Swerve Magazine comes to Masquerade...

For the October 2002 issue of Swerve, a Winnipeg based Queer Newsmagazine, we were approached about being involved doing a makeover, interviews, and having photos published about our group. We of course said yes! The result is the wonderful article below!(Reproduced here with permission from the Author)

Crossing the lines By Richard F.J. Wood

A tale of two shirts...

In the early 90s, I found a long-sleeved denim shirt in a store, buttoned down the front, light blue in colour with a splash of tie-dyed purple across the chest. The top two buttons were undone, so I slipped it over my head to try it on. The size said small; it fit me perfectly. I grabbed another one in pink and bought them both.

After I arrived home, I modeled them for my partner. But something was wrong. The pink shirt fit more loosely than the purple. After switching between the two a couple of times, I noticed something else: The buttons on the purple shirt were on the wrong side. This is when I learned that the buttons and buttonholes on woman's clothes are the reverse of men's. When buttons first became popular, only the richest women could afford the costly fashion innovation. The buttons were positioned on the left and the buttonholes on the right, since most people are right handed, and the women were usually dressed by their maids. This way, the buttons were on the right side for the maid as she faced her mistress. It wasn't the first time I had examined my feelings about gender and clothing, but it was the first time I had to put those feelings to the test. Even though the woman's shirt was the same style as the men's and it fit better, I worried someone would notice the buttons were reversed. This month, I decided to learn more about a local group that provides support and services to people who explore cross-dressing and gender more deeply.

Trans terminology...

The terminology surrounding gender expression has shifted and expanded as more information has become available and understanding has increased. Therefore, some terms can be ambiguous and others overlap. Politics and personal preferences play a role in how individuals within the transgender community define and apply these terms, so be aware that others may disagree with the following explanations. However, they will provide a basic guideline.

A distinction that should be kept clear is the one between biological or genetic gender and gender identity. Biological or genetic gender is innate: we are born with a genetic code that determines our biological gender, which is often (though not always) reflected in our physical characteristics, such as our genitals, body hair, bone structure, voice, etc. Gender identity refers to how we perceive our gender and how that perception manifests itself in appearance and mannerisms, which can be very different from what genetics dictate.

Transgender is an all-encompassing term for expressions of gender different from a persons biological gender. This can be through cross-dressing or through surgical transformation from one gender to another. It includes cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals, and even drag queens. Transgender is considered a positive, inclusive term, but its broad definition limits its ability to fully convey the complexity of how each individual expresses their transgenderism.

Cross-dressing is the taking on of characteristics of the opposite gender, usually through the use of clothes, makeup, and accessories. It is usually a temporary state. Because of the diversity of motivations for cross-dressing, the term can be applied to many situations: a person in transition from one gender to another, a drag queen, someone in a costume. A further distinction can be made using the term cross-living, which means living life with a gender identity other than what one was born with. This can be a part-time or full-time venture.

Drag queens and kings are people who cross-dress for reasons of performance and entertainment. Some say that doing drag is not exactly the same as cross-dressing, but as with much of the terminology, the distinction is not always clear since a cross-dresser can also be a drag performer and vice versa. A distinction often made is that drag queens tend to exaggerate, while cross-dressers emulate.

Transvestites are people who cross-dress (i.e., wear the clothes of the opposite gender). Reasons vary, but it can be related to an expression of a persons feminine or masculine qualities (cross-dressing is not limited to men, though the term transvestite is usually applied to men only), sexual expression, relaxation, recreation, and even entertainment. For some, the term has taken on negative connotations and has been replaced with cross-dresser or transgender.

Transsexuals are people who make, or feel the need to make, the transition from one gender to another. It is considered a medical condition, sometimes labeled gender dysphoria. The person may be biologically of one gender, but inside, feels he or she belongs more to another gender. Treatment can involve hormone therapy, cosmetic surgery, and sex-reassignment surgery. A person who is in the process, but has not completed it, is called a transitioning transsexual or a pre-op transsexual. Once the process is complete, they are considered to be a transitioned transsexual or post-op. All of this should not be confused with intersexed, which replaces the term hermaphrodite. This is a person born with the genitals of both sexes or with ambiguous genitalia. In such cases, sex-reassignment may also take place, often at a young age.

