Cross-Dressing: I'm a straight man who dresses as a woman ... and I'm looking for love
Catherine Murphy explores the world of cross-dressing in Ireland
Published 29/04/2012 | 06:00
Although it's her day off work, Beth is dressed for the office: pencil skirt, white blouse, red mid-height heels and cardigan, one of her favourite looks.
She's having a sandwich in a southside Dublin pub and no one pays attention when she walks towards the toilet, except for a middle-aged couple in the corner who giggle and nudge each other.
She's wearing women's clothes, but Beth is a 36-year-old male civil servant, out for the day 'en-femme'. She's single, straight and hopes to get married, "eventually".
A few days earlier, I met Amanda at TH, a private club near St Stephen's Green that caters for cross-dressers and their admirers.
It's an unwritten rule in the transvestite community that people are called by their female names, even when dressed as men, but I had to suspend disbelief slightly as I shook hands with Amanda, a no-nonsense Dublin male in his 50s.
Later, I spoke to Stuart, a 40-year-old separated craftsman who lives in Cork and wants to meet a woman for a serious relationship.
Though, it might be a problem that sometimes he dresses as Stella.
"I want to be involved in a real relationship with a woman," explains Stuart, who says he has never been interested in men sexually. "But it's very difficult.
"I've been on a few dates in the past while and really liked some of the women but, inevitably, when the subject of a second date comes up, I say, 'There's something I have to tell you'."
The reactions are mixed, but generally result in the same conclusion. "Some of the women look bemused, some laugh, but mostly they don't get it, and that's generally when we part company," Stuart explains.
"It would be a lot easier if I was gay or bisexual, but I'm not -- I'm a straight man who likes dressing as a woman. I'd rather be single and honest than go through the torture of living a lie again".
Both Stuart and Beth have been photographed for a book, 'Transgender Voices', produced by transgender activist Louise Hannon to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia on May 17.
The term transvestite covers a broad spectrum of men, lifestyles, family circumstances, professions and trades.
A sizeable proportion of the transvestite community in Ireland consists of straight men, many married. Others are bisexual.
Among married transvestites, many cross-dress secretly, fearful of being discovered by their partner or children, while others are supported and encouraged to dress by their wives.
Doctors, IT consultants, taxi-drivers, builders, lawyers, aged anywhere between 18 and 70; 'dressing' crosses all age and social barriers.
They're known as T-girls, gurls, cross-dressers, transvestites, TVs, trannies and, more obscurely, as she-males or he-shees.
They have their own lingo -- 'passing' or 'convincing' means successfully passing as a female when out; 'being clocked' means being recognised as a men dressed as a woman.
TH is one of a number of private Dublin clubs catering for transvestites. It's a veritable velvet underground, its sofas and flock wallpaper providing a glamorous backdrop for Dublin's more adventurous trannies.
Other clubs include the long-running Gemini club on the northside and Bunty's Boudoir in Dun Laoghaire. They attract small numbers of weekend clients, mainly because, for many men, going out is a massive and risky step.
For about a year, another event called The Secret Garden was run by the female partner of a transvestite in an unlikely venue -- an industrial estate in Dublin's Blanchardstown.
The fetish event was run above a unit selling adult toys and focused on giving people, including transvestites, a private place in which to dress, away from the city centre and unwelcome attention.
The event stopped running earlier this year.
One Secret Garden attendee told 'Weekend': "The transvestites were a nice bunch of people. Some would arrive in their suits and change in the dressing rooms, others arrived dressed as women.
"God help them, some of them made for very ugly women, but, once dressed, they really thought of themselves as women.
"One night," they continue, "a lady in a wheelchair arrived, dressed head to toe in bondage gear. The venue had two flights of stairs and no lift but none of the transvestites would lift her up the stairs.
"They behaved as if they were women and waited for a guy to arrive to help her."
The people who went to the Secret Garden weren't shy about spending, either.
"If they arrived without a wig, heels or breast forms -- three of their key purchases -- they would buy stuff in the shop downstairs. They spent big money, even if they didn't look too pretty at the end," the former member said.
For transvestites living outside Dublin, life can be dull, with no scene to speak of.
Transvestites who are 'out' in Dublin head to Pantibar, The Dragon bar, The Front Lounge and, to a lesser extent, The George -- or to the UK, where there's a much more vibrant scene.
In Dublin alone, there are six or seven transvestite dressing services, usually run by women, which offer men the opportunity to dress, and have their nails and make-up done, in a private setting.
They usually operate as drop-in centres, counselling and advocacy services all rolled into one.
One woman, who calls herself 'Suzie Sequins' in online ads, offers a full dressing, storage, mailbox and taxi service for transvestites who are desperate to protect their identity.
But behind the scenes and the nudge nudge, wink wink treatment that transvestites are still subjected to, there's a broader, often confusing issue.
Stuart, who separated from his wife and came out two years ago, spoke to 'Weekend' in an attempt to promote understanding.
"I feel mixed between the two sexes all the time and I do believe I am transgender, in that I sometimes look or act in a way that's opposite to the sex I was assigned" he says.
"So I don't mind if people call me Stuart or Stella, regardless of how I'm dressed."
