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Brotherly Lovely

[whitespace] transvestites
George Sakkestad

War Paint: Rainbow Gender Association members Esmarelda Alvarez and Chris Youden freshen up in the restroom before a discussion group.

Do clothes make the man--or the woman, for that matter? The local transvestite community pushes the question, forcing the rest of us to admit we don't have a clue.

By Kelly Luker

IN MANY WAYS, THE GANG HERE IN SAN JOSE today seated around the table chowing down lunch and shooting the breeze mimics retirees coffee-klatching from Waffle Houses in Minnesota to greasy spoons in Arizona. The topic is President Bill Clinton--and Clinton's irrepressible zipper--of course. Ed, with a POW/MIA cap perched on his balding head, nudges the conversation on to the bullish stock market.

The sixtysomethings chew on this for a while until Danielle pulls out pictures and starts passing them around. As Ed reaches for the photos, one might notice his long acrylic nails done in a perfect French manicure. And one might notice the look of quiet pride as he gazes upon that photo of himself dressed in a stunning full-length gown receiving a woman's kiss and a long-stemmed rose.

Ed--also known as Lois--and Danielle, Dolly, Joan and the others are part of the "Thursday Irregulars," a group of transvestites who have been getting together in San Jose for lunch and informal chitchat for more than 20 years. Today, they're reviewing pictures of the Cotillion, a yearly coming-out party held in San Francisco for the transgender community. Although some are dressed as men while others are en femme at our luncheon today, the Cotillion--as the pictures beautifully demonstrate--is an opportunity to pull out all the stops. Bugle beads and spangles, high heels and hairspray rule at this pageant of the feminine.

Although the sexual revolution has freed gays and lesbians--even transsexuals--from at least some of society's wrath and misunderstanding, crossdressers may be the last sexual fringe stuck in the closet. However, if the goings-on here in the South Bay are any indication, that door to secrecy and shame may finally be swinging open to the faint rays of understanding.

Da Bomb

GROUND ZERO for this loosening of society's corset may well be Carla's. Entering the low-slung pink building tucked behind San Jose's Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center on Stockton Avenue, a visitor is struck by decor that whispers "genteel." The muted pink and mauve interior with tastefully appointed touches gently reminds all who enter of owner Carla Blair's No. 1 admonition: This is a place where visitors and regulars are expected to act like ladies. Never mind that on any given day, Blair may be the only one present actually born with female plumbing.

Opened last August, Carla's--a combination tearoom, beauty salon, boutique and social center--has quickly gained a worldwide reputation within the transgender community as the Lourdes of gender transformation for crossdressers and transsexuals.

It is also the latest meeting place for the Thursday Irregulars. Joanie Sheldon, a retired Navy bomber pilot now in her 70s, is impeccably dressed in a pantsuit with knit cardigan. Her white-haired wig curls about a wide-set face and friendly eyes. Joan has already covered a few points of etiquette for me during a phone conversation earlier. Transvestite, TV, cross-dresser and CD are all acceptable terms, though individuals may quibble over semantics. Joanie reminds me that CDs are predominantly heterosexual, while drag queens are usually gay ("Queens caricature women," adds one of the Irregulars later. "We want to be like women.").

Neither is to be confused with transsexuals, men or women who seek sex-change surgery. However, one cross-dresser passes on a joke commonly told in the transsexual community: 'You know what the difference is between a transvestite and a transsexual? About three years.' Cross-dressers do not find this knee-slappingly funny.

To keep things confusing, both transvestites and transsexuals fall under the umbrella term "transgender," which San Jose sex therapist Mildred Brown defines as anyone with profound problems or questions about his or her gender identity.

When dressed en femme--the preferred term to indicate women's dress--cross-dressers expect to be referred to as ladies, by the feminine possessive pronoun and by their fem names. Yet at this gathering today, it gets a tad confusing because a fair number of the guys show up as guys. No matter, it is the feminine spirit that is with us today.

Like Joan, the others here en femme are tastefully attired. No garish Ru Pauls, no tacky micro-mini skirts, but instead a heartfelt attempt to embrace the inner gal, not the inner trollop.

Not that any here would pass as women--at least not on second glance. Strong jaws and 5 o'clock shadows give a nonverbal heads-up to even the least observant that not all is kosher beneath the skirts.

But it's not about tricking or deceiving observers, these gals and guys say. Dressing as a woman is about honesty. Authenticity. About acknowledging that part--what Jung might call the "shadow self"--that is essential to the whole.

