A Screaming Catholic Transvestite

Who the fuck do you think you are appropriating my body

my primary environment

and dictating its manner of adornment

and life’s reactions to me

and its expectations of me

Do the others know that they are property

maintaining an illusion of consensus

and what purpose the dolls and toy soldiers served

what blood rituals they may participate in

I know of another ritual

involving honesty

found in the story of a man and a cross

with nails like rockets

So I put the mask back on this time

–Colleen Mullins

Maryann seems a bit unsure of herself in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Which way to Woodfield Mall?

It’s hot, 3:30 on a June afternoon. Traffic has stopped and the sun beats down mercilessly through the swirling dust of road construction.

Fortunately for Maryann, the car is air-conditioned. Fiftyish, she wears a blond wig, a white blouse, black and white cotton shorts, women’s undergarments, and flesh-colored spandex tights beneath pantyhose. The spandex tights are to conceal her unshaved legs. Her legs are unshaved because Maryann is really a man.

“It’s hard to remember all the feminine things, to keep everything straight and drive, too,” Maryann says.

“Not the imitation of the proverbial female driver?” I joke.

“No, no, not that,” Maryann explains. “There’s a tremendous amount of stress connected with this.

“The worst possible scenario is being recognized as a hideous abomination. Teenagers are the worst for letting us know that.”

Despite the stress, Maryann finds it necessary not just to dress as a woman at home, behind closed doors, but to appear as one in public too. “I just want to feel pretty,” she says. “I don’t know why I want to feel pretty, but I just do.”

Sometimes she’ll check into a hotel for the weekend, in order to have the freedom to go shopping as a woman, go to a movie, have a nice dinner–as a woman. Her wife accompanied her once, but that was all. Now she goes by herself or asks another cross-dressing male to stay straight and take her to dinner. She may repay the favor by staying straight and taking the other man out, allowing him to cross-dress. The two men share a desire to look pretty in public; they are not gay, Maryann assures me. “We’re simply doing each other a favor. A cross-dresser accompanied by a man in a restaurant draws less attention.”

It all seems like a lot of trouble, but Maryann says, “You can’t believe how divided you feel if you can’t do this.” She says she’s tried several times to stop cross-dressing over the last two decades, “purging” entire wardrobes that had taken years and thousands of dollars to accumulate. But always for Maryann the desire to cross-dress has returned.

As we enter Woodfield Mall, Maryann opens the first glass door and I enter. “See,” she reminds me self-consciously. “I’m still in the male role.”

I open the second door. “No,” I say, “that’s how women do it when they go shopping. Actually, we don’t pay that much attention. Sometimes I open the door, then my girlfriend will open a door.”

“Oh,” Maryann says. “It helps to have someone tell me these things.”

A group of teenagers approaches and Maryann’s arms tighten at her sides. Suddenly she’s walking more slowly. “Where’s the mall directory?” There’s a sort of desperation in her voice, and she sounds more masculine. I can see the tension in her face. When the group walks by, Maryann’s relief is palpable.

We’re looking for a shop called Tall Girl. Spying it on the lower level, we descend a staircase and walk inside: another relief.

Maryann has come to look for a flowered dress, and several line one side of the store, but she is attracted to a very conservative looking hound’s-tooth jacket. The 14 is too large, which puzzles Maryann. “These sizes must run larger,” she remarks.

The size 12 fits perfectly, and now it’s on to the next hurdle: Will the salesperson notice that Maryann is a man in women’s clothing? Will Maryann be treated badly or humiliated? Will she be asked to leave the store?

“Salespeople react differently,” Maryann explains later. “Some act somewhat maternal because they begin to see that you are a person in need, but then with others, when they recognize you are not a biological woman, their voice takes on a very demeaning tone. Their body language changes. Some act like they don’t want you there, but they’ll wait on you because they want your business.”

Maryann makes her purchase, the jacket and a blouse, putting the garments in layaway. She tells the clerk that a friend of hers, a man, will come to pick them up. That man, of course, will be Maryann.

Leaving the store she seems satisfied, not only with the purchase but with the experience.

“Well, if that woman knew I was a man, she certainly didn’t let on,” Maryann says, smiling.

I try to phrase my reply delicately. “I think you could feel comfortable shopping there.”

“Really, why?” Maryann asks.

