Saturday, 6 August 2016

A Tale of Two Boxes

Back in 2014 I wrote a post called Frightening the Horses, which largely discussed a 2002 article by American writer and psychotherapist Amy Bloom, entitled Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses, which was published in Atlantic Monthly.

The first line of the article is this one:
Bloom: Heterosexual cross-dressers bother almost everyone.
When I first read that line, I found myself agreeing with it. In fact, some of them even bother me, and I am one! If you missed Bloom's article, it's well worth a read in its entirety. I think it's also worth having a read of my post; it certainly generated a lot of discussion.

I've been thinking about why it is that crossdressing bothers us so much. As Bloom says, drag queens don't bother us. Nor do female impersonators (she cites several American examples; instead I point you to Danny la Rue, and Hinge and Bracket as popular British examples). She even points to those women in history who have had to adopt the male persona in order to succeed. And transsexuals don't bother us.
I don't speak his language

I cross-dress whenever I can, which is not as often as I would like. The rest of the time I live my life as if I were an ordinary man.

But my whole life I have been different from other boys and men. I am sensitive. I cry easily. I loathe many of the trappings of “traditional” masculinity (field sports, big rugged vehicles, hunting and fishing, weapons, coarse behaviour, macho posturing, or the objectification of women). I especially loathe it when other people (men or women) ascribe those things to me, or assume I must have some affinity with them, just because I was born a boy.

You might say that I should just learn to be a sensitive man and to find ways to explore and express my sensitive, caring, nurturing side in the world of men (and stick two fingers up to the knuckle-dragging bottom-feeders who would persecute me for it). But I don't: instead I choose to express those aspects of myself by attempting to experience the world of women. It's not just the clothes and the lipstick: those are merely the external manifestations of something which goes right down to my core identity as a human being. I feel much more comfortable in the company of women. I espouse feminist principles very openly. I suspect (but cannot, of course, be sure) that I have been imprinted (at a young age) to associate femininity with the aspects of my personality I cannot easily express as a man. In other words, it’s too late to change.

“Crossdressing makes you comfortable,” I am sometimes told. No. Slippers make me comfortable. Crossdressing (using that as a convenient shortcut for the whole package of stepping out of the male role and embracing the female one) is a necessity for my psychological wellbeing.

So it's a simplification (and a hurtful one) to say I just “like to dress up” or “it's all just a bit of fun”, or I am just “getting in touch with my feminine side”. It goes much deeper than that. I have powerful and irrepressible yearnings to dress, and when I do, it feels right on a level which is difficult to fully articulate. It isn't an act. It isn't a pretence. It doesn't feel like a sham.

Kept apart: male and female

I can see why some people need that feeling all the time. In other words, I think what separates me from them is not some huge gulf (“a cross dresser is only pretending to be a woman, while a trans woman is a woman”), but actually a considerable degree of overlap.

I have found that suggesting this makes some trans women uncomfortable: men who cross-dress in our society (and don't I know it!) are treated as figures of scorn or ridicule (or worse, sexual perversity), and I can completely see why trans women would want to distance themselves from that. But from my perspective, it is the truth.

As a male-to-female crossdresser, I do feel that some fully-transitioned people look down on me. They seem to be saying "We are nothing alike, since you are 'only' a crossdresser. Our motivations are not the same. Our behaviour is not the same. The reasons why we do what we do are not the same".

The difficulty I have is that none of these things is demonstrably true (and I admit I am a lumper, not a splitter). When I ask those people to explain their viewpoint (or occasionally challenge them) I get three basic responses:
  1. Because I don't automatically accept their word, I must be transphobic, just like all those others.
  2. I haven't done enough reading, and if only I would read this book or that blog it would all become clear; or
  3. I can't possibly understand because I am "only" a crossdresser.
I stress that these people are the minority, and that most trans people I know are lovely, welcoming and inclusive.
The story we tell ourselves

But here is what I think: society has a story we tell ourselves. That story is that there are two genders, male and female. The most "acceptable" people are those who start off on one side and stay there. But most people are (I think) comfortable with people who start off on one side and go all the way across to the other, because that just about fits the story.

