My Husband Betty: Love, Sex, and Life with a Crossdresser , by Helen Boyd. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 285 pages, $16.95.
Helen Boyd, author of My Husband Betty , walked into her marriage knowing full well that her husband liked to shave his legs, paint his fingernails and call himself Betty. Vowing to love, honor and share her Nair, Ms. Boyd has taken it upon herself to write the first comprehensive study of the married lives of cross-dressers. In overwrought and tedious detail, she searches for explanations for their unconventional behavior and explores the few avenues of support available to spouses hoping for a happy and healthy transvestite marriage.
The life of a cross-dresser-in or out of the closet-is a lonely one. Excluded from the straight, gay and transsexual communities, cross-dressers and their partners have a narrow spectrum of resources available to them. “Standing at the famous intersection of Market and Castro, holding hands,” remarks one wife of a cross-dresser, “I realized that that tiny corner was the only spot on the planet I could feel comfortable being affectionate with my spouse in public, and even there we got curious glances. It was a cold realization.”
Ms. Boyd, using a pseudonym to protect her career in journalism, illustrates the alienated lives of cross-dressers with wordy testimonials, page-long excerpts plunked haphazardly into the narrative. She doesn’t interview a single gay clubgoer, lesbian advocate or heterosexual business owner about their experiences with cross-dressers. Nor does she directly challenge the cross-dressing organizations that she claims exclude homosexuals and transsexuals.
She gleefully acknowledges that she has “done no empirical studies.” Instead of consulting psychologists, say, or neurologists, she tosses out tidbits of nonsense she’s acquired here and there: “I read somewhere that crossdressers … have high IQs,” she proclaims. “I can’t verify that, but I do believe it.”
Normal (2003), a film starring Tom Wilkinson as a newly out-of-the-closet transsexual and Jessica Lange as his bewildered wife, captured the way a secret about gender can devastate a traditional family. The film offered sensitive insight into the myriad issues that crop up when a Middle American dad decides to wear pearl earrings, grow breasts and change his name to Ruth. But My Husband Betty , with stock descriptions of “kind-hearted, gentle people” who have managed to “reach a higher consciousness,” is bland and lifeless. The painful and secretive lives these men lead, denying a crucial part of themselves for the sake of “normalcy,” is lost in a jumble of cliché and melodrama. She borrows from Shakespeare-”They are star-crossed lovers”-and then provides a gloss: “in love yet unable to be together.”
With so little existing research on heterosexual cross-dressers and virtually no sincere attention paid to them in mainstream culture, the aim of Ms. Boyd’s study-which raises insightful questions about the complex sexual orientation of cross-dressers-is commendable. Most cross-dressers are straight, although some do have sex with other men not because they are gay, but because “the man is the final ‘accessory’” to being a woman. If a cross-dresser is a “woman” when she is dressed, then sex with a man is a heterosexual act.
For a cross-dresser in a monogamous relationship with a woman, the gender conflict is equally complex. When the cross-dresser wants to have sex “en femme,” a straight marriage suddenly becomes a lesbian one and the both partners compete for the role of “wife.” “His sexual identity, even in role-playing, becomes a threat to her own,” writes Ms. Boyd. “They can’t both be the women in bed.” When a cross-dresser walks in Manolos better than his wife, the competition gets fierce.
And then there’s porn. Even a man in a dress likes his porn. The prevailing cross-dressing scenario is of a man, dressed as a woman, fellating another man. “This provides further evidence that the crossdresser’s ‘inner female’ is painfully loaded with stereotypical male ideas about women,” writes Ms. Boyd. “The idea that your average woman equates ‘I feel sexy’ with ‘I want to give a blow job’ is a remarkably male notion of women’s sexuality.” Worse, cross-dressers tend to overindulge in porn-at least according to the author.
Ms. Boyd is angry, but why she’s angry isn’t entirely clear. She writes, “[Betty] should know by now that the only time he has to ask if it’s okay [if] he gets in femme is when I can’t manage even a smile for him.” She equates her anger with the wives who found out-with a house full of toddlers-that their husbands cross-dress. Ms. Boyd knew within three weeks of her courtship that her future husband preferred silk to khakis, and she claims to love him for it. She picked her poison. Ms. Boyd tells us that many cross-dressers, in an attempt to stave off their temptation to dress, marry “conservative, religious, or stern” women who “are not the best equipped to deal with them.” Her own situation-married to a man who was open and honest about his predilection from the start-seems distinctly preferable. Her plea for sympathy seems like a bid to join the Angry Wives Club.
Marrying a cross-dresser doesn’t make Ms. Boyd an expert on the topic. For all its good intentions, My Husband Betty is a lazy attempt to explain a complex and little-understood phenomenon. Ms. Boyd was surely brave to plunge headlong into a kinky marriage, but her bravery doesn’t help us understand why some men dress like women. And her marriage, based on mutual consent and a shared taste in fashion, doesn’t illuminate the more common-and more painful-experience of a marriage built on a foundation of deception.
Ronda Kaysen is a freelance reporter for The Observer .