You will find a basic definition of "transvestite" on the opening page of this section of the site. What I want to do here is expand on that definition and also attempt to dispel some of the myths and misinformation surrounding the subject.
Firstly, and most importantly, transvestism is NOT simply a sexual 'kink' or perversion. Nor is it always associated with homosexuality - some TVs are gay, some are bisexual, but many of them are totally heterosexual. There is often a sexual element to tranvestite behaviour, especially in the early stages (this is discussed at greater length in the article on 'Transvestites and Sexuality' later in this section of the site), but many, many older TVs, and even some younger ones, experience little or no sexual arousal through being dressed as women.
Nor is transvestism usually a 'lifestyle choice'. Many transvestites experience a great deal of guilt, fear, self-disgust and confusion about their behaviour and their needs, and fervently wish that they didn't feel the way they do. It is, however, something over which they have very little control. They may 'purge' regularly - throw out all their female clothes, make-up etc. in revulsion and promise themselves that from now on they are going to be 'normal' - but this almost never works. Sooner or later they will find themselves buying new dresses, skirts or whatever, and the whole cycle begins again.
I cannot emphasise this too strongly - there is no 'cure' for transvestism. A TV does NOT actively choose to be the way he is, it is NOT a matter of will-power and he is probably never going to be able to give it up and continue to lead a happy, comfortable, well-balanced life without it.
TVs, unlike transsexual people, don't actually self-identify as women and usually have no intention of taking female hormones or having body-altering surgery. Transvestism and transsexualism are not the same thing, however similar the two conditions may appear on the surface.
Having established what transvestism is not, let's look at what it is.
A transvestite is a biological male who feels a strong compulsion to dress and present, on a regular basis, as a female. This may involve wearing women's clothing, shoes and underwear, wearing a wig styled in a feminine way, shaving his body hair, making up his face and giving himself a female shape with false breasts and/or padding, or any combination of these behaviours. Among TG people this is called 'dressing' - when a TV describes himself as being 'dressed', he doesn't usually mean in a suit and tie! Being dressed may also be referred to as being 'en femme', while presenting as his male self is often called being 'in drab'.
Most TVs sooner or later give themselves a female name which they use when dressed - this may be a feminised version of their male name, or it may be something completely different. An experienced TV who has been dressing for a while may even find that his behaviour subtly alters when he is dressed - his gestures, mannerisms and way of speaking become more feminine. This isn't necessarily a deliberate attempt to appear more like a woman - it can be entirely unconscious.
Many transvestites have known from a very early age that they were 'different'. Transvestism often begins in childhood, when a young boy tries on his mother's or sister's clothes and enjoys the way they feel, or the way he feels while wearing them. Later, with puberty, the sexual aspect of wearing female clothes comes to the fore (as described in the article on 'Transvestites and Sexuality'), but later still, as the sexual drive becomes less imperative, many TVs describe a feeling of peace, comfort, relief and 'rightness' that they only experience when dressed.
There has been very little research done on transvestism, partly because TVs tend, through guilt, shame and fear, to be very secretive people. It's not even known what percentage of the male population is TV, although it's almost certainly far more common than is generally realised.
Likewise, not much is known about what causes a man to become TV, although there are various theories. There appears to be some evidence that a significant number of TV men are born to mothers who had several miscarriages during their childbearing years, giving rise to the theory that one cause of transvestism may be exposure to fluctuating hormone levels while the male foetus is still in the womb. Other theories involve genetic factors, upbringing and childhood trauma. The fact is that there is probably no single cause but a combination of factors, which may vary from person to person.
Why does a TV dress, and what does he get out of it? Many TVs (although not all of them) suffer from some degree of gender dysphoria - although they can function perfectly well as men in a social, home or work environment, they don't feel fully, happily and comfortably male. They often have personality traits that are usually regarded as 'feminine' - empathy, lack of competitiveness and/or aggression, a need to nurture - and find traditional male behaviour deeply unattractive. They may feel like a fish out of water in an aggressively male environment. Although none of this prevents them from conforming as men to society's expectations and norms, and spending most of their time presenting as men, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, a feeling of 'wrongness', which can be greatly relieved by dressing and presenting as women for a while.
This is not a fantasy - a TV 'en femme' is not pretending that he IS a woman. Most of them remain well aware that they are actually men, and are usually very much alive to the possibility that they will be 'clocked' as men if they are seen, although they will invariably be delighted if they are taken for women when dressed, and treated as such. But this is secondary to the main purpose of dressing for these people - to escape for a while from the need to maintain an acceptable male persona, to experience the relaxation and comfort which comes from being able to express their 'other side', the female part of themselves.
Young and/or inexperienced TVs, especially those who still find dressing highly sexual, will often dress in a very sexy, even tarty style - short skirts, fishnet stockings, 5" stilettoes. As they 'grow into' their transvestism, however, their style of dressing and presenting will frequently change and mature - they will develop their own, more sophisticated and age-appropriate style. TVs often work very hard at developing their 'female' selves and may enjoy the challenge of trying out different styles of dress, wig and make-up to find the one which suits them best. In this, at any rate, their behaviour isn't all that different from that of many natal women!
They may also gain considerable pleasure from the ritual of dressing, doing their make-up and hair and generally transforming themselves from their normal, everyday male selves - again, something that many natal women also enjoy if they are dressing up to go out. Even TVs who are complete slobs when in everyday male mode will often put a huge amount of time and effort into getting their 'en femme' appearance absolutely right in every detail. Husbands who grumble about the amount of time their wives take to get ready for a special occasion actually have very little to complain about - they should be deeply thankful that they don't have to hang around waiting for a TV to be satisfied with the way 'she' looks!
As a TV becomes more confident in his ability to dress and present attractively 'en femme', he may begin to want to show 'her' off in public. He will probably start by going to one of the many TG or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgendered) clubs which cater specifically for people who don't fit the "straight" sex and/or gender norms. These clubs are usually very safe places for the novice TV to make his first public appearances - they are friendly, welcoming and the atmosphere is not usually overtly sexual or 'kinky'. Most TVs enjoy the chance to meet and socialise with others like themselves and to develop a circle of TG friends - and also, of course, to show off their new dress! For some TVs, being 'en femme' involves a certain element of performance, of being 'on show' in a persona which is different from the one in which they spend most of their time, and this can be a strong motivation for dressing.
For a TV, joining Internet websites for the transgendered, going out 'en femme' and meeting and talking with other TVs can be a very positive experience indeed. Many TVs have very low self-esteem as the result of years spent 'in the closet', feeling abnormal, confused and deeply ashamed. Meeting, talking and socialising with others like themselves can be a great help in dispelling this, boosting their confidence and self-esteem and generally making them feel much better about themselves. Society's attitudes to transvestism don't help - the widely-held perception of TVs as perverts and/or freaks adds further to the guilt and distress. Although this is slowly beginning to change, much ignorance and misunderstanding of transvestism still persist.
The happiest, most contented and well-adjusted TVs are those who have fully accepted that their transvestism is part of themselves, as fixed and innate as their hair or skin colour, and that nothing they can do will change it. TVs who have come to terms with this, understood that they are not to blame and have nothing to be ashamed of, and accepted themselves the way they are, can be remarkably empathic, compassionate, insightful and often highly amusing and interesting people. Difference is to be celebrated!
© Transpartners 2008