Cross to Bear

ALTHOUGH THE cross-dressing urge is undeniably strong, perhaps impossible to thwart, Danielle does not like referring to it as a compulsion. The 40ish 3-D animator, dressed today in a shoulder-baring peasant blouse and wearing just a dab of lipstick, believes that compulsion is a phrase too easily paired with addiction--a term defining a self-destructive habit. For Danielle, happily married to a woman who enjoys and supports Danielle's transvestitism, cross-dressing is anything but.

"One of the challenges is to embrace more of the femininity than just the outward," Danielle says. She admits, like many of the men present, that she learned to discover and appreciate her softer side.

But for every Danielle, there may be a Dolly, a former bus driver who today is wearing a dark purple sheath dress offset by a wine-red wig. "The story not being told [about transvestites] is the suffering among young people," Dolly announces, as a knowing quiet falls among those gathered. "I see it as a health issue. The natural reaction [when we realize this about ourselves] is shame and humiliation, which creates a vast array of psychological damage."

Some nod in agreement. Dolly says her path took her through suicide attempts and state mental hospitals. Although she is married today to an understanding wife, Dolly still wears an air of palpable sadness.

Joanie clears her throat. "I think every young person has trouble accepting themselves, no matter the circumstances," she says. She's right--the rocky road of adolescence is a hellish journey even without the added burden of this secret. Joanie, a former Navy pilot who fought in two wars, is convinced that learning to accept her cross-dressing was "the most difficult thing I've ever done. I used to see it as my cross to bear," she says, no pun intended.

Joanie tells of the purges--gathering up all the girly things and burning or throwing them away--and everyone nods. "But it would come roaring back with a vengeance," she says.

Joanie's wife of 25 years, who passed away just months ago, knew of Joanie's transvestitism, as do her children and grandchildren. She regularly attends her church in women's clothes ("Sunday is my cross-dressing day"). But who is it, exactly, who goes out in women's clothes--to church, to Costco, to the shopping forays at Nordstrom?

"When I go out, I realize that I'm a guy," Joanie says. "I think people look at me, but I've been doing this a long time and I'm very comfortable."

Ménage à Trois

SOMEWHERE IN THAT answer lies the key to what troubles us about transvestites. While drag queens and their over-the-top gender-bendings are merely laughable, transvestites quietly push the barbed-wire boundary where male ends and female begins. There is no stronger core of self-identity than our cherished notion of our own sexuality. Imagine, then, when your lover or husband reveals that he loves camisoles and push-up bras ... but not on you.

Andrew and Rita are just finishing up dinner when I join them at their hillside house, which affords a stunning view of both the UCSC campus and Monterey Bay. Together eight years, they make a good-looking couple. A psychotherapist, Rita laughs easily and nudges Andrew lovingly when she has a point to make. Andrew, like his partner, is extremely articulate and enjoys the good-natured give-and-take of their discussion. But, says Rita, the relationship wasn't always this easygoing--particularly when Amanda (Andrew en femme) first joined the couple.

"It was a profound sense of loss of control," remembers Rita, when Amanda first started to emerge. Rita says that early in their relationship, Andrew told her he used to cross-dress. "I thought it meant he was gay," she says, echoing one of the most common misconceptions about transvestites. She also assumed it was a thing of the past, until about three years ago when Andrew asked to bring back Amanda.

Although Rita had done research, and even wrote a paper on cross-dressing for one of her psychology classes, the reality of living with and loving a man who enjoys wearing women's clothes shook her to her core. "People [who are in relationships with TVs] joke, 'Who am I when I'm with this person dressed up as a woman? Am I a lesbian?' " says Rita. She pauses to search for the right words.

"It gets down to the basic levels of who we are, about roles, about who we are as a couple." Rita draws a comparison to the scene in The Crying Game when the character played by Stephen Rea discovers his girlfriend is a male and reflexively vomits. Rita observes, "You have almost a physiological reaction when someone you've had sex with as a man is now sitting there as a woman."

Andrew and Rita agree that setting clear boundaries and practicing open communication allowed Amanda to live peaceably with them. Rita was given final say on how often Amanda could "come out" and on what terms. Even so, the experience left Rita irrevocably changed.

"There was a crisis point," recalls Rita, "where I just cried for a week and I couldn't express why. It's like you've bought into all these fantasies of Romeo and Juliet and happily ever after." There's a long pause. "It felt like something inside me was being broken up and all those fantasies were being taken away."