I mention that there were seven or eight Sports Illustrateds next to the Vogues in the waiting area.

“Oh.” Maryann seems a little disappointed. “So you think the saleswoman was used to dealing with cross-dressers, and she just didn’t let on?”

“I’m not sure. But I don’t know of many women’s shops that would carry Sports Illustrated.”

Of course the magazines could have been for the man who wanted to buy his little lady something that she’d try on and wear just for him, but I was inclined to believe they were meant to accommodate a growing number of men who want to assert the more feminine sides of their psyches. I was spending the weekend with about 300 such men who had come from all over the U.S. and Canada, some with their wives, to attend a convention for heterosexual male cross-dressers at the O’Hare Ramada in Rosemont. Maryann and I were doing what any two gals might do at a convention, cutting out for a little shopping.

The “Be All Weekend” was held June 9-13 and was sponsored by the Chicago chapter of TRI-ESS, the Paradise Club of Cleveland, the Crossroads Chapter of Detroit, and Transpitt of Pittsburgh. The four clubs have taken turns hosting these conventions for the last 11 years; this year the “Chi” chapter of TRI-ESS was host.

Or hostess?

TRI-ESS is an organization for heterosexual male cross-dressers. It claims not to discriminate against gay and lesbian cross-dressers, but seeks to offer support for males in relationships with straight women. Local membership exceeds 175. Monthly meetings are held at a hotel in the northwest suburbs; the location may soon be changing for need of a larger meeting space, according to Naomi, the chapter president. Naomi identifies herself as a prominent Chicago attorney by day; like all of the club members, she would agree only to be identified by her feminine name.

A typical monthly gathering will draw 75 or 80 cross-dressed men, she says. A guest will speak on a topic of common interest–in May an electrologist discussed the permanent removal of facial hair– and members may share nonviolent self-defense tips, such as how to deal with muggers who think they are women or with teenagers who have read them as men. They can even have their wigs or hair styled at the meetings. But most of all they can talk about their lives.

TRI-ESS also offers support for the wives and girlfriends of cross-dressers. Its telephone number is 708-364-9514.

A lot of people assume that most cross-dressers are gay. Quite the contrary. Several estimates were offered at the convention for the percentage of heterosexual cross-dressers. They ranged from 75 to as high as 90 percent.

At one end of the spectrum are men who have tried cross-dressing but seldom feel the need. Then there are those who enjoy relaxing in women’s clothes and enjoy dressing up, but want to retain their maleness otherwise, such as in the workplace or their sex lives–people like Lee, who said, “This is fun, but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. It’s too much work.” There are those who dress for a feminine identity, and those who dress to produce an image of their dream; some do both. At the far end of the spectrum are those who want to cross over biologically to the other sex through surgery. Surprisingly, all of the men I met in that category claim to be sexually attracted to women. As one cross-dresser who would like to undergo surgery put it, “You could change all the equipment. I’d still want to be with a woman.”

Request a blank tombstone

During the twisting in the in between


The closet is neither plush nor womblike

It is caustic

Lined with sandpaper

And you will erode yourself

And you will disappear

–Colleen Mullins

Dr. Richard F. Docter is chairman of the department of psychology at California State University, Northridge, and author of the book Transvestites and Transsexuals: Toward a Theory of Cross-gender Behavior. The slightly built academic, with spectacles and a fringe of neatly trimmed gray hair, is dwarfed by his audience at the Ramada. He’s wearing a sedate jacket and a forgettable tie, the only man in the room presenting himself as a male, while before him is a riot of pink dresses, yellow dresses, polka dots and stripes, red pumps, white sandals, even yellow heels, heads with wigs red and blond, smart looking wedges and wild looking manes, even natural hair done in pageboys and granny buns. As Dr. Docter speaks, my eyes and mind wander: are all these people men, or are some of them women? There, the one with the longish brown hair pinned up but half falling down, a slight trace of acne. She’s a real woman. Not overdone on the makeup, not trying to affect a feminine voice. A not-so-small, not-so-large, average-looking, very friendly woman wearing glasses, comfortable in a blue and white polka-dot dress with a white collar. Easygoing. That person has to be a woman. Must be a spouse.

After the session, Wendy Parker, a comedian from California, talks with me for a good ten minutes:

“These guys have their male resumes intact. They’ve done the male bit . . .

