Stepping Out, Gingerly, in Size 12-Wide Pumps
Lynda Frank is not just another pretty face.
Hidden behind her flowered dress and red fingernails is a retired truck driver named Len, a macho father of three with a deep voice and a devoted wife who grapples with the fact that her husband is not quite the man she married 49 years ago.
Twice a week, Len becomes Lynda, dipping into the special closet crammed with skirts and blouses, 11 pocketbooks, two evening bags, six wigs, one corset, 19 pairs of size 12-wide shoes, and a pair of gel breasts to fill her 36C lace bra.
For decades, Len thought he was the only one shackled by such confusing desires. But with the spread of the Internet over the last few years, more and more men like him have stepped cautiously out of the closet - so much so that a good 40 of them now turn up at a monthly meeting of cross-dressers in Bergen County.
Most Typical GuysMost are traditional men in traditional marriages, with old-fashioned notions of gender. They are engineers, bankers, locksmiths, and Little League coaches, men who call themselves Stephanie, Cynthia, and Susan, caught in a secret world filled with paradoxes. To their wives, they are men sometimes wrapped in women's clothing; to the men themselves, they are male shells covering the "lady" within. Like Len, they are sure of their heterosexuality and more or less content with their anatomy. And like him, they don't know why they are drawn to the trappings of femininity - including girdles, padding, hose, and heels, accessories many real women yearn to discard. But drawn they are.
"All I know is I enjoy dressing this way, and I get upset and edgy when I can't," says Lynda, now 72, in a deep, masculine voice that he, like most cross-dressers, doesn't disguise. "The minute a guy tells his wife he's a cross-dresser, she's convinced he's attracted to men or turning into a woman. We try to keep the homosexuals and transsexuals out of the group, because otherwise, the wives would panic. They'd say, 'You see him? He started out like you, and you're gonna wind up like him.'"
Having noticed that cross-dressers are becoming more visible in recent years, the New Jersey Psychological Association this month devoted part of its quarterly journal to the topic, urging its members to view the phenomenon not as an illness, but as an often-misunderstood gender variation. Little is known about its cause, or its prevalence, but one thing is clear: "Most people who cross-dress are not distressed about it," says Daniel Watter, a clinical psychologist and Parsippany sex therapist who edited the journal. "The distress is from their partners or their family members, or society in general."
Many of the men in suburban support groups are senior citizens, and they dress like dowdy old ladies - big dowdy old ladies. One, a retired Eastern Airlines pilot who called himself Felicity, showed up through his 80s. Younger cross-dressers, though, grew up in easier times, surrounded by more tolerance and more fluid ideas about gender. For them, groups like the one in Bergen County are merely steppingstones, a place to get one's footing before moving on to Greenwich Village.
Acceptance DifficultThe local group is part of an international support group called Tri-Ess, the Society for the Second Self, which cheerily describes cross-dressers as men "happy in their masculinity, [who] have simply discovered a feminine gender 'gift' and decided to explore it." Tri-Ess - with its quarterly newsletter for wives, titled "The Sweetheart Connection" - maintains that a wise wife will recognize her husband's cross-dressing as an asset. It's an interpretation that few wives accept.
"It's a nightmare," says one of the six wives who show up regularly at the meetings with their husbands. For 40 years, she has been married to the father of their two now-grown children, but she didn't learn of his secret until 12 years ago. As she talks, she watches her husband across the room, a 5-foot-11 man in a sparkly sweater set, a checked skirt, auburn wig, and red lipstick. She looks as if she might cry. "I'm mortified by it. I can't stand the lying. They're good people, they don't cheat, but I will never accept this. I will tolerate it, but I will never accept it."
Four years ago, her husband joined the support group and begged her to join, too. It was the first time she had seen him dressed, and when he walked into the room, she looked him up and down and spit, "Get away from me." She still remembers how much her stomach hurt.
"I am not a female's wife," she says. "I married a man. The truth is, when he's dressed as a woman, he's calmer and gentler, more at peace with himself. If I were blind, I'd prefer the personality of the woman. But I want my husband. That other individual is a home-wrecker."
For most cross-dressers, the urge that begins as an erotic fetish in puberty mellows into something more complicated.
"You get attracted to the image in the mirror," says Stephanie, 60, who rented a basement apartment near his job to hide his cross-dressing from his wife, and who sometimes wears lace-and-silk undergarments beneath his pinstripe suit because he finds it calming. "Maybe the image reminds you of your mother. You want to be her. You sculpt her and you worship her. ... There's a soft, quiet feeling I have as a woman. Maybe it's a man's stereotype, but when I'm a woman, I feel relieved, like I don't have to hold up the world anymore. I've tried to integrate that into my male self, but somehow, it doesn't work."