Andrew listens quietly. He got interested in cross-dressing at the age of 21 through a girlfriend who said she liked to see her boyfriends dressed as women. He tried it, and discovered he loved the soft rustle of silk, the gentle swish swish of pantyhose when he walked. He was entranced with the woman who looked back at him in the mirror.

"I recognized then that there's some deep part of me that is feminine," says Andrew. "I think the reason we have a hard time with cross-dressing is that it's inconceivable that a heterosexual man would want to be womanly."

Andrew admits that his cross-dressing spoke to his own homophobia. "I'm definitely heterosexual, but the more comfortable I get with this, the more I see Amanda as part of my sexual identity," he says.

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Groups and places for Silicon Valley area
men in women's clothing to hang out.

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Airheads and Bimbos

BUT AS ANDREW AND RITA talk, it seems that Amanda is in their lives to tweak and bend the couple's cherished beliefs about gender identity. Andrew admits that he's more of a loner, while Amanda is the social butterfly. Rita notices that Amanda is more cuddly and touchy than Andrew. "The difference between him as a guy and as a woman is really dramatic," says Rita. "Andrew has an exquisite pleasure in being in Amanda's body. As a man, he's more shut down."

It's this sexual stereotyping that irks some spouses, figures Andrew. "Some of them accuse us of being airheads when we get dressed up," he says. But he knows of judges, attorneys, computer engineers, doctors--all fast-paced, cerebral professionals--who like to lace up a bustier and strap on a pair of high heels now and then. "It's like they get to drop out of their heads for a while," Andrew explains.

Yet many spouses don't take kindly to seeing those traits--weak, vain, coquettish--mimicked in the name of womanhood. Rita remembers watching with mixed feelings as Amanda first started coming out. "It made me insecure with my own femininity when Amanda dresses up and does all these things I stopped doing when I was 16," she says.

Rita turns to Andrew and tells him, "It's like you were an 11-year-old trying to dress up. It was charming, but it was a little too ..." she searches for the right word, "pink."

Andrew smiles at Rita, agreeing. "It took me a while to get out of the self-absorbed period," he admits.

"It's the stuff we women discarded on the way to being full human beings," Rita adds. She recounts what someone in her online support group once posted: "Why does my husband act like a bimbo when he's dressed en femme? Crossdressers don't do what women really do, which is scrub toilets and cook dinner. Instead, they want to talk about nails and hair."

As we talk, Andrew unfolds his long frame and lopes off to get the ubiquitous photo album. Pictures--lots of pictures--are integral to the crossdressing community, offering a safe place to visit each other and themselves in between opportunities to dress up. When Andrew is Andrew, there's little to hint at a feminine side. Although he has long blond hair, he's strong-jawed and quietly self-assured. But as Amanda, she's "a dish," as Rita laughingly says.

Wearing a tight blue satin number and dark stockings in one of the photos Andrew shows me, Amanda looks like a tall, masculine version of Kitty the Dance Hall Queen in the old Gunsmoke series. In one, Amanda is posing with her 18-year-old stepdaughter, a dark-haired beauty who is beaming up at her.

"My daughter was 14 when I decided to let Amanda out," says Andrew. He had already started wearing nighties around the house, he explains, so he sat his stepdaughter down for a talk. It is a decision that tortures cross-dressers: whether to tell the children. And if so, what? How much? And--because it is a child's favorite question--why?

For Andrew, the answer was simple, though not easy: "I told her I like to dress up as a woman," he recalls. The stepdaughter, a typically rebellious 14-year-old, surprised Andrew by thanking him for telling her. Eventually, they made a date for shopping and getting their hair done together, and she eventually accompanied Amanda and Rita to the Cotillion.

Far Out

RITA, ANDREW AND AMANDA have learned to coexist peacefully. But Rita remembers that one of her strongest fears in the beginning was not knowing how much of a presence Amanda would be in their lives. She discovered that she was not alone. Most spouses in Rita's support group voice the same concern when their husbands first come out: that "he" will disappear altogether, eventually being replaced by his "woman" self--in other words adding a second wife to the household.

"There's a small percentage that want to be women all the time," says Rita.

Like Tony.

"I can remember as far back as 11 sneaking into my mother's drawers and trying on her clothes," Tony says in a soft, lilting voice. He works as a construction worker in Gilroy, but knows his co-workers are confused by his plucked, arched eyebrows and upswept bleached blonde hair. They've asked if he's gay, and Tony says that when he and his wife go shopping together, both are invariably referred to as "ladies." He figures that even without makeup, he passes as a woman.

