Monday, 12 March 2012

Privacy, Secrecy and Crossdressing

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Thinking Allowed, a BBC podcast by the sociologist Prof Laurie Taylor. At university I found sociology among the most unstimulating of subjects. There was a graffito in the students' toilet next to the loo paper: it read Sociology Degrees: Please Help Yourself. When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed some years ago, I was fascinated by it, without realising that its core was sociology! Since then I have been devoted and, thanks to podcasts, never miss an issue. The programme is insightful, interesting, often funny and occasionally heartbreaking. Once in a while it tackles controversial topics unflinchingly. There is an extensive archive here, to which you can listen for free, and the specific podcast can be found here.

On this particular episode, Laurie's guest was Christena Nippert-Eng, who is Associate Professor of Sociology and Acting Chair of the Department of Social Sciences at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She was discussing her new book, Islands of Privacy, which discusses the nature of privacy among "oceans of accessibility" around us. For each of us, there are things which we really want to keep private, and particular personal reasons why some things are kept "private" and some things "public", and some things are in between. I found this subject very interesting, and couldn't help applying some of her theoretical questions to myself, such as "How would it affect me if I lost this object and somebody else got hold of it?" In addition, Nippert-Eng was a warm, animated, and highly articulate speaker; a pleasure to listen to.

I haven't yet read her book, but it's now in my in-pile. You can find out more about the book here.

A secret, Nippert-Eng argues, is a piece of information so private that we have made an active decision that we will not share it with someone else, even if they ask about it. A secret is the "most private of the private". At any moment where disclosure might happen, we need to expend work and effort to avoid revealing our secret to someone else. We need to take decisions about secrets: a decision to have a secret, a decision to keep a secret, a decision to reveal a secret, or make a decision to try to find out someone else's secrets.

In addition, she points out each of us "manages our identity in front of other people (what Goffman called "impression management"). We are trying to present a certain image of ourselves to ourselves, and to all these other people around us. If you deny people privacy, you deny them the capacity to control what is known about them to other people, and to shape their identity in a way that they would like it to be."

I thought how much this resonated with me. As a crossdresser, I have many secrets (as I suspect many of us do). I expend considerable energy concealing that fact from other people, both verbally and in other ways. And I try very hard to create an identity for myself which is "acceptable" and "presentable" to the world in which I live. And yet, here I am, attempting to reveal aspects of myself on the Internet: surely the least private thing in the world! I am certain this blog is a safety-valve: it is one way of letting out just a little of the pressure it takes to contain my own secrets. In addition, as a scholarly type, I have always found that words are a very good way to crystallise my feelings.

Let's look from the outside. I am a professional, family man. I have a responsible job at a moderately prestigious institution. My professional reputation is good. I recycle. I give to charity. I don't drink heavily. I don't gamble. I don't have noxious habits. I don't even play golf! I have a house in the suburbs of my city, which is pretty similar to lots of houses around me. Most of the time, I am happy to do manly things: I chop trees, I ride my bike over mountains, I fix my car. I do dad stuff and husband stuff and supportive, pillar-of-the-community stuff and sociable, salt-of-the-earth stuff. It is easy to be that man, most of the time. I am not pretending to be this person: I am him (OK, technically I am he, but let's not split grammatical hairs).

When I look around at the other guys I know, I believe that none of them remotely suspects that I am a crossdresser; not my best friends, not my workmates. My wife knows (of which more later). Two very supportive friends looked after me once when I fell to pieces in their kitchen and confessed it all (the friendship endures but they have never mentioned the episode, or the crossdressing, since). And one friend once confided in me that he was struggling at work because he is gay, so in a quid-pro-quo moment, I told him. Unfortunately he moved away and we are seldom in touch now.

Secrecy: Christena Nippert-Eng
Now let's look from the inside. Inwardly, I long to express some aspect of femininity more or less constantly (there are some short respites from time to time). But this is where the problem begins: this is just not OK. My wife (who, let's be clear, is beautiful and funny and generally brilliant) just can't bear the notion that her husband is a crossdresser. We've tried a series of coping strategies including marital counselling, which hasn't made much difference (though I believe it saved our marriage). What she wants in a husband is 100% "man", and instead she has someone who is about 95% "man" and 5% "woman" (maybe; see my other post here for more discussion of this).

