Transgender support clubs, which used to reign supreme as the means of hob nobbing with public cross-dressers, are on the decline. Across North America transgender support organizations are seeing their numbers vanish. The membership of Xpressions, a Toronto-based transgender support club, is down 30% from this point one year ago from 66 paying members to 46 paying members. Xpressions has less paying members now than its had at the end of its first year of operation in 1995.
The club, Gender Mosaic, saw its membership steadily drop over the years. In 1996 the club had approximately 70 paying members. In recent years, the club dipped to a low of 25 paying members.
The club, Illusions, based out of Calgary, Alberta, also witnessed its membership figures drop over the years. The club has approximately 20 paying members in 2003. Eight years ago the club had over one hundred paying members. A small number of members broke off to open a Tri-Ess chapter, Serenity, however, its out right folded.
The social club, Powder Puffs, based out of Orange County, California, out-right dissolved. Two years ago the club organized a cruise vacation on the trans atlantic cruise ship, The Queen Mary. The event drew over one hundred people.
A number of chapters of the Society of the Second Self, (Tri-Ess) which used to have 1,100 members spread out to over 27 chapters in 1993, have also out right dissolved. Tri-Ess attempted to start chapters in Long Island, New York, and West Chester, New York, only to see the paying members absorbed into the New York Chapter and the chapters fold. The New York Chapter, buoyed by the collapse of Long Island and West Chester, has approximately 65 paying members. The membership level there has at best fluctuated. The South Jersey chapter, which is at the centre of a huge metropolitan area, has only a handful of members left and is barely in operation.
Social clubs are not alone in seeing their numbers dry up. Annual convention events, like Fantasia Fair, held in Provincetown, MA also saw its attendance decline markedly in 2002.
principle causes for the decline of the trans* support organization
What is behind the sudden disinterest in transgender support organizations?
The value proposition of support organizations is several fold. Firstly, support organizations offer access to a safe, social environment for the purposes of meeting like-minded people. Secondly, support organizations offers resources. Emerging cross-dressers thirst for knowledge about other people's experiences. Thirdly, the support organization offer peer-level support, including spousal support. The married cross-dresser, whose marriage finds itself in jeopardy due to his proclivities towards cross-dressing, turns to support organizations, in hopes of saving his/her marriage.
The challenge the trans* support organization face is that members of support organizations typically do not find ongoing benefits from any one of these service offerings.
In the case of providing a safe, social environment, there are a number of reasons why cross-dressers no longer value this service on a perpetual basis. Firstly, the general public are much more aware that there are men who cross-dress in public and men who change sex. Since 1993 and the advent of widely popular movies that featured transgendered characters, like the Crying Game, the social awareness of the existence of cross-dressers and transsexual has sky-rocketed. Not only have the media raised public awareness to the existence of trans* people, but also, the media has helped to softened how people regard transgenderists and transsexuals. Today, almost everyone, who lives and works in a large urban area, knows someone who works with a transsexual. Today, almost everyone, who lives in a large urban area, has seen a cross-dresser in public. The shock value and stigma long associated with trans* is markedly less than it was ten years ago.
"The anxiety these people feel is the same as it was years ago." says Tim Ayerst. Ayerst, is a professional therapist with a background in social work. "What has changed is the reception these people get out when they venture out in the real world. They often find that there are no hassles being cross-dressed in public and that it is no big deal to be seen in public. Thus, once a cross-dresser develops a social network, he/she no longer needs the club to simply provide a safe, social environment to protect him/her from the real world." Ayerst says.
In the case of offering resources cross-dressers often consume a plethora of information within a year of being in public then their interest in resources wanes. "Cross-dressers are sick of attending lectures and watching people accept awards." Gord Murray says. Murray is a travel agent, who offers package vacations to and other travel services to public cross-dressers.
"What cross-dressers want to do is dress and go out for an evening. [Understanding what cross-dressers want to do] isn't rocket science." Murray says.
In the case of offering peer-support, here too, the value of support suffers from the laws of diminishing returns.
