Myths & Misconceptions About Crossdressers

Background Paper 1.2 Revised, August 1995 from the Renaissance Education Association, Inc.

 It is human nature to explain strange and complex phenomena in simplistic terms. This is true with the gender role/ issue of crossdressing or transvestism. As with many popularly held beliefs, there is often some truth to the “folk” wisdom regarding crossdressing. The problem is–these “popular” beliefs are held to be true in all cases. It is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about such complicated issues. The following myths and misconceptions about crossdressing demonstrate how wrong these generalizations can be.

1. All males who dress like women are gay. 

Although no definitive research has been done to survey the entire crossdressing population, current thinking holds that the number of gay transvestites is about the same as in the general population–approximately 10 percent. This means that 90 percent of transvestites are heterosexual or bisexual. Some transvestites fantasize about having “dates” and/or sex with men while they are dressed as women, but this is often an extension of their “female” role. If one were to characterize the sexuality of these men, bisexual would probably be the best term. However, many transvestites choose to have sex, or fantasize about sex, exclusively with women.

2. Women who have relationships with transvestites must be lesbians.

Many wives of transvestites say they accept or tolerate when their spouses dress as women because it is something their husbands enjoy and they love them. Some women say they are ambivalent to the feminine attire their husbands wear, and accept it because it is not important to the relationship. Some of these women may have lesbian tendencies or may be bisexuals. But the fact that a woman has a relationship with a crossdresser proves only one thing; she loves him. In fact, the wives of many crossdressers report that once their husbands have opened up and shared their secret desire for wearing women’s clothes, they seem to be free of the tension and anger that may have threatened their marriages. The men become more attentive and tender with their partners This provides an additional reason for women to accept their mate’s crossdressing.

3. Transvestites wish they were women.

Most reasons for crossdressing do not involve transsexual desires, i.e., a wish to physically change sex. Although crossdressers uniformly enjoy wearing women’s clothes, the majority seldom want to live their lives as women, nor do they want to become women. They want to be like women. A very few transvestites have chosen to cross the gender line completely and live totally as women. These people are called “transgenderists.” But even these men have no desire for sex reassignment surgery. It is true that prior to having such surgery, a transsexual must crossdress and live as the opposite sex for a year or more. During this time they often receive hormones and their secondary sex characteristics will become markedly more like the opposite sex. These people are pre-operative transsexuals, and are not to be confused with transvestites.

Most transvestites, as opposed to transsexuals, enjoy being men. As spouses, they are content being husbands rather than wives. As parents, they are happy with the role of fatherhood and do not wish to become mothers. While they refer to other crossdressers as “sisters,” this is an acknowledgment of the special bond which they share. Additionally, the preference expressed by many crossdressers for being referred to with female pronouns and for using feminine names is related to their appearance rather than to their gender identity.

4. Men crossdress because they were dressed like girls in childhood. 

It is true that many transvestites report their first crossdressing experiences during childhood. Some of these experiences came at the initiation of the transvestite himself, playing out childhood fantasies involving gender roles. These episodes are usually strongly discouraged by parents. Some of these experiences were initiated by parents or guardians as punishment. Very often, these young crossdressers displayed no other effeminate behaviors.

Dr. Richard Green, M.D., of UCLA, concluded a study in which he followed a group of effeminate boys from early childhood into their 20s. As children many of them were dressed as girls. But not one developed into crossdressing adults, and very few developed as transsexuals. Most developed as homosexuals. Green does not say that the childhood effeminacy or crossdressing caused the later development.

5. Transvestites act like women even when wearing men’s clothes.

Because many crossdressers fear being found out, they consciously try to act as traditionally “masculine” as possible when not crossdressed. But this is not difficult for most of them because they are usually masculine men. Crossdressers are not necessarily effeminate. In fact, crossdressers are no more effeminate nor more masculine than any other men. While in men’s clothes, most crossdressers do not stand out from the general population. However, because some crossdressers have a fear bordering on paranoia that their secret will be discovered by others, they often adopt exaggerated masculine mannerisms; i.e., the “super-macho male.”

6. Transvestites suffer from a sexual dysphoria.

While it is true that crossdressing and eroticism are strongly linked for many transvestites, crossdressing and sexual activity are not directly related. Male-to-female transvestites wear some items of women’s clothing which are gender-linked symbols and engage in some “womanly” mannerisms which are gender-linked behaviors. Therefore, crossdressing is primarily a gender issue. It is incorrect to speak of it as sexual dysphoria unless the transvestite is unable to function sexually except when he or she is crossdressed.

7. Transvestism is a mental illness.

Some crossdressers suffer from mental anxiety as a result of inappropriate guilt generated by society’s disapproval of their behavior. In an accepting or tolerant environment, these symptoms frequently disappear or may never arise. Contrary to another popular belief, the “bible” of mental disorders, the DSM-IV, does not list transvestism as a mental disorder. In fact, the DSM states in its Introduction: “Neither deviant behavior, nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders, unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the person…” Dysfunction means an inability to conduct oneself on a day to day basis. Thus, most transvestites are not mentally disordered.

Issued by Renaissance

A non-profit association to educate the professional and general communities about transgendered people.