“Skip! Skip! Can you maybe make it next week? I hate to miss Brian’s birthday; and Friday, the transvestites are back on Donahue.”
– the title character, speaking to one of his alien brethren in a 1986 episode of ALF
I want to start this post with the definition of “crossdressing,” as found here: “the act of wearing items of clothing and other accoutrements commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society.”
Why do I use that word? Well, I first started dressing in women’s clothing back when I was 11 years old going on 12. Even back then, I knew that putting on women’s undergarments or anything else feminine was considered taboo and against societal (and more immediately, familial) norms. But while I knew the definition at the time, I didn’t know of the word. To me, it was nothing more than “putting on clothing that belonged to my mom or my sister or, before that, what was found in that spare bedroom where we lived.”
It was only a few years after I first put on that first frilly undergarment that I learned of a word for people like me. And that word was… “transvestite.” That word’s definition is a little more succinct than the one for crossdresser that I included above: “One who dresses and acts in a style or manner traditionally associated with the opposite sex.” I want to recall I first heard the word transvestite used in a dramatic series I once saw on TV. I won’t tell you which show it was, although I will tell you it was one of the better prime time drama series from the 1980s. Anyway, the word was used in one episode towards a male character being accosted by a tabloid TV journalist regarding his propensity to pose as a female in public (and do so convincingly, I might add). “Do you mean to tell us that you are a transvestite?” the reporter told the man, who did not want to talk and wanted nothing more than to get into his car and drive away.
That scene from that show only established in my mind that… well, if that character put on women’s clothing, and if I put on women’s clothing, then that made me a transvestite. But the tone of that scene — that of a man who did not wish to disclose his feminine side to that prying reporter — only confirmed that my dressing up in private was still very much taboo. To be frank, since it was the ’80s, any aspect of the LGBT community (transvestism or otherwise) was not looked upon as kindly or had as much of a toleration as they have gained here in the 21st century. And I have to admit, it made the word “transvestite” a dirty word even in my mind. Oh, sure, I still enjoyed covertly raiding my sister’s dresser or Mom’s closet and trying on what I found. But I accepted the term “putting on clothing that belonged to Mom or Sis” more than I did the word that went with it.
As an adult, I now fully understand the word “transvestite” and its modern use. And I do appreciate its formal definition, especially the part about acting in a manner traditionally associated with the female persona (especially if you’ve seen my YouTube channel and my feeble attempts at a feminine voice). But I still tend to shy away from using the word to describe myself. I think it must be the unflattering past connotations that lead me to this attitude. The above link about “transvestite” notes how Magnus Hirschfeld, a physician and advocate for sexual minorities, first coined the term over a century ago, combining two Latin terms (trans for “across,” vestitus for “dressed”) to refer to the sexual interest —and resulting arousal — in one’s habitual and voluntary wearing of clothing belonging to the opposite gender. Despite first coining the term, Hirschfeld actually hated it, using it only to just describe a certain variety of people on the transgender spectrum.
Over the years, though, “transvestite” was used as a diagnosis, a word applied to a mental health disorder. It’s part of the reason the term would fall out of favor, with the more appropriate “crossdressing” being used on a more frequent basis. And while there are those within the transgender community who have reclaimed the word (and I’m actually happy for those who have done so), “transvestite” still tends to have a bit of a negative connotation, especially if used by those who are outside the trans community. It still makes me shudder when a dismissive soul can blindly and derogatorily call someone within the trans community a “tranny.”
But back to the word “crossdresser,” and the first time I recall hearing it used. I was 17 years old and was in my room one Sunday evening listening to one of those 50,000-watt AM stations from out of Chicago (this one, if you require me to be specific). For those of you younger folks who think all AM stations were always nothing more than angry white males spewing disgusting and distasteful political talk… well, not all of them were like that in 1987, or not yet anyway. In fact, some AM stations still included music on a regular or semi-regular basis at the time, a number that was rapidly dwindling even by 1987. That included the station I was listening to on this particular Sunday night, which devoted the early hours of their Sunday night schedule to ’60s and ’70s music before turning over the late Sunday night hours to non-political discussion programming.
And this particular program was definitely not about politics. It was actually all about sex and relationships, and was hosted by a sex therapist by the name of Phyllis Levy. No, I didn’t get to regularly listen to Phyllis Levy’s show; I mean, for one, I didn’t always coop myself up in my room on a Sunday night and listen to out-of-state blowtorch radio signals; and besides, said signals tend to fade in and out right at the moment when something very interesting is being said or played. (Ah, the hit-and-miss magic of AM radio…)
But on this particular night, I did listen to some of Phyllis Levy’s show, and I caught the bridge-between-shows chat between Levy and the gentleman who hosted the music show before hers. On this night, he chatted up the fact that Levy made an appearance on Phil Donahue’s daytime talk show a few days earlier. For those like me who are old enough to remember, Donahue was a syndicated daytime television staple for almost 30 years. Primarily, Donahue could be very enlightening in the topics it brought up, including those not everyone in its audience could relate to. Donahue could be friendly and lighthearted. It could be controversial. It could be quite provocative. And more often than not, it could be all of that at once. This was especially true by 1987, when a certain host by the name of Oprah Winfrey hat just hit the national scene and became the breath of fresh daytime air that seriously challenged the staid-by-comparison Donahue‘s TV dominance, forcing Phil Donahue to up his game in an effort to stand out further (case in point: Donahue donned a dress in another episode about drag queens a year or so later).
