Dilemmas: Is he also Shirley from Purley?

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If, having spent a jolly weekend in London with your son, meeting his girlfriend and catching up on the news, you find, while tidying up his flat, a cupboard full of women's clothes in your son's size and a transvestite magazine, what do you do? This was the dilemma facing Gill, who was freaking out with anxiety.

Was he gay? Should she tackle him? And, no doubt at the back of her mind, was the usual worry: was it in some way her fault? Judging by the reader response, she should feel reassured. Nearly all of them, many transvestites themselves, assured her that her son's predilections were no more than a 'hobby', a minor kink, nothing to be ashamed of.

True, there were some people who thought she was a terrible snooper as Mrs P Anderson of Wadhurst, East Sussex, , pointed out: 'Our children are their own persons once adult - nobody should know what goes on behind closed doors.' And the 'nosy woman' should 'leave well alone', wrote Thomas Orchard of Manchester. 'I doubt if she's told him all the skeletons lurking in her own cupboard]'

But most of the many TVs (as some call themselves) advocated frankness. Jay said: 'Gill probably missed her cue. Most transvestites go in perpetual fear of being found out. They cover their tracks very skilfully. That Gill's son left his clothes where it was very likely that his mother would find them indicates that he wished to come out of the closet, at least where his mother was concerned.'

And Yvonne Sinclair ('transvestite extraordinaire') agreed: 'Perhaps the mum might not want to see him actually wearing a frock, but if they get it out in the open, everyone will feel a lot better.'

But how should she bring the subject up? There was the direct approach. Anne Crocker of Bath (a real woman, by the way) suggested asking: 'What are you doing with all those outsize ladies' dresses? Starting a boutique? A theatrical costumiers? Playing Charley's Aunt?' '

Slightly less direct but, working on the theory that since the son had found a shirt newly ironed by Gill in his wardrobe he must know that she knows, Mrs Charlton of South Glamorgan, suggested that Gill 'buy a large summer dress and hang it in her son's wardrobe with a note pinned to it 'From a loving mother'. '

The voice of experience came from Alison. 'Buy him some silky panties,' she advised. This had been her way of letting her boyfriend know that she was well aware of his habit. He was delighted. 'Now all my boyfriend's undies are feminine and as soon as he gets home from the office, his suit is changed for a blouse and skirt and we couldn't be happier.'

But another transvestite, David, who is married with two children and has never had, nor wishes to have, a homosexual relationship, realised that Gill might not feel so brave. If she couldn't face tackling her son directly, she should 'convince herself that he just occasionally dresses in women's clothes for fun and that it is a phase which will pass. That way she can retain her ideal view of her son and maintain their relationship.'

When it comes to TVs, the question on everyone's lips is 'Why?' Gill was no exception in feeling confused. The general conclusion was that it was almost certain he wasn't gay. Indeed, some say the majority of TVs come from the armed forces or butch, macho careers. 'Janet Scott' of the Beaumont Society, a self-help group for transvestites, estimated that there are about 2 million cross-dressers - 85 per cent of them heterosexual - in Britain.

James, a married professional man from North Yorkshire, tried to explain the compulsion he feels. 'Transvestism stems from a desire to understand something which I cannot otherwise gain any real access to: the distinctive way in which women experience the world. I find women sexually attractive; I want to feel what it is like from the inside to be someone whom I view from the outside in such a way. I do not wish to be a woman; what I wish is to experience things as a woman, while still being a man - in effect, to experience a heterosexual relationship from both sides of that relationship simultaneously.'

'Yvonne Sinclair' said: 'The happiest TVs are those who can share it with others, who can go to work in a suit, play football, then come back home, put on a frock and become Shirley from Purley.'

A longing to share his secret with his mother might well be the reason that Gill's son had not locked his wardrobe door. An anonymous reader wrote that many TVs are dying to chat about clothes, make-up tips and so on with a real woman.

'It would be lovely if Gill could take her son shopping,' he wrote, wistfully. 'But in the end, what does a bit of lace here and there matter, compared to a mother / son relationship? Not at all really.'

The last word must come from Jay, since his story mirrors Gill's so perfectly. 'As a gender dysphoric myself, I worried at length as to whether I should tell my own mother,' he wrote. 'I did, and have never regretted it. Since then I have been both son and daughter to her and have achieved a closeness that we both value. Indeed, now she is more elderly, I can help her as a daughter in ways that just would not occur to a son.'

So think of it like that, Gill. Not so much losing a son to a kinky underworld of suspender belts and bizarre sexuality Instead it is like gaining a daughter.

For advice on transvestism contact the Beaumont Society Information Line (0582 412220), Beaumont Trust on Tues and Thurs 7pm-11pm (071-730 7453), or the Phoenix Centre (071-837 1171).

Dear Virginia

My mother was a model and socialite, often away for months on end when I was small. She never thought twice about leaving me in the care of different nannies and au pairs. I put many of my problems down to her lack of concern and love for me. She was never there for me when I needed her.

I have been detaching slowly from her, seeing less and less of her - we even managed to skip Christmas last year - and the last thing I feel like doing is sending her a Mother's Day card. But my sister told me that my mother is very hurt by my withdrawal, and says that even if I don't mean it, a card would mean a lot to her. I'm torn between maintaining a dishonest equanimity and acting as I really feel. What should I do?

Best wishes,

Karen

Please send comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.

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