From her perspective, crossdressing is fine, provided I (1) tell no-one about it, (2) don't ever mention it, (3) do it alone, at home, with the phone off the hook and the blinds down. In all fairness, it's not that she hasn't seen it: she has come with me to one or two crossdressing social events, and has accompanied me to a couple of makeovers. I can't in all honesty say that she hasn't had a look at it. But she has only observed these events, not participated in them, and afterwards, when all I want to do is to talk about it, she sits in silence, and gets angry (or maybe angrier) when I try to bring it up later.

So why don't I just accept that? Well, there are loads of reasons. First, I am not very good at crossdressing. To look good as a woman requires a lot of practice; ideally an entire adolescence spent experimenting with every beauty product on the market. Though I watch women closely (using every erg of cognitive power I can muster) I just haven't got it right: the clothes, the cosmetics, the whole package still looks a bit weird. What I really need is a bit of help to get the basics right, then I can work on the fine tuning. That's where I keep hoping that she will come in, even though I accept she never will.

Second (and much more importantly), for me, crossdressing is an intimacy. It's about expressing the most sensitive, emotional and vulnerable part of me (the part I keep hidden deep down when I am in a leadership role, metaphorically roaring and beating my chest in front of the other silverbacks). I don't want to express that alone, and I certainly don't want to express it in front of strangers. I have no desire to take that intimacy anywhere outside my marriage. But I wish that my wife would recognise that as a good thing and share it with me!

I function primarily on two levels, the emotional and the intellectual. Deprivation of the emotional content of crossdressing is painful, but being denied the intellectual aspect of just talking about it is doubly painful.

But my family and my marriage are the most important things in my life. It is more important to me to be a husband, and a father, than it is to be a crossdresser. So I keep it hidden, and keep my mouth shut about it.

What would happen if my work found out? Well, I wouldn't lose my job: my institution has an Equality and Diversity programme. My colleagues would laugh at me, of course, and there would be a series of subtle shifts between some people I now get on with who would gradually turn their backs (stop inviting us round, stop bringing their kids to play), and some people I don't get on well with now who would unexpectedly be supportive or unchanged. I could cope with that, I suppose.

What would happen if the kids found out? At the moment they are young enough for it probably not to be that much of a big deal. They all enjoy playing dress-up. I don't think they would love their dad any less for it. (I am certain that my wife would view that situation with horror). But I do worry about what would happen if the other kids at school found out. Kids can be really cruel to each other, and all it takes is one tiny stigma for the bullying to start. It's tough enough to grow up without having to deal with daily taunts about your father's underwear predilections.

So, just like Nippert-Eng suggests, my secrecy about crossdressing is a deliberate choice. It's not that I lack the confidence to crossdress publicly and happily. It's not that I lack the wherewithall to accomplish it either (a bit of judicious expenditure and some careful practice would work wonders). But actions have consequences. Having considered those consequences extremely carefully, I think that the situation as it stands is the least painful. But it's still painful!

32 comments:

  1. Let me challenge you a bit lovingly. Please don't take offense. If you disagree that's fine, just giving you something to think about -

    You said - "Second (and much more importantly), for me, crossdressing is an intimacy. It's about expressing the most sensitive, emotional and vulnerable part of me (the part I keep hidden deep down when I am in a leadership role, metaphorically roaring and beating my chest in front of the other silverbacks). I don't want to express that alone, and I certainly don't want to express it in front of strangers. I have no desire to take that intimacy anywhere outside my marriage. But I wish that my wife would recognise that as a good thing and share it with me!"

    This is I think is where your healing needs to take place. You SHOULD be able to express those vulnerable and emotional parts of yourself, but you can do that as a man! Our culture has stifled boys and men to the point that people like you and I have stifled parts of ourselves, buried parts of ourselves, that have ended up being forced out through crossdressing. We subconsciously felt that women could only feel or do certain things, and so parts of our personality only come out in our crossdressing rather than in ourselves as the men we are.