“We’ve got hardened combat vets, Green Berets, a police chief, a Golden Gloves boxer, professional athletes, judges, lawyers, highly placed government officials, and a lot of married men with children. These guys are looking beyond. They’ve done it all, they’ve been there. And now they want to taste the smorgasbord that life has to offer. We’re talking better living through hormones.

“You’ll probably find more gold cards here than at any other convention on the planet. They’ve done it all, and discovered that the Rambo/Bimbo method of classifying people is out. Uh, uh. No more. You don’t have to be a John Wayne or a Marilyn Monroe anymore. You can be both.”

I’m thinking this Wendy must be a wife or girlfriend who’s making a point of standing by her cross-dressing man. “This isn’t gender dysphoria. I call it gender euphoria! And it blows the shit out of the Adam and Eve theory, when in fact creation starts as just the opposite. All fetuses are female in the womb up to six or eight weeks.

“Talk about guys who are pushing the outside of the envelope, these guys are doing it–for all of humanity. This is the last frontier, the ultimate odyssey, to be male and female in the same lifetime. These people have transcended ordinary human existence and splurged on the banquet of life.”

I ask, “Is your husband or boyfriend here?”

Wendy laughs. “You’re so sweet.” And laughs. And laughs. And by now of course I know, the person refastening her barrette, which is just like one I own, is indeed a man. He tells me I remind him of his girlfriend.

Wendy removes a large wallet of photographs from her purse. It contains pictures of herself as herself–and as himself, with shorter hair and a mustache. There are also photographs of himself and herself with his/her girlfriend, a petite blond woman who turns out in my opinion to look very little like me. Actually I think Wendy resembles me a bit, which is why for me perhaps she seems the most passable as a woman.

At the end of the conference Wendy wears her ponytail high on her head and tells me, “See my hair? It’s yours, you have a certain way of wearing it.”

I look into a face framed by a smart reddish wedge-style wig, a calm face with dark eyes that are strangely familiar. She’s wearing a tailored navy striped top and longish white skirt.

“Hi, remember me?”

And I do: she’s the man in the lime green shirt, the angry poet, the manic artist who endeared himself to me a couple of hours earlier in a hallway outside one of the meeting rooms, insisting on showing photographs of his artwork. “And there at the top of the piece is a picture of a woman on top of the Eiffel Tower with her skirt blowing up,” he rattled, “and then there’s the oil painting of me passed out drunk in the grass, and there’s the paper bag with the rose, an offering for the shrine.” Too weird. Only a true artist or a complete lunatic could strike up such a conversation with a total stranger.

He was with three friends, who wore dresses and somehow seemed more normal at the time, and a lot less frightening in their tolerance of him. “And here’s the belly-dancer costume,” he said, pointing to the last snapshot.

“Oh, yes, that,” one of his friends remarked with a roll of the eyes. The man’s lime green shirt seemed electrified. Something about him reminded me of a downed power line, twitching and sparking in the grass, even before he proclaimed “I’m a transvestite” and insisted on scratching some of his mad poetry into my notepad.

“Then why aren’t you dressed as a woman?” I asked.

Yeah, why not? his friends wanted to know.

“I should,” he said.

And now, a couple of hours later, here he is, she is, Colleen Mullins from Ann Arbor, Michigan, wearing the smart wedge hairstyle. The change in manner is overwhelming. She seems at peace, no longer the manic poet or crazed artist, a person completely grounded, someone else altogether.

“This seems to suit you,” I say.

“Yeah?” Colleen smiles.

“Really. You’re not as scary. You were almost scary before.”

“I recognize society’s dislike of what I am,” Colleen says. “We become the story we are told. I no longer hate the individuals who hate me. I’m a sort of cultural determinist. I give biology credit for part of it but not much.”

I laugh.

Colleen quotes Camille Paglia: “Gender defined merely by biology is an affront to both imagination and emotion.”

And: “A woman putting on men’s clothes is merely stealing power, but a man putting on women’s clothes is searching for God.”

Soon Colleen is scribbling again on my notepad:

I wish I could show you what I am

And cause the thousand monsters

forming in your mind to disappear.

“A nice tip is to take the top of a control-top pair of panty hose, cut the legs off, and use the top to hold your hair back when applying makeup. It also works to keep darker hair well concealed beneath wigs.

