Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Subfuscation!

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?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Is Pornography OK?

Human beings are fantastically inventive. I imagine that, five minutes after the process of photography was invented, someone said "Hey, we could take pictures of naked women with this!"

Pornography, of course, existed long before photography. You should see some of the frescoes they discovered in the brothels of Pompeii, for example. Some of them depict intersexed figures such as Hermaphroditus in erotic situations, indicating that even the Romans had some interest in blurred gender boundaries.

But what makes photography different from other forms of erotic art is its apparent verisimilitude: the artist can show you things which are the product of their imagination (and there seems to be plenty of this still going on), but the photographer shows you something which actually happened. Moving photographs are, for the purposes of this discussion, merely an elaboration of the technology of still photographs.

My book this week is called Free Speech, by Nigel Warburton. It's an excellent and thought-provoking introduction to the issues around free speech. It's really led me to think a lot more about this subject, and drawn my attention to some very powerful key players in this field. Most of us are in agreement that free speech is a good and essential thing to a well-run democracy. And we think of the people in China, who are denied free access to information on the Internet, as well as freedom of expression. But free speech also includes material which may be offensive, even harmful, to the listener (such as overt racism or Holocaust denial). So where do you draw the line?

A full chapter of this book is devoted to pornography, and it started me thinking. The Internet, of course, as we all know, is full of pornography:
I'm fairly sure that if they took all the porn off the internet, there'd only be one website left. And it would be called 'Bring Back The Porn'.- Dr Perry Cox, Scrubs.
This interesting article from the UK's Guardian newspaper suggests that actually, only about 1.1% of sites on the Internet contain "sexually explicit" material. The article was written in 2006, which is ancient history in Internet terms, but even if the figure has quintupled since then, we are still only looking at 5%. (See addendum 3 below).

Eric Schlosser devotes a whole third of his excellent book Reefer Madness, to a discussion of the pornography industry in the US, and provides insight into the fundamental conflict of American attitudes:
Schlosser: The current demand for marijuana and pornography is deeply revealing. Here are two commodities that Americans publicly abhor, privately adore, and buy in astonishing amounts.
Coming back to Warburton, is pornography a form of expression? And should it, therefore, be fully tolerated in society (provided nobody is harmed in its making)? Several attempts to have it banned, by anti-pornography campaigners such as Andrea Dworkin, have been overturned by US courts on the grounds that banning pornography violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution. So it seems that Uncle Sam, at least, thinks that pornography counts as freedom of expression.

Professor Catharine MacKinnon argues that pornography is all about the subjugation of women: their objectification as objects for male sexual gratification. She points out that pornography is made "overwhelmingly by poor, desperate, homeless, pimped women who were sexually abused as children". She also makes the point that regular use of hardcore pornography by men habituates them to the idea that women exist merely as sexual playthings of men, and therefore eliminates the necessity of treating women as human individuals. It fosters the "she's wearing a short skirt so she must be up for it" argument. Sooner or later, the viewer wants to experience for real what he's used to seeing on the screen, and so he obtains it forcibly.

On the other hand, Wendy McElroy defends pornography from a feminist perspective. She argues that pornography can benefit women in at least three ways: by providing a panoramic view of sexual possibilities, by allowing viewers to experience and imaginatively explore sexual alternatives safely, and by allowing viewers to explore their emotional response to a fantasised scenario. Suppression of pornography would restrict women's choices. I must say I find these arguments pretty flimsy.

One-handed surfing
Is pornography harmful to society? It has certainly been argued that the objectification of women seen in pornography harms the status and role of women in society. On the other hand, there is some evidence that ready access to pornography reduces the rate of sex crime, the idea being that men gain relief from pornography which then means they don't need to take out their desires on women. From a scientific perspective, all the evidence I've seen on this topic has been conflicting and flawed, but the topic is important enough that I think it is worthy of more careful investigation.

So what's my perspective? First of all, sex is OK. That is to say, sex between consenting adults, male or female or any combination, who are choosing to engage in it for pleasure, is all OK. I'm not going down any roads debating the morality of actual sex. But any pornography or sexual activity involving children is unacceptable.

