Saturday, 21 December 2013

Helen Boyd Interview

Regular readers of this blog will know of the esteem in which I hold Helen Boyd, author of two forthright and powerful books about life with a crossdressing husband. The first, My Husband Betty (2003), describes Boyd’s relationship with her husband, from his first admission of crossdressing, and her exploration of the consequences of this on their relationship. Just about every aspect of crossdressing comes under Boyd’s insightful and sympathetic, yet ruthless, eye.

This book was followed by She’s Not the Man I Married: My life with a transgender husband (2007). In this book, she describes Betty’s further exploration of her identity, and the consideration of transition.
Excuse me, is this seat taken?

Boyd is a fellow academic. She is a lecturer in Gender and Freshman Studies at Lawrence University, Wisconsin, USA. In my (limited) experience, partners of crossdressers tend to either loathe it openly or tolerate it silently. Boyd is a rare animal: someone who did neither, but was prepared to inquire, to appraise, to judge the good and the bad of crossdressing. Best of all, she is well-placed to tell us her thoughts: crossdressers, our partners, and those around us who want to know more. For people who ask me about crossdressing, I tell them there is no better place to start than My Husband Betty.

After some effort and persistence, Boyd agreed to an email interview with me. I was delighted, but suddenly (and this is unusual for me) lost for questions. I struggled to think of questions which wouldn’t make her roll her eyes (“Like I haven’t been asked this a million times before?”) So I tried to compose questions which were a little probing, a little challenging, just to see what the results would be.

It's been several years since She's Not the Man I Married was published. For those of us who don't know the latest, could you give us a brief update on where things are with Betty's transgender journey?

She transitioned and has been living in the world as a woman for a few years now.

Does this mean hormones and surgery, or something short of that? Legal gender change?

I mean she lives as a woman now. I’m not being coy, but how she transitioned doesn’t make much of a difference for me. My husband is now my wife.

I completely understand your desire to write My Husband Betty, but did you realise or suspect at the time the impact it would have on you? Did you foresee that it would become part of your identity, at least your public one? And is that OK?

I had no idea what was about to happen! None. When you’re an aspiring writer your whole life you have no idea what it will mean – and I’d worked as an assistant to a writer for many years before I wrote it, too, so you think I might have. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and actually like having a public persona, although I’ve had to fine tune how to have a private one, too.

What are your plans for your next book?

I’m writing about masculinity. Something like my other books, but more – this sounds pretentious – literary. It’s an evocative, emotional book right now, brought about by my realization that when my father died, and my husband transitioned, I felt really adrift with no men in my life. It’s hard to explain, but that was the starting point. The first sentence I wrote was “At the age of 43 I’ve found myself bereft of men.” Because I was.

What else do you write about which isn't to do with gender? From my point of view, you seem like someone with a point to make, and I suspect you would have made it in a different area if the cards had fallen a little differently. I just wonder what that area might have been.

A point to make, ha. It’s never occurred to me. I think often the point I’m trying to make more than any other is that people need to let go of shame. Half of the misery in the world is worrying about what other people think even if we think we don’t. I write about music on my blog a lot. The one thing I don’t write about is my family, really, and sometimes I wonder why not.

I admit to feelings of envy when I read your books and realise how open you are to the idea of Betty's transgender status. I suspect that a question you get asked frequently by crossdressers is: "How can I get my wife to be more like you?"

But my question to you is this: has your acceptance of Betty ever led to problems? Have you been the subject of hostility for your views?
Helen and Betty

Of course! Plenty of wives of crossdressers think I’m a pain in the ass. Which, yeah, I am. But I do like to explain that as much as I was an accepting, even enthusiastic, spouse, I had a very hard time with Betty’s transition. Still do. I think the second book hinted at exactly what kinds of issues I would have, but you have to read between the lines to find them.

Why do you consider yourself a pain in the ass?

Because I like crossdressers and would be happy to have one as a husband. They aren’t. For a lot of wives, the crossdressing is a deal-breaker, or keeps them from seeing the masculine husband they know and love. I genuinely enjoyed having a husband who crossdressed. I wish I still had a crossdressing husband, to be honest. Betty knows that, too, but it wasn’t in the cards for us.

What's the most difficult thing for you about having a trans husband?

That she’s my wife now. :-)

What's the best thing for you about having a trans husband?

I think my very favorite thing is having to confront my own issues about gender, although that’s often the most difficult thing, too. (Difficult and amazing do seem to go together a lot.) Because of the work I do, people often assume I’m trans, so I get to experience that thing that trans people do, when others look for the “signs” of whatever gender they think I was declared at birth, which in turns makes me think about what parts of me are masculine, or might be read as masculine if someone thought I was trans. That is, the best thing is being in a space and a community where I get to hear people talk about gender and learn about mine.

What advice would you give to a woman (perhaps a wife) whose partner has just told her about his crossdressing for the first time?

Fasten your seat belt.

A theme of my blog has become my (qualified) acceptance of the Freund-Blanchard autogynephilia model. I wondered what your current view about this hypothesis is (you touch on it in My Husband Betty, but I wondered if your views have evolved).

A couple of things:
(1) I don’t think it’s causal. That is, that there is sometimes a correlation of transness + sexuality, yes. But I don’t think one causes the other.
(2) I’m tired of old men telling everyone else they’re perverts. Honestly.
(3) I have a hard time believing that autogynephilia is a thing at all these days. I think Blanchard has taken autosexuality – which is practically a requirement for men who crossdress – and has turned it into something else. That is, I think there’s a desire to feel pretty, or powerful, or sexy – whichever version of femininity excites you, combined with an acceptance that others aren’t going to be into it so it becomes an autosexual fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that person will need to transition and sometimes they won’t. That is, I think they’re turning it into a thing where it’s really just a perfect storm that looks like a thing.

Old men? You mean scientists? Or perhaps priests?

Ha, I mean the whole of the patriarchy, sure.

Most crossdressers insist they are straight men attracted to women. Yet some gay men crossdress. What's your take on that?

There have always been gay men who have crossdressed, and it’s not always drag when they do. I assume it’s for similar reasons crossdressers do – some combination of scratching an itch, connecting to a feminine self, fabulousness, and sexuality.

What famous person would you most like to meet and why?

Adam Ant, c.1982

Honestly? I think my answer is still Adam Ant. He pretty much kept me alive with his music as a teenager and young adult, and I read an awful lot of books he mentioned in songs and interviews, and he’s recently come back after being diagnosed as bipolar, and is as thoughtful and interesting on that topic as he’s always been about art. And he’s still crazy hot at 58. :-)

==

This wouldn’t be much of an interview if all I did was to gush about Helen and how great her books are. Putting my own academic hat on, a little analysis and discussion are in order. All I know of Boyd is what I have read in her books, and a little on her blog, and these answers above. That may not be all that much to go on.

