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I at Dinner Circle at the Rainbow Gathering
I at the groundbreaking ceremony for Grace Episcopal Church’s renovation
How I came to wearing “women’s” clothes in public
by Butterfly Bill
This was originally posted in 2000, but most of it still applies today.
It was the 2nd of July, and I was at the Rainbow Gathering in eastern Texas. It was about 1 in the afternoon, sunny and hot as it typically is there in midsummer. I came out of the camper on the back of my truck in a knit cotton and polyester tank top dress, drop waist, with the skirt hem about halfway down the thigh, with blue, red, and purple horizontal stripes on a white background. I topped it off with an olive drab Marine Corps utility cap (what they call a “cover”). I started to walk up the road towards the center of the gathering. This was the first time I had ever worn a dress in front of other people, and I was a bit nervous, not knowing what to expect.
But after only a few minutes a man with long hair and beard stubble a few days old, wearing dirty ragged jeans, a cowboy hat, and a leather vest – a bedraggled old road dog – looked at me and said with a laughing smile, “Walking around in your little sundress… That’s GREAT!!”
I then proceeded to walk thru the gathering. One woman called out from a distance, “Love your outfit.” Another who was sitting next to me on a log at the bliss fire pit of a kitchen also said, “I just love your outfit”. Most others just acted like it was perfectly normal to be wearing what I was wearing – which it is at Rainbow Gatherings, where many strange costumes are worn, as well as no clothes at all.
After about two hours I want back to my truck and said to myself, “This is the damnedest thing that has ever happened to me”. I smoked a bowl to think about it, and to rejoice at being astounded. I went on to wear that dress, and two others I had with me (both tanktops, but longer), for the remaining six days I was there, and had a whole teenage of crossdressing fantasies fulfilled – running around outside in broad daylight, with the sun on my shoulders and the wind around my legs. Women smiled at me just like before, I hugged people, I talked and joked and jammed with musicians. I stood in circles with people’s arms around me. I chopped wood and helped dig latrines. It was all real.
I had been to my first Gathering a year ago, and one of the things I noticed was the many men going around in cotton wrap around skirts, with India print patterns. Others were wearing ankle length tiered skirts, like many of the hippie girls were wearing around that time. None of the men wore dresses, just long skirts, but I wondered if I could get away with wearing a dress, and one evening I thought for a long time about putting one on and walking down the main trail into the midst – but I finally didn’t. I spent the next year wishing I had, and I went back to the next Gathering for the purpose of doing it – and I finally did.
Well, needless to say, I became a fanatical Rainbow. They had given me what I felt as the ultimate act of tolerance. I went on to many more Gatherings, and collected a considerable wardrobe including many elaborate tie-dyes.
A year later at a regional Gathering in Vermont, around a Main Circle campfire on the night of the Summer Solstice, to the beat of drums – I danced in a dress for the first time. Just feeling how it slid over my body kind of told me what to do. One sister ran her hands down my sides as she excused herself to get by me in the crowd. One brother apologized for having to stare at me, the sight of me he said was so electrifying to him. I started getting lots of compliments after that for my dancing, for something I had been embarrassed to do back when I was still in school. My first stepping out in Texas was my baptism, that night in Vermont was my confirmation.
I had started crossdressing like a lot of others do. In the summer between the sixth and seventh grade I discovered some of my mother’s and sister’s formal gowns in the attic, and started sneaking up there to try them on. There was the allure of the forbidden, doing something you’re supposed to be afraid of to find out what it’s really like – and perhaps gaining understanding and power over it, and release from the fear. There was a desire to do some of the kinder and gentler things that girls were allowed to do that all the pressures toward being masculine didn’t allow us boys.
I didn’t really want to stop being a boy, but I wanted to be allowed the privileges of girls also. I wanted to feel smooth nylon as well as coarse denim. I never thought I was gay, I definitely liked girls – and I liked femininity so much that I wanted to express it myself as well. I wanted to immerse myself in it, and having feminine clothes around my body helped with that feeling.
After I left home – thruout the Navy, college, my years living in a truck – I always kept a stash of lady’s duds that I used whenever I was in a place where I was sure enough of being alone. I never went thru any of the purges that other crossdressers talk about, getting rid of all your clothes in the hope of kicking your habit. I got rid of stuff a piece at a time because they were worn or torn, or I’d grown tired of them, or didn’t have the space for them. Sometimes it was just a few things in an awol bag, but I always had something. It was like my masturbation or marijuana smoking, something I didn’t feel was wrong, but something some people disapproved of for various reasons I didn’t really respect – but rather than confronting them I just wouldn’t let them know about it.
But still, I thought I had to hide it. The breaking point finally came when I was 40, and had been living in an intentional community out in the country in Virginia for several months (they didn’t like the word “commune”, but that’s what it was like). There you couldn’t keep any secrets. Anything you did was around other people, every place you kept stuff others went into too, any place you went another could unexpectedly show up.
