Twelve year-old Malcolm was panicked. His parents were already in the kitchen, seconds away from catching him dressed in his mother’s green satin nightgown. Usually, Malcolm timed his forbidden deeds precisely. He knew how long it took his parents to drive to town, and prided himself on his ability to change clothes in 30 seconds. But this time he didn’t hear the car door slam shut. Now his mother was headed for her bedroom. Malcolm dived into his parents’ bed, and yanked the covers up to his chin. He told his mother he didn’t feel well, which wasn’t a lie. When she placed her palm against his forehead, Malcolm prayed she wouldn’t reach under the covers to pat his shoulder.
During another close call when he was dressed as a woman, Malcolm quickly slid under his parents’ bed and nervously watched his father’s feet walk just inches away. Another time, he clung to a rope that hung from the ceiling of a shed as his unsuspecting family walked below. Today, 36 years later, Malcolm regularly ventures out in female attire. He’s comfortable scanning through the racks at Penney’s, Sears or Nordstrom, then taking women’s clothes into the men’s dressing room to try them on. If anyone questions him, he says he’s “evaluating these items for purchase.” Classy brocades are his favorites—the decorative designs and feel of the fabric are what attract him to cross-dressing.
As Deborah Dean, a name he borrowed from a high school girl he dated, Malcolm wears a below-the-shoulder brunette wig, skillfully applied makeup, and a choker necklace with V-necked dresses. He dons a size 10 women’s shoe, but only a men’s 9 when he wears men’s attire as Malcolm. Women’s clothes take up more than twice the width of his closet, but he says it’s hard to say whether he spends more time dressed as Malcolm or Deborah. He’s the same person inside either way, he says. Malcolm is emphatic that he’s heterosexual, happily cross-dresses and will never seek sexual reassignment surgery. “I’ve done things people consider macho—like riding a bike across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I enjoy my ‘boy stuff’ enough not to give it up.”
Four years ago, Malcolm founded Engendered Species, a support group dedicated to providing friends, fun and acceptance for both male and female cross-dressers. He says he’s talked to more than 400 people who each felt, as he once did, like the only one engaging in the practice. Engendered Species now has 160 members. About one person in 20 cross-dresses, Malcolm explains—an estimated total of 100,000 people in Utah. Eighty to 90 percent are heterosexual; many are married. According to a national survey, the Janus Report, 6 percent of men and 3 percent of women have at least one experience with cross-dressing. Malcolm says, and national studies confirm, that there are far more people content with cross-dressing than desiring to permanently change sex. The vast majority keep their original gender. Only 1 in 30,000 males and 1 in 100,000 females undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
Malcolm notes that many men in their mid- to late-20s phone the organization for the first time. While four or five female cross-dressers have joined, he says they feel far less need for a support group because for decades it’s been acceptable for women to wear pants, T-shirts, baseball caps and other clothing typically worn by men.
Malcolm’s girlfriend of two years, Tracy, says that dating him is sort of like having a boyfriend and a girlfriend at the same time. She remembers clearly the night Malcolm told her he is sometimes Deborah. “We were shopping at a thrift store, and he held a couple of dresses up to himself and said, ‘Well, I am a cross-dresser.’ I thought he was kidding,” Tracy remembers.
Malcolm explained the truth to her later that night. “I’d never encountered anything like this before,” she says. “My greatest fear was that he was homosexual and would want to be female all of the time.” She says he reassured her that he only likes to dress as a woman on occasion. Now she accompanies him on dates whether he happens to be Malcolm or Deborah that night. “He’s a little more quiet and refined as Deborah—but he’s still the same person.”
She hopes they marry, and says his cross-dressing doesn’t bother her and she would never ask him to stop. “He’s given me some clothes he thought were too small for him. Actually, he dresses better as a woman than I do.”
Another Salt Lake woman, Connie, helped create her husband’s alter-ego, “Tawni,” about three years ago. The transformation began after they watched the film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar starring Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes dressed as women. Before that time they say, they enjoyed good drag shows and female impersonators. “But this time, when he admitted this was something he wanted to try, I said, I’ll join you and I’ll help you,” Connie says.
Tawni thinks his cross-dressing inclinations would have come out eventually, but probably emerged faster with his wife’s help. He now dresses as Tawni about once every three or four weeks. He receives the most compliments when he wears sundresses and shirtwaists, often in red shades that complement his tan. Because he is tall, he feels he looks best in long wigs in a variety of colors. “Initially, it started as an erotic feeling, but it then became more of a growth experience in which I’m much more sensitive to my wife’s feelings. It’s also very much a stress reliever. Tawni doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills or going to work. Her biggest concern is whether her makeup is on right.” Connie and Tawni have two grown children who know about, but haven’t yet met, Tawni.
