Ideally, you’ll both communicate through this. I want to briefly address different ‘types’ of male crossdressing and then I’ll scatter a bit of the lived experience I have that qualifies me to discuss this. There are varying motivations behind why men crossdress and they are not always or entirely driven by sexuality and eroticism – often that’s a part of it but not always. Nor is it always about ‘confused’ gender identity. As with much of human behavior, a one size fits all approach to this can be — well — ill-fitting. Ultimately, you won’t know what it is for your husband or partner unless he tells you.
In my case, the inclination to crossdress was present in me from a very, very early age and I experience it as an integral part to the way I express and understand myself. Again, speaking only for myself, the inclination arose long before I knew or understood sexuality or eroticism. As I grew into adolescence, yes, there was sometimes, not always, an erotic component to it. I learned to hide these feminine inclinations and behaviors early because it was quickly obvious to me that they would not be tolerated, leave alone accepted.
I don’t see my crossdressing as an identity but rather an expression of an intrinsic inclination toward femininity; its something I do that is a part of my personhood, not what wholly defines it. This has manifested throughout my life as me first simulating girl’s clothes with towels, bits of cloth and oversized shirts at around age 5, and later striving toward androgyny and gender-bending as I became a teen. I was about 9 when I first wore one of my mother’s dresses.
Again, I am only speaking from my own experience when I say my cross-gender dressing is not my identity. Again, it is something I do that reflects an internal experience, a knowledge of self and through which I outwardly manifest that experience. Although obvious, it bears stating: The preponderance of people who are feminine are women, not all – The majority of masculine people are men, not all. As a result of these majority rules, we make assumptions and accept biological ‘truths’ about who gets to be or express one or the other — we see exceptions to the rule as abject.
The clothes themselves, although culturally coded to the rule, are really just things, objects that people use for various purposes at different times — a kilt and a sarong are skirts but a man wearing either isn’t usually considered crossdressed.
Drag performers, actors and rock musicians crossdress – Keith Richards admits in his autobiography that he and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg wore one another’s clothes. Children roleplaying crossdress. People exploring their gender identity or gender expression crossdress. Some men simply like to wear skirts or tights because they find them comfortable — some call that ‘perverse’ but in the 30s and early 40s, Katherine Hepburn was called manly and a transvestite for wearing trousers. Pants on women were “The gateway drug to female perversion.” Of course, for women at the time, pants were a symbol of the fight against a long-held and pervasive idea that women were irrational, frivolous and unworthy of political enfranchisement; women in pants, ‘affecting masculinity’ was a power grab, a statement of entitlement, a step up. Men don’t see wearing skirts or other strictly feminine marked items or behaviors as things to which to be entitled. They tend to view femininity and ‘feminine’ qualities as a step down rather than something of value worthy of respect and aspiration.
And yes, some men crossdress because they are driven by eroticism, a fetish or paraphilia which, as far as the list of other paraphilias go, crossdressing is really benign. The meanings imbued on the clothes we wear, how we groom or wear our hair are signifiers of an association with a particular lived experience. Precisely what that significance is depends on the individual.
I suggest three books: My Husband Betty and She’s not the Man I Married by Helen Boyd, a wife seeking to understand her husband’s crossdressing. The third is chapter 17 in Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl titled Crossdressing: Demystifying Femininity and Rethinking “Male Privilege.”
If your husband has kept a secret of his crossdressing from you and you didn’t know about this going into your commitment and eventual marriage, he needs to own that he made a mistake and make an attempt to understand how you feel. He needs to own that, even though his intentions were more than likely good. And I daresay, you might come to see how he is also a ‘victim‘ of societal pressures — unfortunately, you both are.
Often, more than the crossdressing itself, it is that wives and partners feel betrayed by the dishonesty of their husband. After all, he is also a best friend and confidant, someone a wife expects to be entirely open and vulnerable, and he harbored a significant secret.
But sometimes, as was my experience with my first wife, the husband cannot see that, he often wants to be lauded and accepted now that he’s out. Often, because we’ve secretly read and thought about gender and crossdressing for decades, we will eloquently expound about how unfair society is, double standards and so on. Boys grow up being told never to hit a girl out of a respect for femininity yet the moment another male exhibits behavior deemed feminine, they are usually shamed, often berated, and sometimes beaten. And sure, his perspective is all true but it doesn’t alter one key fact that we tend to overlook: As a wife, you feel betrayed. That he is the one who betrayed your trust cuts very deep. It also hurts that he didn’t come to you, that he didn’t trust you with something that is so much a part of him. Those facts matter and need to be addressed.
