Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Cross-Dressing Disclosure

Posted By on September 16, 2010

Dear Ari:

As the wife of a cross dresser I am concerned about what to tell the children, when, how, at what age.  This is not about people who transitioning, but rather about cross dressers who want to do the right thing for their kids. At the same time, they do not want the cross dressing to be public information.
—HB

Dear HB:

Talking to children about transgender issues can be challenging, depending on many issues including their age, the location/community in which you live, and how frequent the cross dressing is part of your lives.

Cross dressing is an interesting phenomenon for many reasons not the least being how male dress is socially controlled in our culture. The concept of “female cross dressing” does not raise as many eyebrows, and indeed, to be diagnosed as a cross dresser in the diagnostic manual, by definition, one must be male. Fifty years ago women wearing pants and comfortable shoes would’ve been considered unusual, whereas today women can wear anything they damn please, and still be considered perfectly normal. Even females who do cross dress–by this I mean they buy clothes in the men’s department, wear suits and ties, and men’s hair styles–are “accepted,” although it can make life socially complicated and cause employment challenges. Feminism has really made life easier in terms of style and appearance for females, but sadly the restrictions on males is still very much intact.

So, although perhaps it shouldn’t matter what clothing males wear, there is no doubt that a man wearing female clothing can be harshly judged, even male clothing in traditionally female colors can raise eyebrows. For males who cross dress, finding safe and comfortable places to do so can be challenging and for most cross dressers the safest place has been their homes. However, when children live in the home it present boundary issues for the family.

My general opinion about children and transgender is the fewer secrets the better. Despite the old adage that closets are for clothes, when cross dressing is the topic, closets may not actually be the best place for clothes. If children are very young, then dressing should take place as if it is just a regular thing, without any particular introduction or explanation. After all, my children have never asked me why I tend to wear sweatpants and t-shirts in the house, and only put on my jewelry and–let’s be honest here–a bra, when I leave the house.

At some point (three, four years old?) children will begin to notice that their daddy is wearing clothes attributed to girls, and ask about it. As is age appropriate here is an example of how to answer that question, “Yes, daddy likes to wear girls clothing. Most men do not wear them, and some people are uncomfortable about that, but daddy does like them and wears them at home where no one will make fun of him. How do you feel about that?” Most children will just shrug, partially because they really don’t care, and partially because they really don’t understand the implications yet.

A child who is reared in a home where cross dressing at home is “regular,” will have an easier time talking about it as they age. Particularly entering the “tween” and teenage years, they will likely have questions about cross dressing, and begin to feel embarrassment and shame about it. Boundaries will have to negotiated (and re-negotiated) regarding protecting them socially from their friends’ judgements. It is tricky to decide how much we want our children’s needs to control us, and how much we need to combat their shame, with our steadiness and pride. A good yardstick is to think about the difference between privacy and secrecy. Teens are in the midst of their own puberty, struggling with identity issues, and have difficulty dealing with many aspects of their parents lives, from their jobs, to their haircuts, to their affection with one another. It is good to normalize the cross dressing, but also okay to not force it into our children’s faces at this stage.

Coming out to children who do not know about their parent’s cross dressing is a bit more complex. It is probably a good idea to talk about it before “showing it” in any way. You might want to say something like, “There is something I want to tell you because I think you are old enough to know this about me. Sometimes I like to wear women’s clothing. I know that may sound strange to you, but it is something I have done my whole life, and like to do sometimes at home. I’m happy to talk with you more about this at any time.” I would then, slowly, over many weeks and months begin to wear small items of clothing and check their reactions to it. I would continue to engage in dialogue and remember that sometimes it takes weeks or months for reality, and therefore honest reaction, to really hit someone. My best advice: move forward slowly.

I would caution against wearing any provocative clothing, very high heel shoes, low cut garments, “sexy” lingerie, even if this is your preferred style. As a general rule, clothing like this will make most children uncomfortable, and will not help them to accept your cross dressing. As much as I hate to have our lives dictated by outside forces, I also think clothing like this could be potentially used against you in legal or custody situation. Also, I caution everyone to be especially sensitive to your spouses’ needs and boundaries – wives may well be (over)protective of their children, and this should be respected.

As children age, it is important to have resources for them, including books and magazines around the house (like Transgender Tapestry, and Mary Boenke’s book Trans-forming Families) and to expose them to appropriate documentaries on television etc. My hope is that over time the LGB parenting community will become an increasing safe place for transgender parents, which will give the children of trans people more access the wealth of resources and support developed over the past 25 years by LGB parents. Both the Family Equality Council and COLAGE are great resources for our families. Three other online listservs offering resources for spouses and family are GQTGParenting. and My Husband Betty, Helen Boyd’s blog, which has some discussion on cross dressing parents.