Toward the end of act one of Harvey Fierstein's new Broadway play, “Casa Valentina,” the play's dramatic instigator, Charlotte, tries to convince the other cross-dressers staying at the Catskills resort to sign statements proclaiming they are not homosexuals. The year is 1962, and for several seasons now the Casa Valentina resort has been attracting scores of men eager to spend their weekends as their female alter egos. Charlotte is convinced it's time the group register publicly as a sorority with the government. Cross-dressers are not what society fears, she says; it is homosexuals. And since the resort caters exclusively to heterosexual cross-dressing men, why should they not publicly proclaim themselves as such?
“Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking,” she says. “And transvestites everywhere will celebrate those in this room for making the hard decisions that led to their liberation.”
The irony of these lines is not lost on the audience. We seem to be reaching a point where cigarette smokers are more likely to be stigmatized in many parts of the world than gays and lesbians are, and yet the prevalence of cross-dressing—or transvestism, as it was once called—hasn't seen any marked uptick. If anything, the stigma faced by straight men who like to dress up as women may be as strong as ever.
Given the advances in LGBT rights in the last 50 years—and the breathtaking pace these past five—one would expect society's displeasure with cross-dressing to have waned by now. Among the gay population, drag culture is as strong—and increasingly as mainstream—as it's ever been; witness the success of “RuPaul's Drag Race” and Fierstein's Tony-winning musical “Kinky Boots.” But cross-dressers are not drag queens. Drag is primarily about performance; an audience is expected, if not required. Men who cross-dress are, as some put it, “expressing another aspect of themselves” or “achieving a feminine sense of self.” And while we seem perfectly okay with those who do drag, somehow we're not quite as ready for men who wear ladies' clothes.
There are many misconceptions about cross-dressers. Many assume them to be gay, but the majority—some surveys say almost 90 percent—are heterosexual. Most do not live their lives as women, but dress up only occasionally, once a month or less. While some derive sexual arousal from cross-dressing, most of these men associate dressing up with a sense of relaxation and stress-relief. A great deal of cross-dressers are not out to their friends and family; some don’t even tell their significant others, and don't see the point in doing so.
So why do these men remain in the closet? Perhaps because the stigma remains so strong. While the American Psychiatric Association removed all forms of homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders back in 1987, “transvestism” was listed there until 2010. Even in the most recent DSM, cross-dressing is listed as a “paraphilic disorder”—something that should be treated if the person feels “personal distress about their interest.”
Cross-dressers aren't the only members of the LGBT spectrum who trail gays and lesbians in social acceptance: As a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine showed, bisexuals face constant biphobia and even struggle to scientifically prove that bisexuality exists. Despite a greater number of Americans claiming to be bisexual than either gay or lesbian, far more bisexuals are in the closet than their LG counterparts. Straight people have more negative attitudes towards bisexuals than gays and lesbians. These factors have led theorists to coin the phrase “bisexual erasure”: The idea that our society systematically ignores and dismisses bisexual identity.
There's a relentless strain of intolerance here, and one has to question what its roots are. What is it about bisexuals and cross-dressers that make so many people uncomfortable? It can't simply be their refusal to adhere to heteronormativity, as gays and lesbians don't adhere to it either. Perhaps we simply have to give it more time—for a society that has only recently come to accept gay and lesbians, maybe we might have to wait a little longer to broaden our horizons even further.
And yet the persistence of these prejudices may lie less with issues of sexuality and more with our hangups about gender and our myopic attachment to binary categorizations. Isn't it curious that the conventional wisdom about bisexual men is that they are gay men who simply haven't come to terms with their sexuality, while most bisexual women are assumed to be straight women experimenting with other women? Doesn't this simply reinforce the idea that men are somehow the “superior” sex, if both bisexual men and women are “really” just attracted to men and haven't accepted it? It is hardly the hetero community alone that is guilty here. The notion that bisexuality is simply a stage for some men to discover their eventual homosexuality is commonly accepted among gay men as well. If bisexuals are going to be dismissed as cowardly, delusional, or simply experimenting, is it any wonder why so many decide not to share their proclivities with others?
Similarly, while women who dress up as men in our culture are normally depicted as powerful or even erotic, men who dress up as women are either portrayed comically (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, the Medea films) or as psychotic villains (Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs). Perhaps this is because women who dress up as men aren't seen as threatening; inherently thought to be subordinate to men in our culture, women aren't likely to change that power dynamic via their sartorial choices. But men dressing up as women is considered transgressive, a threat to accepted notions of heteronormativity and a reminder of our conflicted notions regarding gender equality. Judith Butler, a scholar on gender culture, explains in her study “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” that since gender is essentially constructed in our society through ritualized “performances” such as the way we dress, men who cross-dress are “breaking” the performance:
Performing one's gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all. That this reassurance is so easily displaced by anxiety, that culture so readily punishes or marginalizes those who fail to perform the illusion of gender essentialism should be sign enough that on some level there is social knowledge that the truth or falsity of gender is only socially compelled.
It might be tempting to brush off these theories as something best left to academics. The bias against cross-dressers or bisexuals might seem insubstantial, especially since there are few if any laws specifically targeting their rights. Yet there are serious and unique public health concerns involved with marginalized and invisible communities. Both bi men and women experience depression, anxiety, self harm, and suicidal thinking at higher rates than gays and lesbians. As Zach Ford writes in ThinkProgress, studies show that people who hide their identities do not advance as far in their careers and are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, while those who come out are happier and have fewer mental health issues.
There's something almost immature about these prejudices. A society willing to recognize complexity and gray areas in many other aspects of life should be as willing to accept them with regards to gender and sexuality. Still, they stubbornly persist. Perhaps the cross-dressing and bisexual communities have to become more visible, organize themselves as distinct communities much as gays and lesbians have done, in order to overcome these prejudices. But it's going to be hard for them to do that with so many people still eager to lump them into categories where they simply don't belong. Despite all our progress, closets still exist; but no one should have to live in them. Except, that is, for people who like to live in closets.