About Masquerade...

Masquerade was started in the early 90's by Mary, owner of Lady Godiva, and the Prairie Rose Gender Society, a group that dealt with transsexual issues. Prairie Rose later folded, but Shandi credits Mary, the groups den mother with the growth and continued success of Masquerade. Word of mouth was used to find new members initially, followed by small advertisements. Masquerade is now a registered non-profit group with over forty members; about ten to fifteen attend meetings on a regular basis. Even more are involved through connections made over the Internet, an important resource for those who live in rural areas or are not ready to come out to meetings. Visit them at groups.msn.com/MasqueradeMB. or call 586-9356 for more direct communication.

The mandate of the group is to provide a safe place for members to explore cross-dressing, to share their experiences with others, and to socialize with like-minded people. Open to men and women who cross-dress, as well as partners and family, it is often the first step away from a solitary existence.

Masquerade is activities include workshops and guest speakers on topics directly related to cross-dressing, such as sewing, makeup, hair, and voice control, as well as more general issues of safety in public places and mental health. There are private parties, socials, and outings for movies, shopping, pool, and dining. Several of the girls frequent the "friendly" bars such as Happenings, Club 200 , and Gio's. Many of the members also form close friendships with each other. Rules are limited to those surrounding discretion. Chance encounters between members in public must be treated carefully so as not to inadvertently out one another. There is no strong mandate to educate the public directly or to take on political issues; misinformation is corrected as it arises, and attitudes are changed simply by creating a presence in the community. Members can access the club's resource library and receive a bi-monthly newsletter, Lipstick & Lace.

Potential members are screened through a phone call and then a public meeting with two current members. This assures safety and comfort for everyone involved, as the number one concern of new members is discretion. There is no formal interview; instead, a casual get-to- know-each-other session is usually all that is needed to discover if the new member and Masquerade are a good fit. Sometimes the callers are looking for information that goes beyond what the group can offer, such as options for medical treatment or counseling; others mistake the group for an escort or dating agency. They emphasize that this is not about sex. My first contact takes place in the home of one of the long-term members and past president, Shandi, and with Masquerade is current president, Vanessa.

Initial Meeting...

Shandi's appearance in a short black dress with a red stripe up the side catches me off guard as I stand at the back door of a modest house in a quiet north-end neighborhood. Hairless arms, chest, legs, and face. Shoulder length hair , her own, not a wig , and makeup. The deep voice and large frame give him away, but otherwise, quite effective. She is a gracious host, and makes me feel welcome in her home.

In the living room, a quick survey of the shelves and walls reveals the man behind the woman. In his wedding photo, he looks just like any other suburban husband might look standing next to his new wife. There are photos of his two daughters, now age 11 and 13, beaming pretty and confident smiles. Here is a CD collection full of 80s rock and plenty of Kiss albums. When I ask if these are all hers, she invites me to the basement.

Just past the electric keyboard and drum set, a collection of Kiss memorabilia autographed photos, videotapes, albums, and figurines fill half the room. Another smaller section is filled with Star Trek keepsakes. She shows me what looks like a professionally shot poster from a Kiss concert; it's one or her own shots. I'm impressed. We move back upstairs to the dining room to talk. We are joined by her wife, Cheryl, who has just arrived home from work.

Shandi chose her name from Kiss song. "It's a different name. It's not a Betty or a Susan, and I like to think of myself as a little bit different." Her origins resemble those of many other cross- dressers. A few items borrowed from Mom's drawers and closet, experimental donning of a shoe, a skirt, a piece of jewelry. It's come and gone over the years. Either relaxation or stress brings it out. I get stressed, I get the urge to relax by doing this. Initially, it was experimental and sexual, being it was puberty. As I grew, and especially since I met my wife, it's not been an issue for me that this is wrong or weird as so many people think that it is."