“False eyelashes should be snipped to the proper length at the outside of the eye. If the lashes come too far in toward the nose, they can dip down. This can be really irritating.

“Drink more water. It is so good for your skin. You’ll see an amazing difference, almost immediately.”

The voice of Rori Petros, a woman and owner of Transformations by Rori, sounds fresh and polite before a group of 50 or more cross-dressed men attending the “Cross-Dressers Boot Camp.”

The tips are welcomed with nods of approval and a few shared whispers of “I didn’t know that.”

“Shoes should never be lighter than the hosiery as a general rule,” Rori says. “A pair of white or red shoes with navy stockings can look enormous.” At this point several members of the audience check their feet. Some of their shoes truly are enormous. One cross-dresser with a size 15 foot and a wonderful sense of humor later tells me a story of meeting up with a man on an elevator who commented, “My God! Those are the biggest goddamn pair of high-heeled shoes I’ve ever seen!”

“Also,” Rori continues, “in spending for a wardrobe, the basic rule of thumb is to spend a third of your budget on garments and two-thirds on accessories.”

Soon Rori is finished and the crowd disperses, but one of the program moderators stays for a few moments to talk. She appears to be a large, well-groomed woman, a young, very hip-looking grandmother perhaps, but beneath her pastel blue denim ensemble, Eve claims to be a former World Cup soccer champion and a successful businessman.

In a gentle voice, Eve begins, “One message that I’d like to get across is that we don’t hurt anyone with what we’re doing. We just like the opportunity to express our gender identity, versus sexual orientation, which are two different things. We do it in a dignified manner with regard to woman’s image.” Eve is meticulously groomed, with hair, not a wig, that is frosted and cut in a woman’s style. She has a pleasing face with clear blue eyes and light pink lipstick. Her quiet, confiding voice carries the hint of a German accent.

“We become students of this–a woman’s clothing selections, makeup, how she moves–because we want to become more like women through good emulation. Most of everyone here starts early in childhood.

“Most of us believe in the theory that something happened at prebirth, something predispositions us to express a feminine side–some to a greater degree than others.”

Eve says she is married to a fashion model and is the father of four daughters who have daughters themselves. He chooses to retain his masculine identity as well and uses a masculine legal name, though he says the name Eve better suits her. “Eve was the first woman described in the Bible. Also, you can read the name forward or backward and it’s the same. I’ve always identified with that name.”

What name will she use for eternity, I ask–will she be buried as man or woman? The answer is neither. She’ll be cremated and sprinkled over a golf course.

“Just like a gay person who is born gay, we didn’t become cross-dressers overnight. I grew up in Germany when the Russians were invading. We were under grenade fire. My parents told us grab our most beloved things and we must go. So I grabbed a blouse and a skirt. That was at age 11.

“I’ve never met anyone in our [community] who was able to suppress this. You can throw all of your wardrobe away and you’ll go back because it’s a part of you that seeks expression.

“The fantasy is to be out in public and not to be noticed, to pass. That’s why we have these training sessions.”

Though cross-dressing has rocked a good many marriages, there were several survivors at the conference. Eve, who was married for the second time, said she was happy with her life.

“I have a beautiful companion in my life–my wife. For many in their later years solidarity is very important and I believe I have that. I have my cake and eat it too. I have the ability to make a good living as a man based upon 30 years in an industry that pays me well, and yet I can be female.

“My wife and I can go out as two girlfriends for a weekend without a stitch of male clothing–and no one examines you to see if you have a penis or not.

“To be sure there are times when she wants a man around. She needs that and I give her that. I step into my male persona, the suit and tie. But what we have transcends the clothing part. As a result, she has many benefits too. I do the dishes. I do the laundry. We do things as a team. If you talk to some of the other wives at the conference, you’ll find that cross-dressers make good husbands.”

TRI-ESS hosted a workshop for the wives of cross-dressers, but Naomi, the club president, steered me away from attending it. The information might be a bit too personal and the wives might not want to be identified, she explained.

I did encounter one married couple who were not at all shy about hubby’s hobby. They seemed to have fully accepted one another and to enjoy each other’s company. They sat down after lunch to visit with their friend, a cross-dresser named Milesa, who was seated next to me. The wife wore a casual top and jeans. The husband wore a pink flowered culotte jumper with a short-sleeved white blouse. They joked about the reactions of the hotel guests.

