Sunday, 28 July 2013

Joanna Darrell-- Beaumont Society Vice President

In a previous post, I wrote of my somewhat unsatisfactory relationship with The Beaumont Society, the oldest transgender-support society in the world. Founded in London in 1966, the Society is run as a charity, and caters for "the transgender, transvestite, transsexual and cross-dressing community".

The Vice President of the Beaumont Society is Joanna Darrell, who happened on my blog post and was kind enough to post a short comment on it. I contacted her to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the Beaumont Society, and she generously agreed. I have made some explanatory comments in italics, but otherwise these are Joanna's words.

Please tell us a bit of background information about yourself.

Not really so sure what you want to know here really? I'm 44, married and live in Bristol where I work as an engineer.

How long have you been a crossdresser? How did you get started? I assume from your prominent position within the Beaumont Society that you are "out". Do you dress freely in public?

Joanna Darrell
I've been dressing for 16 years (I guess in trans terms, I'm still a teenager). My introduction was unusual in that I was initially introduced to "the scene" by a friend rather than a longing caused by any sense of dysphoria. After going out a few times and meeting some really great people, I came to realise it was something missing from who I was and chose to embrace it rather than second guess it, or judge myself unfavourably because of it. Although I did consider transitioning about 10 years ago, I came to realise through my RLE [Real Life Experience- a period of living full time as a woman] that it wasn't the right thing for me at that time and I was happy as I am.

Within my life I'm lucky to have the support of my wife and some friends which gives me the freedom to express myself as I want to be when I want to be. I'm not sure this is what you mean by being "out" but I regularly go out dressed and shop, for example.

When did your relationship with the Beaumont Society start?

About 1997. The first meetings I went to were organised by Diana Aitchison at the Town and Gown [a pub] in Cambridge. Diana is also still very active with the T community there.

What first got you interested in the Society? How did you get involved?

The Society has always been there as an outlet throughout my life. Although when I was experimenting with finding myself, I wasn't very close to it (apart from the Cambridge meetings) When I returned to England [after some time abroad], I noticed the Central Regional Organiser position had been vacant for a while so I emailed Shirley Keel and asked if I could help. After a chat about what was involved, I took it on for a short while in a probationary capacity, before taking the role officially in late 2010.

How long before you became Vice President? How does that work? Is there some sort of ballot?

Following Bella's decision to stand down last year, all members of the Society were canvassed via the March 2013 magazine and additionally via the website, Facebook and social media feeds . Following nominations from a number of people, I was elected unopposed in June 2013, which will be ratified in our November AGM.

What is the infrastructure of the Society like? (I envisage some plush office lined with velvet drapes and a golden telephone!) Is there a permanent office with an office staff?

It would be great if that was the case !!

I think it's important to realise there are actually three Beaumont organisations, the Society, Trust and WoBs [Women of the Beaumont Society]. Each group has a different focus in the trans community. The Society supports the trans individual, the Trust supports education and training of organisations, while WoBs and the partners group support the partners and families of trans people.

Although the Society and the Trust are registered UK charities, all three organisations are run by the most dedicated team of volunteers you could wish to meet. Although we do have an address in London, we're not able to accept visitors at this location and only respond to postal mail here. Because we receive no funding other than the membership donation and sales of research material, we rely on these volunteers to support all our activities, including the helplines and other support services we offer.

Both the Society and Trust have national organisational teams, which meet twice a year to discuss medium or long term needs and issues as well as reflect on our activities to date. These meetings form the basis of each organisation's submission to the Charity Commission. Short term needs and issues are discussed via group teleconferences as and when needed, with minutes recorded for discussion at the AGM held in November.

I can see that, for a very long time, the Beaumont Society was the only refuge for transgendered people in Britain, and as such it was probably a lifeline for some. However, with the growth of the Internet it has become a lot easier for us to contact one another and find out more about crossdressing. Is the Beaumont Society still relevant today?

I strongly believe all three organisations are very much relevant today. Although the vision of the Society has stayed very consistent over its history, how it acts on this vision tends to be constantly developing in line with the needs and expectations of the community it supports. Currently, there's a tremendous amount of interest and printed material on trans issues, not just because of the Gender Recognition and Marriage Equality Acts, but also through debates on diversity and transphobic hate crime.

While it's certainly true to say that social media, internet forums and in particular outlets like Facebook have made it easier for trans people to find one another and seek confidence by sharing experiences, this only works for people on those social media feeds, which strange as it may seem to some, not everyone is at the moment. Further, if you consider the whole trans journey, this initial contact is only part of the support trans people need. After this contact, some are looking for places to go, support meetings, services they can use etc., as part of their first steps into the big wide world and beyond.