Nearly ten years ago, when Shandi married his wife, Cheryl, acceptance from her and an increased openness in the media surrounding transgender issues created an atmosphere in which Shandi was ready to move out of the experimental stage into something more serious. "We were watching things like Jerry Springer, to see that there were other people like this out there, but it was never very real. A lot of them had other issues besides wearing clothes; it didn't really hit home. We found out there was a place to go where this was acceptable called the Crypt. We went with friends of ours, checked it out. It was okay. Here I was out. I wasn't sitting at home in my living room like so many cross-dressers do, dreading the time somebody comes home and you have to rip it all off, hide it in the closet, and start all over again"

From there, Shandi progressed to dressing at parties where she knew people. When the Crypt disappeared, the Black and Blue balls became a place to go and be comfortable. It was here that a new friend told Shandi about a fledgling group called Masquerade. Shandi joined up, and within two meetings began feeling comfortable. "They really gave me a better feeling about myself, knowing that there were other real people out there that do this. People I got to know, a lot that I consider friends"

Shandi is at the halfway point for cross-living. With her wife and daughters knowing, along with most friends and family members, there is little pressure to hold back. She always keeps her body hair shaved and has grown her hair out. She has never received a negative reaction when revealing herself to friends or strangers. "I had one lady giggle in Polo Park. I thought I've got nicer legs than you've got, bye bye!"

Shandi learned her early techniques through trial and error, but has received input and assistance from Cheryl. Cheryl explains jokingly, "i wasn't about to do it for him every time he wanted to get dressed Shopping hot spots include Le Chateau and Polo Park, but Value Village is also an excellent fashion source (though size choices are limited). Some members like to be cross-dressed when shopping, but not always. The sales clerk shouldn't know, shouldn't care. They're just concerned about the sale. If they ask is this for you?" and you say "Yeah" and they say "Oh my God!" then they've just lost a sale!" When I ask if cross-dressing is an expensive pursuit, Cheryl answers with a laugh. Although they are close in dress size, Cheryl and Shandi have different tastes. Makeup, clothing, and accessories can all add up, so budgeting and sharing come into play. "I like shorter skirts than she does!" says Shandi. Cheryl concurs, "She's" got better legs than I do!"

Over the years, Shandi has found that qualities drawn out of her personality when cross- dressed have merged with her personality when not cross-dressed. She is more at ease making eye contact and more expressive in her conversations. There are benefits beyond self- expression and communication, such as maintaining a youthful appearance, improved hygiene, and body awareness. Cross-dressing has also brought her closer to her family. Shandi's daughters have known their father cross-dresses since they were eight and ten. "When they [were] old enough to ask intelligent questions, they were old enough to accept an answer. Having two young daughters and having the ability to communicate with them about little-girl issues, like helping my youngest pluck her eyebrows, I think that's cool. How many Dads can do that?" Instead of being lost in a household with three women, Shandi's enhanced feminine side bridges the gender gap and strengthens her family.

Vanessa, club president since early this year, arrives halfway into my talk with Shandi. I don't have the advantage of rummaging through her shelves and photos to get a sense of the man behind the woman, which only peaks my curiosity. Where Shandi is an open book, Vanessa maintains her mystery.

Infamous for her obsession with shoes, Vanessa (a.k.a. Trixie) got her start by, what else, trying on her mom's pumps at a young age. Her wardrobe began with gifts from a supportive friend. Right after Mother's Day one year, Vanessa went in to buy her first pair of shoes, pretending they were a present. She sometimes shopped with close friends, but slowly began hitting the racks in Value Village on her own. She is selective about who she tells, so has avoided negative reactions. Most of her family knows. One of her cousins has no problem with the cross-dressing, but finds it hard to watch. "Maybe I'm too pretty for him,"she jokes. Every week or two, sometimes more often, she will cross-dress to go out. Once she's tackled the chore of getting ready, the relaxation begins. "I'm more outgoing, more confident, more feminine [when cross-dressed]. I can switch from my normal self to Vanessa, but I can also maintain both at the same time depending on who I'm talking to and the environment."Viewing the world from both a man's and a woman's vantage point has helped increase her ability to empathize with others. Physically, I've improved a lot since my first time out. I take better care of myself health wise."And hearing the lines tossed out by men while she's been cross-dressed has taught Vanessa how not to pick-up a woman at a bar.