Not every wife accepts her husband’s cross-dressing tendencies so automatically. For 22 years, Carmen noticed that her husband, John, got edgy if she ever came home from work early. “He’d be really serious and not talkative and not look exactly happy to see me, when usually he was very affectionate. I’d think, what’s the matter? Can’t I come home early to my own house?”
When she would ask why he was upset, he’d say, “You just wouldn’t understand.” Then one day, John suddenly told her he couldn’t take it anymore and had to confess that he was a cross-dresser. “I was totally in shock and couldn’t believe it,” Carmen recalls. She says that when her husband is not “in femme,” he isn’t feminine at all. “He walks and talks as macho as ever.”
John hardly seemed like the type to be interested in wearing women’s clothes. While Carmen describes herself as “a sharp dresser,” she says John was totally uninterested in what he wore and she often urged him to groom himself better. “He’s a mechanic who never wanted to wear anything but Levis and cowboy boots. If he forgot to comb his hair or there was a big hole in his pants or socks, that was OK with him. Lots of times I’d have to say, why don’t you shave?”
John agrees that he and his “femme” alter ego, Sandy, are opposites as far as being meticulous. “The male side of me has a tendency to come home and throw the work pants on the floor. But with Sandy’s stuff, I put it away all nice and neat and the clothes go back on the hangers. It’s like I’m two different people—everything with Sandy is so precise.”
He hid his inclinations from Carmen just as precisely for 23 years. While their hall closet is now three-fourths filled with the long wigs, blouses and long skirts he prefers, for years Carmen didn’t know that he sometimes wore her clothes when she wasn’t home. On more than one occasion, he was wearing a pair of her panties when he heard her enter the house. “I just pulled my men’s pants up over them,” he recalls.
Carmen is a self-described clothes horse, and the fact that she has a lot of clothes may have prevented her from noticing any of them were worn while she was gone. After her initial shock, she weighed her options and decided to remain in the marriage. “I wish his cross-dressing didn’t exist, but I learned to live with it. It’s a flaw, but don’t we all have one?” John has been a good husband in other ways, enough to tip the scale toward staying married. “He’s never been unemployed. He doesn’t drink or do drugs. And everything we have put together has meaning. I love my house and my family. It’s not worth it to destroy everything,” Carmen says.
Today, Carmen accompanies either John or Sandy—however he is dressed—on outings. Their daughter is also comfortable with her father’s two identities. She gave him a woman’s cosmetic makeover as a Father’s Day present this year, even though Carmen didn’t approve. “When I made a comment that the gift didn’t seem appropriate for Father’s Day, she said, ‘Whatever makes my Dad happy,’” Carmen says.
Malcolm and other cross-dressers say sexual orientation differs from gender orientation. They use the phrase, “Sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears.” Yet coming to terms with their identities is often a struggle for many who feel the tendency to cross-dress.
Though he’d reached the point of taking female hormones, Ron decided to back away from cross-dressing after he fell in love with a woman. He stopped taking hormones and grew a beard. “I cross-dressed once in a while all my life. But after I met this person, I decided I wanted to be with her more than I do the other.”
A letter Malcolm received echoes that sentiment. A man who was once very active in Engendered Species wrote, “After my relocation and subsequent meeting of a great gal, I am giving the more traditional lifestyle a try. So far, things are going well, as she is a wonderful lady and being happy in life has relieved much of my stress, which I think was affecting my previous decisions.”
Malcolm recalls yet another man arriving at his door with a similar story. “I have some stuff for you if you want it. It’s too good to throw away. See, I’ve decided to do something else,” the man said. With that, he gave Malcolm hundreds of dollars worth of makeup, clothes and wigs. Malcolm explains that such behavior is called “purging.” While he has only purged once and thrown away only three or four items, he’s seen other men go on dozens of purge cycles. They throw away thousands of dollars worth of female clothes, wigs and makeup, often only to buy similar items later. The members of Engendered Species joke that they have a free purge service that accepts discarded women’s clothing.
Besides accepting clothes, Engendered Species publishes a newsletter and holds two monthly meetings along with a variety of other activities—like campouts and restaurant dinners. One of the regular meetings is private, for those who have not yet gone public with their cross-dressing. Some members hide their alternate identities, and don’t change into women’s (or men’s) clothes until they arrive at the meeting. The monthly Engendered Species newsletter includes a statement advising, “Please feel free to show up an hour early if you need to change at the meeting to the other gender.”
