Mussolini was attempting to weed out these undesirable people, to keep the society pure and virile. And conditions for the prisoners were intentionally harsh. However, Mussolini unwittingly created a homosexual paradise, doing the prisoners the favour of confining a large group of them to a beautiful island together for the duration of the war.
"We were curious because they were called 'the girls'," says Carmela Santoro, an islander who was just a child when the gay exiles began to arrive. "We would go and watch them get off the boat... all dressed up in the summer with white pants - with hats. And we would watch in awe - 'Look at that one, how she moves!' But we had no contact with them."What struck me about this article is how miserable and difficult it must have been for anyone, during the War, who found themselves considered "degenerate" by society. The Brits were no better or more enlightened in their treatment of gay people. As long as he was cracking the Enigma cypher (and keeping his mouth shut), Alan Turing (one of my heroes) was allowed to work for the British intelligence services, and a blind eye was turned. However, after the War, Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality, forced to take huge doses of female hormones (as if that would cure him!) and eventually he took his own life, depriving us of his gargantuan intellect.
What this meant to the exiles was explained in a rare interview with a San Domino veteran, named only as Giuseppe B - published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia - who said that in a way the men were better off on the island.
"In those days if you were a femminella [a slang Italian word for a gay man] you couldn't even leave your home, or make yourself noticed - the police would arrest you," he said of his home town near Naples. "On the island, on the other hand, we would celebrate our Saint's days or the arrival of someone new... We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything."
And he said that of course, there was romance, and even fights over lovers. Some prisoners wept, Giuseppe said, when the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the end of the internal exile regime on San Domino, and the men were returned to a kind of house arrest in the places where they came from.
So what did they say about themselves? None of the San Domino internees are believed to still be alive, and the interview with Giuseppe B is very old. Giuseppe B says "We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything". Gay men loving the theatre? What are the chances? (And Italians fighting over love? Who would have thought?)
The reason for this post is that I have been puzzling over the relationship between homosexuality and crossdressing for a few weeks now. I have lurked for some years on an academic LGBT forum. What I find surprising is how few T people there are. When I post comments about crossdressing (as I did this week, attempting to stimulate a debate on this subject) I am treated with polite tolerance, but no real engagement. On most of the topics (relationships, coming out at work, discrimination) I seem to have very little in common with the things which trouble or preoccupy them. On the other hand, I feel sure if I sat down among them with a glass of wine we would soon all be laughing and finding all sorts of common ground.
My question to them (and also to you) is this: what is the relationship between homosexuality and crossdressing? Is there one? Are they completely separate, or is there some sort of correlation?
I believe that, in past times, gay and lesbian people might have crossdressed as a means of making it more "acceptable" to have a same-sex partner. I could see how a gay man, brought up to believe that homosexuality was an abomination, might not be comfortable being affectionate towards another man, but might find it a lot easier if that man were fabulously dressed as a woman. In other words, for some of those people (as was the case for Billy Tipton and others), the crossdressing may have been the means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
As just one example, Molly houses were establishments in 18th-century Britain where gay and crossdressing men would meet up for sex. Wikipedia writes:
Patrons of Molly houses formed a distinct subculture in Georgian England. They would take on a female persona, have a female name, and affect feminine mannerisms and speech. Marriage ceremonies between a Molly and his male lover were enacted to symbolise their partnership and commitment.As a second example, let's return to Giuseppe B. In his words, the internees of San Domino sometimes expressed themselves by "dressing as women". Is that because some of them were not "ordinary" gays, but what we might recognise as transvestites, who were all lumped in together by the authorities? Or is it because the connection between gay men and crossdressing is closer than we think?
|John Leguizamo as Chi Chi Rodriguez|
In modern Western society, surrounded as we are by openly homosexual politicians and clerics and academics and entertainers (even sportspeople), surely it is no longer necessary to crossdress to attract a same-sex partner? Therefore if gay and lesbian people want to crossdress, surely now they are doing it because they like it? This may be for the performance (as in gay drag), or it may be because they enjoy it for other reasons; perhaps the same reasons that I enjoy it.