Controlling body hair is her least favorite part of dressing. If she had unlimited funds, Vanessa says she would spring for electrolysis. She's not particularly hairy but says, "It's annoying trying to cover the beard, and get rid of the beard. Getting rid of it permanently would save a tremendous amount of time."Time spent getting ready can greatly surpass time spent reversing the process. "After three-quarters of an hour putting it on it takes two minutes to take it all off. It should be the other way around."

Masquerade has helped Vanessa learn techniques such as using lipstick instead of eye shadow on eyelids or using a yellow powder to cover her beard. The methods used by men differ slightly from those used by women, since there is more to cover up; but Vanessa feels that once the facial hair is dealt with, the bulk of the work is similar. Being part of a group is a fun and social part of her life. Outside of the group, she likes to hang out with members while not cross-dressed. "I've always been independent, but it's nice to have others around." Instead of changing her voice, Vanessa prefers to just relax, allowing it to soften naturally. "If I ever meet a girlfriend, she would have to know about Vanessa right away. If she couldn't accept Vanessa, that would be it.

"I consider myself my own girlfriend, my own wife. I'm probably happier like this than having a girlfriend because Vanessa takes up so much of my time. She comes first." We wrap up the meeting by viewing the outfit Shandi has chosen for me. I take my first clumsy steps in a pair of high-heels that are too large for my feet. We sort through a set of press-on nails, searching for ten that will fit my fingers.

Driving home, I'm upbeat and excited, though I wonder why. Meeting nice people, hearing new ideas, trying on clothes, these are all good reasons. But my excitement goes beyond these, and I consider, not for the last time, that I may enjoy this too much. Is this a one-shot deal or the start of a life-long cross-dressing experience?

The big day...

I have new, high-end disposable razors and plenty of moisturizer. Web sites I search for advice list several key ingredients for successful leg shaving: do it in hot bath, scrub with a loofa first, have good lighting, do it sitting not standing, use a new razor, clean the blade often, take your time, and moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.

But before all that, I have to lose the facial hair. I use clippers to clear away the bulk of my goatee, which has covered my modest chin for many years. I also run the clippers over my legs and hands, to thin out the long hairs before stepping into the tub. I soak, I scrub, and then lather up my right leg and foot (must not forget the top of my toes and feet). The ankle, shinbone, and knees present the greatest danger, as the skin is so close to the bone, and there are plenty of bumps and dips to slice. I start with the ankle, and with a firm grip and confident, but gentle strokes, I sever what I have considered my strongest link to masculinity, other than my genitals, of course.

It is surprisingly easy. Not a single cut, and the result is smooth and strange. My muscles are tired from holding my leg in the air for so long. For my left leg, I prop it up with the non-shaving arm. I move faster now, taking half as much time. The back of my calf and behind the knee is tricky . I can't really see what I'm doing . but it all comes off cleanly. I shave to just above the knee, since the dress should cover the rest.

My hands don't go so well. I find shaving with my left hand to be awkward. The terrain of my knuckles proves beyond my capabilities, and it is here, just below my ring finger, that I suffer my first cut. Nothing major . I'm not going to bleed to death . but the sting zaps my confidence, and I move a bit slower.

The second cut comes from a careless swipe at a stray hair on the side of my neck. I'm cautious with the chest hair, and only clear away anything that might poke up through the top of the neckline of the dress. The coarse stubble of my goatee puts up the biggest fight. I soon remember why I grew one in the first place, as ten or so tiny cuts ooze blood on my chin and upper lip.

I drain the tub and have a quick shower to rinse away all the hair. The sensation of the water striking my bare legs startles me, like warm fingers tickling my skin. Without my glasses, my vision blurs so when I look down at my body, the contrast between hairy and hairless regions creates the illusion that I am wearing a long-sleeve shirt and bicycle shorts.

I dry off, moisturize, and then moisturize again. Below my knees, my legs look like prosthetics . glossy, plastic, and not quite real. I force myself to stop running my hands up and down the smooth surface. Putting on my jeans and a shirt, I wait for the evening to arrive.

