Joe and Helen have been married for 25 years. They met at a dance and dinner party, hit it off, and have been a couple ever since.
Joe is a successful, masculine, intellectual; he is mathematically and technologically oriented, a logical man. He does not describe himself as feminine from the inside out (i.e., “I don’t think like a woman,” he said, “but I like to dress like a woman.”)
I recently read Buzz Bissinger's article in Vanity Fair about Caitlyn Jenner, who in contrast to Joe, always felt she was a woman, even in Bruce's body. As an interesting note, Buzz states in the article that he crossdresses.
When Joe was younger he was very uncomfortable with Joan. In the last 20 years as he's gotten older, he's accepting of his feminine side, and so is Helen.
I'm guessing there are other men who crossdress at times, who like to dress in pretty, feminine clothes, put on make-up, do their nails, shop and so on. And of course, there are women who look fabulous in a tux!
Being feminine, or feeling feminine don’t necessarily have anything to do with how one dresses. Yet for Joe it does. Many men have a softer, more vulnerable side, and express it in a variety of ways. It brings to mind the Chinese symbol of YinYang.
Joe wore his mom’s clothes while she was at work and his nanny cared for him. “At the age of three, after my nanny left, I invented Joan as a feminine figure to fill the female gap due to my mother’s absence while she was working.”
He remembers in elementary school looking at the boys in their pants and sweaters, and the girls with their pinafores. The teacher asked them to line up, and he knew he was supposed to go with the boys but he wanted to line up with the girls.
Joe was very confused and guilty by his obsession. It became uncontrollable for a time. He dropped out of college and took off vagabonding into the “mean streets, wars, and other places where there was no possibility of anything feminine.” He survived by wits and luck.
“As long as my libido was strong – and my libido wouldn't quit – my obsession remained strong.” In his early 60s, when he went through male menopause*, his libido finally slackened. His guilt decreased and therefore his obsession became more manageable.
Now, at about 75 years old, it is been many years since he has done a full dress up. He still may wear lingerie, and wears a nightgown. Helen says his underwear is sexier than hers. Joan still likes to have her nails done, and enjoys shopping and girly things.
I had the opportunity to interview Helen about Joe and Joan. When they were first getting serious Joe told her he was a crossdresser. She wasn't upset by it, yet she checked with a therapist and a friend and neither were freaked out. Joe’s feminine side wasn’t threatening to her. She was just trying to understand the lay of the land. She even went to a support group for partners of crossdressers which she found helpful in that it normalized crossdressing.
Early on they explored Joan's sexuality together, with Joe dressing as Joan during sex. Eventually they got bored with it. Now they mostly have sex in their own male-female personas. These days, bringing out Joan sexually for spicing things up is fine. But Helen gets upset if it goes on for weeks or months.
Helen loves Joe’s feminine side. She says crossdressing is not a big deal, and that her femininity is not threatened by his. These are just different facets of Joe. What she cares about is that Joe’s inner nature doesn't get squelched.
It can be helpful for Joe to call on Joan when he gets too angry; at times Helen has asked him to get in touch with his feminine energy as it can be helpful in resolving issues between them.
The only thing that would bother Helen is if Joe went through her closet without her permission: then she'd be upset as it would be a space violation (they wear the same size clothes).
Helen hopes that Joe also can bring out his feminine side without dressing up. She's tried to encourage him to focus on his inner femininity versus his looks.
Joe and Helen have had some fun going to costume parties in which Joan comes out, but others at the party don't really know what that means to Joe.
Helen likes Joe and his maleness. Joe says her attraction to his maleness helps his self image tremendously. Integrating Joan has helped Joe be more balanced and Helen likes that.
I asked Helen if Joan has pushed her to balance the male and female in herself. She said no, but she has better style coordination because of Joan, and she wears more make up because Joe likes it.
Joe and Helen have told all of the children that Joe crossdresses. Each one had a completely different reaction. Some were okay, one was upset, another was fascinated, and one was okay going out with Joan in public.
Clearly, Joe and Helen are emotionally mature individuals and a solid, loving couple, and are able to talk about whatever comes up for them about Joan, and about life in general.
Joan has helped both of them to grow, gain a wider perspective, and value people's differences.
I asked Joe:
- How do you feel when you’re Joan?
”Perhaps the question is better put as, ‘How do I feel when I put on Joan?’ I feel softer, more emotional, and vulnerable. Before male menopause, putting on Joan caused a strong sexual reaction.”
- What's different in your feelings when you're Joe?
“I'm harder, less emotional, not vulnerable.”
- How secret is Joan?
“My father-in-law (95) does not know about this side of me. Otherwise my family does know. I am still cautious when opening this aspect of myself to acquaintances. I do not bring Joan into my professional life as it might color people's perceptions of my professional work.
If Joe and Helen came into couples counseling, we would find out how each of them feels about Joan, what she means to Joe and to Helen, what is working or not working about Joan for each of them. For example, Helen set a healthy boundary with Joe to keep out of her closet. Joe and Helen would decide what their goals and outcome would be.
Our job as marriage counselors would be to help Joe, Helen and Joan talk through issues and concerns, offer ideas they may not have considered before, voice what we observe, help connect current behavior to past experience so they are able to heal old issues and decide how they want to be in the world now, be unbiased and compassionate, and make sure both people are heard and understood. Then Joe and Helen can make the decisions they need to make.
*The medical community is still debating whether men go through a well-defined menopause. Male menopause relates to the drop in testosterone levels in men, which can cause a decrease in libido as well as other symptoms.