H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. P.O. Box 320, South Hero, Vermont 05486-0320 (802) 372-5236
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PSYCHIATRY. Vol.: 33, No. 3. August,1970. Pp. 381-389

The Transvestic Career Path +

H. Taylor Buckner*   E-Mail: taylor@buckner.cc

(Note: For a summary of the steps outlined in this article click Summary.)

THE heterosexual transvestite provides an interesting example of a socially induced "pathology" because he seems to have internalized part of a social relationship, and acts toward himself in a way that a normal person acts toward a socio-sexually significant other.

From a survey of 262 transvestites conducted by Transvestia magazine, which I coded and analyzed for an earlier study, the following generalizations arise:(1) The ordinary transvestite is a man. He is probably married (about two-thirds are); if he is married he probably has children (about two thirds do). Almost all of these transvestites said they were exclusively heterosexual - in fact, the rate of '`homosexuality" was less than the average for the entire male population. The transvestic behavior generally consists of privately dressing in the clothes of a woman, at home, in secret. However, some transvestites go out in public dressed as women, many more would like to do this, and a few live exclusively as women. (Possibly these people are more transsexual than transvestic.) The transvestite generally does not run into trouble with the law. His cross dressing causes difficulties for very few people besides himself and his wife. He tends to be fairly passive and secretive about his behavior.

Conventional psychoanalytic opinion assigns the etiology of transvestism to latent homosexuality, an incorrect view in the opinion of many students of transvestism. With the exception of electric-shock aversion therapy which creates a mental block to dressing in women's clothes, I have not been able to find any cases in the medical or psychiatric literature of successful treatment of transvestism which caused the transvestic urge to disappear.

Transvestism is often confused with homosexuality because there is a certain amount of cross-dressing in the homosexual community, usually for entertainment, drag shows, Halloween, or for prostitution, and people make the assumption that anyone who cross dresses does so primarily for sexual reasons, as is the case with homosexuals. The two phenomena, transvestism and homosexuality are analytically distinct, as noted by Kinsey (pp. 679-681) and by Brown (p. 1017), though phenomenologically there is an overlap. Transvestism is often found in connection with other sexual patterns such as dominance, bondage, sadomasochism, and various forms of fetishism. Pure transvestism, however, is quite distinct from these other patterns. It consists only of the desire to wear feminine clothing and of sexual gratification, by conventional definition, from wearing this clothing (Brown, p. 1013). In this paper, I will argue further that in addition to sexual gratification there is also a social gratification coming from the internalization and the internal enacting of a role relationship which is customarily enacted between two people.

Transsexualism is a related phenomenon in which participants are often cross-dressed. Transsexualism, however, consists of a complete psychic desire to become a woman, where often the male personality can hardly be said to exist at all. Transsexualists desire and sometimes obtain sex change operations, Christine Jorgensen being the most famous case (Benjamin, 1964, 1966).

As a result of my intensive interviews with seven transvestites, I have concluded that there are several steps which must be taken before a person can become a transvestite. These may be preceded by biological conditions which lead to passivity, low libido (Benjamin, 1954, p. 223), and the lack of a strong aggressive drive, or, more likely, a socially conditioned passivity and lack of social drive. There is no evidence for a biologic etiology.(2) In either event, the biological or socially induced passivity is not a necessary precursor to transvestism but is often found in conjunction with it.

In most cases, although not absolutely all, the first step in becoming a transvestite comes between the ages of about five and fourteen from the association of some item of feminine wearing apparel with sexual gratification, usually through masturbation.( 3) It may also come from what Stone calls fantastic socialization (p. 109), in which the child acts out roles that he cannot be expected to adopt in later life, such as that of the parent of the opposite sex (Taylor and McLachlan, 1964, p. 370). It may also come from the child's noticing a trait in himself that is more like one in his mother or sister than one in his father, and then putting on his mother's or sister's clothes and reinforcing this self-definition of femininity. Additionally it may come from valuing his mother as the one who provides nearly all his rewards. Feminization may then be encouraged by the mother (Brown, p. 1016). Whatever the source, this kind of gratification usually comes before any heterosexual or, for that matter, homosexual demands are made on the potential transvestite. Masturbation using some article of feminine apparel, or orgasm without direct masturbation, again using some article of feminine apparel, is not unusual. This behavior may occur in people who later grow up to establish normal heterosexual patterns of orientation. Its significance for the transvestite, however, is that it provides him with an already established pattern of sexual gratification which he can fall back upon when he encounters difficulties with his interpersonal sexual relations.