Then there's the families and partners of these people, who will often need support and have questions when introduced to a trans person for the first time. They also need places and people to be understanding and accepting as well as companies to recognise their diversity so they can get meaningful employment.

Lastly, the subject of care for elderly trans people is beginning to attract some attention, which while it may not be trendy, is still an area which requires research and support. I think it's in these wider areas that the Beaumont Organisations (and others like us) can and still do play a significant meaningful part.

My impression of the Society is that most of the members are senior citizens. I expect this is probably unfair. But if the Society doesn't attract new members, it will eventually collapse. It seems that some young people today freely engage in crossdressing activities without recognising the label "transvestite". How can Beaumont reach out to those people? And how will its voice be heard amid "steampunk" and "cosplay" and other activities where crossdressing is condoned?

I'm never really sure what point people are trying to make when they say these types of things. It seems to me that they're trying to infer "we're out of touch" or worse still "we're a bunch of guys with beards and pipes in dresses". Both of these always seem prejudicial and something which, if the situation was reversed, would almost certainly be labelled as ageist, possibly even transphobic. While labels like "transvestite" and "transexual" can be useful for medical diagnoses, beyond that, they tend to become badges which people focus a lot of derision or hatred onto, so I prefer not to use them myself, if you want to label me - "just call me Joanna".

Although we do have our fair share of older members, I've never seen this as the issue . They have tremendous experience, maturity and often a different outlook on life, which can be useful when considering the issues of a younger generation. They've lived and walked that path !!! Some will also be blazing a trail on issues like care of elderly trans people, so they have real valuable lessons to draw on.

Concerning things like Steampunk, Cosplay and even Anime, I think these are great artistic expressions and creative outlets and it's really encouraging to see aspects of trans culture and lifestyles be embodied into these. One of the great things about these outlets is that they can raise issues and discussions in an informal, thought-provoking way which is sometimes impossible through other avenues. For this reason, we're looking at producing some material later in the year to help get the message of trans awareness out there. Social media groups like Facebook and Twitter are other ways we reach out to these people, also via our video log via Skype. Interestingly the demographics of people in touch with us via these is significantly younger than what people who label us as "the blue rinse and pearls brigade" would imagine !!!

Although the mission statement for the Society includes all transgendered people, it's my impression that the overwhelming majority of members are straight men who crossdress. Are there many transsexuals? Are there any female to male members? If so, what can the Society offer them?

We don’t keep personal records of our members, or collect data about their trans status, so there isn't a definitive way of answering this question. I do know of several members who have or are in the process of transitioning, however, who also play significant roles in the organisation.

Would we like more ? Yes, of course, and also we encourage intersex, gender neutral and FTM people to apply and join in too. Our most recent magazine featured a number of articles from a female to male trans perspective and it’s a subject that will return and be explored in future editions.

What role do genetic women play in the Society, if any?

Generally, Genetic Women tend to be members of the WoBs organisation or the Trust. Where the Society is supported by genetic women, it tends to be in the form of service providers who advertise via the website and magazine for things like clothes or make-overs.

As a crossdresser myself, I accept that there is a sexual element to the drive to crossdress. Yet Beaumont seems to insist that crossdressing is (basically) a neutral and harmless hobby, like stamp-collecting or birdwatching. Is that a lie? No sex please, we're British?

I'm not sure how you've formed this opinion, but it's essentially a mis-interpetation of our values and vision of ourselves. To clarify :- "The society is not available for sexual liaisons". This means that at any of our meetings we do not encourage sexual acts, or sell our membership list for adult dating purposes as some groups do for revenue, it's just not what we're about. We're not so na├»ve as to think that for some, cross-dressing isn't an arousing, sexual act and if that’s the case, good for you, but we won't facilitate this through our organisation and would steer you elsewhere. You are still welcome to be a member, just for the other things about being trans!!! This is something a lot of our members partners are particularly grateful for, as the sexual aspect and their partners faithfulness are among their most common fears when they find out about their partner's trans personality.

Does the Society still consider itself the "official" voice of the crossdressing community in Britain? If so, what form does this voice take?

I don't believe any one organisation can consider itself to be "the voice" of the community and would strongly argue against one trying to present itself as such. Like many organisations, we have a role to play which I've outlined above.

This year alone, we have provided training to the police, NHS, counselling groups, Relate and two private companies. We are also just in the process of engaging with the prison service about trans issues. This is probably one of the most unsung things about all three organisations that often goes un-noticed but which is made possible through the membership fee which we are eternally grateful to our members for.