I think it’s easier for cisgendered people to accept a person who “was” once a man but “is” now a woman, and it’s harder for them to accept that, actually, there are a lot of us somewhere in the middle zone (perhaps the rainbow zone?) between those two boxes (including some people who might identify or “qualify” as cis-gendered). (Likewise, it's acceptable to be a drag queen, who is male in his normal life. Putting on a dress is only an act, right?)

But society is very uncomfortable with people in that middle zone, because they don't fit the story: it might be people who choose to be neither one nor the other gender, intersex people, or people (like me) who trespass across the middle zone from time to time. (I think that explains why there is tremendous pressure on intersex people to align themselves to one or other gender).
Which one do you think I am?

Of course, the story is wrong, at all levels from the cell, to the person, to society as a whole. But that is still the story we tell; even some trans people tell it. I think a lot of trans people overtly, or subconsciously, reinforce that gender binary. I think it helps them to feel more comfortable about themselves, and I think it helps cisgendered people to feel more comfortable about them.

I don’t identify as an ordinary man. I don’t identify as a woman either. I am not quite sure what I identify with! I sometimes describe myself on Quora as a "part-time woman". And I want to say to those people who think they are so different: we have more that unites us than divides us, and we should concentrate on our commonalities, not our differences.

As for the stereotypes of men and women, they are created by society. But I am a member of society. I cannot simply step aside from its conventions, nor ignore its rules (whether they please me or not). Even though there are many, many people who don't fit the stereotypes, the stereotypes persist. It does seem, though, that society is changing: it is becoming more acceptable to not fit the binary.

Come and join me in the middle zone. There are plenty of comfortable seats, and the wine has just been opened!

===
Addendum 28th August 2016

My thanks to Patricia for sending me a link to this article by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. It's articulate, forthright and powerful, and adds another perspective to the idea of the "spectrum of gender" You can read the full thing here.

26 comments:

  1. Somewhere between X and Y sounds a good place to start. For what it's worth, the phrase about necessity rings true for me. That's not to say agreement makes it right, it just feels correct.

    Now, who's turn is it to pour? :-)

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    1. Hi Lynn. My turn. Red or white?

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    2. Hmm... Seems a bit binary. Do you have any rosé? ;-)

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  2. A lot of stuff I agree with in this post :)

    Re this bit: "I don’t identify as an ordinary man. I don’t identify as a woman either. I am not quite sure what I identify with." I'm with you there. Those binary categories are too difficult for me at the moment. I'm just identifying as a genderqueer femme and putting all the rest to one side.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Jonathan.

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    2. I pondered that question for a while too and came to a simple solution: I identify as human being. Why should I even care about societies labels which will never match my complex and ever changing identity?

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    3. Thanks for your comment Joachim.

      My own view is that society has certain rules, which we cannot simply ignore when they don't suit us. Some are "official", like speed limits. Some are "unofficial", like keeping quiet in a library or forming an orderly queue.

      Society (rightly) views people who ignore those rules with great discomfort. The solution, to my mind, is not to ignore the rules but to change them to accommodate us.

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  3. I could not describe myself any better. Thank you.

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    1. Many thanks for dropping by to comment, Leann.

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  4. Vivienne I do not believe that there are only two boxes but that gender identity is to a great degree a spectrum. Therefore where you fit into it has as much value as anyone else's place. The pyramid structure set up by transgender community itself was a way for some people to gain validation by disparaging others but there is little actual evidence that this position is valid or correct. The most important thing is that you are happy with yourself and can find peace where you are comfortable.

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    1. Many thanks Joanna. I think I am gradually getting there!

      Vivienne.

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  5. I agree with Joanna, which I think is essentially what you (Vivienne) are saying as well.

    I sometimes wish I had the need to transition because at least then I'd know what I am aiming for. But then again I have a friend who is in the early stages of informing her wife that that is what she needs and where she is headed, and her wife is rejecting her for it.

    Thank goodness that the world and technology has evolved so much, that we can share and learn together. That, along with lots of exploration and soul-searching, and crying with my wife, is leading to my peace. I wish this for everyone.

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    1. Hi Emma,

      In my case, it has led to the end of my marriage. I will inevitably write about this soon. But I naturally wish you and your wife the very best.

      Vivienne.