Boyd is about the same age as me, and I find her attractive. This is not merely about looks, but a combination of intelligence, self-confidence, and acceptance of trans people; a heady mixture indeed. She ranks very highly on my list of people I would like to have dinner with.

One of the reasons I feel uncomfortable when I read her books is that I think: why can’t my wife see that crossdressing isn’t all bad? I am sure that Boyd has often been asked questions like this; how do I make my wife understand? I believe she has, perhaps unwittingly, become a poster child for the (hypothetical) Supportive Wives of Crossdressers Movement.

I find it extraordinary that people might consider Boyd herself to be transgendered. However, I suppose this situation allows (as she says) her to experience some interactions exactly as a trans-person would.

I deliberately posed the autogynephilia question because it was raised by a previous commentator to this blog. I am not wholly satisfied with this answer. I see autogynephilia as a theory which fits some of the observable facts quite well. Like all good models, it is testable, and makes predictions which can also be tested. (As I have written elsewhere, the fact that it is a reasonable model does not make it the truth; nor does the fact that it makes some people uncomfortable make it false; nor does it hold a monopoly on ways to conceptualise men who enjoy wearing women's clothing). I don't see it as "old men telling everyone they are perverts", and my first take on this phrase was to assume that Boyd was talking about clergymen, rather than scientists.

From my perspective, with limited information, it looks as if the autogynephilia theory applies quite well to Betty.

For someone who has written so openly, Boyd seems (in my opinion) slightly elusive. She deflected two of my questions above with amusing or pithy retorts, rather than a seemingly honest or analytical response, and disregarded a couple of others completely. In addition, she mentions her family without really being drawn into why she doesn’t write about them.
Wow! Those eyes! What's going on behind them?

I am left with the impression that Boyd is being guarded. She hints at keeping her public persona and private life separate. I understand this completely; she has no reason to take me into her confidence, nor the anonymous readers of this blog. In her books, she has explicitly held up the “Do Not Disturb” sign: there are some places she will not go. And I understand (from Wikipedia) that “Helen Boyd” is itself a pseudonym, albeit one which seems to be quite official.

What would have happened, I ask myself, if Helen Boyd and Betty had never met? Who would Boyd have chosen as a partner? Another trans person? An “ordinary” guy (perhaps a fellow scholar)? And what then? It seems to me that Boyd’s name and (public) identity are inextricable from her association with transgenderism. Would her life have unfolded differently?

I wonder what would she have had to sink her academic teeth into, if not gender issues? And what would that look like to us? Would she be as well known? (“And tonight, my guest is Helen Boyd, author of My Husband the Trainspotter. Helen, a lot of wives will be wanting to know: how do I get him to stop this weird behaviour?”)

And I can’t help wondering, what is the real Helen Boyd like? Perhaps we get a clue from her answer to my “famous person” question. Adam Ant, a singer best-known in the 1980’s for his outrageous and flamboyant style, produced hits like Prince Charming and Stand and Deliver. His videos were colourful, energetic and Bohemian, and regularly featured glorious costumes and cosmetics for both men and women. His music was edgy punk, mixed with energetic rhythms and tribal-influenced vocals.

With lyrics like “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” and “Although we know it’s wrong, we must do it every day”, Ant was making powerful statements about clothing, identity and behaviour. In the video for Prince Charming, Ant is featured as a Cinderella-like character, with his two ugly brothers going to the ball. Fairy godmother Diana Dors appears to wave her wand. The significance of all this wasn’t lost on me, as a young crossdresser: boys can be Cinderella too. And Ant spends plenty of time pouting and preening for the camera with liberal quantities of mascara and lip gloss on.

Boyd’s affinity for Adam Ant confirms she has an innate liking for boys in costumes and makeup. I didn’t follow Ant’s career past about 1985, and I had no idea he was still touring. But he is, and still, apparently, pressing Boyd’s buttons. Perhaps even without Betty, we can infer that Boyd’s life would have followed a similar groove.

But as a further thought experiment, I wonder what would have happened to me if I had married Helen? Or perhaps Betty, if she had married someone less tolerant? In my case, would I now be transitioning, supported by a loving partner, instead of being a closeted, occasional crossdresser? In Betty's case, would she now still be transitioning, or would she have suppressed her feminine inclinations more? To borrow a very old metaphor, when you look at a tree, how much of its character and appearance is determined by the seed, and how much by the soil?

My thanks to Helen for her time and patience with my questions, and for linking to this blog from hers, which you can find here.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Yasumasa Morimura

Art can be a funny thing. I must say I enjoy strolling through art galleries. What slightly troubles me is that sometimes art can go a bit overboard. For example, Damien Hirst pickled a shark, put it in a glass tank and called it art. The critics agreed with him, and his work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is worth between 8 and 12 million dollars.

When I first heard of the nature of this piece, I was a little taken aback. As a museum specimen, it would surely be interesting. You can visit several museums around the world and see specimens of giant squid, similarly preserved in formaldehyde. Admittedly, a tiger shark (as used by Hirst) is a striking and impressive animal, but surely a giant squid is every bit as cool? What makes Hirst's piece so different? The title, perhaps? Is it the mere fact that a famous artist calls it art?

On reading the Wikipedia article, I discovered that the original shark started to deteriorate in the tank, and made the preservative fluid cloudy (the same happens to those giant squid). So the original shark has been thrown out, and a new specimen (more carefully embalmed) has taken its place. Even Damien Hirst agrees there is a debate to be had about whether the piece is still the same piece, or has changed in some fundamental yet intangible way.

My favourite art story concerns Le Bateau, a work by Henri Matisse. Created in 1953, the work was displayed in New York in 1961 for 47 days upside down before anyone spotted the mistake. During that time, I am sure the critics were in rapture over it.

So this lengthy preamble is only to say that I really know nothing about art, but I suspect that even people who do know quite a lot about art can sometimes get a bit carried away.


Morimura with a pearl earring
Enter Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. What first drew Morimura to my attention is his style of replicating famous artworks with his own face substituted for the original. Sometimes the original face is male (and Morimura has done Mao Zedong, Albert Einstein and Che Guevara), but often the face in the original work is female. A reasonably wide cross-section of Morimura's work can be seen here.

We are talking here about some of the most famous women in the world, including the Mona Lisa, Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Manet's forlorn barmaid at the Folies-Bergere.

Morimura goes to enormous lengths to make his work as close to the original as possible: replicating costumes, lighting, props and setting as accurately as he can. In other words, he isn't simply using digital image manipulation.

In addition to the famous artworks of old, Morimura has turned his attention to photo portraits of some of our most well-known female icons: Brigitte Bardot, Liza Minelli, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo.

After Audrey Hepburn

So here we have a Japanese man recreating himself as some of the most famous (and beautiful) women in the world. He does it so well that the portraits are immediately recognisable for who they are trying to mimic. It's extremely clever, but is it art?

