Thursday, 26 April 2012

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry is one of my crossdressing heroes.

He isn't well known outside the UK, and he isn't even all that well-known inside it. So here's a brief introduction to this very interesting person.

Dark themes in Perry's work
Grayson Perry (52) is an artist. In fact, he's a very good one, having won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2003. The Turner Prize was where I first heard of Perry. Not only did he win it, but he collected it wearing a dress, which I thought was remarkably brave. That got him into the papers (and therefore brought him to my attention), and probably gave the Turner Prize organisers a bit of unexpected publicity. I am honestly not sure I could name one other Turner Prize winner, although that chap who pickled the shark in the tank might have been in with a shot for a while there.

Perry is best known for his ceramic pots, which have elegant classical shapes, but are often decorated with images of very dark themes. It was one such pot which won him the Turner Prize. He also makes quilts and embroidery and works in other media.

Perry is also a very open crossdresser. I thought that him appearing in a dress to collect his Turner Prize was extraordinary, but he still went one better. In 2004, he was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. And he wore a frock. I personally would like to be more confident in my crossdressing (wouldn't we all?), but crossdressing to meet the Queen is insane: Her Majesty is one tough lady. Perry said "I thought the Queen's eyes were going to pop out of her head when she saw me." We may not have been amused.
Perry: I'm probably the first tranny at the Palace, although one or two may have slipped through unnoticed. This just happens to be my preferred style of dress.

Other transvestites think I'm the wrong sort of weirdo because they don't like my dresses.
At Buckingham Palace, 2004
Perry's wife Phillipa and daughter Flo (20) have known about his open crossdressing from the beginning. He adopts the alter-ego Claire. He often (but not always) dresses Claire as a child (something I personally find very disturbing and touch on in a later post; the "wrong sort of weirdo"?). He is often interviewed in the persona of Claire. His autobiography, published in 2006, is entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. I admit I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list, and you can be sure I will blog about it once I have.
Perry: Claire is not a real person; it's me in a frock. All she does is swan about, look at herself in the mirror and primp, and go to parties, smile and have a nice time. She does not DO anything - she doesn't even make a bit of toast. Claire doesn't make any pots.

You can’t put on a dress and swan about in public and complain when you get attention. It doesn’t bother me. It’s a handy tool when I need it. I might be ‘the tranny potter' but at least it's a brand.
Once he was on my radar, I have kept attempted to keep up with his appearances. I unfortunately missed his appearance on Desert Island Discs (shame on you if you have never heard of this fascinating interview programme from the BBC!), but I did manage to see his personal documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks. I wasn't able to find it on YouTube, but I did find a Google video of the first couple of minutes here. If you have more success finding this online, please let me know and I will update my links. (Addendum: I have finally got hold of this documentary and have started to blog about it in much more detail here).

Perry depicted on a tricycle
What I enjoyed about this programme (and why I like Perry) is that he is absolutely fearless and forthright in what he does. He is a crossdresser, and he enjoys it, and so he just does it. He is also not afraid to talk openly about why crossdressing is enjoyable, and why sometimes it is painful or unpleasant. He may be what Eddie Izzard calls an "executive transvestite".

Why I envy him is that, when I see him, nobody seems to bat an eye at his behaviour (with perhaps the exception of Her Majesty on that one occasion). It's as if, being an artist, people expect him to behave in an outrageous way. Being an artist seems to give him permission to crossdress, somehow. When I watch him I want to shout: "It's OK for you! You're not supposed to conform to societal norms! But what about the rest of us?"

Even I admit, I feel more comfortable with crossdressing among artistic types (artists and musicians and actors) than among more traditional male archetypes (teachers, lawyers, doctors, priests).

As well as being a transvestite, Perry is also a motorcycle enthusiast. The documentary features a track day, where a large male biker is asked why he enjoys motorcycles. He responds (without a hint of irony) "Yeah, maybe it's the whole costume thing, isn't it? You're a bit freer. You've been set loose by the costume that you're wearing, and you're able to be something a bit different. Maybe. (laughs)". Perry elicited several similar comments from other bikers, and came away remarking that actually, "trannies and bikers have a lot more in common than you might think." A fuller discussion of this scene is given here.

So there you have him. Grayson Perry. Artist. Transvestite. Queen-surpriser.

Addendum October 2013

For discussion of another artist with transgender themes, see here.