    You CAN express those parts of yourself, and share them with your wife even. But the healing of your mind and self needs to take place first. You need to integrate your personality as a man and your crossdressing personal traits together, into the 1 unified healthy person God made you to be. Both of these sites have a plethora of posts on these very issues - http://cdreflections.wordpress.com/
    http://mycdrecovery.wordpress.com/

    My wife and I have learned to accept ourselves for who we are, as a man and woman different from the normal men and women of our culture. I happen to be way more talkative, nurturing, compassionate, passive, tentative, dependent, gentle, and moody than my wife. But instead of those things coming out in crossdressing, we've learned that that is who I am and it's okay for those traits to come out in my real male self. And she has other similar differences from the majority of women.

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    1. Aha. You're right about a lot of what you say. Integrating both sides into myself is right up there among my top priorities. On the other hand, it seems clear to me that crossdressing definitely involves an element of escaping from my "manliness". It's just not OK for men in our society to admit to wanting to feel a bit pampered, or wanting to be the one taken care of, rather than the one doing the taking care. To make things more difficult, my wife (who doesn't belong to a Western culture) has very clear ideas on how men behave, and what she wants is the alpha male. We've discussed this all at _considerable_ length, and she accepts that my feminine side allows me to be supportive and nurturing in a way that most men aren't; in other words, she sees the advantages. On the other hand, she just can't get over the idea that sometimes her man wants to dress like a woman. She finds that repulsive.
      My inability to express vulnerability at home leads me to express other, much less positive emotions, like anger and irritability. Instead of reaching out to her when I feel this way, I have learned to withdraw from her; if I don't, she can really hurt me sometimes.
      I am fortunate that at work I am able to express both sides of my personality: the intellectual, structured, cognitive side, as well as the emotionally resonant, nurturative, supportive warm side. That helps.
      I will check out those other blogs you recommend. But I remain pessimistic they will have answers which will help.

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  2. Vivienne, my wife (now my ex-wife) made similar demands that I agreed to during our "negotiation" phase. She said I had to stay in the bedroom but could not get into bed... For a variety of reasons, I eventually broke all of our agreements which brought us to the brink of divorce...

    Some wives have a very difficult time with our crossdressing. Of course she wants a husband who is 100% man. She probably feels cheated and deceived and this takes a LONG time to heal. She might not ever get over the repulsion... I'm sure she wants to be intimate with you as you want to be with her. Both of you have to understand that this is a HUGE, difficult challenge that you both want to work through together.

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    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful post Robyn.

      I recognise that my wife finds crossdressing repugnant, and I believe this is not going to change. I have four choices: (1) leave, (2) do nothing and remain profoundly unhappy and frustrated, (3) attempt to change things so that crossdressing is sustainable, and (4) ignore my wife and do it anyway.

      (1) is unacceptable as things currently stand. Likewise (2). I find (4) to also be unacceptable; her point of view is equally valid, even if it's not the same as mine. That leaves me with (3). It's not likely to lead to an improvement, but as I see it, it is the least painful route at the moment. Things may change in the future.

      As I said above, currently, my marriage is more important than my crossdressing. But it's quite natural to want to have your cake and eat it too, and even though I think this will not be possible, I am still currently pursuing it.

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  3. Vivienne,I feel very fortunate to have read a very intelligent and moving account of this part of us which is crossdressing.

    [Apologies, This reply is too long to submit. I want to send the total message to you so I will send as two comments. Geraldine]

    I have only called myself a crossdresser for just over a year. I am sixty.
    And it has been something of huge importance that has been missing from my life until it refused to be ignored any longer, but it has also proved to be, at least on the surface a curse.
    How do you explain to a loving but horrified wife of thirty five years that you are beginning to want to dress and look like a woman?
    I am at least sensitive enough to realise that this revellation would force her to begin questioning what role I think that leaves fo her in the marriage, what I must think of her as a woman and how this changes her vision of her femininity.
    It distresses me that my crossdressing distresses her, so I do not dress in her presence nor do I usually dress when she is away because I am realising more and more that believe it or not I only want to present as a woman so that she will recognise the feminine side of me. This side of me has been subtly evident to both of us for a few years before I recognised the crossdressing urge, and she believes tha it makes me a nicer, gentler, more vulnerable and better communicating person and partner. And as best I can figure, the urge to present as a woman often but not permanently is to do with wanting this side to be acknowledged, primarily by her and maybe more widely.
    Yesterday I saw a gender councellor for the first time. He is the first person I have ever told that I was a crossdresser.
    It was just a relief to talk to someone about it.
    The benefits flowed to my wife when I told her that he said there was nothing "wrong" with me but rather this was just my manifestation of part of the human gender continuum. This is the best and the worst thing you can hear about yourself. I'm OK as I am BUT this is me. It won't change. Learn to live it and love it.