And here’s the thing that I think most women will get and most men won’t. I see it in comments of men who write:
‘Well hey, don’t over-inflate this, go shopping with him and take a weekend away where you both dress up! It’s not as though he had an affair, at least he’s not cheating on you.’
But he has cheated. Cheating is using information only you have, to get an advantage or privilege in a relationship to which the other person doesn’t have access — it is an advantage that isn’t laid out as community knowledge, hidden as the sole knowledge of the husband. By withholding the truth, what we’ve done is limit our wives’ knowledge and thus the choices our wives can make because we’ve not allowed them to see us wholly and honestly as we really are. That is a betrayal of trust and it is, at its core, a cheat. And that is precisely how she likely feels, cheated, betrayed lied to and duped. To her, to many women, it is the same feeling as if you had been with another woman because more than the act itself, it is the violation of her trust and she feels that deeper than you can comprehend. The fact that you can’t see that is a problem —perhaps more than anything, it is the problem. If you’re a man and a secret crossdresser reading this and you can figure that out, own it, look beyond your needs for a moment and express sincere regret for the pain and lack of assuredness your wife feels. If you can muster that, you have a better chance then many to build an amazing marriage where your wife is supportive because you own your part, are supportive of her and listen to, respect and strive for copious amounts of empathy toward her feelings.
I often think, if I want to truly know what it is like to be a woman, why not get to really know my wife and learn about her experience.
When I met my second wife, I laid it all out on the table. And to make sure I couldn’t opt out of telling her, I showed up to a lunch date with my nails painted — she complimented me and asked me about it with genuine wonder. She excitedly asked if I would wear eyeliner for her some time. So, I am blessed and rewarded by that honesty. My wife LOVES that I embrace my own femininity and androgyny, that I don’t see feminine things as shameful, less-than or demeaning to myself. But again, I lucked out because she was already into men like me. Just as there are women who are into the idea of androgynous men or men with feminine inclinations, there are women who aren’t, it is what it is. Really, that’s okay. In fairness, there are also men who don’t find women in pants and short hair attractive. Those qualities in others for which we either feel attraction or aversion are neither good nor bad, they just are.
If you are a wife or long-term partner and this is new and unexpected to you, you’re probably trying to figure out what it all means and how it affects you, what it might suggest about your own sexuality or you as a woman. And while it would be great and wonderful if you were to embrace and support your husband as a crossdresser sans hesitation, it will more likely than not take some work and you may never arrive in a place where you are okay with it. He also needs to understand that you chose him for being a masculine man, that that is what he presented to you, and that you are attracted to masculinity, attached to his masculinity. It’s a reasonable expectation that you get to be the woman in the relationship. He needs to accept that you might have an aversion to his crossdressing and to lay aside the sociocultural criticism for a moment and understand it is totally okay for you to feel that way. It doesn’t mean you mightn’t tolerate, accept or even learn to embrace it one day but it is a shift in the paradigm you agreed to. It’s An agreement you made without all the known facts laid forth. Maybe you’ll not be able to get past that sense of betrayal or your aversion; your view of him will likely be forever altered in one way or another.
Mind you, he’s still the same person. The crossdressing and/or gender incongruence were always there, they’re just not kept from you now.
The formula for achieving a successful relationship is simple:
you should treat all disasters as if they were trivialities
but never treat a triviality as if it were a disaster.
— Quentin Crisp
Now, I think you really get to call the shots around how he does it when you are around. Some wives will say, ‘have at it but I don’t want to see it,’ or ‘I will not go out with you in public while you are en femme,’ or ‘you must keep your hands off my things.’ All fair. If he knowingly went into a committed relationship with you without putting it all out on the table, you get a stake in the parameters around his crossdressing and then you two can negotiate from there, if you feel it necessary. My wife is a part of my gender bending and crossdressing – She is a fierce defender and protector and while she embraces and loves it, often encourages it, it isn’t only mine anymore, it is a part of myself that we share. From that, I’ve been able to integrate it into my daily and public life rather than keep it compartmentalized. I don’t even think about it as crosdressing anymore, it’s just my androgynous and gender transgressing style often more in the vein of early 1970s Keith Richards than Eddy Izzard. The only reason any of it is an issue within broader society is that it is seen as transgressive and taboo breaking — but really, it’s just me being honest and authentic.
