Tuesday 31 July 2012


Another bit of media excitement about transgenderism this week. I first saw this reported on the BBC. It seems that Oxford University, that ancient and noble bastion of academic brilliance, has finally allowed transgendered students to wear clothing of the opposite sex while sitting their examinations. That means that male students can now sit their exams wearing a skirt if they want to!

Britain's Daily Mail newspaper ran the headline: Men can wear skirts at Oxford University as academic dress code is changed to 'meet needs of cross-dressing students'

While The Telegraph's headline read: Men can wear skirts to Oxford University exams

Even the normally quite balanced BBC got quite breathless about it: It will mean men can attend formal occasions in skirts and stockings and women in suits and bow ties. Oooo, those meddlesome trannies again, eh? Phew! I think I need to go and lie down.

So what's all the fuss actually about? To find out, we need to go to Simone Webb, Oxford student, self-styled "queer feminist", and president of the Oxford University LGBTQ society. Understandably, Simone is a bit miffed that the media has taken this angle.

Traditional: Oxford students
It turns out that Oxford is fantastically conservative in its student dress code. For formal occasions, such as matriculation (enrolment), students are required to wear a particular manner of clothing, known as subfusc (I learned a new word). Just to clear this up, over their subfusc, students must also wear an academic gown (which are unisex). The small minority of transgendered students who wanted to wear subfusc of the opposite sex had to gain special dispensation for this from the University officials, or face sanctions.
Webb: A brief outline of what subfusc actually is may be helpful at this point. It is formal academic dress worn by Oxford students to exams and certain other occasions – matriculation, for instance. It consisted, before these changes, of a white shirt or blouse with a black skirt or trousers, with a black ribbon round the neck for women, and a white shirt with black trousers and a white bow-tie for men.
She goes on:
The changes mean that everyone has to wear a white shirt or blouse with black trousers or a black skirt, and can choose between a ribbon or a bow-tie. That is it. That is literally what has changed. It is a small thing, which will make life a little bit easier for trans students, who will no longer have the extra worry at exam times of gaining dispensation to wear their gender’s subfusc. Of course, cisgender students (students who are not trans) can also wear different subfusc, if they feel happier with it. Women will be able to wear bow-ties, if they prefer to.
As an extraordinary slap in the face, The Telegraph quoted Webb, then used a male pronoun ("he said"), the clear implication being that Webb must be a male crossdresser adopting a female persona. Ouch!

Confident: Webb
In her blog post, Webb goes on to express regret that the media have gone for the male crossdressing angle. (I learned another new word: cissexist.) Webb also expresses disappointment that the media reporting of this story is full of inaccuracies:
The Mail’s article, indeed, becomes astoundingly transphobic and cissexist as it continues. For instance: “transgender students, including transvestite or ‘gender confused’ men and women” is a bizarre segment, implying as it does that all transvestites are transgender. This is nonsense. Presumably by “gender confused” it refers to genderqueer and other gender variant students. Being genderqueer, agendered, bigendered, etc, is not confusion. It is a non binary gender.
I must say, it sounds pretty confused to me! I struggle with those who have to invent more and more neologisms to divide gender into finer and finer categories. But, as I have said before, I am a lumper, not a splitter, in regard to gender behaviour.

In the second half of her blog post, Webb addresses critics who have objected to this change on grounds of tradition, or for other reasons. I think it says a lot about Oxford that people are protesting against changing the rules for no other reason than that the rules should not be changed.

So what do I think about all this?

First, before all this, I had never heard of subfusc. I had no idea that Oxford University clung to such sartorial traditions. It recalls the mediaeval sumptuary laws which existed in Europe to make sure people dressed appropriately to their status in society. Partly I quite like that some British institutions still have rules of this type; partly I think that it makes them seem antiquated and out of date. Partly I feel a tinge of envy that I didn't study in an environment of that kind; partly I feel a tinge of relief that I didn't study in an environment of that kind!

Secondly, this is completely a non-story! I understand that to meddle with tradition might cause the pillars of Oxford to come crashing down, but only in the imaginations of the University elite ("If you ask me, it's all been downhill since we started letting women in at all"). Outside the University, this story is of precisely no consequence whatever! Whose idea was it that this was news? Whose idea was it to put out a press release?

Thirdly, whenever some minor issue of gender is raised, people's hackles seem to be raised about it to a degree greatly out of proportion to its impact, with accusations of phobia and discrimination being hurled back and forth. See this other blog post for another example.

Fourthly, I am not surprised that the media went with the male crossdressing angle. The media are interested in selling papers and attracting viewers. To do this, they need to spin the story a little, to heighten its impact. That means to go for the angle which is most titillating, and most arresting. The headline Oxford University slightly relaxes clothing regulations for a small minority of students will be of interest to nobody. The journalists who got this press release had a dozen similar stories to write. No time to check facts. No time to talk to anyone. Just rewrite the press release into an article, and move on to the next one. That's just the way the media work; it isn't cause for high blood pressure.

Finally, I welcome these changes. I think it's great that Oxford students can now wear clothing of either gender, particularly in a traditional, conservative establishment like this. Aside from the media reporting, the spirit of this change is that any student can wear the subfusc of their choice, for any reason, and without sacrificing the formality and tradition of the practice; and surely that's a good thing. I personally find it affirming that a handful of transgendered academics-to-be are having a slightly easier time at University.

I leave you with Simone Webb's closing remarks:
And, you know….a few Oxford students can’t do much to change the world. No one can. Means are limited. But Jess and other dedicated students have worked hard and changed something, something tangible, which will make trans* people’s lives a little better. How many of us can say that?

1 comment:

  1. Lumping and splitting has become an issue with the IOC of late. Did you see this article on their diffictulty in telling apart girls from boys?
    LA Times article