Cross Dressers, Transsexuals
and the Media

Jed Bland

Author & Publisher (as Derby TV/TS Group)
Gendys Conference, 1996


Throughout this year, I have been trying to work out what it is that we find so unsatisfactory about the media and its coverage of our situation. These issues have been discussed at length by past speakers at the conference, of course, yet even with apparently sympathetic coverage there still seems to be something missing. Our disenchantment with television talk shows, for instance, resulted in the refusal by our leading transvestites and transsexuals to appear on the Kilroy show, last Christmas.

When, however, I tried to formulate my questions during my workshop at GENDYS, it was clearly a complete disaster. The problems appeared to arise when I tried to analyse how a cross dresser differed from what I see as a transvestite. From the hostility which it seemed to generate, I realise that I must use the words media image in italics to distinguish it from my definitions. What, then, are my definitions? Perhaps my problem is that I am passionately devoted to breaking down artificial cultural barriers rather than erecting new ones.

What do we see on Kilroy? We see men arrayed as women in some bizarre dressing-up game. Any attempt to discuss the feelings involved was speedily interrupted. In the recent Kilroy show, a young man started to speak about lacking the opportunity to 'dress' outside his home, and of difficulties with his parents and friends - and was quickly interrupted.

Clearly nothing negative should appear in the show, for the aim was publicising groups; what theatre managers call "bums on seats." Yet a programme, Network First, made by real transvestites of the Beaumont Society, that evening, also went awry. Why did the programme begin with a sequence from Madame JoJo's? Most of my readers will be at ease with the idea but, long before anything worthwhile occurred, most viewers, especially those it might have helped, would have switched off and gone to bed. It seems that, even if transvestites don't shoot themselves in the foot, the producers do it for them.

On the following Friday evening, transvestites were featured by Central Weekend - not a programme I usually watch. Within the first five minutes the word "Deuteronomy" was mentioned and my heart sank. I wish I could have introduced the speakers to the chaplains and priests that have given me support and encouragement down the years. Perhaps they were the shepherds who tend their flocks rather than preaching at them from the pulpit.

For twenty years at least transvestites have been talking about "expressing their femininity", "the woman within", "the second self", and so on. What we mean by femininity is something of course for another article, but if we are doing no more than 'dressing up', does that mean that Dr. Virginia Prince is a transsexual?

The word 'fetishist' was introduced by a member of my audience, and the DSM IV(1) makes a clear distinction. The transvestite, is listed in Section 6.3, Deviant Sexual Arousal.

I would have thought that anyone who spent all day in a dress and remained permanently aroused, would be superhuman. What we have, of course, is a supposedly scientific document simply reiterating a cultural construction. It supports the propaganda of a counsellor who is busy saying what the Press wants to hear, and it is good news for her gender clinic. It irritates me that, in the absence of credible Standards of Care, transsexual therapy is dictated by Fleet Street.

There is no reason whatever why a fetishist should not also be gender shifted, nor why a transsexual should not enjoy fetishism, indeed many do, though they wouldn't admit it publicly.

Fetishism, of course, does not have to be erotic. As Ru Paul says "You're born naked and the rest is drag."(2) There is now a new action man toy for the 'nineties, as heavily muscled as a Baywatch beach-bum. Can we expect the boys of the future to spend all their spare moments weight-lifting and overdosing on steroids? Much as today's girls, desperate to emulate the Barbie-doll image of the catwalk, fast themselves into anorexia?

Feeling sexy, or psychological arousal, is not the same as erotic arousal. If you asked a woman what was in her mind when she dressed for a party, she would say she wanted to look and feel attractive but wouldn't she feel just a little bit sexy? Last year, my son invited me to his wedding in America. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, in spite of the dent it would put in my credit card. He went on, rather diffidently, "We'd like all the wedding party to wear tuxedos". I said "Well, that's alright," privately feeling rather odd. Well I went to wedding, and I wore my tuxedo and enjoyed dressing up as a man and, yes, I felt sexy.

But my thoughts were crystallised by a item in GEMS News(3) ". . . the more rampantly feminist some TS's project themselves to be, the less like feminine women they appear to become? . . . many a regular TV looks far more womanly and passes more openly than [some] TS's, who seem to live for the idea, but forego the female presentation arts in practice." Someone once said "A woman spends all her life trying to 'pass'" Nevertheless it raises the question: does one 'dress up' as a woman, or does one dress as one's self?

This is why I don't like the description cross-dresser. It plays right into the Press's hands, implying the heterosexual equivalent of a drag-queen.

The word 'transvestite' may mean the same thing in Latin or Greek or whatever, but there is more to a word than its etymology. The problem lies in our British definitions, and the argument over whether there is a spectrum of cross-dressing. While, there may be various motives for cross-dressing, other than gender identity disorder, which I have tried to analyse elsewhere,(4) the Americans certainly believe that there is such a continuum, in that they have always referred to the transgender community.