The second step in becoming a transvestite comes when the youth perceives some heterosexual difficulties, which may come from low libidinal energy or from a lack of the stable sense of self esteem needed to switch into heterosexual functioning. It should be noted at this point that the transvestite has, in fact, the same socio-sexual goal as many young men, a goal of marriage and compatible family relationships. For a variety of reasons, however, this goal may be for him unobtainable. His fear of inadequacy in the male role may come from one of several factors.

First, he may be a perfectionist, demanding a great deal of himself both in his personal and social relationships. He may have obtained this perfectionism from his parents. No actual performance of which he is capable will measure up to the high ideals which he holds. Second, he may have an exaggerated notion of the requirements of masculinity, acquired from magazines or from the "male culture" in which he participates.(4) Third, given his weak constitution or commitment, he may be engaged in actual roles which are too dominant for comfortable performance. At puberty these roles may be in the areas of sports, delinquency, or other activities demanded by his peers. Further on in life he may be engaged in a role which is difficult for him because it requires a fair amount of masculinity, such as being a military man or police officer - a role which may have been adopted because of his ambivalence (Benjamin, 1954, p. 224). Fourth, he may have an exaggerated fear of the consequences of failure in male or heterosexual performance, a fear which keeps him from attempting these performances. Fifth, at puberty or later, he may fail at almost any activity - in sports, occupation, or marriage in which he feels (or may have been told) that inadequate performance is an indication of inadequate masculinity. Sixth, he may believe that he has a low level of sexual interest or performance compared with what he believes is normal or average. It does not matter in this case whether he actually is a low performer as long as he feels that he is.

Up to this point the preconditions of transvestism are similar to preconditions commonly associated with homosexuality in that they alienate him from "normal" masculinity. With the possible exception of the ideal goal of marriage and heterosexual functioning, the transvestite has the same fears of inadequacy in the male role that are often associated with homosexuality. This may be one reason psychiatrists often confuse the two forms of behavior.

The third step in becoming a transvestite is the blockage of the homosexual outlet. There are two reasons why homosexuality may be an unacceptable response for someone with these preconditions. First, and most likely, he may have a socialized aversion to homosexuality, as do many people within our culture. If this is the case he fits into Merton's category of the person who becomes a retreatist because innovation is blocked by socialization (pp. 153-154). The second reason that a transvestite may not turn to homosexuality is that though psychologically willing, he may lack an opportunity structure to learn the behavior appropriate to homosexuality. If this is the case, he is then a "double failure" in being unable to "make it" either legitimately or illegitimately (Cloward, esp. p. 175). The lack of availability of a homosexual outlet may be the result either of his not meeting any homosexuals at the appropriate time, or of his not being sufficiently attractive for homosexual solicitation at this point in his life.

Being blocked in both homosexual and heterosexual directions, the transvestite goes back to the earlier pattern of gratification (which he may never have given up): using articles of feminine wearing apparel for masturbation.(5) Were he to stay with this pattern he would be considered a fetishist. However, since he is strongly committed to the goals of a normal heterosexual relationship, including but not limited to a sexual relationship with the opposite sex, and also including a social relationship with the opposite sex, he begins to build in fantasy a more complete masturbation image than that provided by a single item of feminine wearing apparel. Through a process of identification and fantastic socialization he takes the gratificatory object into himself.

The fourth step in becoming a transvestite involves this elaboration of masturbation fantasies into the development of a feminine self. This may come from a variety of causes. On the biological level, as a result of regression to autoeroticism, he may have a large amount of libidinal energy left over which he uses to complicate his gratificatory object, making it more complete. A second possible reason for the expansion of his activities is that he may come to learn that he is a "transvestite," and he may then discover what is appropriate for transvestites. Taking a feminine name is often associated with discovering that this is something transvestites do. Labeling theory is not generally relevant, however, because most transvestites apparently do not discover that there are other people who have the same pattern of behavior until well after they have elaborated it themselves. In those cases where labeling is relevant, the impetus for further elaboration of his transvestic activity may derive from transvestic literature, which may be found on a newsstand, from meeting other transvestites socially, or from seeing a psychiatrist who informs him of transvestic patterns. He will learn that he is not alone in the world. The legitimations proposed in Transvestia or Turnabout magazines may make him feel more comfortable with his habit.(6) The third reason that he may expand fetishistic interest into a more complete transvestism is that he may have a gestalt of his fantasy, a drive toward completion or perfection- the same completion or perfection which he has been led to expect from social relationships, but which social relationships rarely provide. The seven transvestites interviewed for this paper have a very high orientation toward symbolic rather than biological gratification. Their masculine roles are largely involved with symbolic manipulation: a medical doctor engaged in research, a professor, a Ph.D. in research, an architect with two professional degrees, a university student, an executive, and a minister. It may very well be that transvestites live a somewhat more complicated fantasy life than most people (Kinsey, p. 174). Kinsey suggests that transvestism depends on a person's capability to be psychologically conditioned (p. 681). The occupational levels of the transvestites questioned by Transvestia magazine were very high, and one might suspect that their fantasizing powers are also very high.(7) Some medical studies of bona fide transvestites, however, have been carried out on prison populations and on populations which have gone to psychiatrists for help. In these cases there is often a low level of education, so that the relationship between transvestism, education, and fantasizing power are not clear. There are presumably also a great many transvestites who are neither so disordered that they wind up in prison or in a psychiatrist's office, nor yet so comfortable in their transvestism that they are willing to join a transvestic organization or respond to a letter to the editor in the newspaper. About these silent transvestites almost nothing is known.