Addendum 3rd February 2014

Grayson Perry CBE
Grayson Perry has been made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. In other words, he got another invitation back to Buckingham Palace. This time, he did not meet the Queen, but Prince Charles, who chatted with him warmly before presenting him with the honour.

Unlike his previous visit, when he wore an outrageous pink girly frock, this time he was far more elegantly attired, in this midnight blue dress and gorgeous ostrich-feather hat. He described this outfit as ''This is my Italian mother-of-the-bride outfit''. You can see a short interview with him here.

I personally think he looked fabulous. But what did the Palace think? According to this article, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said that Perry's ''attire was entirely appropriate'". And yes- he bowed, (and did not curtsey).
Perry: When I got the call (about the CBE) my first thought was: what am I going to wear? It's a serious thing. I'm not going to compromise my identity as Britain's pre-eminent transvestite. I googled to see what people wore and went for the sexier end. I always do like the older woman who makes an effort.
Incidentally, Perry is nowhere near the first trans person to be given an award by the British establishment. (There is hope for me yet!) Stephen Whittle and Christine Hunt were honoured in the 2005 Honours list for "services to Gender issues". You can see a photograph on Whittle's Wikipedia page. Both Whittle and Hunt are leading members of the UK trans-advocacy group, Press for Change. If you know of any more, please let me know!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Lyn Tornabene and the Red Queen

Some years ago I bought a copy of the wonderful book I Passed as a Teenager by Lyn Tornabene. You can find copies on the Internet still, and there is still some interest in it. The reviewer from Amazon.com is helpful and illuminating.

In brief, Tornabene, at the age of 33, enrolled as a 16-year old student in an undisclosed high school in the USA, with her friend posing as her aunt and guardian. She spent a full term as a student and writes forthrightly about teenage life as seen from the inside: the teachers and lessons of course, but much more interestingly the teenagers themselves; their social strata and very finely-honed hierarchies and boundaries.
Tornabene: I am a lucky woman. I like my days. I am a journalist by trade and a housewife by inclination. I have a husband called Frank who is too good to me. I have a pseudo-Tudor house in Long Island, New York, which warms my soul. I like to read and putter and talk to myself. Nevertheless, one fall morning-- precisely one month before my thirty-fourth birthday and two months before my tenth wedding anniversary-- I put on a size 9, pink cotton button-down shirt, a size 11 camel-coloured wool skirt which didn't reach my kneecaps, and enrolled as a junior in a high school somewhere in the United States...
As someone who remembers adolescence as basically agony for most of the time, I found the book very compelling and insightful. I abjectly failed to understand the behaviour and motivations of teenage girls even when I could study them, as it were, up close. Who wouldn't want another go at high school, with one's adult confidence and experience and maturity to draw upon? I know I would!

The only weakness in Tornabene's book is it's age. It was written in 1969, and a lot has changed since then: video games, drugs, taking weapons to school, social media and cyber-bullying are just some of them. These changes will be more pertinent in some places than in others, and some of the things which seemed edgy and daring at that time are now more or less quaint. Any takers for a modern update?

Anyway, why not get a copy of Tornabene's book and read it?

A few years ago my children and I were at a fete. It was a lovely sunny day, and there was candyfloss and hotdogs and stalls selling trinkets. Various performers wandered freely among the children, making balloon animals, painting faces, or wearing the costumes of characters from Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit scurried about looking late, and the Mad Hatter spilt his teapot everywhere. But the most interesting character, we all found, was the Red Queen. Instead of running around, she stood absolutely still for minutes at a time (indeed I thought at first she must be a mannequin herself), but from time to time she would deliberately make a tiny movement or gesture. You've seen, no doubt, performers who act in this way in the streets of many large cities.

My kids were entranced. The actress playing the Red Queen was very beautiful (of course) and was not only wearing a highly elaborate costume, but was also painted head to toe in deep red. She was surrounded by a circle of spectators, who were speaking only in whispers. Why? I don't know. My children likewise spoke in whispers. Who is that lady, daddy? "She is the Red Queen." Why doesn't she move? "Because thats's part of her act," I explained. And because by not moving she gets three times as much attention as all the other performers, I didn't add.

There was magic there, of course. There was a bubble of illusion, in which we willingly complied. Anyone could have stepped forward and just poked her in the arm: the illusion would have been completely ruined, of course, and therefore, no one did. The bubble was willingly maintained by all who were involved.

