Book Review: Men Can Wear Dresses Too, Caite Maye

mcwdtCertified bookworm and friend of Biscuit Sophia reads a first-hand account of living as a cross-dresser.

This intriguing book by Catie Maye explores the issues surrounding the lives of an often marginalised part of the transgender community, male cross-dressers and gender-fluid people.

Maye has approached the topic through the lens of her own experiences as a male-to-female cross-dresser and her widening exploration of what she calls her ‘feminine side’, at first tentatively and, as the years passed, with increasing confidence.

Born in 1960 and growing up in a working class area of London, Maye began cross-dressing at the age of nine (not untypical), and has continued to do so to the present day. She’s heterosexual and is married with children, which again is most common. The majority of male cross-dressers identify as straight (the percentage who identify as gay or bi is roughly in proportion to the figures for the general population of men), and most are in long-term heterosexual relationships. Her cross-dressing has caused her a lot of pain and heartache over her life, and has frequently got her into deep trouble, but she’s had a great deal of fun too.

Each chapter begins with a section of memoir describing the latest stage in her life, personal, emotional and professional, and her career as a cross-dresser, which she uses to introduce the issues brought up by her experiences and structure her discussion of them. The autobiographical sections are engagingly written with an evocative sense of place (particularly for the earlier periods). There’s a wry, self-deprecating humour here and not a trace of self-pity or narcissism (something that cross-dressers are frequently accused of).

Often her adventures are hilarious – though perhaps mostly in retrospect for the person who experienced them – but equally, many times they are heart-rending, and sometimes you want to give her a good boot up the arse, particularly when her failure to be open with others, or to accept herself due to shame and guilt causes her needless problems. She’s painfully honest about that, and she also doesn’t shy away from bad things she’s done, and where she’s hurt others.

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In her discussion of cross-dressing, she draws extensively on academic research into the subject over a period of roughly 40 years, counterpointed by the words of cross-dressers themselves, gathered from a variety of sources, but especially surveys and material from cross-dressing fora and Internet communities. There’s some meaty stuff here. Maye engages intensely with the issues and gives detailed commentary on the academic views, offering powerful critiques of the latter.

She strongly objects to what she describes as the ‘pathologisation’ of cross-dressing (it is for example classed as a mental illness in the DSM-IV). She acknowledges that many male cross-dressers experience feelings of guilt and shame about their dressing, which can lead to depression, deep insecurity and such notorious phenomena as ‘purging’ (the throwing away of all female clothes and attempting to suppress the desire to cross-dress within oneself – this never ends well). However, Maye argues, this results from social pressures rather than anything to do with cross-dressing itself. Many cross-dressers fear that if they are outed they will be rejected by friends and family, lose their partners, careers, children – a feeling that has been sadly familiar to many LGBT folk. For Maye, it’s the secrecy, isolation and fear that is the problem, and that’s what must be dealt with. When cross dressers do come out, Maye says, and the evidence she has marshalled seems to back this up, the majority of them find that they are accepted by their loved ones, though often with initial bemusement.

Male cross-dressing is often dismissed as a mere fetish. Maye argues that this is wrong. While it is true in a minority of cases, and naturally Rule 34 applies (humans can fetishise absolutely anything), most cross-dressers (around 80%) do not get a sexual thrill from dressing, rather they view it as a relaxing activity and a chance to express a different side of themselves and the feminine part of their personality.

Male cross-dressers are on the trans spectrum, and perform their gender in different ways from the average, but comparatively few, Maye believes, feel themselves to be transsexual. In the studies she examined, only about 15% felt they suffered from gender dysphoria, wanted to live permanently as female, or had considered hormones or surgery. By and large they were happy with their bodies as they are (though not a few sometimes wished for a better bust than M&S’ finest push-up bra can provide…) and remaining men physically. Their cross-dressing is about emotional, and in some cases even spiritual, self expression.

Catie Maye’s story has had a happy ending. When she came out, her partner accepted her cross-dressing and the woman she sometimes is, and perhaps more importantly, Maye learned to accept this side of herself. The penultimate chapter of the book is written by that partner, Catie’s wife Nicky, and in some ways it’s the most poignant. Nicky describes her reaction to the discovery, her initial anger at the previous lack of honesty over it, and how the two of them negotiated and resolved things so that their relationship was strengthened as they explored Catie’s cross-dressing together.

In sum, Men Can Wear Dresses Too is a well written and thought-provoking book which will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in gender and trans issues or those studying the field. It will also be valuable for friends and partners of cross-dressers seeking greater understanding. People who like modern autobiography will find something to enjoy here as well.

Men can wear dresses too by Catie Maye was first published in hardback in 2014 by AuthorHouse UK Ltd

Our thanks to the author for providing a review copy.

 

Image 1 ” Cover art for Men Can Wear Dresses Too” by Caite Maye. Shared under Fair Use. Via AuthorHouse

Image 2 “Woman in Red Coat” by unknown. Shared under Public Domain. Via Splitshare.

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