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Trans and Drag

Your Humble Blogger has been thinking quite a bit, these last few months, about gender issues and transfolk. Those issues have become part of the cultural conversation more often lately, or at least have become harder to ignore. And there’s just so much there, and I understand so little of it. In particular, I feel very lost around the issues of trans support, trans phobia and drag.

YHB is cis, born male, raised male in a culture that both prized and mocked macho masculinity, presents male, feels male. Is male, I would say. I have been accused of effeminacy, now and then, but in a way that made it clear that I was falling short of masculinity, not femininity, if you know what I mean. I have never been accused of being girlish (that I know of), just of being less masculine than some standard. This effeminacy is presumably comprised of some combination of my dandyism, myopia, bookishness, intellectualism, squeamishness, nonathleticism, political liberalism, a tendency to exaggeration, and perhaps a certain studiedness of gesture. Oh, and a fondness for brimmed hats. That’s part of my dandyism, as far as I’m concerned, although perhaps dandyism of a different kind would be more masculine. I also have a susceptibility to female charm that has a bizarre tinge of effeminacy; truly masculine men are of course heterosexual but being attracted to women is not very macho. Ah, well. My point in labelling traits is that those traits that I perceive as being markers of my effeminacy (for those who judge me effeminate) are a mix of traits I like about myself (the dandyism, intellectualism, liberalism, and the gestures I have studied) and those I don’t (my eyesight, mostly, and how awful I am at sports, and as well the squeamishness that I have exaggerated to myself so that I can enjoy the exaggeration more than I hate the thought of blood). I don’t want to be more masculine; I don’t want to be more feminine. And of course in my avuncular middle-age, I am more amused than appalled by the idea of being found wanting on some gender scale. I’m a cis male, and that’s pretty much the end of it.

I support trans folk—those who I have known before and after announcing transition seemed so much happier after that it would be insane not to work for a world in which such announcements were easier—but I am unable to imagine what it is like to be one. I have tried. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have an image of myself as female but be physically male. Or even be told that my gender is different from what I feel it to be. I certainly don’t deny the actual experiences of other people. I try to be sensitive to what would make life easier or more difficult for them, but I have no instincts at all. It can be disconcerting.

Particularly, for me, since I have for my adult life been enjoyed the existence of playful drag and general playing around with gender markers. I am in part writing this note because I recently rewatched Victor/Victoria, one of my favorite movies. For anyone who doesn’t know, the plot centers on a woman who pretends to be a female impersonator. She’s living as a man for work, not for personal fulfillment, and while she does have fun with it a bit, mostly she is a woman in male disguise, which is stressful but necessary. Her friend, played by the incomparable Robert Preston, is an effeminate gay man who is attracted to extremely manly gay men. It’s all set in the Paris demimonde and is generally both gay positive and sex positive, although it is less than kind to those men who choose to dress as women for pleasure, rather than business. Mr. Preston’s one drag scene is played as travesty, the middle-aged dumpy gravel-voiced male in a dress as inherently funny (in addition to Mr. Preston being funny doing it, that is). And while there is clear (to me) subtext of the film’s director enjoying the prurient hell out of filming his wife in drag, there is nothing in the movie itself that indicates that anyone is specifically enjoying the cross-dressing, on a prurient level or any other. And of course there is no hint of respect for (or acknowledgement of the existence of) transgender people.

And, of course, I’m in a Shakespeare play that has fun with cross-dressing, again undertaken as disguise, not for pleasure. I don’t think it’s done in a way that is at all derogatory to trans men, but as I say, I seriously have no instincts on this issue. Our production of Twelfth Night, in common with many contemporary productions, plays with the idea that Olivia and Orsino are both specifically attracted to Viola-in-drag (Sebastian and Viola-in-women’s-clothes are both clearly second-best), but short shrift is given to Viola’s experience of passing. Vaddevah dat means.

Among my favorite musicals is La Cage Aux Folles; if I could sing, Alban/ZaZa would top my bucket list of roles to play. Alban lives as an effeminate male and sings about how much happier he is as ZaZa. It occurs to no-one in the show that he might do so permanently. In fact, his happiness as ZaZa is specifically (and powerfully) about illusion, not reality. Is this offensive to trans folk? To some? Certainly, if someone were to complain to me about erasure and disrespect, I would have no defense, other than how wonderful the part is.

I am a huge fan of Monty Python (as y’all know already) and while I don’t generally defend the indefensible gender politics, I do find the cross-dressing funny and not offensive, including when the whole joke is that it’s a man in women’s clothes (as in the judges’ chambers scene, for instance). Is this because I am insensitive, lacking those instincts? Or because it’s funny and offensive, and I give a break to stuff that I think is funny? Or is it because lack the instincts to recognize its offensiveness?

