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Tri-Ess’ Moral Crisis (1996)

Tri-Ess’ Moral Crisis (1996)

©1996, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1996, May). Tri-Ess’ moral crisis. The Saltaire, 1(9), pp. 5-6.





Tri-Ess’ Moral Crisis

By Dallas Denny

Executive Director

American Educational Gender Information Service, Inc.


For many years, the terms “heterosexual crossdresser,” “drag queen,” and “transsexual” were sufficient to describe who we were and what we did with our bodies. This is no longer the case. We have entered a period in which new terms arise nearly daily to describe us, and in which old terms have “drifted,” so that they do not necessarily mean what they once did.

Take the term “heterosexual crossdresser,” for instance. When men who crossdressed began to meet socially in the 1960s, they indeed considered themselves to be men who dressed for the pleasure of it, or to express the “inner woman.” And yet many of these “men” went on to live as women, and, in some instances, to have sex reassignment surgery. An example of this is Katherine Cummings, whose photo appears in early issues of Virginia Prince’s Tranvestia, and who published an autobiography shortly after her SRS in 1992. Another example is Virginia herself, who has been living as a woman these past twenty or so years.

Recently, the Phoenix-based Alpha Zeta chapter of Tri-Ess conducted a survey, to which about 70% of its members responded. The survey disclosed that nearly three-quarters of the members would prefer to be women, that more than 20% had taken or were taking hormones and had had electrolysis, that 25% had seriously considered SRS, and that 10% were definitely planning on having SRS. That fits with my observations of Tri-Ess’ Atlanta-based Sigma Epsilon chapter, of which I am a charter member. Over the years, many members have come to me privately to disclose their gender issues. An equal number have privately disclosed their bisexuality or homosexuality. And yet Sigma Epsilon is an organization for and supposedly consisting exclusively of heterosexual crossdressers. What gives?

What gives is definitional drift. Twenty years ago, a “heterosexual crossdresser” was a man who dressed as a woman, but who knew he was a man, and valued being one. Today, many who use the term heterosexual crossdresser to describe themselves do not consider themselves to be men, or value being men. Many Tri-Ess members are men by default—not because they value being male—they don’t—but because they consider it “too late” to have sex reassignment; because they feel constrained by the golden handcuffs of job, wife, children, and/or parents; because they do not think they will pass; because they do not think they can afford the expense and trauma of sex reassignment; or for any other number of private reasons. Many others are “heterosexual” only when dressed as males. As women, they are attracted to and sometimes are sexually intimate with other crossdressers or with men who are attracted to crossdressers.

In the consensual reality which is Tri-Ess, such men are considered heterosexual crossdressers—so long as they continue to claim to be so, and are not too overt about their desire to be women or too obvious about their sexual activities—but by any objective standards, they are not heterosexual crossdressers. Some are not heterosexual, some are not crossdressers, and some are neither. Terms such as transgenderist, transsexual, bisexual, and homosexual would better describe their inner feelings and outward-directed behaviors.

I’ve slowly come to realize the common glue which holds Tri-Ess together is not the fact that all its members are crossdressers—many of them are not, as I have explained above—but that they come from a common background as heterosexual men. Clinging to the “normalcy”— as if there were such a thing—of heterosexuality provides security in the face of their gender and sexuality issues: they cleave to their identities as “straight men,” even as they venture into territory straight men do not inhabit.

Unfortunately, the Tri-Ess environment does not provide adequate information and support for members who are exploring sexuality and/or gender issues. However much Tri-Ess might claim otherwise, such topics are taboo, not discussed in the detail or at the depth that is needed. Exploration of labels which correspond with behavior—terms like transsexual and bisexual—is actively discouraged, to the extent that members who begin to use such terms to describe themselves may be asked to resign from the group—not because of their behaviors, but because of the terms with which they choose to identify themselves.

Consequently, much of the exploration is done underground, rather than in an honest and aboveboard fashion, and often with a great deal of denial. Men engage in risky sexual practices with other men, without the use of safe sex techniques, because to educate oneself about such practices, or to procure condoms, would be to put one’s heterosexual identity at risk. Other men take female hormones without medical monitoring and without any real notion of proper dosage or the medical risks involved in doing so. And not only that—they often do so without any therapy whatsoever, and without any consideration for how taking hormones will ultimately affect their lives. Some haven’t even told their wives! This is extremely frustrating to me, as the director of AEGIS, an organization which could provide them with referrals and information to help them make sane decisions, for they don’t contact us, of course, because “Hey! I’m a heterosexual crossdresser.” After all, what need would a heterosexual crossdresser have of services and information developed for transsexuals?

Not long ago, I asked a member of the Tri-Ess Board of Directors what she would call a crossdresser on hormones. “A crossdresser on hormones,” was her reply. Of course, this is nonsense. A crossdresser who is modifying or even considering modifying his body with hormones, surgery, or electrolysis has the same need as any transsexual for good information and counsel. Her answer supposes a distinction between transsexuals and others who merely change their sex. Those who are “transsexual” have some mystical inner quality which makes them women after their transition, while those from a Tri-Ess background are just men who have had the change.

Many transsexual women, unfortunately, also believe this to be true. They distance themselves from crossdressers, proclaiming they “don’t understand why a man would want to dress up like a woman,” meaning that they, of course, are real women, and crossdressers are merely sick men. What I find pathetic about such disavowal is that in practically every case, it wasn’t that long ago they were using thick makeup to hide their beards or masturbating into a pair of panties. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “real” transsexual; there are only those who change their sex, or want to, and those who don’t want to. And most importantly, the need for medical and psychological support is exactly the same thing for a Tri-Ess member who is gender dysphoric and is sneaking his wife’s hormones and a “true transsexual,” whatever the devil that may be.

The creation of a new category, transgenderist, has split the difference between crossdressers and transsexuals, but even that label does not come close to giving us enough terms to describe the wide variety of persons we find in the transgender community. It’s all the more difficult because of the drifting in the use of terms. Exactly when does a heterosexual crossdresser stop being a heterosexual crossdresser and start being something else? With SRS? I don’t think so. Living full-time is a much more important milestone than a change to a body part that others do not customarily see, and hormones are much more pervasive in their effects than surgery. When, then? I don’t think we’ve ever decided.

In these closing years of the twentieth century, we have “heterosexual crossdressers” who have sex with men, “crossdressers” who change their sex and “transsexuals” who don’t, and transgenderists, who stake out entirely new “third sex, third gender” territories. It’s confusing, and whether we like it or not, it’s going to become even more complicated in the twenty-first century.

It makes little sense for an organization to cling to terminology which no longer reflects reality. Tri-Ess needs to make a decision whether it is an organization which is truly for heterosexual crossdressers—in which case it needs to refer those experimenting with sexuality and gender issues to a place where they can get some support and to enforce its membership criterion on a strict definition of who is and who is not a heterosexual crossdresser—or to admit it has slowly evolved in an organization which serves a wide range of persons whose only common point of unity is that they are or once were heterosexual men.