TG Web Archive

Do you loan him your bra or kick him out of the house?


You are a young husband, returning home unexpectedly in the middle of the day. Behind a closed bedroom door you hear your wife moaning softly. Taking a deep breath, you open the door and see someone standing in front of the closet mirror. Puffing on a cigar and wearing an oversized pair of paint-spattered, torn coveralls is your wife, a mustache and hairy eyebrows glued on her face.

During a terrible argument, you berate her for being a pervert and wonder if you've failed her as a man. She finally confesses that she is a transvestite. She has been one ever since, as a teenager, she discovered a pair of her father's soiled boxer shorts in the bathroom hamper and tried them on. Then she began stealing her brother's underwear, wearing it to school beneath her normal feminine attire. She pleads with you to forgive and forget just this time, and promises never to wear men's clothing again. Things smooth out. It's easy to get a cheap laugh this way at the expense of male transvestites. But contrary to their stereotype as "sissies", the majority of transvestites are extremely masculine-appearing men who are exclusively heterosexual. Many are married or involved in long-term relationships with women. And most transvestites spend their entire lives hiding their secret. Some transvestites get caught indulging their fantasies, and others opt to bring their transvestism out of the closet. It can be devastating, to say the least, for a wife to see her husband dressed as a female.

Doreen, an attractive blonde in her late 20s, caught her husband Tim parading around their apartment wearing women's clothing. She thought he'd flipped out. With a nervous giggle she remembers that he was in front of the bedroom mirror prancing about on four-inch-high heels asking, 'How do I look Honey?' And all she could think was. "My God, what have I gotten myself into?"

Doreen chose to run rather than confront the problem. She remembers feeling angry, threatened, hurt, betrayed. "I just didn't know how to deal with it," she admits. When she returned home after work that day, she gave Tim an ultimatum: "I can't have this going on," she remembers saying "You either get help to stop this nonsense, or I'm gone."

Mildred Brown is a San Jose sex therapist who counsels patients with gender-identity problems. She also counsels their spouses or partners. In her opinion women involved with male transvestites must accept the fact that "the man is going to wear female attire openly or covertly with their permission or without it." Brown believes that the causes of transvestism, as yet unknown, are not really pertinent. "What is relevant," she insists, "is that the transvestite and the woman he is involved with accept him as he is, and not expect him to change or give up his desire to dress as a female. He probably can't change, anyway. Nor should a woman think of him as a pervert or a degenerate, which he certainly is not."

Brown often encourages a transvestite in therapy to join an organization that allows him to indulge "his hobby." She further advises the female partner to accompany him and become involved. Over the past 20 years, a number of transvestite groups have been organized around the country. In the San Francisco Bay area, Brown works closely with the Educational Transvestite Channel, also called ETVC. A remarkable feature of this transvestite social group is that the genetic females - wives, lovers and even mothers - have formed a self-help women's auxiliary. The "Significant Others Support Group" supplies understanding and insight, a sympathetic ear, and friendship for women who are involved in loving relationships with transvestite men but are frightened or repulsed by their cross-dressing behavior.

"Gracie," Bill announces in a deep voice that rumbles quietly from his chest as he lumbers into the kitchen. "We have company." He is a short, stocky well-muscled man with large hands and strong fingers, dressed in a short-sleeved yellow cotton shirt, blue jeans and scruffy tennis shoes. Hard as it is to imagine this man in "drag" he is one of ETVC's executive officers and, with Gracie, his "significant other," a mainstay of the organization. A woman sits at the table leafing through a magazine. No one else has arrived yet for the "significant others" roundtable discussion to be held tonight.

Gracie enters the room and greets me, then introduces me to Sue, the woman at the table. Sue says that Gracie is the den mother of the "significant others" women's group.

"I am a defender of the transvestite lifestyle" Gracie announces, pouring coffee for the three of us.

"You can be drunk," she explains, "and people will say 'Oh, he's an alcoholic. No problem." But if you say 'My husband is a transvestite.' They'll say 'Wow that's terrible. Is he some kind of a kinky pervert, or what?' That's the image people have of the transvestite's world. Not that they're decent men who raise families, pay taxes and make a living to support their loved one, but that they're all siting around wearing garter belts and nylons fondling themselves day and night. And that's not the way it is. Although of course," she giggles, "that's pretty true."

She shows me a copy of the Transvestite and His Wife, a book that is required reading for any woman who joins the "significant others" group. Written by Virginia "Charles" Price, a male transvestite who is a social scientist, the book is a plea for understanding from wives and lovers for cross-dressing men.