    And the first indications are this has made as big an impact on her as it has on me.

    She will stil have a hard time seeing me enfemme and it is something I will only commence when she is ready, but it has already led her to accept me in feminine underwear and that this is just an inexplicable part of loving someone and of itself will not reduce my masculinity or our traditional roles in our relationship.

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  4. [Comment Part 2. Geraldine]
    I think this significant change has come from having had the massage come from a health professional. I must say that my wife has shown fear and frustration since my revellation but not malice.

    I acknowledge I am an absolute novice in trying to figure out what has caused my urge, how it relates to who I am and how to manage it within my marriage but may I make just a few thoughts?

    Femininity is a powerful urge in me. We both believe it makes me a better person and partner so it is not really a curse but a challenge, as one may see deafness or an injury in this way.

    It doesn't threaten my masculinity, but it has to be integrated into it. I find that in time of crisis that I revert to a "get this emergency attended to now" mode of operating but then move back into a more caring mode when the fire is over.

    It doesn't threaten my wife's womanhood or femininity because it doesn't make me want to take her place in our marriage or to become a woman. There is a long way before I think my wife will be able to feel this but she can at least listen to my explanation of this.

    I have four adult children so I do not have your concerns about telling young kids. I may never tell my children although I can admit this may not be fair to them as it does not allow them to share the trust that such an admission would show and it would be difficult for me never to share it with them. The man in me says "Suck it up" but the female is concerned. For what it is worth I think they would accept it and maybe mourn for me as well for the hardship I think they would realise it to be.

    I believe in God. It does not make gender or other mistakes. I am not a mistake. I am loved as I cannot begin to fathom by that God. I don't understand. That's OK but already I see this gender contrariness has opened up the face of God to me in parts of the world I have not previously recognised that God, including in a whole class of GLBT people I have never even considered.

    I hope some parts of this may help you and this wonderful wife of yours to see your crossdressing as a strange, frightening but marvellous blessing to you, something that can lead to your mutual growth and development.
    Thanks again for your words. They are largely part of my story too.

    Geraldine.

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    1. Hi Geraldine,

      Sorry to keep you waiting such a long time for a reply to your considered and heartfelt post.

      You seem to be someone who doesn't quite fit the "mould" of a typical crossdresser: most of us got going during adolescence and have struggled ever since. (For a very good and detailed discussion of crossdressing stages during life, I recommend Helen Boyd's book "My Husband Betty").

      From my limited experience and understanding of crossdressers who start as adults, there seems to be a moment of "Why didn't I think of this before?" and I wonder if this applies to you.

      You seem to hit the nail squarely on the head (for me) when you describe wanting to present as a woman in front of your wife. My wife accepts that my feminine side is helpful in some circumstances, but just can't get over it appearing in our marriage. For me, it isn't about being treated as a woman by her which matters particularly, but I do have a feeling that crossdressing is a profound intimacy which I want to share with her and (importantly) can't share with anyone else without that happening first. To take that somewhere else is to seek that emotional solace outside my marriage, which I believe is the first step to infidelity and ultimately divorce. I don't want any of that!

      I hope your gender counsellor can help you move forwards with this, and I see that your faith is likely to help too. Meanwhile we are having counselling too, and our counsellor has been very helpful in getting us each to recognise each other's feelings. The counsellor is scrupulously in the middle and doesn't take either side; nor does she tell us what to do but only gives us tools to work it out for ourselves. But that's going to be a long, slow road!