When we say (as we ought to) that the Stonewall protests were started by trans folk of color, is that describing people who wanted to live as women? Or cis men who enjoyed cross-dressing for a sexual thrill, but who preferred to dress as men (vaddevah dat means) for their day-to-day lives? I suspect there were some of each, but of course I have no idea. I understand that the trans women were systematically erased from history (even within the Community) and don’t want to be a party to that, of course, but neither do I want to misrepresent people as trans who were in drag. I no longer am even on the fringes of the Community, but in the 90s in Ess Eff, I knew folk who worked in suits and played in dresses; it’s certainly possible that some or most of them would have preferred to work in dresses, but I didn’t get that impression. I also knew, I think I recall, some women who butched up when they went out to clubs, although I didn’t so much see them do it.

Look, here’s the thing: I am secure in being a cis male, and I say secure to attempt to emphasize (even more than with italics) that my foundational understanding of myself and my place in that morass of cultural gender allows me the luxury of playing with it and around it. I can mince, now and then, if I want to; it doesn’t matter. I can flounce; it doesn’t affect anything. I have “done drag” a couple of times for fun; it was always obvious that I was doing it for fun. None of it made me any less of a man, or any more of a woman, for that matter. I like drag; I like messing with our cultural notions of gender in a playful way. None of that, to me, feels like it has anything to do with trans issues, as trans men are men and trans women are women.

And yet, I do know that drag-for-fun has contributed to the mockery and abuse faced by trans people. Gags about men in dresses are often aimed at trans people, and (I am told) can be hurtful to them and their experiences even when not aimed that way. Gags about women in men’s clothes as well, although those jokes are very different (this is a cultural truth, I’m afraid—I have been looking for the brilliant bit Al Franken did on SHE TV in 1993 (or so) which ended with him in jacket-and-tie and tutu-and-fishnets saying, to the best of my recollection: “A man dressed as a woman is funny; a woman dressed as a man just looks like a dyke.” Cultural truths are often both funny and not like that).

One thing really resonated with me in an Observer interview with Jack Monroe. She talks a bit about how, before she announced that she was in transition, she so strongly identified as a butch woman that she couldn’t wear dresses. “I’d try a dress on and I’d like how I looked in it and I’d feel sexy and I’d take it home and then I’d feel ashamed of that dress. I would shove it at the back of my wardrobe and never wear it.” Now that she describes herself publicly as non-binary transgender, she feels able at last to wear a dress when she wants to. That seemed very powerful and real to me for some reason. The closing-in of gender barriers. I would, ideally, like a world where people feel free to be butch when they feel like being butch and femme when they feel like being femme. I don’t think I would want to come to work in full drag, but under different circumstances there are days when I might choose to wear eye makeup and lipstick, or conceivably a wig to glam up. Probably not, for me personally; I glam up by wearing a patterned waistcoat and would much rather wear a gold watch chain than earrings (I am much, much too squeamish to have a piercing of any kind anyway). But the option would be nice.

Of course, what would be nice for me seems to be much more vital for others. Or some others. Of the few trans folk I have had much experience with before and after transition, one is now ultra-feminine (I would say) and I doubt ever wants to wear anything remotely butch again, while another seems to alternate femme and butch (or at least, grab-random-clothes-off-the-floor-and-go-out-barefaced, which always reads butch to me). I don’t know. I get confused about this stuff, as I say. For me, particularly as I was growing up in the 80s and as a youngish adult in the 90s, drag and theatrical cross-dressing were a liberation from the tyranny of gender. There was argument about it, of course—heck, Louis and Belize argue about it in Angels in America in a way Tony Kushner depicts (I think) as trite. But the argument about it didn’t (in my recollection) encompass what was helpful or hurtful to people whose histories were of gender transition. Some of the transphobia was connected to the previously-common and harmful notion that all same-sex attraction was connected to being wrongly sexed (I use a horrible term in an attempt to indicate the 60s and 70s mindset, if not their actual language) but of course some of it was just transphobia, informed by the general culture and heightened by the awful (but so human) tendency of an oppressed group to scorn some group even lower on the social scale.

Well. Anyway. I have been attempting to conclude this note with some clever or touching paragraph that would make it worth your reading this far down. I got nothing. Mostly I’m just noting that all of this stuff that I like, that I found at the time to be joyful and great-hearted, and that I still want to like, is perhaps in retrospect problematic—and more problematic is that I find I don’t know whether it’s all problematic or not. And of course while it is nobody’s responsibility to ease my mind on this topic or any other, there’s always the hope that if I make enough of a public idiot of myself that someone will school me and I will learn. It has happened before.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I share many of these existential uncertainties about imagining what the experience of being transgender is like, and I appreciate the questions that Vardibidian raises about drag in relation to transgender.

