Review of Forbidden Fantasies: Men Who Dare to Dress in Drag

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A Review of Forbidden Fantasies: Men Who Dare to Dress in Drag

by Mike Phillips, Barry Shapiro, and Mark Joseph

New York: Collier Books

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin



As Richard Docter and other academic researchers have pointed out repeatedly, the vast majority of men who cross-dress are garden variety heterosexuals, likely to be married and likely to hold good jobs, who have a little kink in their otherwise unremarkable makeup. Another, significantly smaller group of cross-dressers, bi- or homosexually oriented, includes among its numbers a small subgroup of men who are true drag queens, called by Docter, in Transvestites and Transsexuals, "a street-oriented and far more socially deviant group...." Docter also notes that "the term drag queen' is a slang designation for cross-dressed males who function as prostitutes."

For better and for worse, photographers Mike Phillips and Barry Shapiro, and writer/interviewer Mark Joseph, "three non-gay men [who know] nothing about drag queens," make – indeed, seem to know about – none of the academic distinctions in their book, Forbidden Fantasies.

For worse because the authors begin with a stereotyped understanding of their subject and, for all their liberal posturing, never see the existence, let alone the nature, of their own prejudice. More interested in sensation than information, they lump all cross-dressers together as if most were gay and all flambuoyant, and as if the queens have to live "within their own carefully concealed, indeed forbidden, world" because their "very existence is a threat to the security of the tremendously varied and complex homosexual culture as a whole."

For better because, as journalists rather than researchers, the authors bring us the words and images of a few real people rather than statistical norms and means. Boyd masquerades as Wonder Woman; with his mother's assistance Frank dresses as a fat French maid; Ronnie is considerably prettier than the female lover he lives with; Scott is a Folsom Street leatherman when he is not portraying one of the Raiderettes; Donna Mae Roz likes to do "the ho stroll in drag," though she was a "first-string defensive tackle and second-string fullback.... ran track and did wrestling" in high school and has "big calves and broad shoulders."

I was very touched by some of the interviews and photographs in this volume, as people who had searched – or were searching – for some truths in their lives revealed a measure of themselves, their roads, and their expectations. I was also distressed by the facile approach the authors took to a complex subject I feel deserves better.

Then I noticed when Forbidden Fantasies was published and I took myself back to my own world in 1980, a few years after I had met Barry Shapiro at a party for his book Handmade Houses, when I was writing and packaging equally innocent and hopeful books with some of our mutual acquaintances. I've come a long way, I thought, or the world around me has. ETVC – the Bay Area cross-dresser's social and support organization – didn't even exist in 1980 and maybe the only cross-dressers anyone ever saw then, other than the researchers and the transvestites themselves, were gay drag queens.

One appendix to Richard Docter's book contains more than 200 references, all but about 10 of which are academic or scholarly. For those of us involved in the professional social sciences those pages of small type are a valuable resource guiding us to a particular version of the truths we need to know. But for those of us involved in the lifestyles or subcultures social scientists love to study they are largely hogwash.

Forbidden Fantasies is hogwash of a different order, naive in its belief that it is brazen when it is merely voyeuristic. But it is also a resource leading to a set of truths unlikely to show up in the academic journals: that the men who cross-dress – gay and straight, drag queens, ladies, and fetishists alike – are just folks like any other folks, doing the best they can to live the best lives they can, where they are with what they have for who they are. We have met the drag queens and they are us.


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