I admit my sympathies lie somewhat with the feminists here, though I am not sure I accept all MacKinnon's points. I think that prostitutes are, in general, poor desperate women forced into it by dreadful economic circumstances. Some of that may apply to women who take part in pornography, but what of all those amateur pornographers out there who freely post images of themselves? Not all of that is instigated by men (though I think a fair bit of it is). In addition, some women seem to have been able to make quite a lot of money out of deliberately producing pornography. And as we see, the link between pornography use and the increased prevalence of sex crime is tenuous at best.

What I see out there is absolutely in accord with MacKinnon's views, though. Pornography is almost universally about the satisfaction of men. Women are objectified, and often seem to be humiliated. There are scenes of roughness bordering on violence: men grabbing women around the throat during sex, for example, or women who appear to be weeping or distressed during sex. One website uses the word "destruction" seemingly as a synonym for "penetration". On the other hand, there are depictions of women appearing to enjoy or invite extreme acts of penetration. And intercourse is always filmed in gynaecological closeup. Why don't any of the women look like they are enjoying themselves? Why don't the actors look as if they even like one another?

So most pornography is distasteful to me, and a little of it has been so upsetting that I have deliberately attempted to banish it from my mind. When I was growing up, the only pornography I could access were magazines depicting naked women in positions of submissive (occasionally gymnastic) display. My imagination had to do the rest. But my kids will have access to streaming video and audio featuring any number of actors indulging in any sort of activity (no matter how I try to protect them from it). It worries me that my kids might come across that and think that is how sex should be conducted, from either role. Pornography is "junk sex". And just as teenagers want junk food, they will also want junk sex.

I believe pornography is this way because it sells. Men want those things: a quick five-knuckle-shuffle with no emotional strings attached. Inflated boobs, enormous penetration, highly visible climaxes. And they are prepared to pay for them. While some women use pornography in the same way men do, I think most women don't. For them, arousal comes from emotional stimuli, not physical ones. And you don't get any emotional arousal just watching sex: you get it from love and trust and intimacy, and it can't be achieved from scratch in five minutes.

One of the central points Helen Boyd makes in her book My Husband Betty, is that transvestites don't want to be like women, they want to be like men think women are. Here she discusses transvestite erotic material to be found on the Internet:
Boyd: There is one consistent motif: the crossdressed male is forced to give a blow job. The blow job scenario is probably crossdressers' most popular sexual fantasy after the fantasy of being dressed as a woman. Why does it not surprise me that when a crossdresser-- who is socialized as a straight man-- fantasizes about being a woman sexually, he envisions himself giving a blow job? This provides further evidence that the crossdresser's "inner female" is painfully loaded with stereotypical male ideas about women, in this case women's sexual behaviour. The idea that your average woman equates "I feel sexy" with "I want to give a blow job" is a remarkably male notion of women's sexuality. That they focus on the one form of women's sexual activity that is primarily about male pleasure is no coincidence.
I am stuck in the middle. Pornography is sexually arousing, but emotionally unpleasant for me. That creates a conflict worthy of Schlosser's book. As a result, I recognise that, whatever it does to individuals and society, pornography is harmful to me. It's not OK.

===

Addendum:

I was thinking some more about pornography, and it's well worth considering its place in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you haven't read it, all the things you think you know about it (from your familiarity with concepts like Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police and so on) are wrong. It is all the more powerful for having been written in 1948, over sixty years ago.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, an unattractive everyman, lives in a dystopian 1984 under the constant surveillance of a totalitarian government led by an obscure figure known as Big Brother. In the novel, members of the middle class "Outer Party" are absolutely controlled: their actions and even their thoughts are ridigly confined. They are essentially denied any free time (how I can relate to that feeling!) and any freedom or self-determination. They are kept in a situation which denies them any sort of personal comfort or satisfaction: the only things they are allowed to enjoy or celebrate are Party activities and goals. Transgressions of the most minor nature are met with grotesque punishment and torture meted out by the Ministry of Love.

