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Dinner with the Ladies of Cornbury

At this annual buffet, cross dressers come out of the closet then into the malls.

By Carrie-May Siggins 26 Jul 2005 |

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Judy's Restaurant in New Westminster is the kind of place where you might meet your extended family for Sunday dinner. Strings of plastic ivy frame the mint walls. A man plays "Moonlight Sonata" on a Yamaha beside the dance floor where two bored kids throw themselves around to the music.

Tonight is the end of the year dinner for the Cornbury Society, an association of BC cross dressers, the transgendered and transsexual, and they have come to Judy's to celebrate. They are sitting at a long table in a corner to themselves. There are 16 people: men dressed as women, women who were formerly men, and several in transition. There are no "born female" members. All are heterosexual.

They've been sitting here half an hour and the server has yet to take the table's drink orders. She looks over at the table from behind a counter, across the room. When she does approach, her voice is strained, punctuated by curt "yups."

The server isn't the only ambivalent one. Neither straight nor gay communities entirely accept cross-dressing. The straights for the most part consider the practice a form of social and psychiatric deviancy. And compared to the flamboyant and public nature of the drag queen-scene, cross-dressers are "soccer moms": heterosexual, domesticated and semi-closeted, meaning that they don't always enjoy high status in the queer community either. Cross-dressing is very much a private show.

Grace under fire

Grace seems to be the exception. He (and he prefers the masculine pronoun) is five foot eight, is in his 60s and has a low, dry voice. Grace and Joy, also a cross dresser, are smoking cigarettes on the restaurant patio while two men in golf shirts look on. Grace has recently retired from the lumber industry. Before that, Grace was an economist with the First National Bank of Chicago. Now, he has grown out his hair into a gray mane that almost reaches his shoulders, and wears no make up except for the frosted pink lipstick that matches his dress suit.

Grace has been living in drag full-time for ten months now, a move his wife Nina fully encouraged. "It just feels right," says Grace. One afternoon they pulled from the closet anything that could be considered men's wear and, in a "ritual of transformation," threw it all out.

In fact, Nina has been supportive since she and Grace met. Five years ago, Grace and Nina got married in a Las Vegas chapel in matching bridal gowns. "It took a while to find a chapel who would do it," Grace says. "They were very concerned about appearances."

The cross-dresser fan club

On the patio, a woman approaches Grace and gently taps him on the shoulder. "Hi" she says. Grace smiles at her blankly. "I'm the cashier at the Whole Foods store you go to all the time. How are you?" The woman beams up at him. The two golfers are still taking turns glancing over. Inside, the server is finally taking orders, but Joy lights up another cigarette anyway.

Standing beside Grace, Joy wears a shoulder length wig, owl-framed glasses and black dress with a pattern of sequins. He has been cross-dressing for almost seven years. Both Joy and Grace admit that they began to try on women's clothes, usually their mothers', at a very young age. Joy repeatedly tried to stop, but kept coming back to it.

"You feel shame. That's why you don't go out at first," says Joy. "But I had a psychiatrist who finally told me 'you're not alone.'"

"Going out" is a major step in a cross dresser's life, a time when they decide to take the feminine persona they've meticulously and secretly prepared out of the living room and into the mall. Many never go out in public at all; often the ritual of preparation and the experience of wearing women's clothes is all they need. And the chance of being recognized is far too risky.

This secrecy, the need to keep the two worlds separate, as compared to a drag queen's exuberant exhibitionism is often taken by those who relate to the gay pride movement as a sign of shame, and it's one reason why some drag queens see cross dressers as their awkward cousins.

Sex, gender and fabric

It's just one of the misconceptions. Karen Wood, a founding member of Cornbury, sits stately at the end corner of the table. She says it is a lack of education that causes people to believe that cross-dressing is simply a sexual fetish, a compulsion that needs to be fulfilled.

"It has nothing to do with sexual gratification," says Wood. "Cross dressing as a sexual fetish is a whole other ball game."

Many psychologists believe that cross-dressing is a way to escape oppressive definitions of masculinity that have been prescribed since birth. "Cross dressing may also be a therapeutic reaction to social pressures," writes Charlotte Suthrell in Unzipped Gender; Sex, Cross Dressing and Culture, "releasing the male self from the regime of stereotypical male emotions through the outward and visible manifestation of wearing women's clothes."