      Kind regards,

      Vivienne.

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    2. Grok here. I agree about intimacy. Reading "themichelleinme" blog, I think I found one positive example-the meeting with another CD. Finding someone with the same interests.

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    3. Hi Grok,

      I agree.

      Vivienne.

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  5. Again Vivienne, another post that rings so true for me (or is that myself? Doesn’t sound quite right.)
    My wife is the only one to know about the full extent of my crossdressing. As our relationship developed, I knew I had to tell her. She was inquisitive and supportive in the early years, but as our first baby grew-up and others followed, the understanding was that Michelle would have to be a secret that only she and I could share. The pressure on kids to keep something like this, especially in a small town, would not be a healthy thing. As time has passed, my wife has only seen brief appearances of Michelle, usually as she returns home and I’m on the way to shed my female guise. We haven’t talked about “it” in sometime. After all the reading that I am now doing and starting to understanding myself a bit better, I think a fresh discussion is overdue.
    Love your posts. Well thought out and written, as are your responses.
    Michelle

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  6. Hi Michelle,
    I've just been reading your most recent blog post, and I realise that here you've answered my question: how come you and your wife are not still going out together with you dressed?
    I think you and I share another thing, which is living in a small town. The prospect of me being "read" terrifies my wife, which is why I've never gone out dressed in this town. (I can't say I would be thrilled to be read either!)
    I'm delighted that my blog posts have drawn this much interest. It's really helped me to open a dialogue with others out there who have similar feelings to me.
    Thanks again for dropping by.
    Vivienne.

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  7. Grok again. In the Fashion Freestyler (formerly Casual Crossdresser) blog, it is asked "Where are the Casual Crossdressers?" Reading these posts answers that question. They are in the closet; they expect that disclosure will have damaging consequences.

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    1. I am absolutely certain you are right. Where are all the crossdressing judges and bishops and professors and neurosurgeons and police inspectors and premier league footballers? The answer is (I believe) they are out there doing their dressing very quietly and in private, because they fear the consequences of coming out.

      Vivienne.

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  8. Grok again. A member of Skirt Cafe just lost his job, because he wore a skirt to work. He is actually one of the moderators, and has repeatedly urged others to cross dress in public. From this same forum I received an invitation to meet others in my area...and the press was to be invited. Apparently the meeting never got off the ground, but at the time I was thinking that I would stay away-I would prefer to keep my job, thank you very much.

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  9. I would like to build community. However, I doubt that it will go far if we exhort people to cross dress publicly. People must be allowed to meet those with similar interests, while at the same time respecting their privacy. I have a few ideas....

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  10. Grok again. One useful term I came across is "outed". You are "outed" if someone else exposes your secret without your consent. I got burned a couple times in the past. Confiding in individuals (one of whom said that he was bisexual), and then being shocked when they talked about my interests publicly. These were people that I though of as friends.

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  11. There is a saying-once burned, twice shy.

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    1. Hi Grok,

      Some very sensible points here. The bare facts tell us very little. A man wears a skirt to work. He gets asked to stop. He refuses. He gets sacked. We infer that he was unfairly discriminated against by a bigoted and inflexible employer, suppressing his human rights (Monty Python again: "Don't you go oppressing me!"). On the other hand, the person in question could well have been a troublemaker for all sorts of reasons (his refusal to comply with a reasonable dress code is a warning sign), and perhaps the reason he was sacked was nothing to do with his choice in clothing but because he was disruptive or incompetent at work.

      I am extremely careful about who I reveal my identity to. What I do in my private life (including crossdressing) is no-one's business but my own. Once the cat's out of the bag, it can't go back in. I have not yet been "burned", but I am already "shy"!

      Drop me an email. We should talk more.

      Best wishes,

      Vivienne.

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  12. Grok again. Good point about employers. About privacy-perhaps ones' attitudes partly depends on whether one is an introvert or an extrovert. I am very introverted, so I tend to think in terms of a personal life which is largely private. I have to wonder if others who advocate public cross dressing (including "free stylers") tend to be extroverts.