Big Brother seeks to control thoughts by controlling language: Newspeak is a deliberately constructed language with a shrinking vocabulary. The idea is that reducing the vocabulary reduces the ability to communicate ideas, and eventually to form those ideas in the first place.

And Big Brother seeks to control emotion and sexuality by doing away with intimacy and pleasure. Marriages are chosen by the Party, between unsuited partners to prevent physical attraction. We are informed that "neurologists are working to extinguish the orgasm". And pornography is extensively commodified: deliberately produced in large quantities and distributed by government decree, in a deliberate attempt to separate (and eliminate) the emotional satisfaction of sex from its physical act.

Orwell was making the point that the ready availability of pornography in large quantities does something undesirable to a population of people. While we are not in danger of succumbing to totalitarianism, I think his point is disturbingly correct.

Addendum 2:

I was thinking some more about pornography, and why some women deliberately create and display pornography involving themselves. It's just a theory, but I wonder if those women are doing it (partly) to create a sensation of power. The ability (and apparent willingness) to give pleasure is a powerful thing. To prominently display that places the woman in a position of power: I'm showing you this. I know you want it! But you can't have it, because I'm a stranger on the Internet thousands of miles away from you.

I suppose I am trying to explore the motivations of women who deliberately choose to involve themselves in pornography. Some, I think, do it for sexual arousal. Some do it for money. And I think some do it for power. Power, money and sex: the three most important motivations in all human behaviour?

This has become the longest blog post I've written. Something shorter next time.

Addendum 3:

The July 6th 2013 edition of my favourite mathematical radio programme, More or Less, suggested that pornography occupies only 4% of websites, but 14% of search engine requests.

At long last!

Well, finally I can write a blog post fully dressed. Here I am, plucked and shaved, and tucked and squeezed (yowch!) and powdered and painted. My lacquered nails are fairly flickering over the keys right now: a very pleasing sight.

It's been an enormous interval of time since the last time I got completely dressed; nine months or so. Since that time, I have started this blog, and it's become much more successful than I would ever have expected. So thanks to all you regulars (you know who you are) and all you lurkers (if indeed you are there; I certainly don't know who you are!), for keeping an eye on what goes on here.
As always when I have a chance to plan a full day's dressing, I try to plan a special treat for myself. This time, it's the Ahh-Bra. I managed to buy one (actually two) from my local store yesterday, with only a brief frisson of embarrassment.
Ahh: Bra
In case you don't know about this intriguing garment, it's basically made of elastic fabric which is carefully sculpted around the appropriate anatomy. It manages without metalwork, and promises an end to pinching and bulging. If you want to know more, you can tune in to the advertisements, which here play for approximately six hours repetitively overnight after the regular programming has all stopped. One night I found myself watching it, and thinking... hmmm.
The Ahh-Bra advertisment says that over 80% of women wear the wrong-fitting bra. How much more this must be true for me, who isn't even the right shape to wear a bra? It's quite hard to get hold of a good bra as a crossdresser. You can't simply walk in and get fitted for one. As a result, I have a collection of bras which are basically all the wrong size.

Of course, it helps to have the right size of boobs to go in, and here I can't recommend silicone highly enough. I previously had a pair of foam bazooms which were ridiculously too large. As a naive newbie crossdresser, I naturally assumed bigger was better when it comes to boobs. What changed my mind was my experience at the makeover salon which I described in my post Makeover Sparkle. The first pair of boobs I tried was too big, but the second pair was just right: they looked like they actually belonged to me. So later I bought a pair. They fit a C-cup, which is just right. Good silicone boobs are not cheap, but trust me, they are worth every last penny.

I use a single strip of broad strapping tape to create a bit of cleavage. Once the boobs are in, the effect is great.

And so, onto the Ahh-Bra. One of the criticisms I read in the reviews on the web is that it doesn't quite provide enough uplift, if your breasts are a bit on the large side. Once again, as a crossdresser, I didn't want the boobs actually plopping out. And it's true that just one Ahh-Bra doesn't quite hold firmly enough (it probably would if I used adhesive to stick them to my skin, but I think that's taking things a bit far). The advert itself suggests the solution: wear two, one on top of the other!