About cross-dressing...

Shandi says, "Most people look at a guy in a dress and think "you must be gay.'"There are estimates that 5 to 10 percent of the male population cross-dresses, but only a small percentage of them are gay or bisexual. Yet, the parallels between coming out as a cross- dresser and coming out gay are undeniable.

Often beginning with experimentation at a young age, cross-dressing can become the secret burden a youth will carry into adulthood. There may be attempts to suppress the impulse or deny its existence, but eventually the desire will assert itself. Solitary exploration comes next, and for many, especially in decades past, the practice remains behind locked doors and drawn shades.

For others, a process of self-education begins. Exposure to information, role models on television or in movies and books help teach that they are not alone. Then comes sharing what has been hidden with a close friend or family member. Sometimes, by choice; other times, by accidental exposure. Often the revelation is greeted with reluctant acceptance: Do what you want in private, but we don't want to talk about it, witness it first hand, or have our friends find out. This is where a group like Masquerade plays a vital role.

When coming out, finding people who feel the same, who accept us without explanation, rockets us toward self-acceptance and into the sense of community we all need. For gays and lesbians, that path has been more clearly marked, and even if you live in a rural area, there are ways to make connections with other gays and lesbians.

The path is not so clear for those who cross-dress. Many are straight, so simply wandering into the gay community presents an awkward solution. And even for those who are gay or bisexual, the transgendered, despite a long history in the gay community, are seen by some as a new addition, and acceptance may not be as quick or complete as it should. Role models in the media are starting to appear, but they resemble the early attempts at portraying gays and lesbians: based on stereotypes, used for comic effect, secondary to the straight characters, or with so many other issues they provide a negative interpretation of what cross-dressing is really about.

Masquerade provides a safe haven where people like Shandi and Vanessa can break away from the isolation and share their lives openly, receiving respect and understanding in return. The time has come for me to test my own ability to give and receive these things, as I park my car just off Corydon and walk to my first meeting.

The big evening...

I arrive at Lady Godiva shortly after 7:30. The sales clerk directs me downstairs where the meeting has already started. Nearly a dozen people are in the room, most are cross-dressed, but a few are not. I am introduced . name tags are mercifully in use . and the purpose of my visit is explained.

While the group holds their business meeting, I'm shown to a dressing room in the back to put on panties, stockings, and my dress. My friend Brent who as it turns out is also a friend of Shandi and Cheryl's, accompanies me to record the evening on film. I put my bra on backwards and then twist it around; cheating, I know, but I give myself this one small break. I stuff two falsies into each cup and align them properly with my collarbone.

It takes a minute to discern the front and back of the burgundy and wine panties, then on they go. On my first try, I put a run in my stockings with my big toe. No, make that two, Brent has found another one. The runs are bad, but not so bad that new stockings are in order. The dress is intimidating, and I mistake the straps used to hang it up for senseless shoulder straps. The top is suspended from a metal ring that clasps around my neck. When it is on, we notice that I didn't shave far enough up my legs, and a distinct line of hair descends more than an inch below the skirt. Also, my breasts are too big. Out come two of the foam falsies and off come the stockings.

I step timidly into the main room as the meeting wraps up. My makeover will also serve as a lesson. Andrea, the club's makeup specialist, will apply my new face and provide helpful tips to the others. I sit on a high stool in front of a large mirror next to a desk. Boxes and clear plastic bags of lotions, creams, powders, bottles, and sponges cover the surface.

The first task is to remove the excess leg hair and some residual stubble on my face. Andrea squeezes lotion into my hand to rub into my leg. I borrow her razor to tackle the excess hair on my thighs. I'm nervous about dry shaving, but the hair comes off without a hitch. An extra swipe at my goatee doesn't fair so well, and tiny spots of blood dot my lip and chin. This is as good as it gets; we will have to cover what remains.