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    2. Hi Vivienne,

      I'm so sorry to hear about the end of your marriage. Rejection and fear of rejection has been so much a part of my life, like a hangover of all of my transgender feelings and years and years of shame and anxiety about what it all meant and being found out.

      If you want, please do write about your experience. Maybe it will help you to get it out. And then we can also try to help or at least offer words of encouragement.

      Emma

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    3. Thanks for your kind thoughts, Emma. I do plan to write about these things, once the dust has settled a bit. For the moment, I am right in the middle of all of the troubles.

      Vivienne.

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  6. Good post, Vivienne. I'm with you in the 'middle zone', especially if there's alcohol involved! Latterly I've been thinking of myself as 'dual gender' - but perhaps terminology like that is just perpetuating the binary?

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    1. Hi Dabrela,

      It's so hard, since there actually does seem to be a binary. There are obviously men, and there are obviously women. It's just that there are a lot of men who are not very manly, and a lot of women who are not very womanly, and that isn't obvious, and there are a lot of people who are neither men nor women, and that isn't obvious either.

      So, whether I like it or not, I think the binary is destined to be the dominant paradigm of human socialisation for a long time to come.

      Vivienne.

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    2. I tried dual gender for a number of years. It got tedious and didn't save my marriage. Once I dropped the charade and the confusion of switching back/forth I realized I was a woman with some decidedly masculine personality traits. I am now full time (which comes with its own issues) but essentially happier. Finding romance will be a challenge since I don't fit anyone's ideal. And I am read as male more than I'd like. Being 6'1" and 215 lbs together with my masculine personality and a few facial features that scream male makes it hard for people not tuned into me to see Molly. That said on many other fronts people take me at my word and respect my decision to be truthful. But Vivienne is right. The binary will rule because it does represent the largest part of humanity. However kids on high school in the US are the most fluid about gender and sexuality of recent generations (as much as 27% identify as fluid). So acceptance is only a generation away I think. Molly P.

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    3. Thanks for that, Phil. It’s a bitch, isn’t it? I used to think of myself as a male crossdresser. As I say, recently I’ve arrived at this ‘dual gender’ conviction. This has an impact on the dressing, since it is now my femme self who is making the fashion choices. And while she has good taste – albeit favouring rather youthful styles – she is making choices for the idealised female body which she has in imagination but I, trapped in my male casing, don’t have. Unlike my male self, she seems unwilling to compromise. Not long ago I had a consultation with a trans ‘makeover’ specialist. She came up with a ‘look’ for me (makeup, wig) that was designed to minimise my male appearance. When she’d finished I was disappointed (and the consultant was disappointed that I was disappointed). I think the problem was that the look, however practical, wasn’t consistent with my femme self’s style, so I didn’t know whose reflection I was looking at in the mirror. (BTW, I’ve grappled with some of this in my own blog, should you be interested: http://alifemerelyglimpsed.blogspot.com).

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    4. Hi Molly and Dabrela.

      Thanks for posting your comments. I am still in search of something to call an identity; perhaps the journey is the important bit, not the destination.

      Molly, I think you are right that young people are feeling braver about exploring and expressing non-binary gender identities. I hope this creates some tolerance for us too, and that they don't merely see us as a bunch of weird mouldy oldies!

      Dabrela, while the Vivienne on the inside doesn't really match the Vivienne on the outside, I wonder how much of this is true for any woman? I think I would benefit greatly from the services of a professional makeover artiste to help me find a practical and manageable look.

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  7. I am right there with you... in the middle.

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  8. the end of your marriage might just be the beginning of the rest of your life as it was for me. You may find that one door closes and another one opens. Take the time to grieve and then build yourself up towards being your true self. Trust me I've been there and it gets better!

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    1. Thanks Joanna. I am reasonably optimistic about the future, but I haven't seen enough progress yet to be truly confident of better times ahead!

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  9. I blame the patriarchy. I think it is the patriarchy who puts people into boxes based on their percieved heterosexual fuck ability. Cross dressing screws with their heads because anyone wearing a dress has to have a screw- able vagina somewhere according to the big "p" Patriarchy we all live in.

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    1. It's not just about that, surely? There must be other factors in society's binary gender system.

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