Wikipedia says Morimura was born in Osaka in 1951, making him 52 years old as I write this. He is described as an appropriation artist, which I suppose means he bases his work on other people's ideas.

Morimura's own website is in Japanese, but thanks to online translation software (which is astonishing), one can pick up a lot of detail. It says that Morimura created his first portraits of himself as van Gogh in 1985, and since then has consistently produced works of this type. He has given many solo exhibitions around the world, and has been honoured both in Japan and internationally for his work.

The website MEM says: Morimura’s fascination with ‘seeing’ is not based on his need of being seen but is heavily rested in the interpretation of ‘seeing’ the illusion of gender, culture, appropriation, commodification, and the sometimes obsessive relationship found between the East and West.
Morimura: Another way of looking at it is to compare the Japanese words bureru and yureru. Bureru (literally, to blur) means that your opinions are always undefined, easily corrupted by what other people say. But there is a slight difference with the word yureru (to shake or waver). I know it sounds very Zen, but wavering between two points can actually be a way of defining your opinions.

After Marilyn Monroe
In the article Morimura Yasumasa − The Actress and the PhotographerAyelet Zohar writes: I believe many viewers experience deep resentment towards this man who manages to undermine their concepts of gender, beauty and cultural context. He does not let his viewer rest for a second, or to go away cheerful and happy.

From the point of view of a crossdresser, Morimura's work is deeply compelling. It must take enormous courage to deliberately set oneself up in the role of (say) Marilyn Monroe.

I immediately recognise (and admire) the attention to detail. From one perfectionist to another, he's done a terrific job.

If his images were all female, I would suspect this is autogynephilia. However, enough of his images are men (and not conventionally attractive men) that I think that probably doesn't apply. Is Morimura a crossdresser in the traditional sense? It's impossible to say. Some of his images depict him with realistic breasts, such as the one where he is depicted as a naked woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp.

From a traditional crossdressing perspective, we all like to take photos of ourselves; we like those photos to be as attractive as possible, and we like people to look at our photos and pay us compliments on how we look.
Morimura: I keep taking photographic self portraits because of my fascination with being seen.
For most artists, I suppose, the work is the thing: people look at the pictures, the sculptures, the pickled animals, without really knowing much about the artist. On the other hand, Morimura puts himself centre stage. What goes through Morimura's mind when he looks at a picture of himself as Marilyn Monroe? Nobody seems to have asked. But I wonder if it is something like what goes through my mind when I look at a picture of myself as Vivienne? Is the reason he does what he does anything like the reason I do what I do?

In reading about Morimura on the web, it was interesting to read different people's different interpretations of his work. Thankfully none of it (that I have found) is too ridiculous or over-interpreted. Does his work offend me, or cause me to experience "deep resentment"? Not in the least. Many critics point out that Morimura is saying something about gender, about conventional notions of beauty, about relationships between East and West-- but nobody seems to be clear on exactly what.

And neither am I. My own view of art is that it makes you think; makes you wonder and question. Morimura certainly does that for me. I can't exactly figure out why he is doing what he is doing, but he does it so well, and the result is curiously beautiful. Is it art? Definitely.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Androgyny

You free your mind in your androgyny. -Garbage, Androgyny.
Androgyny seems to be everywhere these days. My hairdresser was talking about it only the other day. Admittedly, it's not new (look at David Bowie in the 1970's), but it seems to be becoming commoner and more popular.

Wikipedia says androgyny refers to the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. Well, I think that's technically true, although perhaps the current interpretation of it is someplace in between male and female. One could technically approach androgyny from the male side (by making oneself more feminine) or the female side (by making oneself more masculine).
Andrej Pejic, Covergirl

Nowhere is the current trend of androgyny more apparent than in the fashion world. BBC journalist Maya Sayer has been surveying the Spring 2014 collections of the fashion world and writes: Last week, as the Spring ’14 menswear shows kicked off in London, one trend sounded with all the subtlety of an air horn: androgyny is the new black.

She points out that several fashion houses are putting men wearing skirts, lace, halter tops, and other feminine clothing on their catwalks, "testing the boundaries" between men's and women's clothing.

I know that fashionistas have been talking about men wearing skirts as normal attire for decades, but it hasn't happened yet. I know that some cultures have skirt-like garments which men wear on a daily basis, but you and I know that isn't the same thing. I know there are some men in our culture who wear skirts regardless-- and good luck to them.

How can we mention the fashion world without discussing Andrej Pejic? As I have mentioned before, Pejic, a naturalised Australian citizen of Bosnian descent, is a man who is so beautiful that he is in demand to model both male and female clothing lines. He was voted the 98th Sexiest Woman in the World by FHM magazine in 2011, and was featured as a covergirl on Elle magazine. Wikipedia claims Elle is the world's best-selling fashion magazine.
Lucia Ianelli

Sayer continues: Confidence. If there’s one thing these new androgynous looks demand of men, it’s that. Which raises the question: have the über-masculine looks dominating menswear up to now been signalling a crisis of male confidence?

I agree that for a man to wear a skirt in public (or another seemingly feminine garment) requires an extra helping of self-confidence. Even someone with the credentials of David Beckham, adored for his masculinity by millions of women (and gay men) worldwide, came in for some flak when he wore a sarong. As I have mentioned elsewhere, we are not at all comfortable when our football heroes show any cracks whatever in their masculinity.

Sayer continues: But I’m willing to bet that, given some time, the public will come around to some version of this new unisex aesthetic.

Well, they might be helped by video games, as well as fashion. One of my longstanding favourite video game franchises is the Tekken series, which I have been playing since you could measure the size of the pixels with a ruler. Tekken and its sequels are beat-'em-up games, in which players control highly skilled martial artists and cause them to kick the stuffing out of one another. With each successive sequel, the characters have become more detailed.
Leo from Tekken 6

Tekken games are basically like comics. They are marketed at adolescent boys (of all ages) and therefore contain what that demographic wants to look at: big, muscly men, and beautiful, scantily-clad women in revealing costumes (OK, so there are a few animals, robots, and demons in there too). From its first outing, Tekken featured characters like Nina, who fights wearing ridiculously impractical, skimpy outfits, stockings, and combat stilettos.

Enter the character Leo, introduced in Tekken 6. At first glance, with the jeans, the boots, the gloves and the stance (and the name!), we kind of assume that Leo is a boy, albeit a somewhat slight one. In the game, Leo is given no gender-specific pronouns, and none of the costumes reveal any part of Leo's body, so no clues there. We can't tell from Leo's fighting style; one of the aspects of Tekken is that diminutive teenage girls (such as Xiaoyu) can defeat hulking, Terminator-like robots (such as Jack), using only kung-fu. Yeah, good luck with that.

