August 24, 2015

Finding Yourself Through the Crossdreamer Community

Last year I contributed a chapter on the crossdreamer community to a book on trans people and the internet. The book project was ultimately cancelled, so I have decided to publish the paper here instead.
Crossdreamer liberation is about self-acceptance
Illustration: Molay/andresrimaging/Risto Viitanen

Gender variance is breaking cultural and social taboos. This is the major reason being trans and gender variant can be so difficult. By breaking taboos, you risk losing your friends, your family, and the respect of your community.  

There is another group of taboos that are just as strong, the ones associated with sexuality. Communities world wide police desire, forcing people into very narrow boxes of normalcy. 

Crossdreamers exist where the violations of the norms of gender and sexuality intersect. Crossdreamers are men and women who not only dream about being a sex different from the one assigned to them at birth, but who have erotic fantasies about this.

This is the story about how crossdreamers started organizing online communities to explore their identities and sexualities. This is not going to be an “objective” and “disinterested” article. I have played an active part in building this community. Nor do I claim to represent all crossdreamers.  

Note that I use the term transgender as a broad umbrella term for all gender variance. According to this definition all crossdreamers are transgender, even if they are not all suffering from gender dysphoria, and even if only a minority of them are transsexual.

Psychological repression

Some transgender people become what I have called “splitters”, people who manage to divide their psyche in two, leaving one part for the inner sex and one for the outer. I have been aware of my female side since I was nine years old, but I managed to keep this side of me separate from my conscious gender identity as I grew up. I thought of myself as male, even if I considered myself a “failed” one.

The psyche is not very forgiving about this kind of repression, and it normally finds ways of expressing its hidden sides. Crossdressing is one such way. Erotic fantasies are another. I have never been a crossdresser, but my erotic gender bending fantasies became stronger and stronger as I grew older. Back in 2006 I was suffering from what can only be described as full fledged gender dysphoria, and I finally decided to stop running away from myself. I spent a lot of time searching the web, looking for information about others like me.

Fantasies and taboos
I found walls everywhere. In forums run by trans women, fantasies like mine remained for the most part taboo. In the male to female crossdresser forums there was some discussion of the erotic side of crossdressing, but it was also clear that many found the topic embarrassing. I did find a very large community devoted to what is known as TG fiction, erotic stories and “captions” (illustrated fantasies of crossdressing, magical transformations, and feminization). Among them I did find people who were interested in discussing the psychological origins of TG stories and imagery, but not in a systematic way.


I did find a term that seemed to capture what I was experiencing: “autogynephilia”. I started reading about Ray Blanchard’s very controversial theory about  "a man's paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman." I definitely saw the dark side of his theory (calling trans women perverted men was never an option in my book), but he seemed to be the only researcher who actually talked about people like me. Others like me used the same term, and since I felt a strong need to discuss my own experiences with them, I decided to start a blog with this term in the title.

The Crossdreamer blog
Confessions of an Autogynephiliac (now Crossdreamers.com) was born in 2008. It lay dormant for a few months, but in the summer of 2009 I began writing in earnest, starting with a critical discussion of the “autogynephilia” theory. I also covered other research on sex, gender and gender identity.

There were relatively few comments at first, but  by the beginning of 2010 some posts might generate as many as 50 notes. Many also sent me their life stories via email, some of which I published on the blog. The blog became in a way a discussion forum for gender variant people like myself. Trans women also joined the discussion, clearly appreciating the possibility of discussing a “forbidden side” of their own life histories.

An alternative to "autogynephilia"
I had been critical of the autogynephilia theory from the very beginning. The more I learned, however, the more convinced I became that this theory lacked the scientific foundation needed for it to function as a basis for self exploration. It is based on a very traditional, sexist, view of sex and gender, and Ray Blanchard seeks to label anything he considers not normal a “paraphilia” (perversion). I found that this was exactly the same kind of thinking that had been used to invalidate independent women (“hysteria” and “nymphomania”), people of color (“hypesexuality”) and homosexuals (“fetishists” and “effeminate perverts”). 

Blanchard’s theory caused a lot of suffering among my newfound friends. The fact that the term was included in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association (the DSM) also meant that some of them met this way of thinking when they contacted the health care system. I started presenting the thinking of trans activist like Andrea James, Madeline H. Wyndzen, Zagria, Lynn Conway, Kelley Winters, Lou Sullivan and Julia Serano, all highly critical of autogynephilia or similar theories.