This worked perfectly. The Ahh-Bra feels lovely. The adverts are quite right: it doesn't pinch, it doesn't create unsightly underarm bulges, no sharp wires dig in, and it's the most comfortable bra I've ever worn. In addition, the actual appearance is remarkably natural and convincing. It really did make me say Aaahhh!

It's quite comfortable enough to sleep in, and it even feels quite nice with no boobs in it at all. It's close-fitting enough that it could be worn under (male) day clothes without provoking comment, if that happens to be your thing (not really mine).

Anyway, I promised myself that this blog wouldn't be about precisely this kind of thing. But I couldn't resist it, on this one occasion. More intellectual stuff is coming along in a minute!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Wants and needs

Here's a question: is crossdressing a want, or a need?

The difference is simple. I want a bigger TV. But I need to feed my family. OK, so we're not starving, but the point remains, that paying the bills is currently such that we can't just go out and buy a bigger TV. And the TV we have is fine: it even has colour, if you smack it just right. For any sensible person, you take care of your needs first, then you sort your wants, in order of priority. Do not grieve, Jim; it is logical.

Tied: hands
I think it is wholly reasonable that wants be set aside until needs are met. My father used to say that a good citizen says of society "If you take care of my needs, I will control my wants". The way he saw it going (before he died) was that too many people are saying "I must have my wants, even if that means someone else doesn't get their needs". I am not 100% sure he was right; people have been moaning about the deterioration of society since Mesopotamia. But I think it's a useful place to start the discussion.

In his wonderful book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman argues that the ability to forgo instant gratification in favour of a long-term greater reward is the emotional skill which ranks above all others, and is more predictive of lifelong success than IQ. Boy, do I have this! I'm so good at this that I can forego gratification until it never happens!

I've been considering the place of crossdressing in my life for as long as I can remember. If crossdressing is merely a want, then it's reasonable that it be set aside when it isn't convenient. That is the model that I have hitherto applied: the time isn't right; I have something more important to spend my money and time on doing. So it can wait until next time.

On the other hand, if crossdressing is a need, then it is reasonable that it be met: that other things take a back seat. The consequences of not meeting a need can be substantial. Here's Helen Boyd, in one of the defining passages in her book My Husband Betty (Boyd's italics and pronouns):
Boyd: Perhaps the most important reason crossdressers offer is that, in some sense, they must: not must as in eating and breathing, but more like in bathing and sleeping well and getting enough exercise. Crossdressing is not necessary to a person's survival, but it does seem to be necessary to his wellbeing. Crossdressing is not, as some wives of crossdressers might wish, a selfish whim. Crossdressers as a group do not give it up despite the troubles it can cause in their lives. The phenomenon is stubbornly inexplicable, a cross between a compulsion and a wish.
I am beginning to think that crossdressing is a need. Perhaps it has always been one. If you deny a need, the compulsion becomes greater and greater. Imagine going without sleep. After a while, the urge to sleep becomes overwhelming. It dominates your every thought. Ordinary things which would normally give pleasure become meaningless. Eventually, the need to sleep becomes so overwhelming that you can fall asleep doing something really important: climbers have almost died falling asleep on narrow mountain ledges; and a lot of people have been killed as a result of someone falling asleep at the wheel of a vehicle.

I have from time to time found myself so consumed with thoughts of crossdressing that I have been effectively unable to function: don't want to see friends, don't want to go out, not interested in my kids, no interest in TV or movies or video games, moody and distracted at work. Part of the problem is that, occasionally in our marriage my wife has made promises: she promised we would go together to Transfandango, for example. At first, I believe her: she finally gets it, I tell myself! I just need to hold on a little longer. I start to plan it in detail. And that keeps me going for a bit. And then she gets stressed, and I think, okay, just a little longer. And then it eventually becomes apparent that the moment is never coming, and the disappointment is crushing. We never made it to Transfandango, and now we live in a different country. She doesn't mean to break those promises: when she makes them she is sincere. But the failure to make good on them causes tremendous inner damage, a damage which she just doesn't want to hear about. (In case you haven't read all my blogs, my wife regards crossdressing with loathing: she cannot condone any part of it, and can't bear the thought or the actuality that I do it).