In fact, Leo is a girl, whose real name is Eleonore, though this fact only became official when her creator, Katushiro Harada, announced it publicly. Until then, fans of the game around the world were tossing coins to decide her official gender.

Most of the female characters in Tekken are exaggeratedly feminine; not just in their costumes, but in the little intro and outro animations played for each character. They wiggle their hips, shake their boobies, beckon in a sexual manner, or (in the case of the younger characters) adopt Lolita-like, little-girl mannerisms. Actually it's quite refreshing to find a female character who can wear something more practical to fight in than a bikini, and who doesn't flaunt their booty in front of the player.

Androgyne celebrity B. Scott

Tekken is of course Japanese, and I suspect that many of the teenage girl characters are there to pay fan-service to the Japanese fondness for schoolgirls and Lolitas; nothing to do with setting positive role models for women, or even giving female players something to empathise with. I wonder whether Leo is there, not to transcend gender stereotypes, but to pander to some Japanese attraction to androgyny.

And what is it with our current fascination with androgyny? You can even find instructions on how to achieve it. Why do we (as a society) find androgyny so attractive? (And why do we find crossdressing so disturbing?). Just type the word into Google (or Google images) and be drenched in pictures of people blending the gender categories (with greater or lesser degrees of success).

In My Husband Betty, Helen Boyd writes (p.186) of how she and husband Betty attended a Hallowe'en party, with Betty dressed as Desire, an androgyne character from Neil Gaiman's Sandman: My husband is beautiful as a man or a woman, but unbelievably beautiful when he's something in-between.

So there is definitely something in it, something intangible. I must say, when I look at the pictures of female bodybuilders, although some of them look really quite masculine, as well as feminine, I don't find it attractive at all. On the other hand, when I look at pictures such as that of Lucia Ianelli, above, I think: wow! How can I explain that? Is it because the bodybuilders look like lots of masculine plus lots of feminine, and the androgynes look like not much masculine plus not much feminine?

As for myself, is androgyny something I aim for? Not in the least. When I am male, I want to be completely male. When I am trying to be female, I want completely female. Somewhere in between doesn't really do it for me. But for those who can carry it off, I wish them nothing but the best.

What about the mainstream? Are men really going to go into stores and buy skirts?

Charlie Casely-Hayford (clothes designer): We want to challenge our customer, but we don’t want to freak him out. So every season, I’m asking myself – can we do a skirt? Will he understand? We’re almost there... But, you know, not quite yet.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Female Bodybuilding

I was going to include this topic in my post on Androgyny, but the more I read about it, the more I thought it was worthy of a post by itself.

I am supportive of women's equality with men in every arena. Female police officers, firefighters and soldiers wouldn't provoke the least reaction in me. Likewise, I am supportive of women's equality in the intellectual fields: science, academia and politics. But, I must admit, I find female bodybuilding to be a puzzle.
Something inside so strong?

Let's take men's bodybuilding first, and in a Darwinian sense. If we take mammals as a whole, males demonstrate (and in some cases prove) their reproductive suitability to females by physical prowess: by jousting with other males. Nature tends to have equipped males with more powerful musculature; a stronger frame; bigger teeth, tusks or horns; and with a tendency to aggression which includes a willingness to fight. From a female's point of view, it makes sense to mate with the alpha: his genes will tend to make the offspring stronger and more robust; more able to fight off predators, more able to withstand harsh conditions, and in their turn, more likely to pass on their genes to their own offspring.

Humans are exempted from none of this. Until the last couple of centuries or so, human reproductive success still favoured physical robustness, and our leaders tended to be great big lads who were handy with a sword. Speaking as a physical weakling, I like to think that we are getting to the point where we can recognise other measures of reproductive success, such as intelligence ("Brainy is the new sexy").

So I can understand why men want to compete at trials of physical strength. Rugby, for example, is a ritualised form of warfare, where the sides are deliberately matched, and the blades and cudgels left out, but the aggression, the grappling, and the testosterone persist. Other football variants permit different quantities of physicality, though the basic premise remains. In part, men are driven to compete by their genes; people who cheer from the sidelines are competing vicariously, and their emotional involvement can be dramatic and intense.

 Bodybuilder Debi Laszewski in 2011

We call it "brute strength" because we tend to associate great human physical strength with coarseness, animal behaviour, and a lack of finesse or intelligence (as in the phrase "brute force and ignorance"). None of this is necessarily true, of course.

Bodybuilding is not entirely about strength, but about display; the tanned, waxed, oiled skin; the deliberate poses and choreography; and the delineation of every last fascicle and fibre of the musculature (and what is it with those veins?). There is a clear difference between the physique of the bodybuilder and that of the weight lifter. But for me, bodybuilding is all about masculinity, and the display of physical strength is a very masculine trait. And they are not judged on their strength or athletic prowess, but merely their appearance.

Enter the women. According to the Wikipedia article, female competitive bodybuilding only really got going in the last 30 years, and is on the rise. Female bodybuilding competitions are now routinely staged alongside male bodybuilding competitions, although the prize money is approximately 1/10 as much.
Women: muscling in?

Female bodybuilders may claim that they are attempting to achieve a balance of athleticism, fitness, flexibility and strength, rather than simply to bulk up with beef. Bodybuilder Debi Laszewski comments: I believe I have an incredible amount of mature muscle on my frame and, that said, a balanced physique. I also try to maintain my feminine lines.

Has she managed this?

Afghanistan and Malaysia have banned female bodybuilding outright. And some female bodybuilders use anabolic or androgenic steroids as a way of increasing their muscle mass. Steroids bulk you up all right, but also threaten fertility and can produce masculinising side-effects, including deepening of the voice and male-pattern baldness.

That rigid diet and punishing exercise regime, designed to cut out body fat and replace it all with lean muscle, inevitably causes breasts to shrink and all but disappear. Female bodybuilders either need to accept that, or get breast implants.

In 1992, concerned that female bodybuilders were too muscular, the International Federation of Body Builders attempted to feminise the sport by introducing rules which penalised excessively muscular contestants. Later, in 2005, the IFBB introduced the controversial "20% rule", which was "that female athletes in Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%". The memo stated that the request "applies to those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease". It seemed that even bodybuilders thought the women were getting too big.
A picture of vulnerability?

So what do I think about all this? First, back to the men. I can understand the idea of a man wanting to be big and strong, and to look big and strong. On the other hand, for me, it isn't aesthetically pleasing in the least: I think those inflated physiques look unattractive and off-putting. Though I learned today, with a certain weariness, that there is a sexual fetish associated with touching or rubbing the bodies of highly-muscled people, and that some impecunious bodybuilders submit to this as a means of supplementing their income.