It may well be that there are also a number of people who get to this stage and elaborate their fantasies somewhat, but for one reason or another take up successful, satisfying heterosexual functioning and give transvestism before reaching the next stage, which makes transvestism a permanent part of the personality.

The fifth step in becoming a transvestite involves fixing the gratification pattern in the identity of the transvestite. Until this fifth step occurs one cannot speak of a person as being a true transvestite; he may have branched off into some other form of deviant sexual behavior, or he may be functioning in a normal heterosexual pattern. The combination of the initial autoerotic retreat with the elaboration of the fetishistic interest into complete cross-dressing, and possibly the development of a feminine personality within the individual(8) as an alter ego to his male personality (78% feel themselves a different personality when dressed in women's clothes(9)), provides a synthetic dyad within the individual which gives him the libidinal rewards of both narcissistic and dyadic regression (Slater, esp. p. 348). The narcissistic regression and the later elaboration into a synthetic dyed neatly slip in between the socialized controls of narcissism (which make the individual dependent on others and thus necessarily require him to cathect these others) and the social controls appropriate to actual dyadic regression (such as the intrusion of society into all socially recognized forms of two-person relationships). A person who is autoerotic has no dependency needs for sexual gratification, and a person who has internalized his dyadic relationship with an autoerotic object has no fear that society will step in between him and it except possibly in the form of a psychiatrist. The transvestite thus internalizes and carries out within himself both the erotic and social aspects of what is ordinarily a process which would link him to the social order.

Once the transvestite discovers that he has, in a sense, both male and female within himself, he can play out many of the culturally prescribed heterosexual patterns internally. He can, for example, give himself gifts of shoes and nightgowns. He can also provide many of the male-female complementarity expectations all by himself. After a hard day at the office he doesn't need to come home to a nurturant wife; he becomes a nurturant wife. Furthermore, he has an undemanding gratification scheme. His feminine self is highly predictable, producing a situation that is something like playing chess with oneself, which fits in well with his fear of failure and his passivity. "Connie [a transvestite's femme name] isn't bossy, she isn't demanding, she doesn't fly into jealous rages. She exists only for me, and she knows I'm her lord and master. I like it that way," a transvestite writes about himself (Maddock, p. 120). He can also cathect the female role by dressing and acting it out, and have sexuality by masturbating at the same time, without the inconvenience of dealing with a real woman, who might provide him with a failure or with some disconfirmation of his masculine identity. These points may be illustrated with a quotation from a transvestite talking about his two personalities:

Keeping her lovely is a full-time job. It literally takes several hours a day - but when I look into the mirror and see what we have made, it's worth every bit of the hard work and discomfort involved. When we walk down the street, our feet flying in their tight patent leather pumps because Connie's skirts are so narrow at the knees, our heels clicking in precise feminine rhythm, it's a great feeling to know that heads are turning. The women look, and they envy Connie her wardrobe; the men look and they envy whoever she belongs to, and maybe they think she doesn't belong to anybody, but they're wrong. She belongs to me. I'm the man whose hands run over her body, the man who touches her where only a lover is allowed to touch.

Yes, quite frankly, I get great pleasure from her body. It's more than just sex, I know that now. It takes the place of sex. It's a tingle that I feel through me. It's how I suppose sex feels to a woman. [Maddock, pp. 120-121, emphasis added]

Because of the passive and undemanding nature of the female role which most transvestites adopt - a form of the female role, by the way, which may be becoming far less common in our complex society - the transvestite can escape from real life problems by going home and dressing in his woman's clothing. He combines social retreat and sexual gratification in the context of the fantasy reenactment of the old cultural norm of the aggressive, providing male complemented by the passive, nurturant, affectionate wife. He enacts this role toward himself, obtaining the same tension release that the most vital marital relationship could provide. Thus, for some of the reasons that happily married couples do not get divorced, transvestites do not give up transvestism.