My wife and I talk about my drive to gender bend, how I feel about my ‘identity’ as ‘trans,’ and precisely what that means to both of us. We talk about my feelings of dysphoria and the fact that I wonder if a lot of my anxiety, withdrawal and depressive episodes, might go away were I on cross-sex hormone treatment (HRT). I do wonder if my brain would function more clearly, if the white noise, the constant awareness of my gender dissonance, would finally dissipate. We’ve talked about what that might mean and how it would affect her. My drive isn’t to ‘become a woman’ because in my opinion, I can’t. It is too late in my life — I do think transitioning would have been a choice I made when young had it been an option available to me at the time. Now, because I have aged so physically masculine, I wish I could be more androgynous. I wish I could choose to present as a woman one day, then present as male the next and pass as either — but that is a fantasy. That is not the reality of my physique and facial structure and I haven’t the will to suffer long surgical recoveries and drag my wife and I into debt. With hormones, I’m not there right now and I probably never will be because I don’t believe I could achieve what I really want — better to figure a way to live as I am and embrace my inner feelings. Still, HRT it is a thought I have and a discussion my wife and I have openly . She says, “You told me everything from the beginning, I knew what I was doing.” She also tells me her fears and aversions to the idea. She has caveats. I get it, I listen to them and respect them.
Marriage is nothing if not a contractual agreement and constant renegotiation in the face of change. You each state what is and is not acceptable to you and if you can’t agree, then you either find professional help to find common ground and negotiate an updated agreement or you deal with the fallout and potential collapse of the marriage. In the end, you simply cannot maintain a marriage without trust, honesty, vulnerability, and respect shared between you. You also both need a clear understanding of what is and is not acceptable to both of you to sustain a marriage and what constitutes a deal breaker.
For my wife and me, those deal breakers are what most would expect:
- Infidelity, which encompasses lying and betrayal, withholding affection or sex without a clear statement of why… which constitutes abuse.
- Abuse. Physical or emotional.
- A chronic addiction or mental illness, one or the other refuses to seek help for resulting in harm to the other’s right to health, safety, financial security, freedom and happiness.
Let me be abundantly clear here, I am not suggesting crossdressing or being trans is a mental illness; I do not believe that, nor do most experts. In my experience, decades of the act of keeping my cross gender thoughts and behaviors compartmentalized and closeted, living a double life, where what was not healthy. Much of what one likely saw of me was a mask that did create depression and a certain obsessiveness within me. Mind you, I have an attention deficit and as a result, can hyper-focus, obsess on my perfectionism, and as long as I remained closeted and ashamed, that manifested unhealthily in my crossdressing.
Moreover, because it was hidden and something I should have allowed to be out in the open, I sought every way, every private moment I could to sneak doing it. And when I did, it was an enormous relief, like a ton of bricks was lifted from me — Imagine the rush of pleasant chemicals that released in my brain. It didn’t help that I also denied and made constant attempts to suppress it. The down side was that I had to have a very dialed-in system of rituals to cover my tracks. Those moments of giving in to the compulsion were always followed by intense shame and self abuse for being a liar to both myself and others. Living like that sucked!
When I came out to my first wife, it was because she had a kink about men in fishnets and heels that she shared with me and asked if I’d do it for her – What a boon (I thought)! This was my opportunity to finally come out! After that, when I grabbed that opportunity to tell her my secret, practically my entire life became about crossdressing…with the doors and curtains shut. Ultimately, while she had initially embraced and encouraged it in me as just a cool wee kink, it grew to the point she loathed and couldn’t accept it, especially when I began to share the secretive hell that I’d been living in since childhood and openly begin to identify as transgender. She encouraged me to do it but then insulted me when I did. That marriage was fraught with myriad problems and my crossdressing certainly wasn’t the only issue we had, but it was ultimately one of the nails in the coffin for her.
It turns out, that was a gift because it opened up the space for my wife now to come into my life. She has been amazingly supportive and embracing of my gender incongruence as an open and proud part of who I am. My wife takes the time to ask me questions and read about it. She tells me she thinks I am Two-Spirit. While I understand and can perhaps identify with much of that tradition conceptually, I don’t feel right claiming it as an identity. While I am significantly Native North American via Northern Mexico, I refuse to own that name because I was not raised within an indigenous tribal community where Two-Spirit is an accepted identity; it’s not mine to claim. To me, even though I’ve a Mexican background, it would be like saying I am a Muxe when my family isn’t from Oaxaca and I’ve married a woman.
I’ll often say, that because I am attracted to women and femininity, I would have a very difficult time if my wife today wanted to ditch her feminine appearance and begin dressing and acting like a man.
