…Only A Crossdresser

| Mar 13, 2012
This article was written in 1996 and posted on TGForum by Riki Anne Wilchins, then the leader of a  gender-activist group called The Transsexual Meance. In light of the discussion of what is “transgender” I thought this might be instructive.

“GENDER: a vast, interlocking cultural network of meanings which produces eroticism across the surfaces of objects and bodies, including their shapes, sizes, colors and movements, by associating them directly to the power relations in the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure.”

“…Only a Crossdresser”

Notes on the More Radical Identity

Riki Anne Wilchins


(Caveats: I speak here only, of course, for myself. Also, I don’t generally find comparisons of the type suggested by my title to be useful, but I think a little corrective is overdue. Finally, I realize that I write mainly from the femme perspective: this is not to diss the men, but to stay closer to personal experience. – Rikster)

I wish I could count the times I’ve heard the phrase “…only a
crossdresser.” And not just from transexuals, but also from
crossdressing-identified people themselves. The reasoning seems to be that changing your very *body*, making a *committment* to one sex or another, is somehow more sincere, more consequential, more (dare I say?) radical, than… well, just dressing up. I freely admit to subscribing to this belief myself, for a number of years. Until one morning… I awoke, and with horror found myself trapped… absolutely trapped, in a bias-cut, pleated silk, backless Halston evening gown *not* of my own design…

No, wait a minute. That’s not right. Where was I. Oh yeah. I think it’s
arguably the case that crossdressing is the more radical identity, although
I ought to state up front that I don’t particularly believe in either the
identity of “transexual” or “crossdresser.” This is not to say that I
don’t acknowledge and defend anyone’s right to identify as either, for I do. But I regard both as political accomplishements, invented to contain various kinds of disreputable genderqueers and transgressors, rather names which recognize any naturally-occurring identity.

In short for me, just categories are ineviably not about truth, but about power: who has it, and who doesn’t; who gets to decide what’s “normal,” and what’s ‘perversion;” who’s ox gets gored, and who’s frock gets stored.

Now it’s one thing to change one’s body, as I have, to travel from one sex to another within the socially-anointed binary. But in doing so, especially with the doctors blessing (“You know, inside, your daughter Riki is *really* a woman, Ms. Wilchins”), I fear I struck a Faustian bargain. I legitimated myself , but I accomplished this feat through an axial proposition that looks something like this — “I am really a woman ‘inside’ / I am willing to change my body to be female / I am willing to commit my whole life to this / I don’t do this because it is erotic but because it’s my identity/ therefore I should be a socially legitimate and respectable subject.” Unfortunately, in the zero-sum game of gender politics, this logic succeeds to the degree that it *de-legitimates* its converse: “You are not a woman ‘inside’ / you am not willing to change your body, just your clothes / you are not even willing to commit your life to it / you are aroused by it (you pervert, you!) / you are a social dipstick.” Granted this equation raises me up, but at a price paid by those who cannot make similar claims. They, of course, go down. And those are… you guessed it: your friendly, neighborhood crossdressers.

So it seems to me that crossdressing is some kind of ultimate act of gender politics. It does not have a single thing going for it: not doctors, not the binary, not a full-time commitment, not even a.pledge that they’re not doing it because it turns them on. Because of this, crossdressing-identified men confront conventional requirements for heterosexual male masculinity head-on. They stand on its head all that we’re supposed to know about big, hairy guys being… well, guy-like. This brings on endless trouble with their jobs, wives, children, courts, military, and so on. Frankly, despite all the times I hear someone say “I only do this to relax,” it never sounded like a very relaxing thing to me at all. Every one of them puts their life on the line when they walk out the door, perhaps down the wrong street, past the wrong patrol car, or into the wrong bar on the wrong night.

I sometimes amuse myself with the differing social legitimation of transexuality and crossdressing at work when people ask me, “So, when did you have your surgery?” I respond, “Surgery. Shmurgery. Hey, I just *love* wearing lady’s clothes.” Gawd, you should see their faces fall… at about 3 feet per second. All that compassionate understanding just *evaporates.* Suddenly, instead of visions of “woman trapped in man’s body” (Film at 11!), now they’re seeing head shots of “weirdo pervert in lacy panties with erection” (no film, no eleven, no news a’tall).

Now that I mention it, I remember years ago getting busted by the cops years ago for using the women’s changing room in a clothing store. They were distinctly unfriendly, looking me up and down like I was something they’d just discovered after 6 months in the back of the freezer. That is, until I showed them my doctor’s “carry papers,” explaining that I was just a patient with a genuine diagnosis of “gender identity disorder.” Then, of course, they got both amused, condescending, and at least middling friendly. They let me off with a lot of snickered warnings.

Now granted, I’m trying to focus on the politics of things here, because you can’t focus on what the crossdressing community is actually saying about itself publicly. Because the unfortunate fact is, most of the rhetoric coming out the crossdressing community is banal to the point of tears. It’s often along the lines of, “I dress, but my wife won’t accept me,” “I dress, and my wife does accept me,” “I dress, and I’m okay,” “I dress, does that mean I’m queer”, “I dress, that make my wife a lesbian,” “I dress, does that make *me* a lesbian,” and my personal favorite, “I dress and it gives me an erection but I’m still a regular guy from the ‘hood just relaxing here have a Bud 6-pack let’s watch the Packers and kick some butts after the game.” I mean, really!

A lot of this is because crossdressing *is* the more socially-despised identity. And the more despised and oppressed a group, inevitably the more assimilationist and conservative their rhetoric and politics. For when groups are radically disempowered, they have no *choice* but to take an assimilationist, conservative stance.