Sue, a small, dark woman with a bubbly personality, says that her tears and anger about her husband's transvestism have changed to a supportive understanding of his need to cross-dress. At the time he revealed his transvestism to her, they were members of a conservative synagogue. Sue feels that this made the initial adjustment much more difficult. Reverberating through her mind were verses from Deuteronomy that call wearing the clothing of the opposite sex an abomination. "But at the same time," she says, "I couldn't help noticing how tacky he looked. Runs in his nylons, badly done trampy-looking makeup, a dress that didn't fit him - I mean he couldn't even get the zipper up his back closed, the top was so tight - and the most ridiculous wig I'd ever seen. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry." Sue turned to her rabbi for help. After cautioning her that a sex therapist's advice might not be in strict accordance with religious law, he referred her to Mildred Brown. Sue says that she is very happy about Brown's counseling. Ultimately they both left their conservative synagogue for one more in accordance with their new life. "What upset me most about going out in public with him," Sue confides, "was that he always wanted to wear all this erotic stuff. I just didn't want him to do that at all: he looked too trampy." And at that point I said, 'Look, Buster, if you're going to go out with me you're going to dress right.' And he took my advice and dresses really tastefully now."

A woman named Barbara joins us. Sue continues explaining how counseling, as well as their love for each other, took her and her husband through the tough times. "Mildred taught me to understand that it's no big deal, that cross-dressing doesn't harm him, or me, or anyone else. But I was the one who decided that since there didn't seem to be any cure for it, I could fight it - and probably lose - or learn more about it. I'm not scared or ashamed of his transvestism any more."

"But you don't have to like it," Barbara snaps "You can tolerate it, or even think it's silly - which it is - but you don't have to like it." Of all the women at that night's meeting, she remains the angriest about the fact that her husband of nearly 20 years is a transvestite.

Barbara is disdainful about the way her husband looks as a woman ("He's too large and masculine to be convincing") and contemptuous of his desire to have her accompany him to social functions when he is crossdressed. "He just can't seem to go anywhere by himself." She also confesses to thinking about a divorce "I don't know why I haven't left him," she sighs. "Is it because I still love him, or am just too scared to leave?"

In her book Transvestites and Transsexuals: Mixed Views Deborah Heller Feinbloom, a New England-based gender-identity counselor, suggests that some women in intimate relationships with crossdressing men may have latent lesbian tendencies. Such women may have difficulty relating to men be cause they prefer women, Feinbloom says, but can't admit the fact to themselves. For these females, a transvestite husband may provide an acceptable "pseudo-woman" with whom they can relate intimately, while allowing them to express a socially permissible hostility by belittling cross-dressing behavior. "He wants me to go shopping with him for 'Tina,'" Barbara continues. "It drives me crazy. I have better things to do than shop."

Jealousy between the transvestite's wife and his alter-ego -- the so-called "other woman" in his life -- is a phenomenon both Feinbloom and Price discuss extensively. Barbara recognizes it in theory, but denies its reality. She sees her husband's fantasy as an indulgence "Competition," she scoffs. "When they are TV's, nothing is too good or too expensive. You talk about a person spending all of their money on booze -- they do the same thing with their feminine attire. His male wardrobe is zilch, be cause he'd much rather go out as a woman than be dressed up and look good as a man."

"Not my guy." says Sue. "He likes his male clothes and his male image."

"So does Peter." interjects Sara, who has just arrived with Donna.

"My husband and I grew up in the 60s, when everybody wore the same clothes." Donna begins "I've been aware of his transvestism since early on in our relationship. But I just figured it was no big deal. His wearing panties and a skirt was no stranger than my wearing jeans and engineer boots.

"I am very supportive -- to a certain extent -- but also very adamant. Both are important. I make a distinction: there's fantasy and there's reality.

Fantasy is that you can get dressed and do things. And reality is that if you go out in the street that way, people are going to laugh. So my husband is very realistic about it, and dresses in private or at ETVC functions.

"I'm not as angry as many of the other women because I don't feel as threatened. If he wants his fantasy, he can have it -- as long as it remains well-integrated into our reality. And I am happy with him. And he enjoys doing more than his share of chores around the house -- chores I don't like -- and that makes my life easier.

"Now some people deny the qualities -- masculine or feminine -- that are within them. I feel I've integrated mine pretty well, and I'm not afraid to do masculine things. There are a lot of feminine qualities that come across in his general personality I like them, and I see them as the advantages of being in love with a TV."

"And it's nothing to be ashamed of either," Sue reiterates. "None of us is rigidly divided into masculine or feminine "

"I agree with that," Gracie adds.

"My message to women -- to the world -- is that these men are not weirdos. They are gentle, non-aggressive, compassionate people whose sensitivity and interests may run counter to stereotype, but who should be cherished for who they are. Just because they cross-dress doesn't mean they can't be loving fathers and wonderful husbands and lovers. They can understand us better than other men -- if we let them -- and can be happier than they ever dreamed with our love for them."

After that, no one said anything at all for quite a while.