“They made me wear a dress.”
And so begins the tale of Jack, a young man born into the wrong body who must battle the intolerance of a small southern town, the disgust of his own sister (who already abandoned the family once), and the cold, callous mistreatment of a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s. Already feeling an outcast, denied the acceptance of nearly everyone around him, it’s the death of his mother than triggers his final descent. Aside from his mother his best friend Elliot, nobody accepts his decision express the masculinity inside, and even the two of them don’t fully accept him as a ‘real’ boy.
Ultimately, however, it’s the treachery and cruelty of his sister that drive him to suicide, an act of desperation that she twists to justify her decision to have him committed, allowing her to wash her hands of the responsibility. As you might expect, it’s a dark tale, full of emotional sorrow and horrifying physical pain, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
For those who are accustomed to Adrienne Wilder’s more light-hearted gay male romances, this tale of transgender identity may come as something of a surprise, but it clearly comes from the heart . . . and from an author who proudly and openly identifies as male.
Life in Meadow Field Psychiatric Hospital is just about as rough and frightening as you might expect. It’s a place that has no interest in treating people like Jack or in helping them to cope. Instead, secure in their narrow-minded biases, the doctors and nurses are interested only in curing Jack of his ‘delusions’. Jack’s therapy sessions with Dr. Chance are interesting, however, particularly in the ways that he tries to force Chance to see that there’s more to gender than genitalia.
Even with friends like Noah (who has anger issues) and Grom (who thinks he’s a wizard), Jack’s stay is a difficult one, plagued by dangerous patients on top of the professionals.
"Why do they want to change me?”
“Maybe they just don’t love you enough.”
Of course, it’s the relationship between Jack and Noah that centres the novel. It’s Noah’s pain that provides Jack with the opportunity to play the gallant young knight, and Jack’s pain that brings Noah out of his shell to become close to another human being again. Their love is an awkward one, especially as their respective secrets are brought to the surface, but tender and true. It’s challenged and tested throughout their stay, but never wavers. While their escape from the hospital is a bit too convenient, it’s hard to deny them the benefit of fate’s guiding hand in the skies. Both boys are guilty of acts of violence, but all in the name of self-protection and their escape is a necessary part of their healing process. In terms of the climax, it’s less of a spoiler and more of a reassurance to promise that there is a happily ever after, but some reader may need that glimmer of light to continue reading.
Over half a century later, a young boy stared into a mirror and saw himself cross-dressed for the first time.
I am Catie Maye. I am a transvestite.
And so begins Catie Maye’s tale, a true story and cultural exploration of what it means to be a transvestite. It’s a story that explores the parallel lives of the cross-dresser, hiding the truth from others, lying to protect that oh-so-necessary form of self-expression, and battling the depression that takes root from the need for deceit.
As part of looking to understand himself, Catie dives deep into the studies and statistics surrounding cross-dressing. He confronts the assumption that cross-dressing is rooted in some sort of adolescent abuse, and destroys the accompanying assumption that all cross-dressers are gay. He reveals the surprising truth of just how many cross-dressers are married, how many of them are open with their spouses, and how few of them consider it a sexual fetish.
Men Can Wear Dresses Too is largely an autobiographical tale, but one that’s intertwined with the studies and theories (many of them painfully dated, as Catie points out) that attempt to put that life’s story into context. Some of those statistics are fascinating – such as when the men first cross-dressed (4-6 years old), with who’s clothes (mom’s), and with what items (panties) – while others are surprising in their contradictions – with only 42% claimed to have ever felt guilty, but 77% having purged.
Risks and secrecy are a recurring theme of Catie’s story, to nobody’s surprise, but it’s sobering to realize how strong the need to express ourselves is, regardless of those risks. For some it’s the feeling of the clothes themselves, for others it’s a sexual sensation, and for others still it’s a way of dealing with stress. As Catie says, “I don’t dress to attract men (or women). I don’t do it for any reason other than to relax. Cross-dressing gets me out of myself. I don’t want to be cured because there is nothing wrong with me. I won’t ever stop.”
Where the story gets really interesting is when Catie talks about taking his cross-dressing public, and about learning to pass as a woman. It’s a funny story, with a young man in a wench’s outfit and wig, first trapped in a shed, then finding himself accidentally locked out of the house, but it’s all too easy to sympathise with the gut-wrenching terror of the experience . . . and the guilty compulsion to purge rather than deal with that fear again.
Rounding out Catie’s story is that of his wife, her discovery of his secret, and how they’ve come to terms with that aspect of his life. “To me,” she says, “it’s not the ‘dressing’ that’s the problem; it’s the secrecy.” Having survived (and strived) through that first difficult conversation, I can say her take on the situation isn’t unique, and should serve as something of a prompt for more men to come out and be honest with their partners.
Catie concludes his story with a chapter on ‘What Does it All Mean’ that attempts to summarize the salient facts and figures of the story. Rather than trying to define the cross-dresser, Catie’s goal is to dispel “the myths, social untruths, and pieces of pure gossip” and help promote a societal understanding of “whom and what we are.”
So, if you have ever wondered, questioned, debated, and doubted, believe that Men Can Wear Dresses Too.