Stuart's first memory of cross-dressing goes back to childhood.
"I was four years old, my mother was walking by with a pile of fresh laundry and I asked if I could put on some of her clothes. I just came out with it. It has to have been a completely innocent act."
He grew up in west England, one of two children in a typically middle-class family -- father an engineer, mother working in the home.
"By the age of 10, I was delving more and more into my mother's wardrobe. I got caught a couple of times by my father and it was made very clear that it had to stop.
"In the 1970s, cross-dressing would have been intolerable, not even mildly encouraged," he explains.
Dressing as a female then became a secret act for Stuart.
"I drove it more and more underground," he says. "It was a very private thing for me. I had a girlfriend at the time who knew nothing about it.
"I left school at 16, as soon as I could, and got a job immediately. So at a young age, I could afford to buy wigs, heels and clothes, usually by mail order."
In his early 20s, Stuart moved to London.
"One thing that didn't move with me was my cross-dressing," he says. "I got rid of all my female clothes, make-up and wigs. I wanted to start a new life in London and I didn't want that to be a part of it".
While working in the menswear department of Harrods, Stuart met his now ex-wife, a woman from Cork.
In the mid-1990s, they moved to Cork and developed a crafts business. For years, Stuart suppressed his desire to dress as a woman.
"Guilt took over," he says. "I felt I would have been betraying my wife, whom I loved. The desire to cross-dress was still there, but I suppressed it."
Two years ago, the couple decided to separate. "My wife was away for six weeks and during that time, I rediscovered cross-dressing. When she returned, I told her everything.
"When I blurted it out, she said, 'Is that all?' I think she had psyched herself up to hear that I was ill or something. She asked to see photos of me dressed and, the following day, she asked to see me dressed.
To Stuart's relief, her reaction was positive.
"When she saw me, she said it seemed like the most natural, unthreatening thing, that a light went on in me when I was dressed as Stella that was never quite there when I was dressed as Stuart," he says.
Stuart and his ex-wife continue to share a house and remain "the best of friends".
"She has a new partner and, occasionally, the three of us have gone out for dinner with me dressed as Stella, that works quite well," he adds.
Most of Stuart's friends and some family members know he's a transvestite, but not his parents, who live in the UK and are now in their 70s.
"It wouldn't help anything for them to know," he says.
Stuart describes what cross-dressing means for him.
"I often use a line that people seem to get: when I dress as Stella, it feels like when you were a kid and it was Christmas Eve. It's a special feeling, everyone is in good mood, there's an anticipation."
He denies that there is a sexual element to cross-dressing for him, yet it is still stigmatised as a sexual fetish or deviance by many people.
There's no doubt from reading online forums that admirers, usually bisexuals who are attracted to transvestites, go online or to clubs for the purpose of picking up a TV.
Some transvestites go to Nimhneach, Dublin's fetish club, but within the community, cross- dressing is not commonly referred to as a fetish.
For some TVs, dressing in women's underwear and clothes does involve a sexual charge. For some, it's an expression of their feminine side; for others, it's a chance to perform, to become 'gender illusionists'.
Stuart is worried that sex has taken over the integrity of cross-dressing for some people.
"It really gets me down that there's so much trash associated with the transvestite scene, that it's so much about sex. There's some quite extreme stuff written online.
"For me, it's about making friends with like-minded people. I'd liken it to a bunch of lads going out to watch a match and having a few pints on a Friday night, except we're dressed as women.
"Now," he adds, "I have a trusted group of friends who know what I'm about and have stopped bugging me about sex."
TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland) includes transvestite in its transgender lexicon, but within the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) transvestites are often looked down on by transsexuals as just being men who throw a frock on every weekend and therefore shouldn't belong to the same umbrella group as transsexuals, who go through the lengthy and difficult process of changing sex.
"There's a hierarchy of esteem within the community," says one source. "And some infighting too.
"Gay men are annoyed by transvestites because they suspect they're really gay and can't deal with it but play up to men by dressing as women instead, therefore, transvestites sometimes feel the vibe that they don't really belong in gay bars."
For Stuart, going out as Stella means being savvy and thick-skinned. There's an element of planning routes, structuring nights out.
"For example, you'll never find me in a bar or club at chucking-out time; that's just making life difficult for yourself" he says.
"I either leave before that or stay until the bitter end.
"You need to have a sense of humour as a TV because if you don't, you'll cry. I can laugh along with the comments, that works, but it does annoy me that transvestites are still laughed at, 1970s sitcom-style, like Dick Emery or 'Are You Being Served'," he continues.
"It's sad that the notion of transvestites is still pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago."
The notion of mockery was touched upon when feminist Germaine Greer decried transexuals as a "ghastly parody".
Her comments, although referring to transsexuals, could also apply to transvestites.
"Nowadays, we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, and have women's names and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to be some kind of ghastly parody, although it isn't polite to say so," Germaine said.
"We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged but not a man's delusion that he is female," she continued.
Germaine's alleged 'transphobia' echoed the reaction from many women when they find out their partner or a friend is a transvestite.
"I know lots of transvestites who are happily married and whose wives encourage them by going shopping for them or buying them clothes" says Beth, the 36-year-old civil servant.