"It makes me less of an obnoxious, macho male," says Grace. "I love the different fabrics, colors and styles available to a woman," he says. "It's a sexual turn-on for me. It's a bit naughty, but legal. It makes me stand out a bit."

For Joy, cross dressing has nothing to do with experiencing another gender. He describes it as a release. "I'm not feminine," he says, playing with the sleeve of his dress. "There's no part of me that's feminine. I just feel better when I do it. It's a craving."

Single woman seeks cross-dressing male?

As the night goes on, I begin to notice a few reoccurring themes. One is that most of the people at dinner have had broken marriages, at least in part due to their dressing as women. I cross the table to sit with Laraine and her husband Jack, a technical writer. Laraine, a woman in her forties with a loud laugh and propensity to come back at any comment with a joke, was a good friend of Jack's first wife. When the two split up, and Laraine was told of one of the major reasons why, she thought, "Well, that's not so bad."

Not knowing she knew, Jack told her of his lifestyle on their second date. "I've had a couple relationships blow up because of it," he says. "I didn't want that to happen to this one."

Laraine helps him pick out outfits, but makes him buy his own. The only complaint she has of the relationship is the cost of having two female wardrobe and make-up demands to meet.

"But I love and respect him," she says, and accompanies him to dinners such as these. Tori, another wife at the table, met her husband through the personals. She was looking for a cross dresser, he was one. They met and fell in love.

Joy's wife also knows about her husband's cross-dressing. Seven years ago, he sat her down to try to explain what he did when she was out of the house. "It's never going away," he had said to her.

"I wish it would," she replied.

Gender a la oldschool

His wife still doesn't completely accept his lifestyle. "Sometimes taking part in these Cornbury nights makes me feel worse," Joy says. "It feels so good to get dressed up, but I can't do it any more than I have been. My wife wouldn't approve. She doesn't like it."

Joy's wife's reaction isn't unusual. Nor is the fact that the group downplays it. Despite the gender-bending, many observers believe that the world of cross dressing is built on familiar gender stereotypes. It's no coincidence that many cross dressers are politically conservative. In fact, many of the members of Cornbury have "manly" jobs. Stephanie, the society's secretary and a fully transitioned woman, is a marine engineer. Joy worked in computers. According to a story in the Atlantic, cross dressers in the States are disproportionately ex-military men, and often politically conservative.

In her book Normal, Amy Bloom writes of the underlining social norms she found while attending cross dressing conventions. The principles that define femininity are often subservient and materialistic. And the wives are asked to accept, unconditionally, the needs of their husbands. The table felt crowded with the ghosts of ex-wives past, and when asked. And few people at the table expressed any sympathy of what the "wives" may have experienced.

Support group or group of voyeurs?

But there's a lot of support for the cross-dressers themselves. The Cornbury Society has been around since 1989. There are around 30 members, most of which are 40 years old or older. Before one can be a member, there is an intensive interviewing process to determine whether or not someone is legitimately interested, or simply voyeuristic.

Jacqueline has been president of the society for four years now, and is in the process of reassignment surgery. She works professionally as a "care giver" (she doesn't disclose her career as she doesn't want to be identified,) and is warm and welcoming when I join her at the table. It's not hard to see how she would be effective at putting a mind at ease, as many of those who call the Cornbury Society are talking about their cross dressing for the first time.

Compared to North American gay communities, or even transsexual support networks, cross dressers are largely fragmented, alone in the ritual. "By the time they come to us, they are ashamed of hiding all the time," says Jacqueline. "And many have come to us because of some kind of trigger." This could be a divorce, an unwanted discovery or retirement. Members make it clear that Cornbury has respect for confidentiality, and is considered a "safe place" for cross dressers. The sense of family at the table is unmistakable. "We are big sisters to each other," says one member.

"Don't get her talking," replies another. "She'll never stop."

"I like to say," a member pipes up, "that cross dressers are in the back of the closet with the high heel shoes, while gays are outside stomping all over the place." By this time the server is topping up post-dinner drinks. Smiling, she glides by with bottle in hand, and asks, "More wine, ladies?"

Carrie-May Siggins is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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