What relationship, if any, does Beaumont have with similar organisations in other countries?

We enjoy relationships with an organisation in Australia and one in America. These have come about through development of our internet site and social media feeds, which reflect changes in how people find us. We have featured news from the USA in our most recent magazines and Facebook pages, as this is something we occasionally receive emails about.

If there is nothing in New Zealand, why not start something? We'd love to help and play a part.

Can you tell me a little bit about the magazine? What is the editorial policy? Is there a deliberate tone or direction that you aim for?

Traditionally, the editorial policy was set by the magazine editor, who tended to write the whole magazine herself. As times have changed however, this approach has changed drastically and the most recent magazines have been more collaborative. These feature articles from a number of sources which are a cross section of news, views, fashion and issues which are pertinent to the trans community. With this new magazine format, we're trying to make it less of a special interest magazine, presenting it in a more modern way which makes it more mainstream.

Joanna was kind enough to send me an electronic copy of the new magazine format, and she is right: the production values are hugely improved; the quality of the articles is substantially better; the balance between fiction and feature articles is much better; the covergirl is gorgeous. Overall, a spectacular improvement.

How has the Society changed over the last decade? Where do you see the Society going in the future? Is there some sort of ultimate goal?

Kay West
From my personal viewpoint the society has changed massively in the last three years or so, building on the organisation Janett Scott [former President] gave her, Shirley Keel [past President] put more of an organisation in place to move forward with the challenges we were facing and Kay West [current President] has busied herself with getting good people into the organisation and modernising it. We're not finished with this journey yet and have things we can always improve on. Maybe the easiest way to answer that is to invite people who think they knew us to come and take another look, maybe even join in!!

As for our goal, its simply "acceptance".

Will there ever come a time when we have no need of societies like Beaumont, because we will all be able to dress however we like?

I hope so, I really do. Although I think we're moving towards that ideal, these things take time and a sustained effort , both from organisations like ourselves and the people we support. I have no doubt we will get there though!

-----

My thanks to Joanna for taking the time to answer my questions. I deliberately posed some challenging questions, and she answered these in a very balanced way. I suppose my questions were partly a reflection of my own disappointment with the Beaumont Society's apparent inability to meet my own needs at the time I was a member.

On the other hand, everything Joanna has said (and everything I see on its website) counters my concerns: the Beaumont Society is evolving, it is changing to reflect society, it is trying to keep up with the times and use new forms of communication to its advantage (social media and the Internet), and it is reaching out to younger members. Like any long-lasting organisation, it has to slightly rebrand itself from time to time, while keeping true to its core values. I wish Joanna and the Beaumont Society every success.

If you want to contact the Beaumont Society, their contact page is here.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Men in Skirts

Most of this blog is about men who want to appear as feminine as possible, including some who want to transition. It's only fair that we consider those at the other end of the spectrum.

Recently my friend Ralph (read his blog here) posted on his blog about Mike at Fashion Freestyler. I clicked on over, and from there clicked on some other links. It seems there is a whole community of men out there who are saying: "Hey, I'm a guy. I don't want a fem name. I don't want to wear makeup or false breasts, or a wig. I just like to wear skirts. Deal with it!"


Ralph channelling his inner kendo master
Ralph isn't the first such person I have come across, but he is the one I know best of all, from our email correspondence. I admire his wisdom and his relaxed attitude, but I struggle to comprehend his motivations. (I suppose someone might well say they struggle to comprehend mine!). By his own admission, Ralph is most comfortable wearing a dress or a skirt or a nightgown, so he does, pretty much all the time. He admits he treats his clothing as any man would: wads it up and leaves it lying around for next time. He doesn't do shoes, or cosmetics, or wigs, or hair removal. It seems to be just a comfort thing.

Even his online avatar is designed to mimic his real life appearance: a slightly bearded man wearing a dress.

Ralph's comment about Mike is "This dude gets it. He doesn’t want to be a girl; he doesn’t want to make clothing a part of his sex life… he just wants the barriers between “what women wear” and “what men wear” torn down and be free to wear what he finds comfortable from either side of the aisle."

