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,