This pattern of gratification usually becomes fixed in the transvestite's identity by the age of 18 to 20, though in some instances it becomes stabilized later in life, possibly arising then from an unsatisfactory early marriage, or some other setback in the masculine role. In either case, it is entirely possible, in fact likely, that the transvestite will go on to get married in reality. He still has the ideal of the successfully functioning heterosexual male, and he assumes that transvestism is only a sexual release, which will become unnecessary when he is getting regular sex in marriage. By making this assumption he overlooks the social aspects of the gratification - for example, the fact that he is used to getting a libidinal cathexis from directly enacting a counter-role to his beleaguered male self.

The transvestite will often find that his actual marriage is not as satisfying for tension release as his internal marriage. The transvestite assumes that marriage will be better, and often it is for a time - and while this is the case transvestic activities stay buried. As the real-life relationship loses some of its power to gratify, however, because of either interpersonal problems or boredom, the transvestite's internal wife steps in once again to provide direct, uncomplicated gratification. The transvestite finds, as he did earlier, that this is more gratifying than a social relationship because it directly, without the problems of another person, gives release from the tensions of his everyday life through his own passivity and sexuality. Compared with this direct release, the indirect process of getting release through dealing with the role of an other, a wife, seems very circuitous to him, and transvestic behavior becomes firmly fixed as part of his behavior pattern. In some cases a transvestite will get divorced from his real wife rather than give up his internal wife.(10)

Many transvestites keep their transvestism secret from their wives throughout their marriage. In other cases, however, they introduce their wives to their femme selves or are discovered - with variable results. Some very few wives are reasonably enthusiastic and cooperative (they may have problems themselves).(11) In other instances the wife goes along with the transvestism because she is dependent upon her husband and does not want to leave him and be on her own. In still other instances, the wife simply demands that her husband cease this behavior, with or without consulting a psychiatrist. However, just as with a wife ordering her husband to stop seeing a mistress, the results here can be disastrous, or not very effective, or alienating. The transvestite can see his internal wife any time he is alone. In extreme cases the transvestite attempts to induce his wife into accepting his femme self and acting with "her." For example, he may urge that they go on shopping trips together as girls, or that they make love while the transvestite is wearing feminine clothes. (12) The mere fact that the transvestite has resumed his transvestic activities indicates that the marriage relationship is not a vital one for him. It may also be that it is not vital for his wife either, and therefore they may continue as before without getting a divorce, in a utilitarian marital relationship.(13) The relationship, however, has many of the aspects of the eternal triangle, and many of the same resolutions that are common for triangular relationships can be expected in the transvestite's marriage.


To summarize the apparent career path of the transvestite, a pattern of masturbation with articles of feminine clothing is sometimes reestablished (or it may never have stopped) when there is a perceived difficulty in establishing successful masculine and heterosexual identity, combined with a blockage of the possibility of achieving a homosexual identity. When a male adopts this pattern and elaborates it into an entire feminine identity, he finds it gratifying in both sexual and social ways. When it becomes fixed in his identity, he begins to relate toward himself in some particulars as if he were his own wife, and he receives many of the social and sexual rewards of the marital relationship by doing this. He thus mimics his goal of a heterosexual relationship without the threatening presence of a person of the opposite sex. His internal relationship may then be so strong that he will maintain it even after having established a real heterosexual relationship, and it will continue as his pattern of gratification, and his pattern of social relationship, for the rest of his life.

The culture in which one lives provides predominating patterns to which most people are easily socialized and goals which most people accept. But the culture does not always provide the means whereby everyone can follow these patterns and reach these goals. Certain common blockages produce certain conventional forms of deviant behavior. The transvestite is blocked from achieving either the cultural goal of normal heterosexual masculine functioning, a goal which he shares, or the common variant, homosexuality. His response to this double blockage is to create a miniature society within himself in which he can achieve a cultural goal without following the cultural pattern of achieving it through interpersonal relationships.

Instead of following the customary path of libidinal diffusion into object relationships, which is socially expected and encouraged and which forms the bonds of society, the transvestite makes use of a gap he has discovered in the culture's coercive patterns of involvement - a gap which has no particular social controls to prevent its use. He thus diffuses his libido within himself, but in a culturally prescribed direction, thus affirming his belief in the importance of the cultural object and affirming his inability to obtain it.