Internet Helps to Build CommunityThanks to the Internet, cross-dressers who once gathered in a few urban pockets have connected even in the suburbs. Previously isolated men now meet in Morristown, Bordentown, White Plains, N.Y., and Long Island, though many won't attend events close to home, lest they be discovered. The local group held its spring dinner dance for cross-dressers and their wives at the Glen Pointe Marriott in Teaneck, drawing people from as far away as Sussex and Westchester counties. Bergen County will also be the hub in November, when Tri-Ess holds its four-day national conference, complete with fashion shows, shopping trips, and workshops.
Cynthia Majors, 50, will be there. A lifelong Teaneck resident, Cynthia would tape newspaper over the living room windows while his wife was out, dress up, and wonder what in God's name was driving him.
"Until I got a computer five years ago and got online, I thought I was the only person in the world doing this," says Cynthia, who stands 6 feet 2 without heels and told his wife there were bats in the attic so she wouldn't discover his women's clothes up there. "I felt so warped and twisted."
Emboldened by the community of cross-dressers, Cynthia stepped out two years ago - to the Ridgefield movie theater, a Teaneck diner, and clothing shops on Cedar Lane.
Exploring Gender StereotypesOpenness like that in the suburbs was unheard of 40 years ago. That was when Len would wait all week for his wife's beauty parlor appointment, so he could finally try on her clothes without being caught.
Len's wife - who asked to be called Flora for this article - didn't find out about Lynda until 10 years later, when she discovered a bra and panties in Len's underwear drawer. Another woman, she thought in horror. When she confronted him, he said he was a transvestite, the descriptor used at the time. Flora couldn't find it in their dictionary. The next day, when Len was at work, Flora readied their three small children, hauled them to the public library, and looked up the word again. "A man who wears women's clothing," it said. "Homosexual."
Over time, Flora believed Len's assurances that he was attracted only to women, that if he were a woman, he'd be a lesbian. Slowly, through her grief and confusion and anxiety attacks, she agreed to let him wear, on weekends, a bra under his sweat shirt and panties under his jeans. It would take Lynda 17 more years to convince Flora he should be allowed to wear a dress in public.
It was, he said, his way of connecting with the ways of women.
"I wanted to act the way I was always told a lady was supposed to act: show emotions, be understanding, nurturing, softer," says Lynda. "Sometimes, I want Lynda to get into Len, but I don't know how to get her there. But mostly, I don't want to be in the middle, a tender man. I want to be both extremes."
Len's role-playing, however, goes only so far. The dish-washing, laundry, and cooking, for example, he leaves to Flora.
"I only take on certain parts of the role," Lynda says, sounding very much like a man of his generation, the flowered dress aside. "I don't enjoy doing windows no matter how I'm dressed, so why should I do it? Women do it because they have to; it's their role."
To which Flora mutters dryly: "He's a princess."
To his wife and children, Len was a loud autocrat, intolerant of deviations from the strict standards he set. When his son, Bruce, broke a foot on a Boy Scout camping trip, Len made him carry his own backpack on the long hike back to the car, because it was a sign of weakness to do otherwise. Years later, when Bruce came home from college in the 1970s wearing an earring, Len thought his son looked like a degenerate and belted him so hard that he knocked Bruce off his chair.
"My father was a really tough father," says Len's daughter, 44, who figured something was awry when she saw lipstick on the orange juice container, and knew her mother would never drink straight from the carton.
"Lynda comes with a different personality: She's sweet and kind, like my mother. I don't want that in my father because it comes with a skirt, and I don't want a father in a skirt. I'm sorry I feel that way, but I do."
To his face, only half in jest, she calls him a "fruitcake."
Her brother is more forgiving.
"In a weird way, it's made me feel closer to him, because it's such a big secret he's sharing," says Bruce, 46, whose mother told him about Lynda when Bruce was in his 20s. "I feel bad he had to hold it in so long. My father was John Wayne, and you don't expect to see John Wayne in a dress. But even without Lynda, Len today is a mellowed version of the man who raised me. Maybe it's because he's gotten the cross-dressing out, or maybe because he's finally clarified what his real values are."
A Typical MeetingIn the early 1980s, Lynda discovered the local chapter, with only a half dozen members. The group rented a conference room under the guise of a "fraternal organization." Eventually, they told hotel managers just what sort of a fraternity it was. Some managers blanched. Others shrugged.