"But when a wife finds out that her husband dresses in female clothes, reactions can range from absolute disgust to stifled disinterest to acceptance.
While women tend to be more accepting, those closest to the man sometimes feel that their own femininity is challenged, Beth says.
"In general, women tend to understand it better than men, but in intimate relationships it can be tricker -- women's bitchy claws come out," she explains.
"They can feel threatened by it and will say things like, 'What's wrong with me, am I not good enough as a woman that you have to dress up as one?'"
Social occasions can be treacherous, too says Beth. "I was at a Christmas party a couple of years ago and a woman took serious umbrage with me. She told me she disapproved of what I was doing, that it was disgusting."
"It turned out that her sister's ex was bisexual, had cheated on her with men and worn lingerie while doing so.
"I said, 'That's fine but I'm just at a party dressed as a woman. I'm not cheating on my wife or having sex with other men. I'm a straight single man who wants to get married one day. Now, do you want a drink?' She didn't stay for the drink."
Beth came out as a transvestite 10 years ago and has been active on the scene ever since.
"My family know, although I don't push it in their faces. Most of my friends know and in fact, these days, I prefer to go out dressed during the day than at night. I meet friends for lunch, go shopping or for a walk in the park.
"For me, it's a hobby, a past-time," Beth explains. "I dress at weekends or on days off and bank holidays, but there are nights when I get home from work and just want to flop in front of the TV in a tracksuit.
"Some men go to play golf or hurling; I put on a skirt."
In 1990s Dublin, the transvestite scene appeared to be heading mainstream, with celebrities lining up to party in Mr Pussy's Cafe De Luxe, near Grafton Street.
The venue hosted 'TV dinners' and transvestite customers were welcome.
Alan Amsby (aka the non-transvestite drag queen Mr Pussy) was quoted in an article at the time as saying that there were up to 30,000 transvestites around the country.
Then there was Shirley Temple Bar, who presented RTE's telly bingo in drag and continues to put shows on at the George in Dublin.
Alan recalls visiting the Amanda Barry Centre, then a popular northside meeting place for the city's cross-dressers, watching rugby games and having a few pints with men, all dressed as women.
"Nowadays, no-one cares whether men go out dressed as women," he says. "It's no big deal."
Twenty years on, however, a thriving transvestite scene remains largely underground.
A relatively small number of them go out to socialise dressed as women. Many indulge their need to cross-dress without telling their wives and partners.
Within recent weeks, a former member of the Defence Forces, Monaghan-based Stephen Kerrigan, was given a suspended jail sentence and fined €1,000 for punching his wife after she discovered him having a phone conversation with a Filipino transvestite that he had met online.
It emerged that Stephen's online friend had gender dysphoria (unhappiness with one's gender) and that Stephen had planned at that time to move to the Phillipines.
He and his wife separated following the incident in January.
"Transvestites are still a matter of ridicule instead of a matter of fact," says Eliza, a New Yorker who co-runs the TH club on Harcourt Street in Dublin.
"Ireland remains a very conservative country. Men dressing as women is still one of the last taboos."
Eliza explains her understanding of transvestites and how they're perceived.
"I liken cross-dressing to being gay because there is an element of 'coming out', and many TVs are terrified of being outed.
"I believe it's something you're born with, not a lifestyle choice, because there are lots of downsides and not that many upsides. There are certainly easier ways to live," she adds.
Eliza also runs a transvestite dressing service and says it is a huge step for men to leave the privacy of their own home dressed as a woman, even if it's for the relative safety of a private dressing service or a club where everyone else is cross-dressing.
"Some men will never leave the safety of their bedroom," she says, "while others will go out dressed in wigs, heels, women's clothes, false nails, make-up, everything.
"When men come to the club for the first time, they're concerned that they'll meet someone they know, either in the club itself or leaving it, because it's close to clubs like Krystle and Copper Face Jacks."
Eliza explains the importance of dressing services to many cross-dressing men on a practical level.
"If a cross-dresser is married and hasn't told his wife, he can't store clothes at his home or buy clothes online. That's where dressing services can come in."
Eliza says that shopping can be a big problem for men who don't have the courage to go into a women's shop and buy female clothing, so dressers usually also offer a shopping service.
She adds: "Many of the mainstream shops, such as M&S, Debenhams, even Dunnes, are very good about it; the sales assistants will allow TVs to try female clothes on."
'I do believe that this is something you're born with," says Amanda, a Dublin male in his 50s who started cross-dressing at the age of nine or 10.
"When I first started dressing, I thought I was the only person in the world doing it," she says.
"Then I realised that a hell of a lot of people are into dressing, it's far more common than you'd think."
Amanda is single and says that "I'm the only woman I need in my life", although the truth is probably somewhat more complicated than that.
She avoids wearing black wigs because they bring out her five o'clock shadow, but goes for the glamorous look at night.
"I don't believe there's a pill that can cure it," she says. "Even if there was, the majority of transvestites wouldn't want to take it -- they enjoy what they do too much.
"At the end of the day, though, we go out dressed as women but we can only imagine what it's like to actually be a woman."