Some cultures, notably that of the American Indian (Plains, Zuni, Mohave, and Dakotas), provide a role for the transvestite (who may also have been a homosexual or a transsexual; the evidence is not clear) which puts his personal adaptation to societal use (Brown, p. 1013). Such cultures bring his cathexes back into the social group by giving him the opportunity for service in spite of his personal peculiarity. There is no such position in contemporary Western culture. It is possible that such an adaptation is characteristic of societies which have extremely strong cultural masculinity demands, such as American Indian, where being a warrior creates for many men the conditions conducive to transvestism.

Where there are many transvestites in a society, a pattern of societal adaptation may arise wherein transvestites are given a specific job within the culture because there are too many of them to be ignored. In modern Western society relatively weak masculinity demands are made, and they are getting weaker all the time. More and more occupations, objectively at least, can be performed by people of either sex. This means that there is a relatively small number of people who subjectively perceive the society as demanding so much masculinity from them that they cannot comply, and that, thus, there are probably relatively few transvestites. Since there are relatively few transvestites, and since most people do not routinely encounter them, the occasional transvestite arouses interest, but mostly as an oddity rather than as a threat to the social fabric. In the last five years I have kept a careful but unsystematic watch on news items and publications dealing with transvestites and I have not seen a single horror story; further, I have not talked with anyone who was particularly upset with transvestism except transvestites and, of course, their wives. Transvestism does not seem to be a major social problem, though it may be a problem for the individual transvestite. Since the problem of transvestism has not reached the level of public discussion which would be necessary to establish the position of "transvestite" as a respectable role-in-itself, the transvestite must remain somewhat out of the institutional order of society.

When a transvestite seeks "therapy" it is pointless to tell him that transvestism comes from latent homosexuality, or that it is a sexual deviation. A possible therapeutic approach for the transvestite, based upon the theory presented here, would be to explore with him the social functions of his transvestism. If he can come to recognize the social gratifications it supplies, which he may not have thought of, as well as the sexual gratifications of which he is well aware, he may be able to find other means for providing similar gratifications, and his internal wife may become less necessary. Given a supportive sociosexual milieu, such as a willing and unthreatening partner, he may find transvestism less compelling (Deutsch, esp. p. 242), though it is probably a mistake to think that a simple, habitual, direct means of sociosexual gratification will be completely replaced without a considerable alteration in life style.(14)





* Dr. Buckner (Ph.D. Univ. of Calif., Berkeley 67) is Associate Professor of Sociology, Sir George Williams University, Montreal.

+ The author wishes to thank Professors John Gagnon and John Money, who made many helpful suggestions upon reading an earlier draft.

This paper was read at the American Sociological Association annual meeting. San Francisco, September, 1969.

(1) See Buckner. There are reasons for questioning the representativeness of this sample. It was a mail questionnaire, sent to transvestites known to Transvestia magazine. Transvestia is expensive and at the time had a limited distribution, mostly in large cities. However, on the basis of internal evidence discovered in my analysis and on the basis of congruence with the literature, I believe that the generalizations are accurate. The bulk of the present paper, however, is based on intensive tape-recorded in interviews with seven transvestites who responded to a "Letter to the Editor" I wrote inviting transvestites to volunteer for interviews. The letter was published in the Montreal Star and in Montreal-Matin. Four of the transvestites were English and three were French. No cultural differences were noted. I have also reviewed the literature with the aid of a long bibliography prepared by Marcello Truzzi. but have done no participant observation.

(2) See Gutheil, esp. p. 231, and Taylor and McLachlan, 1962, and 1964, esp. p. 369.

(3) This is mentioned in many sources. One case is in Grant, esp. p. 150.

(4) Masculinity requirements are mentioned in Thompson.

(5) See Thompson; Benjamin, 1954, p. 221; Gutheil, p. 235.

(6) An example of these flattering legitimations may be found in Bruce.

(7) The sampling problems make these assertions less than firm. Since Transvestia is expensive, only the better off might read it. Transvestites who read it may hay. came to a certain amount of self-realization which may be characteristic of the highly educated. Since my Interview sample was gathered through a letter to the Montreal Star and to Montreal-Matin, only the better educated might have responded. An alternative explanation might be that transvestites are particularly adept at role-taking. See Green and Money.

(8) See, for example. Thompson, and Vazifdar. Almost every study mentions the feeling of having two personalities, and it is a constant theme in the transvestites' own literature.

(9) See Buckner.

(10) Thompson is an example.

(11) See Stoller.

(12) An illustrative case occurs in Grant, p. 152, but such behavior is described throughout the literature.

(13) The wife's role was suggested to me by Sara Small, personal communication.

(14) Transvestites reading this article are invited to comment upon it in the light of their own case histories by writing to the author.


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