But why am I going on and on about Donahue, you ask? Well, as I mentioned in the last paragraph, Phyllis Levy appeared on an early 1987 episode of Donahue, one that was taped a few days before I caught her on the radio on this particular Sunday night. And in that chat with the host who preceded her, they were talking about that Donahue episode, which was all about… wait for it… crossdressers! And, yep, Levy and her radio colleague made it clear that “crossdresser” meant “men who like to dress as women.” And that was the very first time I recall hearing the word “crossdresser.” And it hit me like a ton of bricks… That’s who I am! A crossdresser! I finally had a word to describe who I was — a male who had a proclivity to wear garments associated with women. I was a crossdresser! And there are other people like me who do this!
Hearing Phyllis Levy discuss her Donahue appearance, I was impressed by how respectful she was in talking about crossdressing as a whole and the guests she appeared with on that Donahue panel. The thought of men who dress as women being shown in a generally respectful light — i.e. not being portrayed as evil, demented, or strange, nor the subject of a comedy punchline (that’s part of the reason why I included that quote from ALF up top) — was quite rare in 1987. And just the subject matter really, really made me want to see this particular episode in any way possible.
There was a problem, though. Well, more than one: Donahue was a daytime talk show, of course, meaning I didn’t get to see it while I was in school. What’s more, we didn’t have a VCR yet (we were a year away from getting one). Plus, I wasn’t sure when this particular Donahue episode would air; the show may have aired live in New York, where it was produced at that time (that’s how Phil Donahue was able to entertain all those on-air viewer calls to the show), but its episodes were distributed across the country on a tape-delay basis, days or even weeks after they aired in the Big Apple.
So, that summer, with school out and yours truly graduated, I kept looking through the TV Guide to see if, for one, when Donahue would air, and specifically if the listing description included any indication that it was about crossdressers. Sure enough, one mid-July morning, I noticed that the episode of Donahue about crossdressers was being rerun on Channel 11. And I was ready to tune in…
But there was another problem: My sisters were in the house. And so was my stepfather, who was home after being on the road the entire previous week. And he was (and is) one who never appreciated anyone even remotely LGBT. (Case in point: He was home the previous month and vociferously scoffed at another Donahue episode that featured a male couple and the female surrogate who carried their baby.) So, I sneaked next door to my aunt and uncle’s house (they were away on vacation that week), turned on the little color TV they had in their kitchen to Channel 11… and watched as much of the Donahue episode as I could.
And I’m glad I did get to watch it. Sure, it may have had a little hint of “tawdry subject matter” in the air, but it was not the “freak show” atmosphere one would find several years later on Jerry Springer or Maury (although Phil Donahue asks one very minor “Man or Woman?” question that was nowhere near Maury-like in tone). And while some in the studio audience wore “these guests are strange” expressions on their faces (not to mention a little bit of ogling from a couple of the cis-gender males in the audience), the episode had a truly enlightening tone. The host made sure of that: Phil Donahue could sometimes deliver a “can you believe these people?” tone on some episodes of his show (especially if the topic was really, really controversial). This time around, however, I got the impression that he went to great lengths to present the guests in as much of a respectful light as possible; he made it a point in his introduction to separate the crossdressing desires (wanting to wear women’s clothing) from the transsexual/transgender desires (wanting to live and identify as a woman); and he allowed Phyllis Levy to deliver some sage advice and guidance to the guests and especially the audience at the best possible moments.
It’s been 30 years since that Donahue episode aired, and this being the 21st century, I always wondered if someone taped that episode way back then, saved it all these years, and found some place to post it online. Well, thank goodness for YouTube! I came across that very episode on YouTube this week. I knew it was the same episode because, for one, I vividly recall the “lady” in the golden brown jumpsuit, leather belt, and brunette hair who sat in the audience the rest of the program (she looked beautiful; so did the other panelists), and also I recall Phil Donahue introducing Phyllis Levy as coming from “my old stomping grounds” of Chicago (he taped his show in The Windy City before moving to New York in the middle 1980s). I’ve embedded the video below so that you can watch it for yourself. I should note something in this video that completely escaped my memory but I should note it now: There is a reference to Tri-Ess, which is an international organization devoted to support and social meetings of crossdressers, their partners and families, as well as to educate those unfamiliar with the crossdressing world.
The LGBT community, and trans people in particular, may have more prominence here in 2017 (as well as being the butt of resentment, something we’re now finding harder to shake). But it felt so refreshing to see a part of the broad, proud rainbow spectrum being shown in a relatively good light in 1987. That refreshing feeling came back when seeing this show again. I hope you get that same feeling as you hit the “play” button and watch for yourself.