For a woman, then, it's hard to think of anything conventionally feminine about bodybuilding at all. I totally understand the pursuit of health, tone, flexibility and fitness, but to me, this path leads to the physique of a rower, rather than a bodybuilder. Women who bodybuild have the distorted physiques of the men, but in addition, they have the lipstick, the heels, and the long hair (and sometimes the obvious breast implants). This juxtaposition of masculine and feminine features sometimes makes these women very strange to look at indeed. It's worth taking a look at this article, in which celebrity photographer Martin Schoeller takes portraits of female bodybuilders (I have borrowed two for this post). Schoeller writes: I am trying to show the vulnerability that I see and feel in the subjects when I am with them, to get to the complex emotions behind a mask of extreme physical expression.

What are those complex emotions? What form does that vulnerability take? What are those women searching for? How do they feel about themselves? I don't have those answers; you will need to find your own.

Strong Arms of the Ma
My final point is this. If women want to compete in bodybuilding, and they want to bulk up their bodies in this way, they should be allowed to do so unfettered. In the statement above from the IFBB, what they were really saying was "some of you are too big and too muscular; you need to cut back by 20%. Who does this apply to? Well, it's obvious, isn't it? You know who you are". I couldn't find the full statement to read, so there may have been explanations, but perhaps their own sport's governing body was telling bodybuilding women not to get too muscular. Not, perhaps, for health and safety reasons, or other understandable, if wearisome, competition regulations. No, just perhaps because even the sport's own governing body thinks female bodybuilding is unladylike.

For a different but related subject, I refer you to my article about Women with Beards.

Addendum: 30th December 2014

Over the last couple of months or so, this post has become one of the most popular on this blog. On the other hand, nobody has left a comment for ages. If this subject interests you, or upsets you, or arouses you, please leave a comment for discussion.

I came across an episode of The Simpsons entitled Strong Arms of the Ma, in which Marge gets mugged. As a result of feeling vulnerable, she takes up bodybuilding to feel stronger and safer. Though she builds a lot of muscle, unfortunately the steroids cause her to become aggressive and mean. The critics' response to the episode was largely negative. When done well, The Simpsons is a powerful and insightful parody, but it doesn't look like they hit the sweet spot with this episode.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Transgender superheroes

If you haven't read the original novel Watchmen, which planet have you been living on? It's one of the finest pieces of fiction I've ever read. But don't take my word for it: it made it to Time magazine's 100 greatest novels list. Not graphic novels. Novels.

Did the costumes make it good?
There is a powerful scene where Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg (both costumed heroes) attempt to make love in Dan's apartment, but Dan is unable to perform. They go down to the basement, where they don their costumes and take Dan's "owlship" out for a flight. As it happens, they end up rescuing some people from a building on fire. Afterwards, with the owlship hovering over the city, they make love again in the owlship, with the illustrated result. That's supposed to be a flamethrower, by the way.

A presumably somewhat breathless Laurie remarks: "Did the costumes make it good? Dan...?"

Wow! Where to begin with this? Watchmen has been described as the moment comics came of age, and this is the sort of thing which reminds people of that. The main plot involves a villain, and a group of costumed heroes in pursuit. But that's where the novel departs from the cliches. It tackles head-on the ideas we have all had about costumed crimefighters: doesn't it make you feel silly? What happens when you get old? What happens if the public turns against you? What makes someone want to put on a costume and fight bad guys? This scene is one which hints at the notion that it's sometimes about the costume, though there are other parts of the book which give different interpretations.

Princess Koriand'r
The subtlety and sophistication of the story is just dazzling. Among many brilliant aspects of it is the utter abandonment of moral certainty. In the old days, the good guys were good, and the bad guys were bad. End of. Why were the bad guys bad? Who cares? They were just there to give the good guys something to do. Watchmen shows us good guys which are not quite as good as we might wish; and bad guys... well, you'll just have to read it. Incidentally, the film is also excellent, being as it is basically a love-letter to the book (though the dialogue in the owlship scene is different).

As someone who is very interested in the power of costumes (and was really into comics for a while there), I can't help drawing a parallel between costumed heroes and crossdressing. Crossdressing makes me feel different on a fundamental level. It allows me access to a range of emotional expression which is usually denied me. I have discussed elsewhere that perhaps costume, the temporary assumption of some other identity, is powerfully alluring all of its own, even aside from crossdressing.

Superheroes (at least as they are drawn in comics) are inherently profoundly sexist. Comics basically exist to provide eye candy for nerdy geeks (like me). Comics can illustrate anything; special effects are no object. There is a tendency to depict both male and female heroes as athletes at the pinnacle of human achievement (for the purposes of this discussion, let's stick to human beings!). Nonetheless, where male heroes tend to wear whole-body costumes (think of Batman, Spiderman, Superman), female heroes tend to wear next to nothing, and be displayed in alluring poses. One of my favourites (though there is no shortage of other examples) was for a while Princess Koriand'r, shown here. Maybe it was the green eyes.

So the women are all drawn, more or less, the same: beautiful, incredibly buxom and curvaceous, with long flowing hair (impractical though this may be when fighting crime), and with some sort of revealing, bikini-like costume (where do you keep your gadgets? Your keys?), and in poses which accentuate the inherent sexuality of their costumes.
Batgirl, issue 19.

Male heroes, on the other hand, are ridiculously well-muscled. Square of jaw, steely of gaze, tousled of hair. There isn't a hint, from any of them, that they are anything less than uber-masculine. The occasional slim wiry one may be allowed, rather than the brute. For an amusing take on the sexism inherent in comic illustration, I refer you to The Hawkeye Initiative, where artists, some professional, and some amateur, redraw published comic illustrations of female heroes with a male figure, Hawkeye, in the same pose. There's even a dude out there taking photos of himself, with the same intent.

So where are the transgender superheroes? The answer is: it's pretty hard to find any. Quite understandably, they don't really belong, in a universe of such powerful male or female archetypes. And in addition, open depictions of homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism were overtly banned in the USA (which means the world, in comic book terms), until 1989. And yet, among comic-reading audiences, there is a powerful mix of people of all stripes, and since 1989 there has been a bit of catching up to do for comic book writers, incorporating LGBT characters into their storylines. Some well-known characters have been updated to incorporate same-sex relationships; for example, Batwoman is now depicted as a lesbian.

But don't get mixed up between Batwoman and Batgirl. Batgirl, whose mild-mannered alter-ego is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon. It's here we find the first mainstream transgender comic character, Batgirl's flatmate, Alysia Yeoh. What's the background to Alysia? No idea. From the little I have read, she seems to be a full-time male-to-female character, but beyond that, there seems to be nothing solid. She seems also to have no super powers, but of course, they are only a zap with some novel kind of radiation away. The character has only existed for a few months, and it remains to be seen how she will develop. Will she end up looking like Princess Koriand'r? Or perhaps like The Thing? It's impossible to tell.
Maidman

Let me say now that I welcome this development. It's an acknowledgement that trans people exist, even in the uber-sexist world of comics. For them to be accepted openly (as Batgirl does), is a powerful statement of welcome. Alysia weeps at Batgirl's immediate acceptance of her.