For myself, I find these matters are hard to grasp not only due to lack of comparable experience but also due to the fact that gender identity breaks down the simple conceptual divisions between sex and gender that I learned to apply when I was in the adult-identity-and-sexuality-formation period of my life. Back in the 1980s, recognizing that sex and gender were not the same thing, and that the latter was culturally constructed was the big deal, and playing with gender was a new and exciting way to shape one's identity. "Gender identity" shows that the "sex (and sexuality) is biological/genetic; gender is cultural" binary is far too simplistic. It is the case that the markers and (most of?) the practices of gender are culturally specific and variable and thus subject to modification and selection by individual choices, but gender identity is not, or mostly not, but develops and stabilizes in a person as part of the process of psychological maturation. So recognizing "gender identity" as an aspect of sex/sexuality/gender/gendering in human life entails revising my understanding of how the whole system functions and (to a considerable extent) has functioned, even though I didn't know it. That's the kind of re-examination this post is doing in a practical, concrete way, and that's good!

With identity: what is play, what is serious? What is transitory, what is lasting? What is contextual, what is unvarying? What is conscious, what is unconscious? What is chosen, what is imposed? What is fixed? What is malleable? What is healthy, what is unhealthy? So many factors! So many facets! So much creative potential, and such deep vulnerability.


> With identity: what is [* etc *]

Beyond that: What is *identity*? This is one I struggle with. Why is identity ever anything other than what you do? Why does anyone have to decide if they ARE ONE THING or ARE ANOTHER THING? And why about sex and gender in particular?

That's the part that doesn't resonate for me about the trans experience: I have so little sense of identity that it seems mind-boggling to me that someone's true identity would be at odds with their apparent identity. If I seemed to be female or a woman, I imagine I would think and feel like I was. I only think and feel like I am male or a man because I seem to be one. If I seemed to be one thing, but WASN'T REALLY, how would I even know?

(And yet obviously some people do, so there's obviously something going on there. But it seems very, very distant from my own experience with identity.)


I think forays into developmental psychology and neuropsychology are where those of us who have never experienced serious identity challenges need to go to get a better sense of identity formation. I have just started the process of self-education in this matter. One thing I've started to do is to try to think more about self-image. Even those of us who haven't given gender identity a thought can probably recognize that people have self-images. (How strong is your sense of self-image, V.? It seems like what you wrote about in the post was an exploration of self-image.)

Our self-images are not identical to how others see us, and social and psychological suffering can ensue when there is a large gap between self-image and socially imposed identity. Self-images are to some extent adjustable, however, since they are influenced by how others see us. In my minimally educated sense of things, gender identity is (a) a factor in self-image, since gender is (usually?) basic to how we see ourselves but (2) not merely self-image, as gender identity is not adjustable (it can be named and recognized but not deliberately changed*?? uncertainties here) and gets established as a part of psychological development in conjunction with the formation of the physical person at a young age (although it may not be consciously recognized and understood for a long time after that, and coming to sexual maturity seems like an important factor in that process).

That's my current thinking on using self-image as a way in toward grasping some facets of trans experience of which I have no closely related experience.

*i.e. "I am and have been x but didn't know it or accept it"--when a recognition like that occurs, one's sense of self changes, but the change is a recognition and naming of what already is the case, rather than a resolution to make a change from this moment forward.


I have, I would say, a strong self-image—I wouldn't say an accurate one, in terms of seeing myself how others see me (and hear me, because I know I don't sound like I think I do), but a strong one nevertheless. But I don't know how it compares to other people's. I would say, though, that (perhaps this has to do with acting) I don't feel that temporarily donning a dress or a crown or handcuffs would change my self-image at all. It was a huge deal for me when I switched to including parent as part of my self-image, and also middle-aged and a few other times I can think of. But I am also aware that those are in some sense temporary—I mean, I will always be a parent, but when my children are grown and moved on it will be a different part of my self-image. And I'm not sure that I really was aware that young was such an essential part of my self-image until it wasn't anymore. I'm not sure how or if those changes provide any insight into the transgender experience. I kinda doubt it.

Thanks,
-V.


I think I don't have a very strong self-image -- I relatively often find myself remembering that I'm not "the young guy" any more. (And haven't been for like ten or fifteen years.) I describe myself as middle-aged, and I know that most of my co-workers aren't, but I don't think of myself as being older than most of them, even though I am. Or the parents of my kids' friends, who are mostly younger than me -- I'm aware of it when I think about it, but not really if I don't, and I sometimes do a double-take and say "oh yeah, this friend's mom is like in her twenties, huh".


