Crossdressing is what you call it when you are one gender but desire to wear the attire of the opposite gender as yourself. There are cisgendered crossdressers, homosexual crossdressers, heterosexual and transgendered crossdressers, among others. The concept is tricky for some to wrap their heads around as gender stereotypes assigned to different clothing types are specific to ones own culture. This is partially how we know trans people aren’t just crossdressers.
When a trans person is exploring their identity they can sometimes delve into what looks like crossdressing while they are still hiding in the closet or before they are able to publicly transition. The stereotype of a gay man crossdressing is born out of the drag scene. But not all people assigned male at birth who wear female coded women’s clothing are considered crossdressers in the truest sense of the word.
We often use it as an escape mechanism while we are hiding in the closet. We will find the time to be alone with complete privacy. During these times we explore our feminine side if we are AMAB or our masculine side if we are AFAB. I can’t speak for the non binary and gender fluid experience as I have no basis to go off. I do know for me I spent a lot of time literally hiding in a physical closet; lights out, doors locked, curtains pulled tight with blankets stapled to cover the window, trying on women’s clothing. I actually started doing this all the way back when I was 11 years old.
Once I discovered girls panties I refused to wear men’s underwear. To this day I have not worn a male coded underwear since I was 11. Once I got my hands on my first pair of panties there was no going back. I would cling to them like my life depended on it. In a lot of ways my life did depend on it as suicide was an option many queer kids turn to during their tumultuous upbringing. I would be lying if I said I didn’t attempt to take my own life multiple times.
I vividly remember that first day I wore girl panties under my “boy clothes” to school. I was equally terrified the other kids would find out as well as floating in the clouds of euphoria that day. I was finally free to be myself even if it was only in a small way. In fact my overwhelming desire to wear ladies underwear to school underneath my regular school clothes is exactly why I stopped participating in P.E. after 5th grade. I was not about to change my clothes in front of the other kids where someone might be able to see something I was surely hiding for my own protection.
Every trans person has to come to terms with the act known as crossdressing at some point in their lives. We have to first find our comfort zone. This is how we get a feel for what we feel safe doing. We also have to brush aside all societal stigmas and find our way to express ourselves in a safe manner consistent with our personal goals. Then we also have to work through the internalized transphobia instilled in us by a society that hates us. Once we have gone through all of this we have to shed the words crossdresser and crossdressing from our vocabulary. Trans women who present as female are *not* crossdressers. Nor are they drag. Of course coming to terms with drag is a whole other can of worms I won’t open up today.
One of the reasons labeling trans folks as crossdressers is problematic is it paints us in the light that we’re abnormal. Not to say crossdressing is itself abnormal but it inherently contains within its scope the concept of gender swapping. It asserts that the AMAB transgender woman is not a female but is a male wearing women’s clothing, thus a crossdresser. This is not the case. Even when a closeted pre-transition trans woman explores her gender expression by wearing female clothing, the assigned male at birth transgender woman should in all cases be thought of and referred to simply as a female.
Thus crossdressing, for her, is wearing male clothing except this is also false. The AMAB wears male clothing during the male-presenting phase in a phenomenon known as “boy mode” or “boy modding” wherein they put on a mask and pretend to be the male they were assigned at birth, often mimicking male attributes, often unsuccessfully in such a way as to be labeled awkward or even feminine in some instances. This is why AMAB transgender women in their youth are often pegged as homosexuals. They are effeminate men or crossdressing gays in the eyes of the transphobe. We need to change the paradigm entirely by removing crossdressing from our vocabularies when discussing transgender folks.