These days, the chapter has more than 100 members.
One Saturday a month, they assemble at a motel off a Bergen County highway, heading up the back stairs to the meeting room, far from the lobby. A few come in dress. But most look like fellas just off work, except for the retired guys, who dress in jeans or sweats or slacks. They saunter in, carrying bowling bags and gym sacks, filled with the details of a secret life. They nod hellos and head for the rented bedroom to dress.
An hour later, the bedroom looks like a ransacked department store. Cosmetic bags are everywhere; portable vanity mirrors sit haphazardly on countertops; the dull uniforms of American men lay rumpled on the quilt, abandoned for polyester skirts, lam sweaters, and frilly blouses.
On this day, the air conditioning in the meeting room is set frigidly high to beat back the sweat that beads under wigs, corsets, bras, and padding, not to mention double sets of pantyhose to cover legs that wives won't allow to be shaved. Most of the "girls," as the cross-dressers call themselves, don't actually look the part - a point even they reluctantly concede. A few, though, pass brilliantly, looking like pleasantly dressed grandmas out for bridge with friends.
Just about the only people in the room wearing pants are the wives.
The business part of the meeting could pass for something at the Elks Club, at least from the other side of the door, what with talk of the 50-50 raffle and nominations for next year's officers.
But the heart of each evening is the speaker: a hairdresser with tips on styling wigs, or a makeup artist, or someone demonstrating how to walk in heels or how to add feminine hesitancy to their deep voices, ending each statement as if it were a question.
The audience listens attentively, their thick, manicured hands set on knees kept carefully together. On a table nearby sits costume jewelry for sale and Mary Kay blush in shades called "Sassy Chic" and "Innocent Waif."
"Every cross-dresser wants not to be discovered, but at the same time, hopes to be discovered, to finally be free from the secrecy," says Susan, a 57-year-old shop owner from Wayne who has been cross-dressing for decades. "The ideal reaction is for someone to think I'm a woman, and eventually discover I'm a man. It's like someone saying. 'How old do you think I am?' You want people to think you're 30, and then you want them to find out you're really 50."
An Evening OutOne recent Thursday, Susan arrived at the Clinton Inn in Tenafly to meet Lynda and his wife for dinner. Nearly 6 feet tall, Susan wore a sleeveless tunic, flowing pants, a shoulder-length wig, and painted toenails. Lynda wore a pink-and-magenta dress and a dusty-blond wig. The waiter took everyone's order and said, "Thank you, ladies." Susan beamed, delighted to have passed, or at least to have won the waiter's participation. Two tables down, four diners tittered, trying to look nonchalant as they whispered and twisted and craned for a better look.
For Flora, the hardest part of being out with her husband, Lynda, is the snickering.
At 69, Flora is the de facto leader of the wives auxiliary, the one who has made it her mission to help other wives take the pains and challenges in stride. Sure, she sets some limits - no wearing dresses where the neighbors might see - and loses her patience when Lynda asks her to hem too many skirts. But after years of earnest self-reflection and therapy with Len, she has tried to view Lynda's desires with understanding.
"Look," she reasons, "I'm heavy, but I wouldn't want to give up the food I enjoy. So how can I ask him to give up his dresses?"
These days, she passes her skirts and tops on to her grateful husband, and accompanies him on shopping sprees at Dress Barn and Lane Bryant. Every Friday night, she heads with Lynda to a welcoming lesbian bar in the Village, then out for dinner. In between, they look for humor - finding it easily, like the time a wigless Len had to get out of the car, in a miniskirt, to reach a startled toll taker.
Even so, when terrified wives show up, stunned, for their first meeting, Flora listens knowingly.
"I'm not going to tell them it's going to get better," she says. "It's not going to get better. If Lynda - not Len - could disappear, I'd throw the biggest party around."
By 10:30 Saturday night, the cross-dressers' meeting is over. Some head to their cars still in dress, maybe stopping at the A&P on the way home for cantaloupe and nail polish remover - out of defiance, or just for the thrill. Most, though, disappear into the rented bedroom to become men again. They stuff the accoutrements of their liberation back into hiding, and reappear, confined again by the costume society assigned them. One former boxer now in his 70s - moments ago in a blond wig and black dress - rambles out in slacks and a drab, navy windbreaker, a baseball cap on his balding head.
There is no trace of the woman he just was - save for the smudge of blush on his right cheek and the red polish he is diligently working off his stubby nails.
Copyright 2002 North Jersey Media Group Inc.