Untroubled: Emma and Luisa
Another symptom of need is that I find myself deeply, almost viscerally, envious of people who crossdress freely and publicly. They seem so happy and untroubled. This is, of course, an illusion! They are just people, and therefore they have sad or difficult times too; they just don't post pictures of them. I hardly feel envious of anything else. In my post about envy, I spoke about a Lamborghini. I don't feel envious of people who own Lamborghinis. But men who keep their legs waxed? Phew! I think that envy is a clue to how deeply crossdressing matters to me. (A Lamborghini is merely a want, of course, and therefore it doesn't overthrow me).

Another symptom of need is that crossdressing haunts my dreams. These are frequent; at least once per week, and for the Freudians among you they are simple, straightforward, wish-fulfilment dreams. I am in some situation where crossdressing is OK: out with my friends, speaking in public, in a job interview, meeting new people. In each case, I am lavishly and wonderfully dressed: I draw compliments and warmth and enthusiasm. People find it interesting and cool. And then I wake up, and that lovely warm rosy glow fades pretty sharply in the face of the alarm.

A final symptom of need is that, if you suppress a need, it will find its way out somehow. In my case, crossdressing finds its way out on the Internet, and I don't propose to go into any details here. But this blog is the positive, creative part. The denial of a need is unbearable and unsustainable.

Needs must be met; it's that simple. The question is how to meet my needs in a manner which is not going to cost me my marriage or my kids. You might think that is a situation which could be solved by a little negotiation: I have thought so too for over a decade without success.

===

(As a final amusing aside, when I typed Do not grieve, Jim above, it came out as Do not grieve, Kim. It would put a whole new spin on sci-fi's greatest bromance if everyone kept calling the captain Kim. It's life, Kim, but not as we know it. It's worse than that, he's dead, Kim! By golly, Kim, I'm beginning to think I can cure a rainy day! Live long and prosper, Kim.)

You can find the original location of the photo of the girls on the train here at Flickr. Emma regularly posts short videos of herself here on YouTube . She has received over 4.5 million hits, and I have blogged about her here and here.

Richard O'Brien

My previous post on Grayson Perry has unexpectedly become one of the most popular things I have written on this blog. So let me turn to another of my cross-dressing heroes for a much-needed dose of inspiration and humour.

O'Brien as you know him...
To any man who has ever donned a pair of fishnets and heels, Richard O’Brien surely needs no introduction at all. His greatest and best-known opus is the cult musical The Rocky Horror Show, written in about 1973, which he describes as “just a bit of fun”. O’Brien (now 70) would then have been about thirty years old. Later of course, it was filmed as The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975. When I first saw it, I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing, and I couldn’t sleep that night for replaying it over and over in my head.

O’Brien was born in Britain but his family moved to New Zealand when he was about nine years old. He returned to Britain aged about 22. Most recently, he has just been awarded citizenship of New Zealand, in 2011. Like me, he has seemingly found it a hard place to stay away from.

The story is that O’Brien used to frequent the Embassy Theatre in the town of Hamilton, in New Zealand’s central North Island. As a classic old theatre, the Embassy used to screen the Science Fiction Double Feature movies which O’Brien affectionately lampoons to good effect in the film, but he also saw his first drag act on the stage there.


...and as you don't.
One of the first things which struck me about New Zealand is that it’s a place which is very unfriendly to cross-dressers. Men here are real men: they drive trucks, they play rugby, they drink beer copiously, and they shoot animals for pleasure, later roasting them over open flames. The classic Kiwi male is said to be able to repair any mechanical contrivance using only a bale of number 8 fencing wire. In a sense, Kiwi blokes had to be this way: the country as we know it was founded by the grit and graft of hardy pioneers, who had to endure six months in a cramped boat just to get here. (Of course, when they got here, they found a whole bunch of indigenous people who were already doing just fine, but that’s a whole other book).