After a few months, another member of the community got for me a month-long construction gig at her daughter’s bed and breakfast in Martha’s Vineyard, and there, in May, there were many foggy nights suitable for furtive excursions – and I went crazy making up for lost months. After looking at myself I finally decided: I’m tired of this shit, I want to find someplace where I can COME OUT! This was ten months after my first Gathering. Two months later I went to my second and did.
After discovering that there was at least one place in the world where I could wear clothes that were previously forbidden to me, I started to look for more.
Many of the Rainbow people were also fans of the music group The Grateful Dead, and searching for a Rainbow brother I’d met at a Gathering led me into one of their parking lot encampments around an arena where the band was playing. There I found another flamboyant costume show, with tie-dyes all over the place and again, a few of the men wearing skirts. The brother was running a free kitchen out of his converted schoolbus, and I hung out with him and his friends for the whole Labor Day weekend it was happening.
A sister got for me what they called a “miracle” – a ticket to the show for free – and I went inside and experienced a communal emotion like I never had before. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was up out of their chairs dancing the whole show – moving out into the aisles and the hallways in front, making some of the security people jumpy nervous. Wandering thru the hallway – which was now as steamy as a Turkish bath from all the people who had worked up a sweat waving wildly in all directions – I spied a man dancing in a royal blue shirtwaist dress, and I knew this was another place.
Next time the Dead came to town, I was there in a bright red tanktop, and danced for three hours straight among 70,000 other people all doing the same thing. Out in the parking lot I bought the first of my soon-to-be extensive collection of tie-dyes. In few other places had I had more women smiling and saying “hi”.
Well, I became a Deadhead as well. I never went on tour with them, but I always attended whenever they played nearby. When the Dead died and passed their flock on to Phish, I started to go to their shows and still do.
When I was still at the intentional community, another member talked me into going to an all-Memorial-Day-weekend campout meeting at another community. They called it a “Men’s Conference”. We were to discuss “men’s issues”, but the main issue discussed was homosexuality and gay-straight relations. Over half the men there were gay, and there were in attendance several drag queens and a few unabashed flaming faggots. Dresses, scarves, and jewelry were hanging about for anyone who wanted to try them, and many not previously accustomed to it did. I, of course, didn’t need any of them, I had plenty of my own already – and a man said to me on the Sunday morning, “I’ve loved the fashion statements you’ve been making all weekend.”
This might have not lead to anything further, but a month later – back at the community and sitting by the swimming lake they had there – one of the women who was living next door to me asked, “Well, did you have a good time at the men’s conference?” Then she hesitated, and said with a grin, “Liked your dress.” After seeing the “huh?” in the expression on my face she said, “There’s a picture of you playing the mandolin in a bright red dress taken by (name) when you were there, and Foxfire says that’s what you wore the whole time.” The photographer was another friend of theirs who had indeed been there, and I had indeed been jamming with someone wearing the same bright red tanktop that I had introduced to the Dead show.
Well, the secret was out, so I figured what the hell, I wore an outrageous teal blue tennis dress to their following Halloween party, one of the tie-dyes to the Christmas one, and then started casually showing up to ordinary events in skirts.
While all this was going on, I started pushing the envelope out in Babylon as well. In town I started including some things bought in the ladies’ department. I started with knit pants, with elastic tops and no fly, in colors other than black, brown, gray, or navy. Then I started wearing skorts (bermuda length shorts with a flair so that they look like a skirt from most angles). I soon branched out into lycra and cotton leggings, first black, then floral patterns – teamed with long sweatshirts with hemlines hanging below the butt, in pink, fuchsia, or teal.
Shortly before leaving Virginia and the community because the local economy had gone to hell and I lost my job, there was a setback. A women that I had gotten into a relationship with at the community – one of the few who has ever been open to me sexually – had started out acting tolerant of my evolving costume. But it turned out that she was really against it, and she started complaining more and more. She thought it was a “distress pattern”, and she was terribly afraid of what the other people working at the high school where she was a teacher would think. Also, she never knew when one of her parents might show up.
We finally had one vicious argument that included her crying, “Am I supposed to be proud to be going with a TRANSVESTITE?” I called her a knee-jerk feminist and left. Later we tried a mediation session hosted by the man who had turned me on to the men’s conference, but it was plain she wasn’t going to budge. I chose freedom.
I went on the road looking for greener pastures, found some in Lawrence, Kansas, and continued to dress on the edge. Two years later at an art show in a park that the city put on every year, attended by many left-leaning liberal and assorted arty types, I wore an ankle length knit black skirt. I will never forget the turned-on-so-much-she-was-trying not-to-laugh look on the face of a college girl at the drum circle I got into. I started wearing them into the local university’s computer lab and to shows. I’d wear them when shopping for more at the thrift stores. I’d have women stopping me in the street and giving me compliments. About a year and a half later in the wintertime I started wearing dresses. This just kind of happened quietly with no fanfare.
