Discussions and readings about social deviancy are exciting in the liberal arts college classroom. One example of deviant behavior in contemporary American society I always looked forward to discussing is trans-vesting. The word means cross-dressing, intentionally wearing the garments culturally designated for the opposite sex, a taboo violation depending on where you live.
In a hypothetical society where men and women are not socially or even legally restricted in what they can wear it would be impossible to cross dress or trans vest. In most Western countries today, it is very difficult if not impossible for women to cross dress. The reason should be obvious: it is now acceptable for females to wear clothing, such as trousers, once meant only for males. On the other hand, in a Muslim culture or community a woman can, indeed, cross dress if she wears, say, coat and tie. Transvestites like to argue that if a woman can wear “male” clothing why can’t men wear “female” garments?
I’m not a transvestite myself so how did I become invested in the subject and, more importantly, why am I such a fan of transvestism? It all started when I asked a friend of mine who knew a transvestite from New York City to invite someone he knew to speak to my sociology class when I was covering social deviance. At the end of the class where he spoke, I interviewed him on tape. According to Michael, the guest speaker, and to subsequent research I did on the subject, there are five psychologically significant reasons why men trans vest:
- Auto-eroticism: When a transvestite looks at himself in the mirror, he becomes physically attracted to himself. The image in the mirror is an alter-ego. Perhaps a masturbatory fantasy. No dating service required. And no flowers.
- Benign rebelliousness: Cross-dressing is a type of rebellion against mainstream society. The transvestite is a rebel with a cause.
- Attracting other males (the drag queen). Most transvestites are heterosexual, but a sub-category of cross-dressers are gay males who, while in drag, want to be with other males. And there is a sub-category of this sub-category, namely, gay transvestite males who desire other males in drag.
- Sociological envy: Getting more respect or attention appearing as a female. The cross-dresser may feel that he lives in community that is more concerned with the rights of girls and women than with boys and men. As comedian Rodney Dangerfield always used to say as part of his stand-up act, “I get no respect.” (Perhaps Rodney shouldhave become a transvestite.)
- Finally, female impersonation by a male actor on stage, such as the old Milton Berle and Flip Wilson shows or Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the movie, “Some Like it Hot.”
As a straight male I welcome the cross dresser. I want to live in a society, or at least a community, where LGBTQ+ is acceptable, maybe even encouraged. Frankly, I take delight in people who exhibit forms of unconventional behavior and desires which are harmless to the public. They are a relief from those who consistently conform to conventional dress code norms. I simply feel freer, socially and even legally, to engage in unconventional behaviors and conversations.
Spare us from the xenophobes and haters in politics who would return us to the “respectable” conformist behaviors of other eras.
A transvestite is not a transsexual. The latter is a person who literally changes physically, and to some extent, physiologically to the opposite sex—the so-called sex change operation. The transvestite male only identifies temporarily as a female and thus usually has no problem using restrooms designated for males. (Of course, he might have a problem if he is still dressed in drag with other males thinking he is female.)
Why do some people, notably men, fear transvestites? My guess is that they see the male in drag as a threat to their masculinity or male identity, especially if they have the slightest desire (perhaps on an unconscious level) to wear female garments.
What about legal rights for trans people? My position is that in any society people should be free from the fear of being abused for appearing the way they want to appear. Anyone who abuses another person for his/her/their appearance should be subject to fines or imprisonment.
Richard Sahn, a retired sociology professor, is an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.