As a new arrival, I very rapidly found myself uncomfortable in conversations about rugby teams, trucks, boats, guns, and other masculine topics; I still am! And despite the fact that New Zealand is actually a very progressive country, which was the first democracy in the world to give women the vote, and later elected Georgina Beyer as the world’s first transsexual Member of Parliament, this undertow of roughshod masculinity is still very pervasive.


So if Richard O’Brien were like me in any way, I am sure he would have found himself really quite uncomfortable among this lot. No wonder that he took himself back to Blighty at the first reasonable chance.


There's no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure
O’Brien has written a lot of material, but the only thing which hasn’t sunk, more or less without trace, has been Rocky Horror (can you name its sequel??). In fact, Rocky Horror is astonishingly successful. The film has been described as the longest-running film in cinematic history. Attendance at either the film or the stage show is more or less compulsory for any crossdresser, as it’s one of the few places where you can go along wearing just about anything you like (the more outrageous, the better). In fact, to go in ordinary clothes (as I have once done) immediately marks you out for ridicule.

O’Brien took crossdressing and made it funny; made it blatant (“a Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania”) and made it mainstream: at just about any office party or family wedding, you’ll hear them playing The Time Warp. And now I hear that even Glee has done a (sanitised) rendition of Rocky Horror.
O'Brien: Rocky’s allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to express themselves have that chance to be more open and to free themselves.
If it had just been about crossdressing, Rocky Horror would have fizzled in a season. What makes it work is not just the crossdressing, but the other stuff too: the loving and careful parodies which are both flagrant and subtle (and Tim Curry’s wonderful performance in the movie is a triumph). Like other wonderful parodies, it was clearly hard for O’Brien to decide how to end the story of Brad and Janet. We clearly couldn’t just have them going back to their normal lives, so O’Brien had to write an ending of even greater weirdness, with something of a deus-ex-machina flavour. (Don’t even get me started about the ending of Blazing Saddles).

O’Brien’s other famous outing was as the presenter of a UK show called The Crystal Maze, where teams of youthful people “locked” inside the Maze competed in a series of intellectual or physical challenges against the clock, and under O’Brien’s half-helpful, half-taunting observation. I watched it regularly. He has also acted in other roles on stage and screen.

O'Brien: a sweet transvestite
O’Brien has been married and divorced twice, and has three children. Currently single by his own choice, he recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In the UK, he used to organise an annual event featuring outrageous crossdressing called Transfandango for several years: again it was blatant, again it was funny, again it was out there in public and in broad daylight, and this time the money went to charity. I regret that by the time I had cottoned on to it, I had missed the last one, and I never got to attend. O’Brien describes himself as a “trans”, although again I am not quite sure what that means. To the best of my knowledge, he has never adopted a fem name publicly. In any case, when dressed, he certainly looks the part (look at these amazing pictures!), and it’s clear from reading his interviews that he really enjoys crossdressing.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been selected for preservation by the National Library of Congress; you can’t get much more accepted than that. Richard O’Brien is also funny, clever and quirky: all very endearing attributes from my perspective. I like him most of all because he has taken crossdressing and made it glorious, almost singlehandedly. Give him a medal! Give him a knighthood! (Or a damehood?). Or how about a statue?

Well, there is one! Sadly the old Embassy Theatre was demolished. But on the site it once occupied, there now stands the bronze statue of a man wearing high heels. And that man is Richard O’Brien, in costume as Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror. And this is New Zealand we are talking about here. Not only can you see the statue online, but, night or day, you can check on it via its round-the-clock webcam here.

So far, nobody has shown any interest in putting up a statue of me. But if you ever do, let it be wearing high heels! Hot patootie!

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Addendum 19th March 2013

The BBC has just published an interview with Richard O'Brien, where he describes himself as "70% man". Apparently he has been taking oestrogen for the last decade, and has developed breasts as a result. There follows a bit of discussion about gender identity. You can read the article here.

Addendum 8th August 2015

Happy 40th Birthday to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which just turned 40, and is still gorgeous and still just as popular as ever.