“We’re walking by, and I hear them trying to peg everybody,” the wife said. “They thought everybody here was a cross-dresser. One woman was pregnant, and of course it was a woman, and these people said, ‘Look at that. That one’s even trying to look pregnant!'”

The couple went on to talk a little bit about themselves. As they spoke, they smiled and laughed a lot at each other’s observations. They seemed to me undeniably happy, better adapted than most married couples. “She wears all the frilly nighties,” the wife said, referring to the husband. “I wear the football jerseys, not because I’m butch but because I don’t like to be cold.”

“We feel like we’re in drag when we go to a wedding,” the husband added. “When we get home, first thing, she runs upstairs to get back into those jeans, and I hear her say ‘Ah.’ And I can’t wait to get back into a dress.”

“She washes the dishes, I cut the grass,” the wife said. “We’re not into assigned roles. That’s one thing I don’t like, when she [the husband] cuts the grass. I want her to stay away from my lawn mower. She broke it the last time. I love the smell of fresh-cut grass and I don’t want anybody messing with my lawn mower so I can’t cut the grass.”

The couple has four children. “One day I was going to go out and work on the van, and I won’t wear a dress outside because I don’t want to embarrass my son in front of his friends,” the husband said. “So I put on my mechanic’s pants and shirt. And my son sees me and says, ‘So what’s going on?’ like something might be wrong.

“I tell him, ‘Nothing,’ that I’m just going to fix the van, and then he’s OK.”

This particular couple said they did not like to share clothing, but there were those who did. Carole, a dark-haired, dark-eyed cross-dresser who preferred to wear more glamorous fashions, said her wife “doesn’t mind the cross-dressing at all. Why should she? It expanded her wardrobe. I may buy something new, wear it on a Friday night, and she’ll wear the same outfit to work on Monday morning.”

The issues between couples run deeper than clothing, however. As Barbara McCoy-Getz, a licensed clinical social worker who counsels cross-dressers and their families, said, “A lot of wives can tell themselves this is OK, but then they’re struggling emotionally.”

McCoy-Getz participated in a panel discussion on bringing balance to the overall life of the cross-dresser. The panelists maintained cross-dressers can be quite reluctant to disclose their practice to their wives and families for fear of rejection, therefore there is a great deal of denial and often a breakdown in communication. Also, some wives can feel their femininity threatened by their husband’s dressing–especially if the man looks better than she does. The wife also may feel she’s no longer dealing with a “real man,” or she may feel pressure from the outside: what will her family and her friends think of her for being married to this man who at times wants to appear as a woman? Is she less of a woman because of this? Is her husband doing this to hurt her?

Later McCoy-Getz admitted that there were inspiring examples of men and women having accepted each other entirely as individuals, but “a lot of people refuse to see the dark side,” she said. “My perspective is probably a bit skewed, but I do see people in trouble, people out of control, people flirting with putting themselves in dangerous situations, possibly losing their jobs, their friends, and their families. For these people there isn’t a balance in their lives. That’s when they might spend so much on clothing they can’t make their mortgage payment, or they end up in a police station for shoplifting.”

We were seated for lunch at a large round table. McCoy-Getz was on my left and on my right was Milesa, who also happened to be a guy named Fred from Garden City, Michigan. In response to the therapist’s comment about outrageous spending, Milesa said politely, “Yes, I agree. That can happen. But I’ve begun to shop at the Salvation Army and Value Village.” She pointed across the table. “And Jean here, she shops at the farmer’s market. She’s wearing a wonderful bargain. That dress was one she bought two for ten [dollars].”

Milesa mentioned a flowered dress, a Frederick’s of Hollywood number she’d bought at the Salvation Army. She said she wore the dress and felt energized, “scrubbed the whole house, and felt absolutely wonderful!” This reminded me of a mechanic’s uniform I frequently wear in the winter for the same reasons.

I mentioned this to Milesa and Barbara McCoy-Getz.

“Yes, but you don’t have to feel guilty about it later,” the therapist said, “because society isn’t saying it’s not all right that you wear that.”