For a while, in the 'eighties, the term 'Gender Motivated Transvestite' was used. I have since had some reservations, since all cross dressing must be about gender in one way or another. For a while, Yvonne Sinclair used the expression 'Transsexual Transvestite'. In the end, I adopted Bancroft's(5) term 'Dual Role Transvestite'. It was, I believe, first used by Brierley(6) His book Transvestism, now, sadly, out of print, has always been regarded as the seminal work on the subject in this country. Although sub-titled "a clinical account," he 'came out' himself (from the closet of the clinic) and wrote about transvestites in their home territory. Though cumbersome, it seemed to fit the purpose admirably. He described people who lived good lives as men and, more than merely 'dressing up', lived good lives as women.

Certainly, one transvestite, Marcie, in Tapestry,(7) not only 'dressed up', but re-evaluated his/her life: I began to realize that I did not have to rely on a facade of macho bluster and masculine charm to get along in the world. In my professional life I began to develop my own management style. This in itself was a unique idea in the hidebound paramilitary industry where I worked. I tried to be fair and evenhanded with my crews, and was pleasantly surprised when the results were very good. My men repaid me with a loyalty I'd never experienced, and excellent job performances. I guess part of this process was really just maturing. My personal life was delivering me plenty of hard knocks, and they were also chipping away my rough edges.

Though the history of homosexuality is closely intertwined with transgenderism, Hirschfeld,(8) as long ago as 1910, showed that the latter is not necessarily connected with the former. Homosexuality, also, until a few centuries ago, was not subject to today's taboo. It was reprehensible, perhaps, but not remarkable. But that was then, and this is now. Simplistically, if sexual orientation followed gender identity in a logical manner, there'd be no lesbians or gay men. At the risk of seeming homophobic, which I am not, I insist that, if someone says he is heterosexual, it behoves us to respect that sense of self.

Often, prospective transsexuals feel that they 'ought' to like men. Sometimes they see it as a requirement of their psychiatrist. A correspondent in a recent copy of GEMS News, had been going along nicely, post-op, and going out with men - until she found herself falling in love with a woman. She was still happy to be post-op, but it shook her to find that she was a lesbian. She had the courage to publish her story, to the confusion of those who seem to feel that changing your sexual orientation is as easy as changing your mind.

Returning to the history of professional thought, the emphasis shifted. If transvestism wasn't homosexual, then it must be sexual fantasy. Yet this raised a problem. The prevailing attitude was, and still is in some quarters, that, since women don't have penises, they don't become sexually aroused. When women cross dress, therefore, it must be for cultural or emotional reasons. Isn't that what male cross-dressers have been saying all along? The result was that Garber(9) may be the first author, since Hirschfeld, to properly acknowledge female cross dressing.

Women who enter men's world, from Boudicca to Margaret Thatcher, are regarded, rather patronisingly, as jolly good chaps, but a man who is 'less than a man' is letting the side down.

Another factor is that, while we have got used to people changing from men to women permanently or women to men people who keep swapping from one role to the other, and back again, perhaps threaten us more deeply, especially if they happen to be men. This is what the media cannot stomach - although it is quite happy for women to 'become' men. Look back through all the television programmes that you have seen. Only one actually approaches the subject, QED's Gender, and this was about women dressing up as men. Consider, also, the last episode of the BBC2 series Dark Secrets, where even the taking of male hormones by women seemed to be glorified.

Yet there has been a shift in attitudes. In the last year, particularly, female to male transsexuals have been coming out into the open, and we owe them a debt of thanks, for in the public, and even the psychiatric view, if transgender affects women, it must be more than a sexual aberration.

Women, also, are showing that the boundaries are fluid. Consider too, transgender history and the way variations in individual biology give rise to different constructions in different cultures the hjras of India, the fa'a'fafine of the Pacific Islands, the hwame of the native Americans and their female counterparts the alyha.

Because anthropologists labelled such people as aberrant homosexuals, and because most writers have been themselves gay, the gay community has unthinkingly stolen our history.

Transgender has for long been a feature of gay writing by such people as Foucault. Because of this, gender has inevitably been conflated with sexual orientation, in spite of the fact that the former is something imposed on us from the cradle, long before we acquire the latter.

Should we tamely submit to what the Press and Television says we should be? Or should we assert our right to challenge the existing social construction of gender?


  1. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV) American Psychiatric Society.
  2. Ru Paul (1995) Lettin It All Hang Out: An autobiography by RuPaul, New York: Hyperion
  3. GEMS News 25 (Autumn 1996) Page 31
  4. Bland J., (1994) Transvestism: Four Monographs, Belper: Derby TV/TS Group.
  5. Bancroft, J. (1989) Human Sexuality and its Problems, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  6. Brierley, H., (1979) Transvestism, Oxford: Pergamon Press (out of print)
  7. Marcie, M., (1995) In Search of my Soul, Tapestry Journal, Issue 70, Winter 1995, Wayland, Massachusetts: IFGE.
  8. Hirschfeld, M, (1910 first publ) Transvestites - The Erotic Drive to Cross Dress, (Translated by Michael A. Lombardi Nash Ph.D., 1991), Prometheus Books (USA)
  9. Garber, M., (1993) Vested Interests: Cross dressing and cultural anxiety, London: Penguin.
Bland. J., (1996),Cross Dressers, Transsexuals and the Media., GENDYS '96, The Fourth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England. London: Gendys Conferences

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