But it wasn't a queen from a children's story. It was an actress in a red dress. And I found myself wondering what pleasure she got out of it. It's fun, of course, to amuse the audience and get applause. Even I have trodden the boards at my local am-dram company once or twice. But perhaps there is more to it? Perhaps there is the pleasure of dressing up in costume and being someone different, just for a while, especially if that someone is beautiful and magical and interesting.

I did not poke her on the arm to ask her, but appreciated the moment and moved on.

Both Tornabene's book and the Red Queen have direct relevance to my view of crossdressing. Lyn had what surely must have been a bit of a spicy thrill (though she somewhat plays this down in the book), acting in the role of someone she is not. There must have been moments of almost discovery, and moments of exultation in successfully keeping her secret in front of everyone. Even better, she had plenty of time to enjoy it: a whole term, not a rushed afternoon or even a long weekend.

Likewise the Queen, I feel sure, was, at least partially, enjoying the pleasure of stepping out of her normal life and being someone special for a few hours. She was also fortunate to be beautiful enough for others to want to admire her while she did it.

I am aware that my crossdressing is about escaping for a while from my normal life, to an extent, and being someone who doesn't have my problems for a while. To actually pass in public for five minutes is something which I have barely done, let alone for longer, but I completely understand the compulsion among many crossdressers to actually achieve that.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

What am I?

I am an insect, and the first half of my name reveals another insect. Some famous musicians had a name similar to mine. What am I?

I remember enjoying riddles of this kind when I was a child. If you feel like having a go at the one above, the answer is at the bottom of this blog post: no peeking now.

So here is a more pertinent riddle: I am a man who likes to dress in women's clothing. What am I?

Surprisingly, there isn't an easy answer. Perhaps the answer you would first choose would be transvestite. Actually I don't like this word. It was coined in about 1910 by the famous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, and means nothing more than someone (male or female) who wears clothing of the opposite sex. Hirschfeld, it must be said, was sympathetic to transvestites, and did not attempt to explain (or cure) the behaviour. Of the transvestite, he simply wrote "He is what he is".

Why I don't like the word is that it sounds clunky and unpleasant to my ears. Second, it seems to have become associated with all the things I personally dislike about crossdressing: such as hairy truckers posting pictures of themselves wearing suspenders. Its short form tranny is even worse in this regard. For me it carries connotations of perversion and abnormality. For me, then, transvestite isn't simply a description, it is a derogatory label, almost an accusation.

If you read a lot, you might come up with autogynephilic, a word coined in 1989 sexologist by Ray Milton Blanchard, meaning "someone who loves himself as a woman". It's neat to pack all that information into a single word, though it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue (or the keyboard). While I sympathise with this description applied to me, the word suggests more than there might actually be: I might love myself as a woman, but I might not. So I don't apply it to myself.

I think most of us agree that a transsexual is someone who feels they were born into a body of the wrong sex, and seeks hormonal and surgical treatment to convert them into the opposite sex. As mentioned elsewhere in these posts, I am deeply sympathetic to transsexuals, whilst being pretty sure I am not one. However, Charlie Jane Anders writes in the prologue to her wonderful book The Lazy Crossdresser:

Q: What is the difference between a transvestite and a transexual?
A: About two years.

So perhaps my complacency is misplaced. Anders, on the other hand, identifies as a trans woman. I am not exactly sure what that is. Wikipedia isn't of much help; it has a vague description which seems to suggest someone who is partway along the path from male to female. Hormones? Surgery? Not clear. On the subject of famous authors, Helen Boyd's spouse Betty Crow seems to describe herself as simply trans, which is an even less definite term.  I don't identify with the terms trans or trans woman, though I sympathise with the search to find a term which is descriptive but without the pejorative connotations of transvestite.

I am sure we all agree that the term drag queen applies to a male performer who dresses as a woman for the purposes of entertaining others. This may be exaggerated, or a caricature, as part of burlesque, or as more careful female impersonation. There is a wide range of such performers, but in each case it seems accepted that the motivation is for entertainment, rather than because one innately wants to express femininity. That said, I can't help thinking that some of them do it so well and so convincingly that they must have some desire or inner proclivity which inclines them towards this sort of expression in the first place.

The word drag is somewhat derogatory. Its derivation is obscure. It may simply be a contraction of DRessed As Girl, or may have its origins in Polari, a secret homosexual slang from the UK of the early 20th century. (I first learned about Polari from Lawrie Taylor, sociologist and broadcaster of Thinking Allowed on the BBC). In any case, I am not a drag queen.