In other words, the experience of being a crossdresser is still sufficiently dislocating, both socially and psychologically, that much of the community is still completely engaged in merely coping, rather than analyzing, organizing and confronting the systemic oppression which maintains and even mandates such dislocations.

But as they find their voice, the stridency, the demands, the political awareness and the organization to contest that oppression will emerge. It’s going to happen, just give it time. Once crossdressers ever *really* come out, and begin to enunciate the politics of the direct, head-on challenge their very existence poses to gender regimes, I think we have a truly revolutionary force on our hands, a potent force. The only question is, how long will they think of themselves, and allow so many of us to think of them, as “…only crossdressers?”

Category: All TGForum Posts, Opinion

About JoAnn Roberts: I am a writer, editor and educator. I was one of the 5 founders of the Renaissance Transgender Education Assoc., and have served on the boards of IFGE and AEGIS. I've published several books on CD/TS/TG subjects. My how-to books are available at the CDS Bookstand (www.cdspub.com). I am most proud of "Coping With Crossdressing: Tools and Strategies for Couples in Committed Relationships". I was an early TG political activist and one of the co-founders of GenderPAC. I wrote and published a Bill of Gender Rights in December 1990. I've appeared on several television shows and in the movie "All Dressed Up And Nowhere To Go". I published "LadyLike" magazine for 18 years, as well as "EnFemme" magazine and "International TranScript". (JoAnn passed away in June of 2013.)

Comments (9)

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  1. dj says:

    ga of course you’re correct about women’s attitude toward clothes. There is nothing universal about it. Most women who have families with children have far more substantial things to be concerned with. Usually they spend more time dressing the kids then they concern themselves with their own clothes. But female to female competiveness does approach universality. It could be a competitveness about their gardens, their kids, their kitchens-you name it. If a man dresses with such style to trigger a recognition as a female then he could become a target for the women whose competitive thing is clothes. and, to be honest, some CDs-a minority- are able to wear women’s clothes very attractively-in some cases more attractively then most women. But clothes are just so much cloth. They don’t change a persons sex or make a persons sex. Transexuals use any means to be accepted as their opposite biological gender. Clothes being just one of those things. With CDs it’s just a playful hobby-they get a kick out of it. They sure as heck don’t want pregnancy and all that other female plumbing complcations. They just like the fun stuff.
    You gals can keep that messy part.

  2. joaniebartlett says:

    Ga_thinker, if I may, I agree That, putting on a dress does not a woman make.
    So, in your opinion what would I have to do, to have you consider me to be woman ly/like/thinking/expressive/——?

  3. joaniebartlett says:

    DJ, I believe this article makes that point. And it’s does so colorfully and with class.

  4. joaniebartlett says:

    Probably the best, No the best article that I have read which explains and expands on the gender war/s! Thank you, Riki Anne Wilchins for you profound waking moment and thank you TG Forum for bring it back out/up!

  5. ga_thinker says:

    Not all natal women are the same,DJ, just like not all crossdressers or trans people are the same. Some of us are offended by the idea that femaleness is all about dresses. Some of us are competitive about how we look compared to other women (natal or not), and others aren’t. Some of us don’t even wear dresses. Being a woman is not, for most natal women, all about clothes, and we are not going to think much of your “feminine side” if that’s what it consists of, to you. Speaking for myself, if you get a kick out of dressing up – whether it’s relaxing or erotic or both (as it is to my s.o.), that’s fine with me. But that in itself doesn’t make you persuasively a woman, to me.

  6. melissam says:


    And what about the I’m more trans than you statement when someone trans says this to another trans person. In other words, if I take hormones, I’m more trans. Nope. Just means that is how that person chooses to live….

  7. dj says:

    I think one thing the male cross dresser should be aware of-many males are clueless in this regard-is the intense competitive instinct females toward other females. Once the CD is interpreted as another female he(she) is the target for a competitive attack from women. In no way does a women want a male looking better in a dress than she does.


  8. melissam says:

    This whole thread reminds me of the gender wars which took place in the early 1990s between all of the trans identified groups. The transsexuals did not want to be viewed as crossdressers and crossdressers did not want to be viewed as transsexuals…at least that is what the so-called fight was about, not realizing both groups were struggling mightily to make some positive changes in perception. Fast forward twenty years and I have some radical ideas of my own. We are all trans identified, and some of us more so than others. So, which ‘category’ does an individual fall into? Where did Virgina Prince fall? She lived full-time en femme sans surgery. If I keep my body shaved, isn’t that some sort of transition? What about the person who takes hormones but doesn’t want SRS? I know people all along the spectrum, and I have come to the conclusion that all of us express our femininity in the way it seems to fit. It doesn’t make us any more or less trans, and it certainly doesn’t make us any more or less human. Instead of focusing on how far along someone is on the spectrum, we ought to be focusing on the fact that we are all on this gender rainbow together.

  9. tasidevil says:

    WoW! Only a crossdresser. I would agree that society more easily accepts the notion of someone transitioning rather than someone that likes to dress in ladies clothes, but as I said in a separate post, we dress to release those subjugated feminine feelings and emulate that which we would like to be. Just don’t get me started on all those manifestations though. That’a why I write about fashion.

    There’s is a growing number of us willing to stand up and be seen. I’ve spoken to college classes and brought reality to their misunderstood notion of crossdressing men. Many of my friends have done likewise – get them when they are young. I have another friend that is almost full-time now and lives in a community that knows her as a macho male. Her journey has been incredible and the level of acceptance in Bubbaville has been really remarkable. This isn’t true for many, but my point is that crossdressers are more and more standing up and educating people that we are not the pervetrts that they imagined. And they are not the image that Dee Levy portrays in her book