But how about transgender superheroes? The character of Maidman can be found in the pages of Empowered, a comic-book series which has been going since 2007, authored by Adam Warren. Part of the theme of Empowered is to deconstruct comic book stereotypes in a humorous manner, so Maidman, a costumed hero whose superpowered costume is a French Maid outfit, is deliberately poking in the eye of the traditional costumed hero:
Maidman: I'd be far more embarrassed to dress up like, say, an animal. Now that would be silly. Face it. The hundreds of would-be badass capes who practice species crossdressing as various theoretically intimidating animals? That's one step removed from being a furry. Talk about embarrassing.
Maidman is depicted as clearly a man (including his blue chin and muscly physique) but wearing a ridiculous frilly maid outfit, and carrying a feather duster and broom (which are of course supergadgets in their own right). Check out those shaved legs and combat stilettoes. Does Maidman count as a transgender superhero? I don't think so. Although in the Empowered universe, Maidman is depicted as a powerful hero, whom the bad guys clearly fear, it is clear in the real universe that Maidman is a caricature, designed to look ridiculous as a means of poking fun at costumed superheroes in general. The pink speech bubbles which he has, suggest that he affects a sexy feminine voice too. Does he poke fun at crossdressers? I personally don't find it in the least offensive, although perhaps you have different views. For me, the point (as expressed eloquently by Maidman himself) is that it's no more weird for a man to dress as a maid to fight crime than it is for him to dress as a bat, or a spider, or any one of a hundred other odd themes.
SheZow!

No, for a real transgender superhero, we need to turn to the world of children's entertainment. I am indebted to Ralph for drawing my attention to this character, the superhero SheZow!

SheZow is a Canadian-Australian co-production, a series of (so far) 26 short cartoon episodes aimed at kids between the ages of 6 and 11. The basic premise of the story is that Guy(!) Hamdon, a typical 12-year old boy, finds a magic ring which turns him into the superhero SheZow. In the universe, the character is well-known, admired and popular. Guy is initially reluctant, but after discovering the supercool car (the "She-hicle"), and the hi-tech underground batcave, with its supercomputer, "Sheila", he comes to embrace the role. Nobody knows his secret identity except his sister and best (male) friend.

SheZow has the hair, the eyeshadow, the costume (thankfully non-revealing, but nonetheless pink and sparkly) and the heels. She also has super-strength, and a light-sabre-like weapon, laser lipstick. She is resolutely pink, girly and uber-feminine. This, I suppose, is one of the essential points of the show: making SheZow as feminine as possible to highlight Guy's discomfort at assuming the role. The show is essentially light-hearted and comic in tone. To drive up the femininity, the dialogue is full of excruciating puns, such as "she-vitalised", "she-riffic", "she-S-P" (SheZow's "spider sense"), and even "she you later!". Guy can assume the identity of SheZow by reciting the magic phrase "You go girl!".

SheZow seems naturally invulnerable. Her kryptonite is her hair: for her hair to become disarrayed leads to loss of her super powers, though they can be restored by the use of "she-lac" hair spray from her utility belt.
SheZow, mighty SheZow!

My two youngest kids are between 6 and 11, and so I sat them down to watch it with me. We watched for over an hour, which was about half a dozen episodes. As a fairly conservative parent myself (believe it or not!), there was nothing in it to trouble me. There is nothing overtly sexual or suggestive. Beyond the basic premise, there is nothing untoward: the good guys are resolutely good, the villains resolutely dastardly, the predicaments humorous, and the outcomes predictably favourable. I enjoyed it very much. A special mention to the actress who voices the computer Sheila, in a very sexy, British accent. Hell-low!

I think from the point of view of a child, it’s no more bizarre than any other superhero cartoon. In many ways, it echoes other fiction I have come across. The novel Boy2Girl, by Terence Blacker, and the comic strip Cuckoo in the Nest (from an obsolete girls’ comic) both explore the situation of a boy, reluctantly compelled by circumstance to adopt the role of a girl, who is initially unwilling but ultimately finds unexpected advantages or insights in doing so. Both of those are aimed at children (and are explored more here on my blog). SheZow is very faithful to that trope.

So then, is it good? Does it do our sons good to consider aspects of femininity to be positive? I suppose so, although I don’t really think it does any better than She-Ra (or my personal favourites, Jana of the Jungle, and Cheetara). Girls can be superheroes too, but I’ve known this since childhood anyway. Does it give confidence or esteem to girls? I don’t really think so. Does it make children more trans-friendly? I guess so, though one cartoon will not be enough to overcome their own upbringing, whether hostile or accepting.

Does it do harm? I can’t honestly see how. If it’s OK for kids to watch Batman punch the villain’s lights out, then it surely should be OK to watch a boy putting on a magic ring and becoming a girl. Is it going to make our sons grow up gay, or camp, or effeminate? Gracious me, no!

What did my kids think of it? My youngest son watched it with interest, although he hasn't been bothered about it since. My youngest daughter enjoyed it more, and has since spoken about it, and asked to see more of it. I asked her: How do you like the show? "It's cool". Is it OK for girls to be superheroes? "Yes." Is it OK for a boy to be a girl superhero? She paused: "I don't know". I get the impression that, from her point of view, SheZow is just a cool girl. The fact that SheZow is a boy seems to be incidental.

However, almost inevitably, the show has attracted criticism from the usual suspects, people who are convinced this show will institute moral collapse on a national, perhaps global, scale. I suspect (as is usual in these sorts of instances), just about everyone who protests hasn't even sat down and watched the show.

So, for a fairly thorough trawl through the potential places to find transgender superheroes, we come up pretty short. SheZow gets the prize: cool, powerful, and unavoidably transgendered. But surely we can do better? Surely trans people can be powerful and cool too?

Addendum: 18th October 2013

I came across this article from journalist Kasey Edwards, discussing SheZow. The article is interesting and provocative, written as it is by a woman, and a mother. Overall, Edwards seems to basically agree with my angle.

My thanks also to Grok, for drawing my attention to Captain Cross-Dresser, an amusing (and sadly one-off) animated short. I wasn't able to follow Grok's link, but I was able to find the whole ten minutes on YouTube, split up into three parts. It has some very clever and amusing points to make, although (unlike SheZow) I wouldn't try showing it to young kids. I quote:
This is just what our city needs: a superhero for the 21st century!
 Addendum: 2nd October 2015

I came across this excellent article by Cindi May in Scientific American. Entitled The Problem With Female Superheroes, it points out that female superheroes have gone "from helpless damsel to powerful heroine, but [are] still hypersexualised". Well worth a read.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Other Bluestockings

You might not have noticed it, but you've just missed Bluestocking Week 2013. This awareness-raising event is run by Australia's National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Though the NTEU is open to membership from both sexes, the Bluestocking Week is all about celebrating the contribution of women to tertiary education.