There are dozens more labels: T-girl (or gurl, or grrl), androgyne, shemale, sissy, MTF, and so on. It seems there is an attempt to divide up men who wear women's clothing into finer and finer categories. And members of these categories sometimes insist quite vociferously that they don't belong in any other categories. How dare you call me a tranny, when I am clearly a T-girl?

So where does that leave me? I am a lumper, rather than a splitter. I tend to think that there is more that unites us than divides us, and therefore I am looking for a term which describes only behaviour: not motivation, not feelings, not outcomes, just a description. And as a genetic male who likes to wear women's clothing, there is no better word than crossdresser. That's what I am. It says nothing about why I do it, or where it might lead in the future, or what my gender identity or sexual identity is. It is just me. I am what I am, with a nod to Magnus Hirschfeld, and just possibly Popeye the Sailor Man.

(The word you may still be looking for is beetle).

Addendum: 14th November 2012

I can't help adding in a new category of terminology, which I have increasingly come across. Perhaps as an extension of the word cosplay ("costume play"), there is now crossplay, as well as crossacting and even crossdreaming. People who adopt these labels may be further attempting to distance themselves from the ungainly title of transvestite. But giving something a different name doesn't take away from what it actually is!

Just Like Me?

Here's something I found really interesting. I came across this blog, Healing from Crossdressing. Why did I click on it in the first place? Because the title caught my eye: crossdressing is damaging to me, and perhaps a little healing is in order. However, my first impulse was to move on immediately: blogger Thorin, a Christian pastor who is also a crossdresser, starts off pretty heavy on the religion.

Just to be clear, though I was raised with a strong Christian background, I am very unsure about God. Even if he is up there, I feel pretty strongly that this is the way he made me: a man with a large spoonful of woman mixed in the recipe. If you really want to get all biblical about it, crossdressing is for me like Paul's thorn in the flesh: it's something which afflicts me daily, and against which I have to struggle. I don't however think crossdressing is inherently sinful or wrong in any moral sense.

I stuck with Thorin's blog a little further, and read several of his posts. Thorin is a smart guy; he is articulate and he has great emotional awareness. He admits with startling frankness the effect crossdressing has had on his life and marriage. He is very forthright about his experiences with the internet (crossdressing fiction and photographs). And he, like me, is struggling to keep crossdressing from overwhelming him. He has managed to keep it at bay using prayer and scripture, for which I wish him nothing but success. But where I am yearning to do it, he is yearning not to do it (or perhaps more importantly, yearning not to have the desire to do it). But Thorin and I have a lot in common, not least a recognition that dwelling on crossdressing takes emotional energy away from more important things (like family). And we share the urge to not bottle up our feelings, but to blog about them as a means of crystallising our views, seeking insights, and reaching out to other people who might feel similarly.

From Thorin's blog, I clicked onto one of his links, and found myself reading about Ralph in a Dress. Ralph is, if anything, closer to my viewpoint than Thorin. He writes:
Ralph: When I first started this blog, it was for the purpose of finding, relating to, and encouraging other crossdressers. As part of that goal, I spent a lot of time seeking out crossdressing blogs and forums to see what other crossdressers like to talk about. What I found was… not me. Page after page about panties and bras, passing as a female in public, how to hide what you do from your wife (!), and musings factual and fictional on the authors’ erotic attraction to women’s clothes.

Instead, the bloggers I have the most in common with are the ones who, for personal or marital or spiritual reasons have decided to quit crossdressing entirely. They understand that “if it feels good, do it” is a self-destructive philosophy; they understand the importance of limits and self-control and taking responsibility for your actions, your family, your job.
Perhaps for these reasons, Ralph's blog is pretty quiet. He has only made one post this whole year, and that one a cartoon with only a short caption.

Ralph's viewpoint is the closest I have come to-- so far-- which echoes more or less exactly how I feel about crossdressing. I have posted before how I think that openly pursuing crossdressing is likely to be harmful to my marriage and my family, and that boils down to a simple choice: either crossdressing rules me, or I rule crossdressing. Actions have consequences.

Where we differ is that I am trying to look for ways to make crossdressing OK (while admitting inwardly that I expect it never will be completely OK). Whereas Ralph and Thorin (and others) are trying to reject crossdressing from their lives: in effect making it not OK all by themselves.

But how can this be? That the people on the blogosphere I have most in common with are the ones who are trying hardest not to do it?