Given your senses of self-images, what happens if you perform the following thought-experiment: how would you feel if people were consistently treating you, and consistently implying an image of you, as say twenty-five years older or younger than you are? Or if people consistently treated you as if you had no competence in an area of endeavor in which you pride yourself on your expertise? Or if people consistently expected you to display expertise and excitement for a kind of work in which you have neither interest nor skill and then rolled their eyes and mocked you being out of it when you didn't perform to their expectations? How would it feel to you if core parts of your self-image were being ignored, mistaken, or downright challenged by everyone around you on a regular basis? Does that seem like an analogy to what a trans- person in an unsupportive and/or ignorant community would experience as the ordinary state of things? Having core parts of the self-image consistently ignored or denied?

I'm hypothesizing that it could be the case for a transgendered person that, absent societal image and reinforcement of an image and identity that runs counter to the person's self-image and authentic identity, a transgendered person might not experience their identity as crossing boundaries at all--their identity would simply be the set of characteristics that make up who they are. It's the friction, the pushback that denies or devalues the characteristics, that intensifies the difficulties. It's another case, though, isn't it, when a trans person finds that the personal body is at odds with the gender identity. Then the person experiences friction even without societal counter-imaging. That would be transexual experience, one possibility for trans- identity among many.


if people consistently expected you to display expertise and excitement for a kind of work in which you have neither interest nor skill and then rolled their eyes and mocked you being out of it when you didn't perform to their expectations

This happens, of course, and happened to me more when I was younger; I don’t know if the difference is the passage of forty years in the culture or in my presentation of my outward self. But here's the thing for me; when cultural expectations (of masculinity, or Jewishness, or bookishness, or whiteness, or my desert heritage) clashed with my experience, I tended (as a kid and a young adult) to criticize the expectations. People where I grew up assumed a boy could (and wanted to) shoot a long gun. I didn't, but that expectation didn't make me think I wasn’t a boy or a Southwesterner, just that the expectations were wrong.

Actually, that's kind of an interesting example, as I suppose I didn't entirely accept that I was a Southwesterner in a lot of ways, including moving out of the Southwest as soon as I could and not moving back. Hm.
Thanks,
-V.


I have a whole bunch of thoughts about all this, but probably don't have sufficient awakeness nor time to write them all out, so will save most of them for later discussion, perhaps in person!

A few quick notes-in-passing:

1. I think y'all know about the distinction between gender identity and gender presentation, but there isn't much explicit use of those terms in this discussion, so I thought it was worth explicitly noting that those are two very different things, and I think making a more explicit distinction can help with understanding some of the drag-vs-transvestism-vs-transgender stuff.

2. Different trans people may have very different experiences and beliefs. Some, for example, as I understand it (which is imperfectly, because I'm cis too—and it always makes me a little uncomfortable to see a collection of cis people discussing trans issues without input from trans folks, but I'm stepping in here anyway; and it's nice that we can try to educate ourselves and each other without requiring trans folks to educate us) don't want to be seen as trans; they want to just be seen as women, or as men--whereas for others, being trans per se is a big part of their identity. Some transition, some don't. Some feel strongly connected to the gender binary, some are vehemently opposed to it. Some transition, some don't. Some have some kinds of surgery, some have other kinds, some have none.

3. It's also worth being aware of genderqueer and nonbinary folks. The Jack Monroe article is a good starting point for that; for another possible entry point, see my friend Kate's post here (NSFW): (https://katebachus.com/2016/06/20/its-not-about-the-dress/).

4. I don't have an answer offhand for your core question, about whether trans folks are likely to be upset by old drag jokes, but I suspect TSOR would turn up multiple opinions.


Two more links of possible/tangential interest:

1. My "How do you know your gender?" post from 2007: (http://www.kith.org/journals/jed/2007/05/01/3888.html) got a lot of interesting answers. Some of the answers confused me, and I know at least one trans person was put off by the whole discussion (for reasons I'm not awake enough to go into right now), but it might be a useful point of reference.

2. "Navigating Masculinity: A Roundtable" (https://medium.com/@maryannemohanraj/navigating-masculinity-a-roundtable-c18999e378eb#.hs6onrx00) was a discussion led by Mary Anne for publication in The WisCon Chronicles; it doesn't directly address your questions, but I feel like it does at least tangentially connect to some of your musings about your effeminate traits.


Jed—in re it always makes me a little uncomfortable to see a collection of cis people discussing trans issues without input from trans folks Yeah, me too, although of course I would also feel uncomfortable asking any of my trans acquaintances to jump in, as if it is their responsibility to solve my discomfort. Also, I think, given the numbers, if cis folk stay uncomfortable talking about trans issues amongst ourselves, most of us won't talk about them at all… I will try, in such conversations to keep in mind that trans folk (like all of us) are different one to another, which makes such conversations interesting and fun. And of course I will try, as we are trying here, to be good-hearted and express confusion in such a way that emphasizes that it is my confusion, not the confusion (or the responsibility) of trans folk, either individually or as a group. But still, yeah, obvious that we are trying to guess at stuff we don't know.

Thanks,
-V.


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