My 30-something friend Greg told me that his 50-something friend Peter met a transvestite for the first time this week.
Did you know transvestites are straight?” Greg asked me.
“Yeah, I knew that,” I answered. I’d been a freshman in high school when I learned about cross-dressers from True Confessions magazine.
“Well, Peter was really surprised,” Greg said. “And I don’t think I really understood transvestites completely either.”
Greg, who happens to be straight, told me that Peter, who happens to be gay, was having a drink when a man wearing a dress, earrings and high heels sat down next to him at the bar. They started talking, and Peter quickly learned that his new acquaintance, who he’d assumed was a drag queen, was in fact a transvestite. He was a straight, married, former military man who lived at home with his wife and kids, who planned on hanging out with some other cross-dresser friends that night.
“The guy told Peter that he and his buddies just like to dress up and go out in women’s clothing,” said Greg.
I told Greg that’s how playwright Harvey Fierstein explained transvestites to a live audience at WNYC Greene Space last spring. Four-time Tony Award winner Fierstein was interviewed on Inside Look before his stage drama Casa Valentina opened on Broadway.
Casa Valentina was based on a group of heterosexual married men that used to meet weekends at a retreat in the Catskills in the ‘60s to indulge in their favorite pastime – dressing and acting as their chosen female alter egos.
“Let’s be clear about this,” Host Elliott Forrest said after introducing his guest. “And I think terminology is very helpful. So decipher for us the difference between cross-dresser, drag queen, transvestite…”
So Fierstein explained that drag queens or drag kings basically dress in the clothes and take on the stereotyped characteristics of the opposite sex to entertain, to lampoon sometimes, to exaggerate, to become.
“The mystery of the other sex is built into all of us,” Fierstein said. “All men – straight or gay, cross-dressers or not – have ideas of what it would be like to be a women.”
He said that men imbue women with these mystical powers…”and when you take on that other guise.. it’s an incredibly powerful thing to feel.”
The playwright told his attentive audience that for transgender people it’s about gender identity, where they often believe they were born into the wrong body. A transsexual has taken steps to physically transition their body to match their gender identity.
The he got to the subject of the people in Casa Valentina, and explained that transvestites wear the clothing of the opposite sex. He said it looks like they have something in common and it doesn’t.
“Transvestites can have a billion reasons for wanting to do it,” he said. “Sometime it’s a sexual thing – just the kick of wearing the opposite. Sometimes it’s an identity. Sometimes it’s something from childhood that they’re brining forward…There are a billion reasons.”
And then Harvey Fierstien surprised me. He admitted that he had no idea there was there whole universe of heterosexual transvestite men.
Later, I told my 24-year-old son Harry, who identifies as genderqueer, how happy I was that I knew the answers to the WNYC host’s question.
“That’s the same question Tim asked me sitting around the dinner table at the family reunion a couple of years ago,” Harry said. Tim was Harry’s Uncle Allyn’s partner.
“Had you been talking about Rocky Horror or drag performance before that?” I asked.
“Nope it was just totally random.”
Not exactly your typical family gathering dinner table topic.
When I walked past a new game at a local gift shop this week, I was intrigued. It’s called Family Gathering TableTopics. The idea is to give the generations that sit together around the family dinner table some memorable conversation starters and the chance learn something about each other in the process.
The box is filled with questions like “What do you remember about the homes your family has lived in?” or “What’s your family known for?”
So in the spirit of giving thanks and celebrating with gratitude that no two people are alike (because oh how boring that would be!), I thought it might be interesting to ask those gathered around your Thanksgiving table if anyone knows how to explain the terms transvestite, drag queen and transsexual.
And because we know that from gay to straight and everywhere in between on the gender spectrum, not everyone knows or understands our differences, you just might find some folks as surprised as Greg, Peter, Harvey and Tim. Let me know how it goes. And, please pass the cranberries.
**Note added Nov. 25: To see what I’ve learned about transvestitism and cross-dressing since this posting, please be sure to read the comment below from Jonathan at Male Femme.
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