Italian cyclist Marco Pantani the other day. Towards the end of the book the author put forward a theory that Pantani might have taken an overdose of cocaine because he was ashamed of his homosexuality. The evidence for the alleged homosexuality was twofold. First, Pantani had once ridden a bike dressed as a woman. (He'd actually been trying to disguise himself.) Second, he had been seen in a car with a transvestite. The author made the leap from transvestism to homosexuality without even a blink.

The widely accepted theory that transvestites are homosexual is absurdly persistent and it is one of the reasons why so many crossdressers are secretive about what they do. As I showed in my published survey `Men In Dresses' the vast majority of transvestites are staunchly heterosexual. Eight out of ten men who crossdress have had only heterosexual experiences. The incidence of homosexuality is much the same among transvestites as it is among the rest of the male population.

Most transvestites have wives and girlfriends and they keep their crossdressing secret because they are frightened that if their affection for frocks is exposed they will have to face questioning from partners who will suspect their sexuality.

The second well-established myth about transvestites is that men who wear the sort of clothes normally worn by women do so because they get a sexual thrill out of it. This absurd piece of nonsense was created by doctors who couldn't understand why else men would want to put on dresses. Despite the fact that there is not and never has been any evidence to support this theory many psychiatrists, doctors, psychologists and social workers still believe it. It is, indeed, a piece of fiction which still finds itself a place in textbooks used by students. My survey `Men in Dresses' showed that, although most men crossdress for several reasons, more men choose to crossdress because they like the feeling of women's clothes than crossdress because it gives them a sexual kick.

The third big myth about transvestism is that transvestites are closet transsexuals. This is a big fear for heterosexual crossdressers who often worry that if their wives know that they crossdress they may suspect that they are planning to change sex. This fear is made worse by the fact that many journalists, doctors, social workers (and others who should know better) get confused between transvestites and transsexuals.

The idea that there is any similarity between transvestites and transsexuals is, of course, a myth. My survey `Men in Dresses' showed that most men who crossdress want to remain male; they have no interest in or enthusiasm for changing sex. The figure I obtained was that 77% (over three quarters) of crossdressers have no interest in changing sex.

(Despite the fact that `Men in Dresses' was based on an extensive survey of 1,016 crossdressers and is, as far as I am aware, the largest ever scientific survey of transvestism, the report has been totally ignored by doctors, psychologists and others who prefer, on the whole, to stick with their long-standing but wonderfully fictitious theories. Psychiatrists and psychologists have misconceptions about transvestism because they invariably base their views on crossdressing on the transvestites they see as patients. The professionals seem unaware that the transvestites who seek treatment are a self-selected and quite unrepresentative minority group. Men in Dresses is available free for study on this website)

At this point I am, I fear, going to put a rather noisy cat among the pigeons.

I believe that many organisations created and run for the benefit of crossdressers are, however well-meaning they may be, actually contributing to the `image' problem transvestites have. I'm afraid I include the Beaumont Society among those at fault.

It is quietly absurd for any organisation to attempt to represent both transvestites and transsexuals. It makes no more sense than it would to create a single society to cater for stamp collectors and train spotters. There is a superficial similarity between the two enthusiasms but there is no fundamental link.

Transvestites like wearing the sort of clothing normally worn by women. Transsexuals want to be women.

There is such a massive difference in the aims, needs and aspirations of the two groups that any organisation attempting to cater to both must fail.

Indeed, it is worse than that.

Any organisation which attempts to cater for both transvestites and transsexuals must do an enormous amount of harm to both groups.

Organisations which attempt to cater for transsexuals and transvestites invariably produce magazines which attempt to cater for both groups. This is disastrous. It creates a need for extra secrecy among those men who are conscious that their wives might suspect that wearing bras and dresses will eventually lead to something more permanent. Many transvestites keep their crossdressing secret because they worry that if their wives find out about their interest they will assume that the next step involves hormones, surgery and a visit to a solicitor for a change of name.

And the more secrecy there is the worse things get. Secrecy creates confusion and bewilderment and a suspicion that there must be something perverted about crossdressing. If it isn't odd and perverted why make so much effort to keep it secret?

I think I am probably the only member of the Beaumont Society who joined under my own name rather than a femme name. I did so because I honestly believe that unless the secrecy is broken, the confusions about crossdressing are going to continue. (I am lucky enough to have a supportive and sharing wife who buys me bras and blouses not socks and shirts for Christmas.)

At the moment the media is definitely not on our side. Much of the media coverage transvestites get is bad. Many journalists (wrongly) regard crossdressers as transsexuals who haven't got the courage to have the operation. Most (wrongly) regard us as homosexuals who don't have the courage to admit to being homosexual. Journalists regard crossdressers as fair game for all sorts of nasty comments. We're a constant target for sneers and titillation.

My own personal experience is that journalists will be rude and nasty about crossdressing in a way that they would never dare be rude and nasty about transsexualism. The worst example of prejudice I encountered involved the Independent on Sunday newspaper - a broadsheet publication which probably likes to think of itself as liberal and broadminded but which, in a general profile piece, referred to my crossdressing with what seemed to me to be a tasteless snigger.

The problem we have is that no one else is sure why transvestites do what they do. Our image is confused and confusing. And nothing will improve our image, or explain why we do what we do, until organisations (such as the Beaumont society) stop trying to cater for two groups of people who have absolutely nothing in common except a name that sounds confusingly similar. (I can't even say that both transvestites and transsexuals have an enthusiasm for feminine clothing in common because many transsexuals eschew feminine clothing and prefer to wear jeans and trouser suits.)

If we are to escape from our closet (and let's face it most transvestites are just as firmly ensconced in the closet as homosexuals were half a century ago) then we have to make a move now. We have to be open about the fact that we like wearing lingerie and dresses. We have to try to explain why we like wearing frocks. We have to persuade people that it's harmless, fun and no stranger than women wearing trousers. And we need to break away, as a group, from transsexuals, drag queens and all the other groups of individuals with whom we may appear to have something in common but with whom, in fact, we share absolutely nothing.

Copyright Vernon Coleman October 2006