More moisturizer is spread over my face. I rub in a yellow powder to hide my beard. Next, layers of foundation or base cream are massaged onto my face and neck. Sometimes dabbed with a sponge; sometimes with fingers. The layers are numerous, but never feel heavy. To smooth away lines from my forehead and lift my eyebrows, a tight nylon cap is secured on my head. Dark purple lip liner is painted around my lips using a small brush. Andrea hands the brush to me and suggests I may be able to do it better myself. I have no idea what the end goal of the lip liner is, so I study the difference between her lips and mine. I determine the general is to slightly alter the shape and size of my lips, adding an inverted triangle to the top and refined definition to the rest. The lipstick is a breeze. I apply, rub my lips together, and Andrea blots the excess away on a tissue.

The eye makeup frightens me. I don't want to get any in my contact lenses and I don't want to be poked in the eye. I have to keep my eyes open as the eyeliner crayon is drawn along the edge of my eyelid, just above and below the lashes. A dark line is extended past the eye to form a triangle in the corners. Andrea starts, then lets me finish. When I try using a light touch, nothing happens. When I press harder, too much happens. But with Q-Tips and Kleenex, mistakes are easily fixed.

The eye shadow fascinates me, with rainbows of coloured squares in little cases. Andrea spreads shades of purple and pink over my eyelids. Each stroke improves the effect, which at first looks cartoonish. Again, I look at her eyes to realize the end result. The mascara is a horror onto itself. A big black fuzzy brush coming at me like a creature in a 3D fright flick. I try a few strokes myself and eyelashes appear where there were none before, like magic.

My eyebrows receive some blond highlights, peaks, and an extension. Because there are two separate brows, no plucking is necessary. Blush is brushed onto my cheekbones. Then Andrea touches up a few goofs and gaffes. A generous application of powder seals my face and reduces the shine from my sweat. The makeover has taken nearly 90 minutes, and we're still not done. I put the stockings back on and close up the dress. As long as I'm careful, nobody should be able to see the hairline that starts just above the hem of my skirt. Earrings go on next; clip-ons, since I only have one ear pierced. The clasp pinches hard, and I wince. Shandi helps me on with the wig as the girls crowd in the doorway to see.

The group vetoes a short, ash-blond wig; it doesn't suit me. A search is made and a longer, darker hairpiece with curls is brought down. Once in place, it receives a unanimous "That's much better."I turn to face the mirror.

Vanessa said that putting on the wig, or toque as she calls it, is her favourite part of the process. The placement of the wig has the strongest effect. Without it, I could still convince myself the reflection belonged to Rick. Even with the makeup, I had a sense of the shape of my face and head. With those reference points gone, the mirror holds the image of a new person. "What are you going to call yourself? What is your name?" "I'm naming myself Dolly, after my Grandma,"I reply, knowing what will come next. "Well hello, Dolly!"they giggle. Hello indeed.

Ladies night out...

The last touches before we leave are the rapid application and painting of press-on nails and the donning of the dreaded high-heel shoes. "Walk on the balls of your feet,"I'm told. My balance isn't as bad as I had feared, but the discomfort is worse. Brent helps me transfer needed items from my pockets and backpack into a black, leather purse. Andrea presents me with a plastic bag containing lipstick, Q-tips, and mascara in case touchups are needed. Upstairs, we wait at the back exit as I struggle to pick my car keys from the depths of a relatively empty purse without breaking a nail. Then, with this entourage of exotic women, I leave the building.

That first step into the night air. That first draft up the skirt. Refreshing, exhilarating, and daunting. Brent accompanies to the car. I nod at the drivers of a vehicle that passes us on the street and ask Brent, "Did they think I was a woman?" He shrugs. "Well, it's dark, and they weren't looking closely, so probably they did."Not a full-fledged endorsement, but comforting nonetheless. Using the knuckle of a bent finger to lift the handle, I open the door and fall inside the car. I gingerly pluck my seatbelt from beside me andlock it into place. I forget hooking up the portable CD player (I know my limits), and instead test my new shoes on the pedals. Assured I can operate them without snagging a heel, I keep the shoes on while I drive.

We stop at my apartment to drop off my day clothes. My partner, who had no idea what I'm up to, runs around the apartment with his hands over his face, "I'm dating a drag queen! I'm dating a drag queen!"Once he calms down, his curiosity wins over his trepidation, and Walter decides to join us for a night out.