"Transgender support groups are by their nature victims of diminishing returns." says Christine, a 54-year-old, transgenderist. Christine is also a member of Tri-Ess, the largest support group for heterosexual cross-dressers. "As a person or couple deal with the stress and confusion associated with being transgendered or married to a transgendered [individual] and become involved in a support group, they have access to voluminous information and a social setting. Through their involvement with a support group eventually one of two things occurs:  The acceptance level of the spouse grows and the relationship takes on a new dimension. Along with the transgendered person finding a new understanding of themselves.  The spouse rejects the concept and the relationship ends. In either case the 'need' that brought them to the support group in the first place evaporates."
alternative organizational models
Whereas trans* support organizations appear to be in decline, the loose organization of vacationing cross-dressers appears to be the wave of the future. The loose organization of vacationing cross-dressers organize word-of-mouth events that target other like-minded cross-dressers, include Diva Las Vegas [Las Vegas, Nevada], Pink Fest [Chicago, Illinois], and Eureka Enfemme Getaway [Eureka Springs, Arkansas] to name a few. These loose organizations tend not to be affiliated with any non-profit, trans* organization. Rather, these loose organizations tend to compete head-to-head with conventions, like Southern Comfort, IFGE and Fantasia Fair and do so successfully.
None of these events require participants to make reservations, nor pay entrance fees. They are pretty much pay-as-you-go.
"What we are seeing is venues like Diva Las Vegas, and cruise tours sky-rocket in popularity." Murray says.
"If you attend of Diva Las Vegas and want to go to see an Elvis impersonation act, you can go with a large group of cross-dressers. If you attend Pink Fest and want to go to a DRAG show, you can go with a large group of cross-dressers. You don't have to pay a registration fee to simply be there." Murray says.
There are also a number of travel services that have gotten into the act. Dignity Cruises specifically market vacation packages to cross-dressers and their partners.
What, if anything, can transgender support organizations do to turn it around?
If trans* support organizations wish to fight attrition they simply have to offer a value proposition that addresses ongoing needs. One need that resonates to individuals who consider or actively pursue transition is human rights. As there is an huge opportunity to right social inequities directed towards transsexuals. The organization that provides political services (e.g., including lobbying services like GenderPAC) will survive so long as there are social inequities and people determined to fight them.
In other words, trans* support organizations have to become more political, if they want to be anything other then a club for transient emergers. They must act as the voice of transgenderists in major metropolitan areas and show a presence.
For a number of trans* social clubsclubs that have no transsexuals; clubs that show no political interest in the larger communitythe path to being a lobbying group or political voice is not realistic.
a final word
Is it simply a case of ”lies, damn lies and statistics”?
"I think there is [a marked decline in interest in transgender support organizations.]" Kholer says. "I think the reason is we can't attract young members. You never see males in their twenties. Most of our membership are in their forties. At that age they have come to accept themselves as cross-dressers. These people also have less hassles out in the real world."
"I had the opportunity of taking a twenty-year-old, cross-dresser to an Xpressions event. She commented that she felt awkward being with people her mother's age." Murray says.
A number of support organizations will claim that the news of their demise is highly exaggerated. A number of these organizations will point to the fact that they have scores of honorary members people with life-time achievement awardspeople who are, otherwise, no longer paying members. What they don't tell you is they spend enormous energy on telemarketing campaigns to cajole delinquent members to renew their dues. In other cases, trans* support organizations, practice negative subscription tactics. Their attitude is: As long as you do not inform us that you no longer wish to be a member, we will continue to send you a newsletter, and therefore you owe us membership dues.
Unfortunately, these support organizations all suffer from high attrition rates (20%-25%). New members either progress into management, which has its own rewards, or drop their membership in leui of smaller social networks that have no organizational umbrella.
"The New York Chapter meets at the back of a seedy hotel. Who the hell would want to hang out there? When you have been out a while, you want to enjoy life. You want to socialize with a few, close people. Most of them, like you, are former members of the same social club." Kohler says."The club is really geared to closeted cross-dressers."
"You go to the same over-priced dinners; you see relatively the same people. One thing people enjoy is helping newbies, however, even that gets old. It is called boredom." Kholer says.