A few years ago, I planned a weekend trip to the Poconos with a bunch of friends. We wanted to stay at the gay-owned resort Rainbow Mountain, but when we called to reserve rooms, the manager told us, "Sorry, we're all booked. It's 'Little Girls Weekend.'" Then he continued, answering the obvious but not yet asked question, "It's a convention of cross-dressers who like to dress up as little girls. But you can still make a reservation at the restaurant."
When we arrived, the dining room was full of men wearing frilly dresses with poufy crinolines and toting stuffed animals. Outside, one giggly group played hopscotch, tiny pink backpacks slung over their shoulders. Outnumbered by pigtailed wigs and size 13 Mary Janes, we were serenaded with a rendition of "Doe, a deer . . . " but that's not what sticks in my mind when I think of that evening. Sitting beside one of the little girls was an attractive middle-aged woman with shoulder-length, dirty-blond hair, wearing a striped silk blouse. She smiled at the brunette beside her as she straightened out the pink ribbon in her dark locks. And she wasn't the only one: More than half the little girls were there with female companionstheir wives.
LGs, as they call themselves, are a tiny segment of a larger community of cross-dressers. The majority of cross-dressers are heterosexual men who like to dress as women, and because of their taboo desires, most are very closeted. Despite a number of organizations, events, and publications, many cross-dressers are hidden, isolated, and misunderstood. Equally fascinating, complicated, and unseen are cross-dressers' partners. Helen Boyd, 34, went searching for support when her then fiancé came out to her as a cross-dresser. She found two extremes: a few "everything's perfect!" cheerleaders and plenty of negative "bitch-fests" where women blamed all their problems on their cross-dressing husbands. When she voiced ambivalence, excitement, or insight about her future husband's identity, she was ignored or shunned. So she started her own online group with the cheeky name Crossdressing Over Dose (CDOD), which she describes as "more gender theory than shopping tips." Her search for information and understanding led her to write My Husband Betty (myhusbandbetty.com), a book about her experiences, in the hope of helping others.
If a woman has just discovered that her husband is a cross-dresser, I'd consider My Husband Betty essential reading, but even for the educated and seasoned, it is an amazing resource that delves deep into the issuescultural, political, sexual, historical, psychologicalfacing cross-dressers, their partners, and the various communities they intersect. Boyd boldly and honestly lays out the who, what, when, where, and why, and isn't afraid to insert her own journeyfull of fears, anxieties, and fantasiesinto the mix. She makes the point that her husband's desire to dress and present himself as a woman and his ideas about womanhood call into question her own femininity; it can feel intimidating, competitive, even offensive. But it has also helped her learn a great deal: "His love of the feminine has given me the ability to appreciate the good things about being a woman. In return, I think I've given him an education in what real women's lives are like."
As the book thoughtfully and compulsively covers every corner of its subject, the work simultaneously transcends cross-dressing altogether. It becomes a blueprint for nontraditional relationships: how to communicate honestly about needs and desires, let go of white-picket-fence dreams, and move beyond them to something real. An undercurrent throughout is the nuanced spectrum of gender and sexuality. From Helen's studious yet accessible no-nonsense perspective, no one is definitively masculine or feminine, straight or gay; the book is about the individual experiences and coping skills of dozens of interviewees, and how they make their lives and relationships work.
Not surprisingly, in person, the pair is consciously and happily gender-blurred. When I knocked on the door of their Park Slope apartment, Helen answered, looking like a dyke-y feminist professor in dark-rimmed glasses. Before the night was over, she would proudly flash me the ring on her left hand and proclaim, "Honey, I'm married!" She introduced me to Betty "as a boy," whose chin-length blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail. His deep brown eyes focused on mine, as I spied his manicured nails and eyebrows. Though he wore no cosmetics or other girl things, he strongly reminded me of a beautiful drag queen backstage after a show, with her costume off but half her makeup still ona seductive combination of male and female.
As we crowded around their bedroom mirror to get ready for a drag king show, we chatted about eye shadow, homophobia, and queer heterosexuality (which they most definitely embrace). For some cross-dressers, getting dressed is one of the most private and intensely charged moments, the most intimate of their day, week, month, or year. I wondered if my request to primp alongside Betty was too much. "When I was closeted, I dressed alone; it was very secret," said Betty, who feels comfortable being called he or she. "When we started going out, it took the 'charge' out of dressing, there was much less shame. When you own up to your own freakiness, it's suddenly OK. People will see me. If I'm dressed in guy drag, they may think I am an effeminate gay man. In girl clothes, they may think I'm a drag queen. But I know who and what I am, so I'm fine with it." And clearly he is, as he moved freely from his jeans and sneakers to her charcoal eyeliner and satin bustier.
After an hour preening with them, I was much more interested in their critique of apolitical cross-dressers than in who wore the high heels in the relationship. Boyd tackles such complexities in her book: For some, it's simply about silk stockings and lace panties; for others, it's much morecross-dressing may be a first step in transsexuality. Boyd's book has meant a big coming out for both of them, to parents, co-workers, and strangers. Ironically, as the inspiration (and cover girl) of a cross-dressing book, Betty has gradually shed that identity, and considers herself transgendered: "Part of that is because I don't identify with many cross-dressers; they don't always feel like my community. But being trans means I am free of all the other fucking labels. It doesn't pin me down, it allows me to be me; I'm still grappling with my gender, considering if I want to make changes to my body. I am still discovering who my chick self is."
Please visit my website, puckerup.com.
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