Nature or Nurture? or what causes this?
Major News articles about Engendered Species:
The Collision of Sex and Gender
Hetero Guys in Disguise- The Psychology of Crossdressing
A brief history of transgenderism
Sex-change surgery is not for everyone
Film by Julie van der Wal 45 min
cEngendered Species, Transgender, Crossdresser
Malcolm in the Middle
Cross-dressing men walk the thin line between male and female, often bringing their wives and girlfriends into the act.
August 3, 2000
By Carolyn Campbell
Twelve year-old Malcolm was panicked. His parents were already in the kitchen, seconds away from catching him dressed in his motherís green satin nightgown. Usually, Malcolm timed his forbidden deeds precisely. He knew how long it took his parents to drive to town, and prided himself on his ability to change clothes in 30 seconds. But this time he didnít hear the car door slam shut. Now his mother was headed for her bedroom. Malcolm dived into his parentsí bed, and yanked the covers up to his chin. He told his mother he didnít feel well, which wasnít a lie. When she placed her palm against his forehead, Malcolm prayed she wouldnít reach under the covers to pat his shoulder.
During another close call when he was dressed as a woman, Malcolm quickly slid under his parentsí bed and nervously watched his fatherís feet walk just inches away. Another time, he clung to a rope that hung from the ceiling of a shed as his unsuspecting family walked below. Today, 36 years later, Malcolm regularly ventures out in female attire. Heís comfortable scanning through the racks at Penneyís, Sears or Nordstrom, then taking womenís clothes into the menís dressing room to try them on. If anyone questions him, he says heís "evaluating these items for purchase." Classy brocades are his favoritesóthe decorative designs and feel of the fabric are what attract him to cross-dressing.
As Deborah Dean, a name he borrowed from a high school girl he dated, Malcolm wears a below-the-shoulder brunette wig, skillfully applied makeup, and a choker necklace with V-necked dresses. He dons a size 10 womenís shoe, but only a menís 9 when he wears menís attire as Malcolm. Womenís clothes take up more than twice the width of his closet, but he says itís hard to say whether he spends more time dressed as Malcolm or Deborah. Heís the same person inside either way, he says. Malcolm is emphatic that heís heterosexual, happily cross-dresses and will never seek sexual reassignment surgery. "Iíve done things people consider machoólike riding a bike across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I enjoy my Ďboy stuffí enough not to give it up."
Four years ago, Malcolm founded Engendered Species, a support group dedicated to providing friends, fun and acceptance for both male and female cross-dressers. He says heís talked to more than 400 people who each felt, as he once did, like the only one engaging in the practice. Engendered Species now has 160 members. About one person in 20 cross-dresses, Malcolm explainsóan estimated total of 100,000 people in Utah. Eighty to 90 percent are heterosexual; many are married. According to a national survey, the Janus Report, 6 percent of men and 3 percent of women have at least one experience with cross-dressing. Malcolm says, and national studies confirm, that there are far more people content with cross-dressing than desiring to permanently change sex. The vast majority keep their original gender. Only 1 in 30,000 males and 1 in 100,000 females undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
Malcolm notes that many men in their mid- to late-20s phone the organization for the first time. While four or five female cross-dressers have joined, he says they feel far less need for a support group because for decades itís been acceptable for women to wear pants, T-shirts, baseball caps and other clothing typically worn by men.
Malcolmís girlfriend of two years, Tracy, says that dating him is sort of like having a boyfriend and a girlfriend at the same time. She remembers clearly the night Malcolm told her he is sometimes Deborah. "We were shopping at a thrift store, and he held a couple of dresses up to himself and said, ĎWell, I am a cross-dresser.í I thought he was kidding," Tracy remembers.
Malcolm explained the truth to her later that night. "Iíd never encountered anything like this before," she says. "My greatest fear was that he was homosexual and would want to be female all of the time." She says he reassured her that he only likes to dress as a woman on occasion. Now she accompanies him on dates whether he happens to be Malcolm or Deborah that night. "Heís a little more quiet and refined as Deborahóbut heís still the same person."
She hopes they marry, and says his cross-dressing doesnít bother her and she would never ask him to stop. "Heís given me some clothes he thought were too small for him. Actually, he dresses better as a woman than I do."
Another Salt Lake woman, Connie, helped create her husbandís alter-ego, "Tawni," about three years ago. The transformation began after they watched the film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar starring Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes dressed as women. Before that time they say, they enjoyed good drag shows and female impersonators. "But this time, when he admitted this was something he wanted to try, I said, Iíll join you and Iíll help you," Connie says.