As you can see from my About Me page, the word bluestocking refers to an educated, intellectual woman. The word originally referred to people of both sexes (which makes me marginally more comfortable about appropriating it for my own use), and became prevalent in the 18th century. The idea was that bluestockings wore blue, woollen stockings instead of the fashionable black or white silk stockings of the day. This was presumably because their minds were on higher matters than mere fashion, and it must be said, the word was not used (nor intended) in a complimentary way. I suppose the original bluestockings were the geeks or nerds of their day. Female bluestockings were deliberately sidestepping societal expectations: instead of getting married upon leaving school, they sought education, enlightenment and achievement on their own merits.

I chose the name for several reasons. First, I am all about words. Secondly, I studied in London in Bloomsbury, which was known for a particular group of intellectual women, the Bloomsbury Bluestockings. Thirdly, one of my favourite music groups recorded a beautiful song, Bloomsbury Blue, about just such a woman. In the song, the woman is referred to as Bluestocking Blue, and I liked the pleasant alliteration of that phrase, so I adopted it. I didn't intend anything to do with blue or blues in the emotional or musical sense. Finally, I have struggled to find other crossdressers with a similar outlook to my own, which makes me feel somewhat distinct from them. A scholarly, geeky, crossdresser: a bluestocking.

More recently, the word has been reclaimed with pride by intellectual feminists and scholars. First on the list (at least, in Google order) is this one: The Bluestocking Blog. The blogger is Lauren C. Teffeau, and the subtitle of her blog is "the weekly musings of an over-educated young woman on writing, reading, and other miscellany". So far so good. In her profile, she writes:
I am an avid reader, an apprenticing writer, an active mediaphile, an adored wife, an annoying sister, an adept daughter, an adequate woman. I am an acquired taste.
I must admit, as someone who adores words, and is also a writer, I cannot think of a more enticing profile entry. An acquired taste? Oh, I somehow doubt it would take long! It isn't possible, I believe, for a woman (or anyone) to be over-educated.

Lauren writes fiction (something I am dreadful at), and her career seems to be taking off, with a string of successful publications. Her blog is insightful and interesting, and she has earned a string of "blogging awards". I haven't read any of her published work, though when I do I will be sure to let you know.

My favourite mode of writing is in my journal, with a fountain pen on thick white paper. Writing in my journal is healing, and centering. I write for an audience of one, though I hope my children will eventually read all about Vivienne in my journals (which run to many volumes) and feel some compassion for their old dad doing the best he could with his weird affliction.

Mostly I write, of course, to be read (doesn't everyone?) and to be read requires dissemination, which requires the Internet. A mentor of mine is fond of remarking "the shoemaker makes good shoes because he makes them every day". I think the same is true of writers. Good writers write all the time. I have personally found blogging to be really helpful: I can write on any one of several devices, in just about any location, and revisit or edit the material whenever I like.

My next bluestocking identifies herself only as Bluestocking. Her profile says:
There's little to me that you should know - a romantic, finding her dazed way through life. A pragmatist who dreams of magic. Glimpses of both, you shall see here. And my thoughts, sometimes laid bare.
Sappho
I find myself jealous of the poetry in these profiles! This woman not only embraces poetry, but uses Sappho as her avatar. She also has an "alter ego", Weaver Imp, whose blog consists of chapters of an ongoing novel. Bluestocking's blog consists of book reviews, snatches of fiction and poetry, self-reflective fragments and occasionally visual art.

Bluestocking writes: come not here for pearls of wisdom. This place is simply my canvas.

So much for individuals, how about groups?

The Bluestockings Magazine is written by students at Brown University in the USA. It's not quite clear whether there is a paper version, or whether it exists only online. On looking at its website, I was surprised to find an article about Bradley Manning, who now wishes to be known as Chelsea Manning, and who has announced his intention to transition. The article is very sympathetic to trans people.

On looking at the production team, there is a huge string of interesting biographies, with pictures of quirky, gorgeous, and above all, intellectual young people. And among them is a young man! Well done, Kyle. This team of young people reminds me why I find academic life so inspiring sometimes.

The magazine has an impressive Mission Statement, which includes statements like:
We believe feminism is not a rigid set of guidelines or restrictive beliefs, but instead contains a fluid spectrum of definitions that can be negotiated through the creative process. It is a malleable perspective that is both personal and public.
Baroness Greenfield
As you can imagine, with such a long list of contributors (and the magazine accepts contributions of all kinds), the output is copious, lavish and all-encompassing. I will be sure to have a good browse through the archive the next time I have a bit of time off.

Across the pond is its British equivalent, Blue-stocking, written and produced by students at the University of Oxford, an institution for which I have great fondness. Its angle is slightly different:
We are a feminist journal based in Oxford who publish insightful yet critical articles on the contributions of female thinkers over history.
It focusses on "women as creative thinkers", and is resolutely, unapologetically, by women only, and about women only. It also seems to have a narrower, more academic focus. Its list of patrons includes one of my personal heroes, Susan Greenfield, whose seemingly inexhaustible output I have found in several media, not least my favourite radio station, BBC Radio 4. Greenfield is one of those ridiculously competent people who makes me think: I wish I was half as good as that. Wikipedia says she has been awarded 30 honorary degrees, as well as a CBE and a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords. Let's see you top that! Greenfield's personal website is here.

While I feel quite at home on the Brown website, which seems more open and more accepting of people like me (even Vivienne), I suspect in Oxford, I would be viewed as an unwelcome impostor and given a frosty cold shoulder.

There are plenty more bluestockings out there. I suspect at least some of them might squirm at my appropriation of the title bluestocking for myself. If you are such a person, please give me a chance. I think you might find we have a lot more in common than you might think. But do please post your thoughts below.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Seriously not helping

In this blog, as you know, I celebrate all sorts of human expression, particularly if it's to do with clothing or gender role. I am all for relaxation of societal attitudes and acceptance of men (in particular) who want to wear women's clothing in public. But a few items have lately caught my eye on the Internet, and reminded me that there are people out there who are seriously not helping.
Howard: seriously??

The first incident is this one. A grey-haired man wearing female heels, underwear, and basically nothing else, fronted up at an airport to board a plane for an internal flight across the US. Passengers complained about the man, but the airline (US Air) allowed him to board the aircraft because they "don't have a dress code policy".

The man, identified only as "Howard", says he is a business consultant, and "does it for fun". As can be seen here, he willingly poses for photos taken by other passengers. This incident is not isolated; it seems Howard, from Phoenix, likes to fly around the US wearing ridiculous female attire, and there are quite a few pictures and videos of him out there.