For his part, Mike writes:
I started as most crossdressers start, by wanting to wear clothing that was typically associated with women. Everything from skirts to make-up to pink. But unlike other crossdressers I did not desire to be a female when wearing female garments. I’m happy to be a man. I just want to be able to express myself with greater fashion freedom and less societal pushback. I want men in general to have more choice than the same boring clothing options we always get.
I believe in the equality of the genders and I firmly believe that although women still struggle to make headway in society as full equals to men, men also need to make headway into areas that have typically been associated with females. One of those areas being fashion freedom. The genders are not truly equal until a man or a woman can walk down the street in their choice of pants or a dress without being looked at strangely or laughed at. 
Mike at Fashion Freestyler
Mike's blog has several pictures of him, and here he is. I see the dramatic masculine pose. I see the boots, the T-shirt, and the absence of other feminine features (even the skirt isn't especially feminine). In fact, the male barista in my local coffee shop wears an almost identical outfit every day (the "skirt" in his case is a long black apron, but it looks extremely similar), and it has never crossed my mind (nor, probably, his) that he could be considered to be a crossdresser, or a fashion freestyler. If I saw Mike wearing this in the street, I would assume the skirt was some kind of apron, rather than an attempt to break out of the fetters of male fashion.

In another of his posts, Mike is wearing a "kilt-like skirt", which has a vaguely tartan pattern. This makes me smile, since I have frequently worn a real kilt, and it has never crossed my mind that the kilt was in the least feminine. To put just one example, a woman wearing a skirt will deliberately sit with her knees together for modesty, where a man in a kilt will deliberately sit with his knees apart, using the weight of his sporran (the pouch) to keep the folds of the kilt down. (They do say that a "true" Scotsman goes commando under his kilt. Though I have indeed done that, it's not particularly special in any way, and probably a bit unhygienic). Add to that, the "traditional" Highland dress features a dagger in the sock; not exactly a feminine touch.

The kilt and accoutrements as we see them today are (as so many things) a romantic invention which caught on, like the popular image of the chivalrous cowboy. However, it is still an evolving style, and wearing a kilt casually (kilt, belt, boots, plain sporran, T-shirt or rugby shirt) is quite a common sight in Scotland, and not in the least worthy of comment. Kilts are traditionally made of wool patterned as tartan. However, some designers are making kilts out of unorthodox fabrics, such as denim. In addition, for formal wear, some designers are producing a plain black woollen kilt, which I happen to think looks fantastic.

Michael Spookshow
All this talk of kilts brings me on to Michael Spookshow of His Black Dress.com, a "freestyle fashion blog advocating fashion freedom for men. [It] is about men rocking skirts, dresses & heels as everyday attire."

 Michael's term for men who wear kilt-like garments is "Bravehearts", which also makes me smile, as I naturally associate this term with hairy men with woad-splattered faces chasing Mel Gibson across the fields.

The next step, Michael writes, is the "one item rule", where men wear one item of fem clothing amid a standard masculine getup. The purpose of doing this, Michael suggests, is for men as a whole to gain acceptance wearing skirts first, getting a toe in the door, so to speak, before opening it an inch at a time.

Michael regards the final point on his continuum to be complete androgyny. He writes:
As we approach androgyny we must first come into the area I fall into, men who ignore the gender label on clothing. This man will wear skirts, dresses, tights, heels, whatever, but will still keep his appearance male. He believes that clothing has no inherent gender, and that it's silly to put such restrictions on fabric. Speaking personally, to me it's about men having a full range of expression and experiences.
To be fair to Michael, his blog contains many essays describing his thoughts and points of view. It's not really possible or reasonable to summarise all of it here, and I commend you to take a look for yourself. But I don't see complete androgyny to be the end of the spectrum; I consider complete feminine emulation to be the other end of the spectrum from the Bravehearts.

When I look at Michael, I see something quite different. I chose this image as one typical of the many, many hundreds on his blog. I see a man with shaved legs, wearing dresses, skirts, fabulous heels, and deliberately posing in a feminine way (one knee slightly bent, one hand on the hip). To an objective observer, there seems to be something different going on. I wrote to Michael to ask him about this. He replied:
My answer is that I shave my legs because I like the feeling and aesthetics of it, and I don't really understand why such an act should even be reserved solely for women. The answer as to why I don't just "go all the way" when I've already chosen to wear a dress, tights, and heels, is because I don't want to and don't have to. Ironically, despite the fact I'm a makeup artist by trade, I don't like to wear makeup. I don't wear a wig because I don't really like having hair (my baldness is, at present, completely by choice). In making the sartorial choices that I make, my hope is that it challenges some of those preconceived gender stereotypes that have been preordained and foisted upon us. The question of "Why is that man wearing a dress?" will hopefully lead to "What makes a dress for women only anyhow?"
For me, I want to be as feminine as possible. I don't wear one item at a time, and I don't wear fem underwear under male clothing, because that doesn't "do it" enough for me. Not only do I want to look as feminine as possible, I want to look attractive too.