I came to the conclusion that the term “autogynephilia” was not salvageable. One prominent trans activist encouraged me to remove the term “confessions” as well, as it seemed to indicate a sense of shame and guilt. In March 2010 the blog got a new name: “Crossdreamers.” Crossdreamers was meant to be a neutral term for people who fantasize about being their target sex, regardless of assigned gender, sexual orientation or public gender identity. This is also how the term is used today, even if some are expanding its use beyond erotic cross gender fantasies.

Friends and visitors
By 2011 the Crossdreamers blog had some 70,000 unique visitors a year. New types of crossdreamers had come on board, including female to male dreamers and men sexually attracted to men. These are not supposed to exist according to the autogynephilia theory, yet there they were.

Although the majority of readers remained North-American and European, crossdreamers from other parts of the world came on board. Indian, Greek and Peruvian participants presented, for instance, cultural challenges fairly unique to their backgrounds, but they also helped challenge some of the “self-evident truths” shared by the Western audience. This especially applied to narrow concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Natalie, a sexologist from Thailand, helped me build an alternative narrative about crossdreamers, a narrative that challenges the traditional dichotomy “fetishist” versus “real trans woman”. Rayka -- a female to male crossdreamer from Iran -- helped me understand female bodied crossdreamers.

Crossdream Life
The Crossdream Life forum
A blog can be used for discussions, but is not really well structured for wider community building. In January 2011 a fellow crossdreamer, Jason, contacted me, suggesting that we establish a separate discussion forum for crossdreamers. He had the technical know-how and resources needed to do so. We both believed such a forum could lead to an even broader and more open discussion of crossdreaming, one that was not equally dominated by me; Crossdreamers was my personal blog, after all. We also saw a need for a forum because this is a format more suitable for social and emotional support. 

By March 2011 Crossdream Life ( crossdreamlife.com ) was up and running, with crossdreamers discussing their lives, dreams, ideas, challenges and life affirming experiences. By the end of 2014, the forum had about 800 members registered. Some 260 had presented themselves under the Introduction subforum, sharing their fears and hopes, dreams and sorrows. The number of visitors has been much higher, though. Many visitors do not feel the need to comment, or they do not dare to, in spite of the cover of anonymity.

The feedback I get indicates that the most important function of the Crossdream Life forum is that it allows crossdreamers, crossdressers and other transgender people to put their experiences into words and get feedback from others who struggle with similar issues. The very realization that they are not alone, seems to be liberating for many. By taking part in the forum and blog discussions many also get access to a richer vocabulary, words that can be used to explore the nuances of crossdreaming and various transgender identities, expressions and sexualities. 

Crossdream Life has also been a forum for more intellectual discussions about the causes of crossdreaming, and whatever literature the members might find on the issue. Furthermore, this has also been a place for sharing the life-affirming sides of crossdreaming, from crossdressing to art.

Some of the members have come to the conclusion that they are transsexual. Some of these tell me later on that they have transitioned and are now living as their target sex. Others continue to identify as their assigned gender, using other terms to describe themselves: trans, transgender, queer, genderqueer, non-binary, crossdresser, or crossdreamer. Or they use no such terms at all; they may simply think of themselves as men or women with a particular fantasy or orientation. And yes, a few also stick to terms like “fetishist” or “autogynephiliac”.

Crossdreamers on Reddit
The Crossdreaming Subreddit
In December 2012 the moderator of the /r/autogynephilia subreddit of the social site Reddit emailed me and asked if they could use the crossdreamer term for a new discussion forum, as they found the autogynephilia term too “cold and impersonal”. 

This led to the birth of the www.reddit.com/r/crossdreaming subreddit. /r/crossdreaming has also been a place to vent feelings and frustrations. This forum may have had a slightly more intellectual slant than Crossdream Life. There have probably also been more participants thinking of their crossdreaming as some kind of fetish. That being said, there are also many who think of themselves as some shade of transgender.

There have also been other blogs and sites devoted to crossdreaming and related topics. They have come and gone, as is the nature of the social web. I have provided links to some of them in the Crossdreaming Portal.