Tawni thinks his cross-dressing inclinations would have come out eventually, but probably emerged faster with his wifeís help. He now dresses as Tawni about once every three or four weeks. He receives the most compliments when he wears sundresses and shirtwaists, often in red shades that complement his tan. Because he is tall, he feels he looks best in long wigs in a variety of colors. "Initially, it started as an erotic feeling, but it then became more of a growth experience in which Iím much more sensitive to my wifeís feelings. Itís also very much a stress reliever. Tawni doesnít have to worry about paying the bills or going to work. Her biggest concern is whether her makeup is on right." Connie and Tawni have two grown children who know about, but havenít yet met, Tawni.
Not every wife accepts her husbandís cross-dressing tendencies so automatically. For 22 years, Carmen noticed that her husband, John, got edgy if she ever came home from work early. "Heíd be really serious and not talkative and not look exactly happy to see me, when usually he was very affectionate. Iíd think, whatís the matter? Canít I come home early to my own house?"
When she would ask why he was upset, heíd say, "You just wouldnít understand." Then one day, John suddenly told her he couldnít take it anymore and had to confess that he was a cross-dresser. "I was totally in shock and couldnít believe it," Carmen recalls. She says that when her husband is not "in femme," he isnít feminine at all. "He walks and talks as macho as ever."
John hardly seemed like the type to be interested in wearing womenís clothes. While Carmen describes herself as "a sharp dresser," she says John was totally uninterested in what he wore and she often urged him to groom himself better. "Heís a mechanic who never wanted to wear anything but Levis and cowboy boots. If he forgot to comb his hair or there was a big hole in his pants or socks, that was OK with him. Lots of times Iíd have to say, why donít you shave?"
John agrees that he and his "femme" alter ego, Sandy, are opposites as far as being meticulous. "The male side of me has a tendency to come home and throw the work pants on the floor. But with Sandyís stuff, I put it away all nice and neat and the clothes go back on the hangers. Itís like Iím two different peopleóeverything with Sandy is so precise."
He hid his inclinations from Carmen just as precisely for 23 years. While their hall closet is now three-fourths filled with the long wigs, blouses and long skirts he prefers, for years Carmen didnít know that he sometimes wore her clothes when she wasnít home. On more than one occasion, he was wearing a pair of her panties when he heard her enter the house. "I just pulled my menís pants up over them," he recalls.
Carmen is a self-described clothes horse, and the fact that she has a lot of clothes may have prevented her from noticing any of them were worn while she was gone. After her initial shock, she weighed her options and decided to remain in the marriage. "I wish his cross-dressing didnít exist, but I learned to live with it. Itís a flaw, but donít we all have one?" John has been a good husband in other ways, enough to tip the scale toward staying married. "Heís never been unemployed. He doesnít drink or do drugs. And everything we have put together has meaning. I love my house and my family. Itís not worth it to destroy everything," Carmen says.
Today, Carmen accompanies either John or Sandyóhowever he is dressedóon outings. Their daughter is also comfortable with her fatherís two identities. She gave him a womanís cosmetic makeover as a Fatherís Day present this year, even though Carmen didnít approve. "When I made a comment that the gift didnít seem appropriate for Fatherís Day, she said, ĎWhatever makes my Dad happy,í" Carmen says.
Malcolm and other cross-dressers say sexual orientation differs from gender orientation. They use the phrase, "Sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears." Yet coming to terms with their identities is often a struggle for many who feel the tendency to cross-dress.
Though heíd reached the point of taking female hormones, Ron decided to back away from cross-dressing after he fell in love with a woman. He stopped taking hormones and grew a beard. "I cross-dressed once in a while all my life. But after I met this person, I decided I wanted to be with her more than I do the other."
A letter Malcolm received echoes that sentiment. A man who was once very active in Engendered Species wrote, "After my relocation and subsequent meeting of a great gal, I am giving the more traditional lifestyle a try. So far, things are going well, as she is a wonderful lady and being happy in life has relieved much of my stress, which I think was affecting my previous decisions."
Malcolm recalls yet another man arriving at his door with a similar story. "I have some stuff for you if you want it. Itís too good to throw away. See, Iíve decided to do something else," the man said. With that, he gave Malcolm hundreds of dollars worth of makeup, clothes and wigs. Malcolm explains that such behavior is called "purging." While he has only purged once and thrown away only three or four items, heís seen other men go on dozens of purge cycles. They throw away thousands of dollars worth of female clothes, wigs and makeup, often only to buy similar items later. The members of Engendered Species joke that they have a free purge service that accepts discarded womenís clothing.
Besides accepting clothes, Engendered Species publishes a newsletter and holds two monthly meetings along with a variety of other activitiesólike campouts and restaurant dinners. One of the regular meetings is private, for those who have not yet gone public with their cross-dressing. Some members hide their alternate identities, and donít change into womenís (or menís) clothes until they arrive at the meeting. The monthly Engendered Species newsletter includes a statement advising, "Please feel free to show up an hour early if you need to change at the meeting to the other gender."