"I'm very at peace with whom I'm attracted to," says Tony, who goes by the fem name Bobbi. He is only attracted sexually to women, he says, but the gender issue is a lot more muddled. Groping for an identity, Tony says he would choose to call himself a lesbian.

"I seem to be evolving into a woman, whether I'm in fem mode or not," he says. "I feel at ease dressed as a woman. It feels right, like I should always be like that."

Tony's been married twice before, and it looks like this third marriage is also headed down in flames. Bobbi was closeted in the previous two marriages, but Tony told this wife about Bobbi on their first date. But who knew it would go this far?

"It's escalated more and more," says Tony. "The person she fell in love with no longer exists."

If Tony had not lived in this small, rural neighborhood for 30 years, he admits he would take the leap and dress as a woman full time.

What about surgery?

"I'm comfortable with my male self," Tony says simply. "I don't need that to feel fulfilled as a woman."

Tony speaks wistfully of his troubled marriage. "She still cares for me a tremendous amount, but she doesn't see herself as a lesbian."

He pauses for a moment, then laughs. "Who knows, we may turn out to be girlfriends."

Gentlemen Prefer Hanes

FRAN IS TALKING EXCITEDLY, barely touching the coffee that is growing colder as we sit. Tucked into our booth at Denny's, Fran--sometimes known as Frank--is dressed in loose pants and overshirt with a long-sleeved flowered turtleneck underneath that looks suspiciously similar to one in my mother's closet. Now 77 years old, Fran says she hasn't purchased clothes in the men's department for at least a decade. Most of her outside clothes--except my mother's turtleneck--look relatively unisex, but it's what's underneath that counts.

"I love pantyhose! I love tap pants!" chortles Fran, her white, bushy eyebrows dancing like two overactive caterpillars. Although she says she's known as "The Bald Lady of Castroville," Fran actually sports a few tufts of hair sprouting from a shiny dome. As in most of these interviews lately, the visual doesn't quite match with the lingerie inventory that Fran reveals is beneath those clothes: women's undies, a bra and of course the Hanes.

Like the Thursday Irregulars, this septuagenarian cross-dresser is not alone in his age group. He whips out the photo albums he brought along and points out pictures of pen pals--one is 95 years old. In this micro-niche, even older cross-dressers have their own subculture. Fran eventually mails me a copy of a newsletter she subscribes to, Old Hags and Sagging Bags: A Forum for Ancient Crossdressers, with tips on everything from aging gracefully to coming out in a nursing home.

Fran laughs about her love for "silk, satin, nylon and lace"--a love affair that, as for many of her peers, began early in life. One of his chores as a youngster named Frank was bringing in the laundry off the clothesline. It was about then that his mama's soft underthings started singing their siren song to him.

Though neither Mom, wife No. 1 nor wife No. 2 much approved of Frank's other life, age has a way of moving folks into finally finding their own approval. Just about everyone who knows Frank also knows Fran, she says. She had to do some educating with the gals at her trailer park--moms and grandmas that weren't sure if wearing ladies' clothes might not be the hallmark of homosexuality.

It's this common misunderstanding about transvestites that really puts Fran's Hanes in a twist. "My big gripe is I want our group to stay heterosexual," says Fran. She points out that when TVs get together, they often hit a gay bar later to socialize. Although that atmosphere may provide more acceptance to men who dress in women's clothes, acceptance may not be a two-way street.

"Gays dress up for sexual purposes, and I don't believe we do," says Fran. The elderly cross-dresser verbalizes some of the tension and discomfort found among straight transvestites who find themselves intertwined with the rest of the sexually marginalized. Only because each subculture remains outcast from the larger society has an uneasy alliance developed. However, it's not necessarily an alliance that has fostered greater acceptance.

"Their lifestyle is so against how I was brought up," sniffs Fran. She looks down at her coffee cup. "But a lot of people don't believe in cross-dressing, I guess."

A member of the Freemasons, Frank is already making plans to move into one of the fraternal organization's retirement homes. His health is getting fragile, and he doesn't want to be a burden on his children. When that happens, he says sadly, "Fran will have to go." Only Frank would be welcome in this rest home. The wigs, the tap pants, the slips and bras that Fran treasures will probably find their own fiery demise in Frank's backyard hibachi. And Frank will be going out of this world pretty much like he came in--with a secret.

But today Fran isn't thinking much about the future. She's having a good time showing off photos of her buddies and talking about her life. And she tosses off a statement that rings a clarion wake-up call for just about anyone. "I don't have that much time left," Fran smiles. "All the more reason to have fun while I can."

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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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