Walter drives the three of us to the bar, as I'm worried about my nails. Unable to find a graceful way of getting out of the car, I am thankful nobody sees me spread my legs and thrust myself off the seat. I hastily reposition my skirt. On the walk to the front doors, I search my memory for an image of any actress strolling gracefully through a hallway, a parking lot, a dance floor, in any movie. Emulate, I chant in my head.

The bar is relatively quiet, and I don't see a single familiar face. I'm disappointed. I realize how badly I wanted to show off Dolly. Shandi comes bounding from the other side of the room, followed by Cheryl, and shows us where the group has settled. I introduce them to Walter, and Cheryl offers to buy me a drink. "Make sure to get a straw,"I shout. I don't want to ruin my lipstick. We follow Shandi to our table.

After watching my struggle to sit down, Jacilynn teaches me to tuck my skirt behind me when I mount a stool. "And remember to keep those legs together."I try to gauge the looks we receive from other patrons. As a man, I would have an idea if I was being cruised, ignored, or if someone was trying to remember where he had met. Are these looks of amusement, disgust, or pity? Or are they impressed with the outfit, the makeup, the strut, the overall package? Unable to assess their reactions, I stop trying. This isn't about them, this is about Dolly. Gacheru, Swerve's news editor, is here. He approaches, " I didn't know if it was you, but then I saw Walter and figured it out."He's impressed, and I relish the attention. Shandi encourages me to take a stroll around the room to see if I recognize anyone else. Jacilynn leans in and says, "Relax your knees when you walk."

I do a lap around the room, nervous to be on my own. I don't see anyone I know. No, wait. I do see a friendly face. I sneak up behind him and say hello. He recognizes the voice, but looks disconcerted when he turns around. I explain I'm researching a story, and guilt hits me in the gut.

With those words, my adventure is reduced to a simulation, a pale shadow of the real adventure. I have an excuse. Oh no, I'm not doing this because I like it; I'm just researching a story. Dolly is disappointed. She wants to exist for her own sake, not as background material for work.

I stand with my friend awhile. A few of the women are dancing, including Vanessa. Watching her grind her hips, burning up the dance floor, leaves me tempted to join in; but the balls of my feet have reached their pain threshold and no matter what I had one my feet, I could never move like that. Instead, I say goodbye to my friend and make my way back to the table. I push Brent off of a stool and sit down, careful to brush my hand along the back of my skirt and to keep my legs together.

I ask how to change my voice. Many of the women are speaking in their natural voice, but want to know how to complete the illusion. Jacilynn offers some advice, "The trick is to put one finger on each half of your vocal cords."She places one finger over the top of hers, the other presses lightly on the bottom. "When men talk, both parts vibrate. Now when you talk, only one should vibrate."I make a low ooh sound, and the chords resonate under both fingers. A minor shift in tone and pitch and slowly, the bottom chords are still. I can't hear the change over the music, but I feel it.

A few drinks later, we move en masse to another bar. As we leave, my stride comes more easily, and I take little notice of the reactions as we pass. Dolly asserts herself. Monitoring myself stops, and being her kicks in. What felt awkward and strange is swiftly becoming natural as long as the walk isn't too far.

The place is empty, so we claim a section just off the dance floor. Walter sits with Shandi and her wife, clearly enjoying himself. I receive more tips and stories from Jacilynn ; I believe she would be a valuable teacher on perfecting one's look and manner. Andrea asks about my zodiac sign and birth date. Not content to be just a makeup expert, Andrea is also the resident astrologer. Walter sits at the table and joins in the conversation. Despite knowing he was with a group of cross-dressers, he is surprised to discover Andrea is a man. She is convincing: a resilient, been-through-it-all-and-came-out-shining woman with a deep spiritual side. Her no- nonsense approach to fashion . jeans and a white dress shirt . lend her a casual look that would be suitable for shopping in a mall or dining in a restaurant. She assesses our personalities and relationship based on our stars, simultaneously explaining how astrology became a guiding force in her life. Around me, women are dancing, posing for the camera, laughing, and talking: a group of friends out for an evening together; nothing more, nothing less.