I wanted to know more about McCoy-Getz’s view of the risk taking. Did she think cross-dressers were actually trying to harm themselves by putting themselves at risk, or was it simply a matter of their femininity insisting on expression? If society accepted the concept of men dressing as women, as it had accepted women wearing pants 50 years ago, would there be such a risk, would there even be a story to write?

“But the reality is, society doesn’t accept the idea,” the therapist said. “So there is a risk for the men who do this.”

Later I talked with a couple of cross-dressers from rural areas, who encounter less risk perhaps than many others because they are accepted in their communities. One was Amanda from Beverly Shores, Indiana, statuesque and very passable as a woman in my opinion. She smiled a lot, had a wonderful disposition, and seemed to enjoy being with people.

“Have you lost any friends over this?” I asked.

“Not at all,” Amanda said. “I dress openly in my hometown. I go to the local bar where everyone knows my names.”

Near the stroke of midnight Saturday, several cross-dressers in ball gowns and evening dresses are socializing just outside a party room, escaping loud music that over time has become overwhelming. A group of angry young men begin to taunt a small cluster of cross-dressers standing near the elevators.

“You should have your balls cut off!” a young man wearing a muscle shirt shouts in an angry voice. “Why do you guys do this? What do you get out of this?”

Carole responds. I can only hear bits and pieces of her explanation because I’m distracted by the young man’s angry stance, his bare arms folded defiantly across his chest, the muscles twitching along his tightly clenched jaw.

“We’re not hurting anyone, I don’t see why it should cause a problem for you,” Carole answers in a soft voice.

The exchange continues for a while, then Jenny steps in–Jenny in the black-beaded Morticia-from-the-Addams-Family gown, Jenny with the glass earrings that dangle from her ears like crystal on a chandelier, Jenny with the dagger-red nails customized with what look to be racing stripes from a Speedo swimming suit, Jenny the six-foot-four competitive swimmer (the same height as the Duke himself) whose big hair and heels boost her to at least seven feet: Jenny, whose voice goes down several octaves.

“I don’t know why I do this,” Jenny says loudly, “but I know my dick works ’cause I got a kid.”

The young man appears to be shaken by the emergence of a larger male accepting his challenge, a male so far concealed by layer upon layer of feminine trappings, including several coats of makeup, eyeliner, and false eyelashes.

The young man’s friends laugh, but the leader of the group is still not satisfied. “Oh, yeah, so your dick works. Well, how did you get those boobs?”

“Duct tape,” Jenny answers flatly.

Finally the kid breaks down. The cross-dressers and the young men are laughing together.

Jenny smiles and says, “I always say, you give a man duct tape, a screwdriver, and a wrench and he can fix or make anything.”

The ice is broken for the moment. But then another young man from the group looks at me, still demanding some explanation. “But really, what do you guys think you’re doing?”

I answer back, “I’m not a guy.”

“Now I’m really confused,” says the young man.

“I use the women’s john,” one cross-dresser said. “You use the men’s dressed like this, somebody reads you and calls the cops, you can get busted for solicitation.

“The best thing is to use the women’s john, do your business, and leave. If there are other women in there, don’t try to fix your lipstick or spend a lot of time. Just go in and get out. You can fix your makeup later.”

But at the convention, several cross-dressers did have the luxury of fixing their lips and powdering their noses in the women’s washroom. Two public johns were located near the meeting rooms where the convention activities took place. A large screen was placed in the hallway to block them off and the women’s john had a sign on the door that read “out of order.” Because women outside the convention were steered away by the screen and the sign, the cross-dressers were free to use both washrooms. Most seemed to prefer the women’s.

Early in the convention I felt the need to use a washroom and hesitated about entering one marked “out of order.” But then I saw another woman from the conference go in.

The noise level was fairly high in there, and several cross-dressers were redoing their faces in front of the mirror. It really didn’t seem much different from any women’s john. There may have been a few high-heeled shoes pointing toward the toilets instead of away from them, but that only occurred to me after I’d left.

At lunch Barbara McCoy-Getz had said it was more acceptable for gay couples to inform small children about their relationships than it was for cross-dressers. Her point was that to explain this to children who were not yet resolved about their own gender identities would place unfair emotional burdens on them. She also said that because cross-dressing is indeed a fetish, it must remain private. “I wouldn’t say to a child, ‘Mommy has sex with Daddy on top,’ so why would I mention this?” the therapist reasoned.

