L O A D I N G

SEE Magazine: Edmonton's Weekly Source For News, Arts and Entertainment
SEE Magazine
Issue #423: January 10, 2002
NEWS
COVER STORY

by Andrew Hanon

She waves across the crowded restaurant. From my vantage point, the three women at her table look no different than the dozens of others gathered here for a late-night dessert and coffee. One would have to be extremely observant – or very close – to realize that they’re anything other than three middle-aged girlfriends out for a genteel evening. Dixie, Rachel and Brittany meet with me in a carefully chosen spot in one of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods, making it unlikely that they would encounter any difficulty. This is a preliminary meeting; they want to check me out, determine whether I’m trustworthy enough to to be allowed to meet other members of Illusions Social Club. And they want to lay out the ground rules.

"We prefer the term cross-dressers to transvestites," says Dixie. "And we don’t use the term ‘drag’. That’s something else entirely." When they’re dressed as women, they are women, and should be referred to as such.

Another common misconception about cross-dressers is that they’re gay. In fact, of the three there that night, one is gay, one happily married and the third quite happily divorced, but straight.

Cross-dressing is one of the few taboos left in the world of human sexuality, considered by most of mainstream society as pathetic, tragic and unmanly. Those who aren’t openly contemptuous often dismiss it as hilariously freakish. The compulsion to wear women’s clothing has destroyed many a marriage because the wife can’t shake the fear that her husband is, at the very least, secretly bisexual. Further confusing the issue is the close association of cross-dressers with the gay community. "Cross-dressers end up in the gay community largely because it’s the only place where we’re accepted without judgment," explains Dixie. She estimates that 10 per cent of Illusions’ membership is gay, perfectly reflecting proportions in the greater population.

And finally, the most important thing to remember: "Illusions is not a sex club. It’s a social club. Period."

It begins just like any other bourgeois jewelry party. A collection of largely middle-aged women sits pertly on the edges of their seats, hands on knees, as the woman in charge displays items selected from the vast array spread out on a table. Subdued ooohs can be heard when a particularly attractive item is held up for inspection. All of the featured pieces were very carefully chosen. They’re elegant, but they’re also distinctively large. Bracelets are thick. Chains are heavy. Brooches are up to three inches in diameter. Like the slimming effect of vertical stripes, big jewelry tends to help mask big bones, large, work-worn hands and Adam’s apples. It’s one of the many tricks cross-dressers use to look their best.

"After all," the saleswoman reminds the dozen potential buyers in front of her, "there’s something beautiful in all of us, isn’t there?"

No Illusion

At any time, there are up to 40 members of Illusions but usually only about a dozen can be expected at its monthly socials. Many, explains Dixie, simply are unable to get away and make every meeting.

"Some of our members are so far in the closet they’ll likely never come out," she says. "Nobody knows that they’re cross-dressers, not even their families. You’d be surprised by the lengths they go to in order to conceal it. Some will stash their clothes in the wheel wells of their cars and stop somewhere to get changed."

Even those who are at ease with themselves are very protective of their privacy. Shae, a tradesman by day, has staff to supervise and doesn’t think there’d be much respect for a cross-dressing foreman. On the other hand, she has no qualms about getting dolled up and heading out for a night on the town. That, in a nutshell, is the dichotomy of cross-dressing.

Almost accidentally, Shae discovered her feminine side last year. A friend had given him a box of women’s clothing to give to a thrift store and suggested he go through it first to see if there was anything his girlfriend might be interested in.

"I just fell in love with the fabrics. They felt so wonderful." He tried a few items on and it was like someone had thrown a switch. "I became fascinated."

Now Shae dresses en femme about half the time, donning full makeup and wigs when she goes out. "I have no qualms about going out to the theatre and gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered events en femme, and I go shopping and out to dinner en femme more and more of these days. Those of my friends and family who need to know, do. Those who don’t, it’s none of their business."

Shae’s girlfriend, Sophie (not her real name), really hasn’t given much thought to her boyfriend’s decision to get in touch with his feminine side. "I, myself, like to dress in things that aren’t necessarily considered ‘normal’. I like to wear leather. Nothing too severe, but some softcore stuff."

As for Shae, she says, "It’s just one facet of a complex personality. For me, part of the fun is just watching him relaxing and having fun with it."

Sophie says her man has been very considerate about exercising his feminine side, continually asking her if she’s okay with it. "We’ve only been out together a few times, and that’s been to very controlled situations. I imagine we’ll be doing more as we both become more experienced."

Sensitivity, she adds, is the key. For example, Sophie’s parents would never understand why he does it, so they just won’t tell them. "There are times when you just don’t do it, out of consideration for others. A room full of mothers with children, for example."

‘I thought you were a murderer’

Another Illusions member studiously avoids eye contact. Her gaze only rises from the floor in order to glimpse the merchandise being passed around. The natural assumption is that having a reporter in the room is unnerving her. But after the jewelry party ends, she approaches, eager to talk about her experiences – on one condition: total anonymity.

"I’ve told a few friends," she says, "but I’m very careful about who I tell. It’s kind of funny, though. When my girlfriend and I started getting serious, I knew I had to tell her, so I sat her down, looked her right in the eyes and said, ‘There’s something I must tell you about myself’. She looked all scared, like I was going to tell her I was a murderer or something, but when I finally got it out she just looked at me and said, ‘…And?’ It was almost a letdown. She didn’t think it was that big a deal and she was the one who encouraged me to start telling friends who I thought would understand."

