Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses

Originally published in Atlantic Monthly

The cross-dressers of Tri-Ess insist that cross-dressing is not about sexuality, and therefore not about sex. They are right about the first, and we can all stop assuming that any man who wears a dress is gay. But they are not right about the second, and their assertion, their defense, that cross-dressing is their creative expression of both genders is unsetting, because it is at such odds with their behavior, their natures, and their marriages. These men are as far from being gender warriors and feminists as George W. himself. As one wife said to me, “For twenty years he couldn’t help with the dishes because he was watching football. Now he can’t help because he’s doing his nails. Is that different?” For these men, the woman within is entirely the Maybelline version, not the Mother Teresa version, not the Liv Ullman version, and not even the Tracey Ullman version. There is no innate grasp of female friendship, of the female insistence on relatedness, of the female tradition of support and accommodation for one’s partner and giving precedence to the relationship overall. If there were that kind of understanding, rather than shopping for accessories and watching tapes on how to walk in heels, these guys would be unable to ask their wives to go through this cross-dressing life with them—and everyone, husbands and wives, knows it. They know that if any of the women insisted on wearing three piece suits or baseball uniforms in public, and asked their husbands to accept hairy legs, hairy underarms, and jockstraps as part of their sex life, the husbands would not be rushing off to join spousal support groups while cheerfully spending the family’s money on bespoke shirts and expensive glue-on facial hair. The marriages would be over.

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