So here I am, out and about. The boss has seen me, the neighbors can see my stuff hanging out to dry on the line. Some of the women at a charity thrift store where I’ve done some volunteering bring stuff around for me to try on. I drive long distance in skirts and go into truck stops. A crew with a video camera was nosing about at a regional Gathering in West Virginia and got me with my mandolin and aforementioned red tanktop, and at a later gathering three separate people in three places said they saw me on CNN.
Coming out was a gradual process. I didn’t jump into the pool holding my nose, I tested the waters and eased myself in gradually. I started out among people who were social rebels and most likely to tolerate my defying convention, then moved on to others nearer to the mainstream.
I followed the pattern of many other crossdressers – at about the age of 40 you finally get tired of hiding and lying and worrying about being discovered, and decide to come out and be honest.
I’m not going to say that I get universal acceptance. There are still places where I won’t wear a skirt. I won’t wear one at a meal served by the Salvation Army. There are many bars I won’t go into, nor will I wear one anywhere else there are likely to be lots of drunks. I won’t wear one in a predominately non-white section of a big city. I’m reluctant to wear one downtown on Friday or Saturday night when all the teenagers are out in their cars cruising.
Everything I was afraid of happening if I went out in feminine clothes has actually happened a few times. I’ve been laughed at. I’ve been angrily called a faggot. I’ve had store clerks look at me disapprovingly. I’ve had a girlfriend break up with me. But these are the exceptions that have emphasized all the majorities that have accepted me and even voiced their approval. People can get all kinds of bold when they’re behind a car door and say things they wouldn’t if they were out with you on the street.
My look is gender bender. I don’t try to pass, and don’t want to. I have short hair and a full beard, and talk in my usual bass voice that can sing D below the staff. I pick stuff that fits and flatters my male body. I don’t wear make-up, it’s uncomfortable to have such sticky stuff on my skin. I don’t wear bras because I don’t have any boobs for them to hold. Wearing high heels is painful, so I don’t. I wear hemlines long enough or flares wide enough that I can get away without wearing any underwear.
It seems to me that so much of the drag queen look is based on the artificial and unachievable beauty values that many women find oppressive, that sentence them to wearing uncomfortable things just to keep up appearances. So many of them look like prostitutes standing on a curb. I don’t find makeup attractive on real women, nor five inch heels and bouffant hairdos – I’ll take the hippie natural look anytime.
Instead I wear the stuff that is comfortable and feels good. I like the feel of rayon, nylon, polyester, and knit cotton-poly as it slides over my body while I move. I like the breezes around my legs while wearing a skirt on a hot summer day. I like the bright colors and patterns – I am partial toward pink, purple, fuchsia, teal, bright red. I do like ruffles and floral prints.
When I get out of my pants I get into a different mood. The girlfriend I mentioned earlier told me that she could go thru the whole day at work wearing her bra and never think about it, but as soon as she got in her car after work, she couldn’t wait to get home and get it off. I’m the same way with a pair of pants. I wear them at work, which is on a construction site where I need clothing as armor to protect me from all the things there that can cut, scratch, and abrade, and to keep out the extremes of weather. When I get home I get out of the armor into something soft. Pants = work. Dress = leisure. (This is probably the exact opposite of how most women feel, but my upbringing experience is different.)
Another earlier girlfriend said of wearing a bra, “Imagine having to go thru your whole life with this tight elastic band around the middle of your chest.” In similar fashion a man is expected to go thru life with something tight around his waist, be it an elastic underwear band or a belt, or both. (He can try to wear suspenders or bib overalls, but there are places where these are as unacceptable as a dress.) In a dress or a robe, my belly is free, and so is the rest of me.
I don’t try to look like something I ain’t, and I believe this is a great part of the acceptance I get. A man presenting himself as a man, but in different clothes, seems like a daring nonconformist, a rebel – or at least a contented eccentric. A man trying to be a woman seems like someone trying to flee things he doesn’t feel good about, and this vibe disturbs many people.
Guys today wear earrings and shoulder-length hair, something I never saw back in the 50’s when I was a kid. Girls can now play trombone or tuba in the school band, and boys can play flute. Women can take jobs as carpenters or policemen, and men can be nurses. Many events have transpired since a bunch of queens at the Stonewall bar staged their first open resistance and started a movement. Forty years of gender liberation movements have started to make an impression upon the minds of the mainstream.
You can now be a man and enjoy previously womanly things as well. There is no need to stay in a stuffy bedroom when you can go outside and feel the breezes around your legs. You can come out if you are willing to be honest about it. If you feel good about it and show it, others will feel good too.