Female to male crossdreamers
There is also a related, but somewhat separate, subculture of girlfags and guydykes related to crossdreaming. The terms are partly overlapping. Many female to male crossdreamers have explored their own identities using this terminology. While some girlfags think of themselves as transgender, others focus on their sexual orientation. They say that they are attracted to gay men as gay men, even when they identify as women. There is a good presentation of girlfags and guydykes at girlfags.jimdo.com and a separate Facebook girlfag and guydyke forum.
I have had many good discussions with girlfags, and have also written extensively about this culture at crossdreamers.com and my crossdreamers.tumblr.com blog. 

I am glad to say that many female to male crossdreamers have contributed to the discussions at Crossdreamers and Crossdream Life, although I must admit that it has been hard to establish a shared culture. 

Growing up as a female bodies crossdreamer is different from growing up as a male bodied one, as the social expectations are different. It seems to me that in general female to male crossdreamers can get away with more gender violations than the male to female one, as our sexist societies still think of being male as something better and more valuable than being female.

Continuity
The major challenge for the crossdreamer community has been continuity. For most crossdreamers this is not an identity in the same way that transgender, transsexual or homosexual can be. I think of my crossdreaming as an expression of a deeper transgender identity. For many of those who suffer from gender dysphoria being a crossdreamer is just one of many stages in their journey towards transitioning. Others think of their crossdreaming as a positive sexual interest only, while some get so scared of what they learn that they climb back into the closet.  

Because of this many commentators and forum members join the communities, take part in the discussions for a while and then move on. There is nothing wrong in this per se. In fact, I would say that this tells us that the various forums do what they are supposed to do. This leaves a relatively small core of steadfast contributors, though, which makes these communities vulnerable towards the more destructive forces on the Internet.

Openness about crossdreaming At the same time as the crossdreamer discussions have helped crossdreamers and trans people get beyond the shame and guilt associated with stigmatizing terms like “transvestic fetishism” and “autogynephilia”, I have also found that transsexual activists have become more open about the phenomenon. 

Julia Serano’s open discussion of such fantasies in Whipping Girl has been of great help, as has Imogen Binnie’s presentation in the novel Nevada. And even if autogynephilia remained in the DSM, many countries have removed “fetishistic transvestism” from their version of the international ICD manual.

Trolls Unfortunately gender normative societies have ways of fighting those that threaten the status quo.  A very small minority of crossdreamers and transsexuals absorb the sexist ideas of their upbringing and try to fit into the binary paradigm of their parents. For them the idea that there are no absolute and clear boundaries between straight and queer, cis and trans becomes a threat. A few of these may also lack the kind of empathy and social skills needed to respect the struggling and searching of others. They become trolls policing the identities of others.

At Crossdreamers.com and Crossdream Life, we have had to ban four to six participants of this kind as they threatened to destroy the very culture that made open and caring discussion possible. (The number is uncertain as some of them may have come back under new identities). 

Half of these have been supporters of the “Harry Benjamin Syndrome” tribe of transsexual separatism, trans women who fear any association with crossdressers and crossdreamers, as they believe they threaten their status as “real women”. The others argue strongly that most -- if not all -- crossdreamers are fetishists, and fetishists only. It seems to me that members of this second group feel that their male identity is threatened by any talk of gender and transgender spectrums, and they consequently want turn all crossdreamers over to their side. 

The moderators of the forums often find it hard to handle trolls like these, as they believe it is important to keep the forums open to as many crossdreamers as possible. Most crossdreamers who approach these arenas are vulnerable. The last thing you want to do is to dismiss them just because they make use of an outdated vocabulary or repeat sexist dogma absorbed throughout a life lived in fear. The trolls take advantage of this tolerance to the point of scaring others away.

But for each such extremist, there are hundreds of crossdreamers who spend time in these forums helping themselves and each other. And it is their openness, courage, intelligence and love that give me hope for the future!

Jack Molay is the pen name of a male to female transgender crossdreamer living in Scandinavia. He is the owner of the leading crossdreamer blog, Crossdreamers.com and co-founder of Crossdream Life, a forum for crossdreamers and gender variant people.

(The text is at it was submitted to the book project. Headlines, illustrations and links have been added for this blog version.)

Trans-anthology project facebook page




Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!