In his documentary, Grayson Perry insists in front of the schoolboys that most transvestites are straight men. In this interview on the Huffington Post, journalist and academic Marcie Bianco states the same thing:
Bianco: The largest population of crossdressers that we see in the United States is that of the heterosexual male. Drag is almost a protic performance. They are very different, and to then map on lesbian and gay onto drag, that takes it elsewhere entirely. I don't view crossdressing as a kind of protic performance. I view it as a personal aesthetic that people do to please themselves, to please the person that they are with, I mean it could be a fetish, right? Those are different concepts, different ways of being, that I think need to be distinct.So what, if anything, has changed in the last couple of centuries? What does everyone else think? Here are a few perspectives from people who have been kind enough to put up with my pestering questions on the subject. Let's start with Helen Boyd, taken from my interview with her:
Gay comedian Julian Clary
Boyd: 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.Another one of my correspondents, a gay doctor, writes:
Having thought about it I think the question why do men (or men and women rather) cross-dress is almost as useful as asking why are some people gay? I'm sure there are multiple reasons, different reasons for different people, and it's all a spectrum anyway.Molly, a transgendered woman, writes:
There are serious cross-dressers and occasional or faddy "passing phase" cross-dressers. There are gay cross-dressers and straight cross-dressers. There are those certain of their sexuality and those thrown into doubt by a passing experience of it. I'm not convinced by the autogynephilia theory. It may explain some guys I've no doubt, but it doesn't explain why a gay house music club in London I went to a couple of years ago had some sensational looking cross-dressed dancers gyrating on a podium in the middle of the dance floor full of sweaty gay men. I don't think many of those men were there to get turned on by someone in women's underwear, but they were there to be entertained and have fun.
I think the answer lies in a sense of otherness - of the exotic, outre and titillating. It's different - the opposite of straight and conservative and an expression of the ultra different and liberal. I'm reminded of Cabaret and inter-war Berlin. And it's fabric on the skin that to a man is unusual, strange and soft feeling. And a bit of a laugh. It's naughty. And not to be over-analysed.
I'm sorry if I sound like I'm belittling the topic. I'm not meaning to, but all I'm trying to say is that I don't think it's easily analysable. I think it's often just done for a bit of fun, to prove you're not mainstream, to mess around. But I'm sure different people do it for different reasons, and I'm sure there's a transsexual overlap. But it seems a bit like trying to analyse why gay people are gay!!
I don't know any gay men who used cross dressing as an entry path to being gay. I do know a few gay men who have cross dressed from time to time, usually on Hallowe'en or a special event, more for a lark, usually more drag than realistically, and in any event not as part of the social life or their primary relationships. Doesn't rule it out, just not something I have heard of. It just isn't what it means to be gay. Gay is about sexual attraction and most gay men are very secure in their gender. I do know at least one gay man who discovered over time he was trans but it was a very slow, evolutionary process and he was ostracized by his gay friends for a time because of it. Gay men can be as gender binary as female spouses.
And Janice, another transgendered woman, writes:
About a year ago I was testing the waters, so to speak, and was talking to a gay friend of mine at work about cross-dressing. He got very angry and told me he just couldn't understand why any man would want to put on a dress. I thought, mistakenly, that since he was gay that he would be more understanding and since we are good friends that he would be someone I could come out to. I was wrong and I dropped it right there.
I must say that I am not really much further forward. I have asked a lot of people what they think, and they seem to think it's not really important. Perhaps it isn't! Perhaps I am just over-thinking it. Comments and perspectives are welcome!
My thanks to Tasi Zuriack of Sister House for drawing my attention to the Huffington Post interview.
My further thanks to Janice for reminding me about The Birdcage, another wonderful movie which reinforces the stereotype of the crossdressing gay man.