It's getting late, and people start to call it a night. We say our goodbyes and head for the car. I am tired, and the nylon skullcap has produced a killer headache. My contacts have dried to my eyeballs, but I can't remove them until I do something about my nails. My feet ache, my earlobes are bruised from the clip-on earrings, and I need a shower.

But at home, I stand in front of the mirror to cherish Dolly in her full glory. Silky legs, adequate bosom, the purple velvet dress, the curls, the painted face. Running my hands along my calves one last time, I touch something many men never take the chance to feel. Not just skin, but qualities that lie under the skin. I like what I feel, and beyond the desire to sleep, there is no pressure to let it go.

Why not...

I have theories on why cross-dressing boosts confidence and self-esteem. First, the learning and mastering of new skills. Putting on makeup, selecting the right clothes, preparing hair, nails, and undergarments, walking gracefully in heels, mastering vocal control, these are all challenging to the newcomer and, when competently executed, create a strong sense of satisfaction. A successful transformation involves more than slapping on powder and lipstick, throwing on a dress, and talking in a falsetto. As a creative art form, cross-dressing can be as demanding and expressive as painting or sculpting, singing or acting.

Secondly, as Jacilynn explained, cross-dressing draws out characteristics that often have been lying dormant. It was surprising how many mannerisms rose to the occasion without conscious effort. The way I held my drink, how I sat, even the way I smiled were all subtly, and not so subtly, adjusted to match my new look. Exercise is effective when you push the muscles past their comfort zone, causing them to grow to handle the increased demand. Personality and character, when pushed beyond their comfort zone, respond in much the same way, becoming stronger, more flexible, and resilient. When the clothes and cosmetics are removed, the strength remains.

Finally, overcoming any fear empowers people, and for many men, loss of masculinity carries some fearful misconceptions. Dressing up, going out, having a good time, and coming home feeling positive has diminished what fears I held about not being able to maintain a manly image. That shirt with the buttons on the wrong side no longer makes me anxious, and I suspect if I found an article of clothing made for a woman that looked great on me, I would buy it, wear it, and not think twice.

There is one more aspect of cross-dressing that is not innate to the practice, but which can be the most uplifting part. This may also be the easiest for gays and lesbians to understand. It is the joy of sharing and expressing parts of your sexuality and gender that extend out of what mainstream society would call the norm with others who accept and appreciate instead of judging or tolerating. Spending all that time and energy cultivating a look and nurturing your feminine or masculine qualities to new heights, only to sit in your living room, shades drawn, watching TV or dancing alone to the stereo does not produce the same elation as sharing the experience with friends, family, and lovers. It is a feeling not so different from loving another, but being too afraid of what people might think to share that love. This is why groups such as Masquerade and the work they do are a vital and necessary part of the glbt community, not only building that "t"in glbt, but also building stronger ties between the genders.

As I dismantle Dolly, removing hair and clothing, tearing away press-on nails and clip-on earrings, I understand why Vanessa framed the choice between herself and a potential partner the way she did. Watching the makeup run down the drain, a human being dissolves and washes away. Dolly was the physical manifestation of my feminine side that until now never had the chance to strut her stuff. Now that we've met, there is no way to banish her to those inner regions again. Two parts of my personality have been integrated in an inventive, gentle way, leaving me more whole, more complete, and better off. Knowing this, the question is no longer "why do some people cross-dress?"The question is "why don't more people cross-dress?"

Epilogue...

It has been a few weeks since my outing with Masquerade. My goatee has grown back. Hair has returned to my legs and hands. I followed the instructions for preventing excessive itch and ingrown hairs . exfoliating and moisturizing daily . and experienced only a little discomfort along my neckline and the backs of my knees. Do I feel any desire to resurrect Dolly? In all honesty, I do at times. In the shower when I am shaving, there is a temptation to move the razor down to my shins and try again. But it passes, and I know that without the dedication and resources to treat Dolly like the lady she is, I probably won't bring her back any time soon.

Probably.