As long as she can remember, she’s wanted to put on women’s clothes. When a four-year-old boy slips into Mommy’s pumps, it’s a Kodak moment. When an 11-year-old tries on her camisole, he gets yelled at and told to act like a man. Like most transgendered, the impulse was suppressed, even denied, through the teen years. But once she was on her own, that old desire flared up again.

"I only get dressed up at home," she says, "except to come to these functions. I don’t need to go out much."

Fashion tips

Illusions is as much a support group as it is a social club. Many of its members don’t live in the city; they live in rural areas or small towns and don’t dare dress up anywhere where they’d be recognized. Dixie, one of the club’s organizers, says there are plenty of cross-dressers in the city who don’t feel any need to join the group; they can get dressed up and go out whenever they want. Illusions’ members come for moral support and practical advice – they can learn how to apply makeup, which brands work best for covering five o’clock shadow, and how to determine which colours compliment them best.

"We have a lot of gender reassignment candidates come for a short while," Dixie explains. "They come to us when they’re starting out on their journey. We help them with makeup and fashion tips. They don’t usually stay for long."

Dixie has been out for years and routinely dresses up and goes out in public. She is rarely harassed or intimidated, partly because she knows where it’s safe to be and which areas of the city to avoid. "Once in a while some teenagers will spot me and they’ll start calling out. That’s about it, though. I’ve never had a problem with any adults. If they recognize me, they might smile and pass on by, that’s all."

On any given day, Dixie says if you know how to spot them, as many as five or six cross-dressers are among the thousands of shoppers at West Edmonton Mall.

Marsha, on the other hand, has seen it all. But then, she refuses to be intimidated by misguided homophobes. A few years ago Marsha was accosted by three gay-bashers who tried to drag her into the back of a waiting van.

"They were trying to pull off my clothes," she recalls. "It was obvious they were trying to gang-rape me, but I got ahold of one of their baseball bats and beat the shit out of all three of them. A bystander called the police, who showed up, knew right away what was going on and sent me on my way. They handled it from there."

Shae, who is equally fearless, prefers to talk her way out of awkward situations. "Always smile," she says. "No matter what they say, keep smiling. It diffuses tensions and usually they end up laughing right along with you."

Willing to risk their lives

Cross-dressing has been around as long as humans have used clothing to separate the sexes. Joan of Arc fought a war dressed as a man, and after securing victory was burned at the stake for refusing to switch back to traditional female dress. There’s the story of Franklin Thompson, who joined the Union forces during the American Civil War. Prior to enlisting, Thompson was known as Sarah Emma Edmonds. In an article entitled The Transgender Phenomenon, Edmonton psychiatrist Lorne Warneke and Sandi Barsi, RPN, state that more than 134 North American Aboriginal tribes have in their recorded histories stories of "two-spirited" people who live out their lives as members of the opposite sex.

In fact, Warneke and Barsi wrote, the compulsion to assume opposite-sex roles is so powerful in some people that they’re willing to risk their lives over it. "There were cross-dressing societies in England and Europe before and at the same time that Oscar Wilde was on trial for his homosexuality. Of note, this phenomenon persisted over a period of time when such behaviour would have been labelled as being homosexual and punishable by death by garroting, burning at the stake or beheading."

Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa was so outraged when he discovered Native American tolerance of cross-dressers that he launched a ruthless campaign to exterminate those he called "berdache."

Given the vicious hostility to cross-dressing, why would anyone risk humiliation, ostracism, torture and even death just so they could dress up like someone of the opposite sex? Few Illusions members can explain why they do it, saying only that if they suppress the desire, they’re miserable, frustrated and feel like they’re denying their true selves. They’ve stopped asking why or how. It just is.

Warneke divides cross-dressers into four distinct categories:

Opportunistic: Performers who dress simply for effect, such as Dame Edna Everidge, Milton Berle or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. For them, it’s just part of the act.

Drag Queens: A small percentage of gay men dress up as caricatures of women.

Transgenders: A tiny percentage of the population (some estimates say one in 37,000 men and one in 100,000 women) is born with the gender identity of the opposite sex. More than just wanting to switch sexes, they already believe they are the opposite sex. They aren’t cross-dressing but rather are expressing their true gender.

Transvestites: For these individuals, cross-dressing is a sexual fetish and they have no desire to alter their physiology. While some members of Illusions say there is little or nothing directly sexual about wanting to dress up as women, Warneke says most cross-dressing by straight men is done initially because it’s arousing. Whether or not the act of cross-dressing is sexual, it’s rooted in sex. One long-time member of Illusions said while there was initially a sexual thrill in cross-dressing and going out in public, that physical rush had long-since mellowed.

Leading the way

In a way, it’s ironic that cross-dressing remains in the shadows of society while the gay and lesbian communities enjoy increasing acceptance. After all, historians credit cross-dressers with the birth of the modern gay-rights movement. When New York police descended on the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969, they were there primarily to arrest cross-dressers on public-indecency charges. The cross-dressers, who had had enough of police harassment, fought back, causing the riots. But while they helped launch a revolution that has reshaped much of society, cross-dressers still wait for the day when they will no longer be dismissed as freaks and degenerates. In the meantime, groups like Illusions give them a small measure of acceptance.

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