Really pause for a moment and think about that….
How many men would accept such a change in the women they are partnered with and to whom they are attracted? I imagine some people will hate that I feel that way and that I state it outwardly but let’s just be dead honest here. I don’t believe our core erotic motivators and attractions change that much for most of us. I’m not going to be able to become attracted to masculinity simply because it would be wonderfully woke to do so. Often, those of us who identify with the LGBTQ+ list are the first group to champion the idea that you cannot change who or what you are attracted to, that you inherently know who makes your heart flutter and is capable of breaking it. Acknowledging that I have a sexual aversion to masculinity and that, even as I find her ‘tomboyishness’ sexy, I’d have a difficult time if my wife became butch and wanted to grow facial hair, doesn’t make me transphobic or homophobic. It makes me honest about what I find attractive. And I do believe such a sense of attraction is intrinsic to us and often immutable. If she had said that was a possibility when we met and I was okay with it, that’s a different discussion.
So, when I met my wife, we discussed all this stuff during our first meetings and the conversation continues into our on-going courtship. We both wanted to make it abundantly clear what each of us was committing to — Of course there are surprises, people and situations change and evolve, but that principle honesty has created a tremendous amount of trust and connectedness in our relationship even through change and u certainty. My gender variance or that it evolves isn’t an issue for my wife but lying and dishonesty, keeping secrets would be a major problem for both of us.
This is why I encourage males who feel some urge to secretly wear feminine garments, whatever the reason behind it, whether a simple panty kink or something you feel intrinsic to your identity, when safe, to be forthright and to begin coming out early in life to those who share our lives. It is so important that heterosexual ‘crossdressers’ come out of the closet and are seen and speak out — If to no one else, at least to their wives. As long as feminine-inclined people who publicly present as straight cisgender men remain invisible, people will asume our experience doesn’t exist or is ‘invalid.’ People need to understand that while there may be overlap or intersection at times, gender expression is not defined by our sexual orientation and vice versa. I also believe that while some people are inveterate assholes, most are either so busy going about their own lives they either don’t give you much thought or they are kind and compassionate.
More often than not, I believe that if we were to come out, we’d find mostly support or indifference or could at least locate people and regions where we’d find it. That is demonstrated by the continued and growing embrace and support of people in same-sex relationships. In the last US presidential primary, Iowa put an openly gay presidential candidate at the top of their democratic ballot. And although trailing about 20 years, we do see the same happening in regard to the trans community. Most people respect you and listen to you when you are authentic and speak your truth. Most people are rather nice and will adjust their perspectives and come around to a place of acceptance and support. I often say, don’t live for the oddball wanker out there who is just nasty and hateful to his core regardless.
The sad thing about not coming out is that we often lie to our wives, the very people with whom we should be the most honest. And do let’s be honest, whatever the reason, omission and withholding information from our partners and then covering it up so they don’t discover it is lying.
Below, I linked a couple of other articles I wrote on Quora that may be of use to you. But again, I am describing my experience only. There may be parallels here and in other things I write that relate to your husband or long-term partner, there may not be. I identify as trans, which is a broad and often unspecific umbrella term, your husband may not, it is just a label I use to understand myself and my relationship to the world. In fact, I’ve begun to use the descriptions ‘gender incongruent’ and ‘gender dissonant’ much more because they describe an experience without rigid parameters rather than a broad and unspecific identity.
Most crossdressers are absolutely heterosexual and want to be and remain men, the crossdressing is just a ‘thing’ they do, an escape or fantasy, and those men would probably never describe themselves as transgender or gender incongruent. I know, to many, it just seems quite odd that a man would do this and we do tend to be ‘tarred’ with the same brush vis, that we’re gay and in denial, mentally ill, and/or we all want eventually to transform our bodies and live as women. I get that, I guess, because people are often just uninformed and there are many assumptions out there because there is a general dearth of accurate information about us. That lack of information, and the misinformation, is partially because so many of us remain in the closet, all people can do is make assumptions when there is little to no communication. Films like Dial M for Murder and Psycho certainly don’t help.
If you and your husband can communicate, mend any feelings of betrayal, the misunderstanding, and get rid of all the assuming, you will deepen your trust in the process. Often we are really great men and partners. My wife loves that I have a keen eye for women’s fashion and can also be rugged if called for. Of course, I am generalizing here but we do tend to be very loyal, kind, gentle, considerate and caring and although perhaps not necessarily announced upfront, you probably saw certain ‘feminine’ qualities that drew you to your husband in the first place.