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  13. Grok again. I have been thinking about community building-if you want to create a new, private grouping. Consider the michelleinme blog, and the reported first meeting with another CD person. The meeting resembled a recent dating scenario-initial contact on line, with the first face to face meeting in a public, neutral place. Wearing "drab" attire. What about larger groups? The subculture I am most familiar with is science fiction fandom. The fans monthly socials may be a model for small, informal gatherings. The group typically meets at a house of one of the fans. This is often a potluck affair, occasionally a barbecue. I can imagine two differences: 1. The films shown 2. Changing clothes (assuming that participants show up in "drab").

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  14. I believe that the gay/lesbian and BDSM groups have a history of privacy/secrecy. However, my knowledge of those groups is meager. I don't know which, if any, of their activities might serve as a model for a small, loose network.

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  15. I'm making the assumption of a small loose grouping for several reasons. "Bluestockings" may simply be rare. A desire for privacy may be a limiting factor, as this would exclude those who embrace public cross dressing. Actually, it has occurred to me that you might end up with a seemingly heterogeneous group, but having a particular chemistry. An example would be Skirt Cafe, which include two groups that have been in conflict in the past, the Bravehearts and the Freestylers-a moderator commented that this is possible because the members share a libertarian outlook.

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  16. Grok again. This is as far as I can go with this topic. So far as I can tell, the people with relevant web sites are inclined to promote public cross dressing. I, on the other hand, have made my choice-repress the cross dressing urge.

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  17. Grok again. Actually, I just noticed a term-"mini-meet"-from Skirt Cafe. A meeting between two individuals, to be planned using Private Messages.

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    1. Hi Grok,

      Without doubt, you have become my most faithful and diligent commentator! I am sorry that I haven't been able to keep up with your regular posts, which seem to have appeared every 4 hours for the past 72, day and night!

      I have met another crossdresser in male mode, and I really enjoyed just talking about crossdressing over a couple of drinks (I guess you could call it a "mini-meet"). I am keen to meet up dressed, but my wife is not so sure about it. Perhaps a social event with lots of dressers would be more acceptable to her, but in my country they seem to be very rare.

      I would love to incorporate your term bluestockings more widely, however! We could remake West Side Story with the Bluestockings and the Bravehearts!

      Vivienne.

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  18. Grok here. One possible venue would be a science fiction convention (en.wikipidia.org/wiki/Science_fiction_fandom). I have noticed that a larger convention may have a Transgender panel; perhaps CD events could be added to the programming?

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  19. Grok here. I should elaborate-I imagine a genteel gathering in which people drink tea while cross dressed. I get the impression that those CD events that exist are by and for extroverts. I am an introvert. I think "this is not me." What we need is a CD salon.

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  20. En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microculture. If you scroll down to "micro-climate" there is an interesting comment about the racetrack being a unique combination of disinhibation and exceptional good manners.

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    1. Hi Grok,

      I am certain that transgender people find more acceptance among comparatively marginal groups, such as science fiction fans, especially the kind who dress in costume. My own browsing has shown up two examples, one where a transgender person was at a steampunk meeting (where MtF and FtM crossdressing seems prevalent), and another where a male fan had attended a Star Trek convention, wearing the red shirt of The Next Generation, and the badge (fully male from the waist up), but a black mini skirt and black tights and heels. His comment to the reporter? "Please don't call me the Tranny Trekkie!"

      I can't think of anything more pleasant than what you call a "genteel" gathering. I am not a nightclub person; not even really a pub person. I would be much happier sipping cocktails on a balcony overlooking a marina, whatever I was wearing! CD Salons exist, certainly in the UK and the US, but sadly none in NZ that I have found.

      I have never been to a formal race meeting, but I can imagine there are plenty of plenty of people with good breeding exhibiting bad behaviour!

      Vivienne.

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  21. Grok again. When looking at the links for the A. E. Brain blog, I came across one in which CD and marriage are discussed-www.mycdlife.com. The author discusses revealing ones self to your wife. Also, the author refutes myths/misunderstandings about cross dressing.

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  22. You said Gothman; I think you mean Goffman.

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    1. Many thanks Sue. I was making my own transcription, but I will amend that change immediately. Thanks for pointing it out.

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