Howard asserts: "It has never been my intent to put people in a situation where they feel uncomfortable. I try to respect other people's opinions. As long as my dress is not indecent from a legal perspective, and so long as the airline does not object, I have the right to wear what I wear. And others have the right to wear what they want to wear. This is just something I do for fun. I don't mean any harm."

Seriously, though, what is he thinking? As a crossdresser myself, going out dressed in public is desirable and pleasurable. But only (and here is the important bit) if people behave decently. Howard may be having fun, and acting within the law or his rights-- perhaps only just-- but his behaviour is awful. This sort of thing is exactly why I don't want to be associated with crossdressing. He is setting out to deliberately provoke outrage, and by doing so, he is giving the rest of us a bad name. If I saw him dressed like that in an airport, I would protest, loudly.
Rob: seriously??

Okay, the next incident is a few years old now. Rob Moodie, a New Zealander, joins the police force as a young man, rises to the rank of inspector, retires, takes a law degree, and subsequently a PhD. He sounds like a man of irrepressible competence. Then he starts turning up to court wearing girly frocks, then officially changes his name to Miss Alice.

His motivation for this ridiculous behaviour was reported to be "a gender-bending protest against the male-dominated corruption of New Zealand's judicial system".

The NZ Police does mention him on its website, but is uncomfortably tight-lipped about his biography.

Even if New Zealand's judicial system is male dominated (aren't they all?) and even if he isn't the only lawyer in the world who likes to wear women's clothing, how could he possibly do anything other than undermine his own arguments, and attract scorn and contempt? I mean, would you take him seriously? Would you hire him to defend you against criminal charges, or to plead your case in the High Court? (Although just maybe, the judge would throw out the case on the grounds of insanity-- of the counsel, not the defendant!).

What Rob and Howard are doing is not harmless fun. It tarnishes the rest of us by reputation. Members of the public, looking at them, might conclude that all crossdressers are flagrant, disturbing and unrestrained. And I have to say, that would be a hard point to refute. Men like these may be few in number, but they have an influence out of proportion to their number, by their memorability and deliberate visibility.

Bradley: seriously??

The third incident is the most recent, and is very different in tone. Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who leaked the largest cache of secret documents ever released to the public, to WikiLeaks, was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for his trouble.

I know next to nothing about Bradley Manning, although he has been at the centre of a very, very large media storm.

As a young military officer, he must have surely known that if he violated his duties of secrecy, he would be severely punished. Was he amoral, treacherous, and malicious? Was he acting defiantly, out of an unshakeable moral sense that what he was doing was right? Or was he a disturbed and volatile young man who should never have been allowed anywhere near national secrets? (And I bet there has been a lot of uncomfortable discussion behind tightly-closed doors: "Okay, whose idea was it to give Manning the passwords?")

I can't answer that question. All I can say is that it was brought up in the trial, in his defence, that Manning is a young man of uncertain sexual orientation, who has deliberately dressed as a woman. In fact, a photo was shown in support of this point. It's not a very good photo, but it makes the point.

Whatever you may make of Bradley actions, or his punishment, the association between Manning's actions and his crossdressing carries extremely uncomfortable implications. For me at least, it seemed to be saying: of course this young man is unstable! He likes to dress as a woman! He must be crazy! Any man who dresses like that can't be OK.

From my perspective, it doesn't matter to me whether Manning is a transvestite or not (but see below!). What matters is the way this has been portrayed in the court, associating crossdressing with mental instability, moral weakness, and dangerous national disloyalty. In this case, it's not Manning himself who is not helping, but his defence. (Though I must admit I would clutch at any straws, even this one, if I thought it would keep me out of prison).

In any event, I suspect that Manning's next few years in prison at Fort Leavenworth will be uncomfortable. And I mean, seriously.

Addendum

Sometimes events can change pretty rapidly. In the last couple of days, Manning has released this statement:
As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).
Just a couple of comments spring to mind. The use of the phrase "I am Chelsea Manning", not "My name is Chelsea Manning" is a powerful statement of identity. The statement "I am female" is less clear-cut, partly because it's hard to argue that it's true. Finally, Manning's remark about "except in official mail" seems to be an overt recognition that she can insist who she is, all she likes, but the Army will not recognise that insistence.

The Army's statement is as follows:
All inmates are considered soldiers and are treated as such with access to mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, social workers and behavioral science non-commissioned officers with experience in addressing the needs of military personnel in pre- and post-trial confinement. The army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder.
So that's that, then. Paris Lees, herself a transwoman who has spent time in prison, comments that Manning hid her gender-identity disorder because she feared she would be treated more harshly by the military justice system. I admit, I can see this angle (but why then bring it up at the trial?). On the other hand, I am somewhat more cynical. I can see that a young man, facing 35 years of military detention, might try to do anything-- anything-- which would mitigate the unpleasantness of that experience to some degree. To announce a desire to change sex, right now, would seem to be a desperate plea to be treated a little more gently, by what is clearly going to be a very harsh and punitive prison environment.

My concern is that this strategy backfires, and that Manning ends up being treated even more harshly. I don't blame Manning for what she is trying to do, but I believe that she is nowhere near in the right place to be taking decisions of this magnitude.

===
Addendum 11th October 2013

For the detailed accounts and pictures of someone who regularly flies crossdressed, and does so responsibly and with circumspection, I suggest Kimberly Huddle's blog here.

===
Addendum 18th July 2014

Tyler: seriously??
The BBC has just reported that Chelsea Manning is to be allowed some "gender treatment" while incarcerated.

===
Addendum 9th May 2016

My thanks to Megan Martin for drawing my attention to the case of Tyler Grant, who identifies as genderqueer (and prefers gender-neutral pronouns), who was thrown out of their local fast food outlet in Texas by a police officer when they tried to get a burger wearing this leopardskin number, with stockings and heels. The whole thing was recorded on video, so we know it happened.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it was transphobia driven,” Grant says. “I explained (to the manager) that… (my outfit) was no more revealing than yoga pants and a tank top.”

Grant's friend adds another layer: “Now I don’t know if there are dressing regulations at <burger outlet> or not, but the officer didn’t seem to intend on enforcing any (regulations) while under the assumption that Tyler was female. The fact that he suddenly had a problem with it after finding out that Tyler was a ‘dude’ is what I find to be discriminatory. It appeared that he was okay with a girl wearing such clothing, but for (Tyler) to wear such clothes was suddenly crossing the line.”

I have to say, Tyler looks a knockout in that outfit. I wish I looked half that good. But seriously, wearing that to go out for a burger? Megan points out that any woman might easily face difficulties going out in the evening wearing that outfit, and Grant's innocent denial seems hopelessly naïve at best. For this, Tyler Grant gets admitted to the Seriously Not Helping Hall of Fame. Ta-daaah!

Further applicants welcome!