The other regular meeting is a monthly "Transgender Open House." Itís held in a coffeehouse setting, and is open to the public on what Malcolm calls controlled, friendly turf. "This is an easy first step for someone going out in public in the gender of their choice," he says.
Those who choose to keep this lifestyle hidden do so because of social ostracism, Malcolm explains. Heís seen cross-dressers lose spouses, friends and their standing in churches because of it. "Some religions are down on this and preach sermons against it, even though only one Bible verse, (Deuteronomy 22:5) says that men should not wear the clothes of women," Malcolm says. (He notes that the same passage cautions against wearing wool and linen together, as well as teenagers sleeping in church.)
Sgt. Don Bell, supervisor of the Salt Lake City Police Department sex crimes unit, says cross-dressing is not illegal. "In fact, we run into a great number of them all the time." Quite a number of gay clubs have certain nights devoted to men dressing as women, he adds. "Usually, police encounter cross-dressers because other people see them and pick on them." The only time a cross-dresser would run counter to the law is if he or she were committing a lewd act while cross-dressed. "Even if a male cross-dresser goes into a womenís bathroom, thatís not any worse than a woman who gets fed up with waiting in line at a sports event and decides to use the menís room. Itís what they do while cross-dressed that would make the difference," Bell says.
Dr. Donald Strassberg, a University of Utah professor of psychology, says the biggest problem cross-dressers face is responding to other peopleís reactions. "In my practice, Iíve seen women who discover that their husbands or boyfriends are cross-dressers and have a great deal of difficulty with this. Our culture doesnít handle this very wellówe donít know what to make of it. We tend to want people to fall into categories, and this complicates that for us."
Most cross-dressers view themselves as men, have sexual relations with women and are heterosexual. "For some of these men, cross-dressing may be one of the earlier signs that the real issue is a gender identity issueóthat they are really transsexuals. But for most, thatís not it," Strassberg says. "For the majority, cross-dressing seems to meet a psychological need that is not very well understood."
Because of this lack of understanding, some cross-dressers greatly fear being "read"óhaving someone identify them as a cross-dresser. Malcolm remembers his own fears gradually ebbing away after being read on several occasions. At 19, he walked across town for the first time wearing a wig, dress and womenís shoes, navigating from shadow to shadow in hopes no one would see him. "I thought if I was caught, the whole world would collapse. I was sure electroshock therapy was waiting for me."
Years later, he was less agitated when "read" by a group of teenage boys who saw him walking as Deborah one night in downtown Salt Lake City. One boy threw a pencil at his head, hoping he would turn around. Finally, one yelled, "Hey! Youíre a transvestite." Though his heart was pounding, Malcolm was able to reply in a calm voice. "Yes, I am. I really want to know just how you found out, because youíre very perceptive. Iíve passed hundreds of people tonight and no one noticed until you came along."
The teen who initially read him was flattered by the compliment and almost smiled, Malcolm says. "But then there was another to my left, not satisfied, who was inching around, perhaps to grab my wig." Hoping to head off an awkward moment, Malcolm quickly said, "Yes, itís a wig. I need this because Iím losing my real hair on my head faster than you will. Please donít pull it.
"I donít want to waste time on an assault-and-battery gig," he continued, "and I do need this later to look good and surprise my girlfriend." The teens who confronted him seemed surprised by his frankness, Malcolm says. Over the years, heís gone from a place of fear to a place of confidence and ease, and yet he recognizes that his own acceptance isnít always matched by those around him.
"There are people who are afraid I might recruit people, especially kids. They think that by contacting me, someone will go down a slippery slope and become a cross-dresser, too. That doesnít happen. Nearly every boy has touched some female clothing or tried it on. But if they arenít predisposed, they arenít going to repeat the behavior." There are other ways the motives of cross-dressers may be misunderstood, Malcolm says. "People think a man wearing a dress might go out and rape kids. But half the population wears dresses and they donít rape kids."
As comfortable as he is with his own situation, heís just as quick to say this isnít for everybody. But he cautions cross-dressers considering sexual reassignment surgery to take plenty of time to decide. "They say that if theyíre a cross-dresser now, getting the operation might be better. I tell them they need to learn how to make friends, get a job and navigate socially as the other gender before deciding if they really want to go through with this."
Malcolm has also seen many who, like he, remain comfortable with their cross-dressed selves. "Today I commonly go out as my Ďfemmeí self, without incident. I interact with the public all the time. I find it not much different than doing the same as my male self. Being out is a powerful place to be."