I promise this image is not a hoax!
What strikes me is that Ralph's kendo master, and Mike's aproned barista, don't look remotely feminine, which implies they are doing it for some other reason (though Michael is definitely doing it partly for the appearance). For Ralph it seems to be about comfort; for Mike and Michael, acceptance and freedom, but all of them hint at the tactile pleasures of skirted garments. Indeed, Grok has posted on Ralph's blog about the Skirt Cafe, an online forum devoted to the practice of men wearing skirted garments. Though I am not a member, I am indebted to Grok for bringing to my attention some of the terminology they employ, including skirtonian, a person of either sex who enjoys skirted garments, and the classification of bifurcated or unbifurcated garments. Phew! You know people are starting to take things seriously when they start inventing a whole new vocabulary to describe it!

Indeed the skirtonian inhabitants of Skirt Cafe seem also to have a preoccupation with other skirt-like garments for men, not just the kilt but the kaftan, the abaya, the changshan, and other unbifurcated garments. I don't suppose wearing any of those garments would press my buttons any more than a kilt does; but clearly there are plenty of people who think otherwise.

For myself, I have stumbled across this site, which is all about tights for men. It seems there is indeed a tangible groundswell of men who want the fashion freedom which women currently enjoy; certainly, if Michael Spookshow's hit counter is anything to go by, it's much more popular than discussing crossdressing as a scholarly subject.

Where do these men fit into the autogynephilia spectrum? Do they even fit at all? It's really hard to be sure. This is what makes me think the model maybe isn't as simple as it purports to be, though your comments here would be very welcome. There are other potential exceptions to the model as well, which I will blog about when I get the chance.

Overall, I entirely support the freedom of men to wear whatever they want (how could it be otherwise?). And anyone who does anything to further that cause is OK by me. Carry on, chaps!

You might be interested in the related, but different topics, Men with Long Nails, or Women with Beards, or that perennial question: what do men's underwear and Fight Club have in common?

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Addendum: 23rd February 2014

Via Helen Boyd, I have just come across this article in the LA Weekly about Brian and Debbie McCloskey. Entitled Brian and Debbie McCloskey: He Wears a Dress. She's Fine With That and written by Gendy Alimurung, the article takes a sympathetic, matter-of-fact approach to an interview with the couple.
Alimurung: He isn't glamorous, like RuPaul. Or creepy, like some weird, bearded guy in a bikini. Or twisted, like the psychotic killer in The Silence of the Lambs. Brian is a slender, willowy brunet who dresses like a prim and proper lady out of a Talbots catalog: classy, conservative, covered. He favors A-line, knee-length dresses and tights, with a cardigan to hide his arms and "man shoulders." He's a modest sort of transvestite. He keeps his hair long. Debbie keeps hers shortish. Neither bothers with makeup, though Debbie has offered to help him figure out how to apply it if he wants.
Brian told his supervisor at work he wanted to wear dresses to work, and she was completely accepting. So he does. He doesn't have a fem name; he doesn't seek hormones or surgery; he doesn't use women's bathrooms, he doesn't even wear makeup. He just likes to wear women's clothing.
Alimurung: Though he doesn't necessarily feel more attractive dressed as a woman, there are certain times when he does feel "kind of pretty."

"It was the Ann Taylor," he says, turning to Debbie. "You know, the black-and-white one? When I wore that last month, I was walking to work and I was kind of skipping? Swinging my purse and skipping."
This and other clues in the article point to the suggestion that Brian is more of an "ordinary" transvestite (like me) than he might perhaps like to admit. Nonetheless, he is an extremely fortunate man, and I envy him.

Practical: Utilikilts
Brian maintains a blog about pop music, which you can read here.

Addendum: 7th March 2014

There is a further discussion of men in skirts here on Jonathan's blog, Male Femme.

Addendum: 10th November 2015

Thanks to Susie on Quora, I came across this company I had never heard of before. The Utilikilts company was established in the year 2000 and specialises in practical kilt garments for men, with an emphasis on ruggedness, practicality and masculinity.

Their website is absolutely stuffed full of men wearing their creations, hiking across hills, taking apart trucks, sawing up huge logs, and generally displaying the most masculine attributes imaginable.

I think it's quite an interesting idea. I am not sure why a kilt would seem to be more practical than a pair of canvas work trousers (except when working in very hot weather). Nonetheless, the garments seem to be very popular, and the website has a veritable plethora of fabrics and styles from which to choose.