And yet in declaring homosexuality, isn’t a person talking about a sexual preference, which may or may not involve the sex act?

I’m contemplating this with Colleen Mullins, the poet, over a couple tumblers of water from the bathroom tap with a spike of gin. The green digits on the alarm clock in her room read 2:43 (AM) and remind me of a clock belonging to a friend in college, a young woman I spent many late nights with, talking in friendship. Colleen is seated across the large hotel room in a chair, her legs crossed female fashion beneath a longish skirt. The skirt and blouse swirl with autumn colors that pick up the red in her wedge-style hair. I wonder why I feel safe with her, knowing that I would not feel safe here, late at night, with the man in the lime green shirt.

Eventually we start worrying about how I’ll get back to my room, which is roughly a quarter-mile away in the huge hotel’s B concourse. Colleen could walk me back, “But then why should I put myself at risk?” she asks philosophically. As a woman, Colleen is as vulnerable as I would be; she’s about my size.

We could wake my husband if he’s asleep and have him walk Colleen back; or we could take the hotel shuttle through the parking lot. Or Colleen could change back to Bob and walk me back as a male.

“The problem is, I don’t feel like going into that mind space right now,” she says, “but I’ll do it.” Colleen’s serenity is interrupted by this. She shifts about in the chair and starts to take deep breaths, as if to prepare for the change. I tell her to stop.

This must be a spiritual thing, or at least closely linked to rearranging one’s identity, I remark.

“Hell yes,” is Colleen’s response.

Later she repeats the quote from Camille Paglia: “A woman putting on men’s clothes is merely stealing power, but a man putting on women’s clothes is searching for God.”

Before the problem of getting me back to my room is resolved, Patrice, Amanda (not the Amanda from Beverly Shores), and Sherry come into the room. I ask Amanda what she thought of the therapist’s comments about taking unreasonable risks.

The first thing Amanda says is that she has not sought counseling.

“We stay away from counselors,” Sherry’s voice echoes. “We come to these things [conventions] for our sanity, to have fun and to be with friends.”

“And what about the fetish thing?” I ask. “The counselor insisted this is a fetish that only becomes a person’s identity in later years when their sex drive is beginning to lessen. Is cross-dressing so much a fetish with you?”

“Well, maybe at first,” Amanda says.

“In adolescence, maybe, but not after a while,” Sherry says.

“But why is it considered a fetish?” I ask. “Because you become aroused when you put on an article of women’s clothing? Like a bra?”

“I guess so.” Amanda looks around the room. The counselor seemed so sure of this. Amanda doesn’t.

“And as men you’re supposed to feel guilty about that?” I ask.

Three heads nod at me.

“But women get aroused, too.” I say.

Sherry and Amanda both say, “What?!” Colleen, the artist, poet, janitor, remains silent, listening.

“The first time I put on a bra it made me more aware of my breasts,” I hear myself say, as though I were listening in on someone else’s conversation. “I became aroused. I’m only one woman, but I’m sure there must be other women who can recall similar feelings.”

Amanda’s green eyes blow wide open. “Wow! This is great. See nobody ever told us that. It helps to hear this.”

The problem of getting me back to my room was finally solved. Sherry, Amanda, and Colleen would walk me back together. Sherry and Amanda suggested it. I asked if they minded.

No trouble at all. “We want to see that you get back safely, and besides it’ll give us a chance to practice walking in heels,” Sherry said, grinning.

I laughed. So did Amanda and Sherry. Our laughter bounced off the walls of the corridor. Colleen let out a groan and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. She was not looking forward to the trek in her yellow high heels.

They took me to my door. I felt the need to hug them all good-bye, for having experienced an odyssey of sorts. I said I’d traveled to Oz with them.

Colleen declared herself the Tin Man, and suggested that Amanda was the Scarecrow and Sherry the Cowardly Lion. But in need of heart, or brains, or bravery, I didn’t think so. In many ways these were some of the bravest people I’d ever met, fearless enough to be their true selves.

The next morning I saw them after breakfast at the close of the conference, dressed straight, as men.

How Trees Must Feel

I danced the other day

for a few seconds

first time I think

how wonderful my feet felt

planted firmly on the ground

and yet I was flying

–Colleen Mullins

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.