The other regular meeting is a monthly “Transgender Open House.” It’s held in a coffeehouse setting, and is open to the public on what Malcolm calls controlled, friendly turf. “This is an easy first step for someone going out in public in the gender of their choice,” he says.
Those who choose to keep this lifestyle hidden do so because of social ostracism, Malcolm explains. He’s seen cross-dressers lose spouses, friends and their standing in churches because of it. “Some religions are down on this and preach sermons against it, even though only one Bible verse, (Deuteronomy 22:5) says that men should not wear the clothes of women,” Malcolm says. (He notes that the same passage cautions against wearing wool and linen together, as well as teenagers sleeping in church.)
Sgt. Don Bell, supervisor of the Salt Lake City Police Department sex crimes unit, says cross-dressing is not illegal. “In fact, we run into a great number of them all the time.” Quite a number of gay clubs have certain nights devoted to men dressing as women, he adds. “Usually, police encounter cross-dressers because other people see them and pick on them.” The only time a cross-dresser would run counter to the law is if he or she were committing a lewd act while cross-dressed. “Even if a male cross-dresser goes into a women’s bathroom, that’s not any worse than a woman who gets fed up with waiting in line at a sports event and decides to use the men’s room. It’s what they do while cross-dressed that would make the difference,” Bell says.
Dr. Donald Strassberg, a University of Utah professor of psychology, says the biggest problem cross-dressers face is responding to other people’s reactions. “In my practice, I’ve seen women who discover that their husbands or boyfriends are cross-dressers and have a great deal of difficulty with this. Our culture doesn’t handle this very well—we don’t know what to make of it. We tend to want people to fall into categories, and this complicates that for us.”
Most cross-dressers view themselves as men, have sexual relations with women and are heterosexual. “For some of these men, cross-dressing may be one of the earlier signs that the real issue is a gender identity issue—that they are really transsexuals. But for most, that’s not it,” Strassberg says. “For the majority, cross-dressing seems to meet a psychological need that is not very well understood.”
Because of this lack of understanding, some cross-dressers greatly fear being “read”—having someone identify them as a cross-dresser. Malcolm remembers his own fears gradually ebbing away after being read on several occasions. At 19, he walked across town for the first time wearing a wig, dress and women’s shoes, navigating from shadow to shadow in hopes no one would see him. “I thought if I was caught, the whole world would collapse. I was sure electroshock therapy was waiting for me.”
Years later, he was less agitated when “read” by a group of teenage boys who saw him walking as Deborah one night in downtown Salt Lake City. One boy threw a pencil at his head, hoping he would turn around. Finally, one yelled, “Hey! You’re a transvestite.” Though his heart was pounding, Malcolm was able to reply in a calm voice. “Yes, I am. I really want to know just how you found out, because you’re very perceptive. I’ve passed hundreds of people tonight and no one noticed until you came along.”
The teen who initially read him was flattered by the compliment and almost smiled, Malcolm says. “But then there was another to my left, not satisfied, who was inching around, perhaps to grab my wig.” Hoping to head off an awkward moment, Malcolm quickly said, “Yes, it’s a wig. I need this because I’m losing my real hair on my head faster than you will. Please don’t pull it.
“I don’t want to waste time on an assault-and-battery gig,” he continued, “and I do need this later to look good and surprise my girlfriend.” The teens who confronted him seemed surprised by his frankness, Malcolm says. Over the years, he’s gone from a place of fear to a place of confidence and ease, and yet he recognizes that his own acceptance isn’t always matched by those around him.
“There are people who are afraid I might recruit people, especially kids. They think that by contacting me, someone will go down a slippery slope and become a cross-dresser, too. That doesn’t happen. Nearly every boy has touched some female clothing or tried it on. But if they aren’t predisposed, they aren’t going to repeat the behavior.” There are other ways the motives of cross-dressers may be misunderstood, Malcolm says. “People think a man wearing a dress might go out and rape kids. But half the population wears dresses and they don’t rape kids.”
As comfortable as he is with his own situation, he’s just as quick to say this isn’t for everybody. But he cautions cross-dressers considering sexual reassignment surgery to take plenty of time to decide. “They say that if they’re a cross-dresser now, getting the operation might be better. I tell them they need to learn how to make friends, get a job and navigate socially as the other gender before deciding if they really want to go through with this.”
Malcolm has also seen many who, like he, remain comfortable with their cross-dressed selves. “Today I commonly go out as my ‘femme’ self, without incident. I interact with the public all the time. I find it not much different than doing the same as my male self. Being out is a powerful place to be.”