Friday 20 April 2012

Lyn Tornabene and the Red Queen

Some years ago I bought a copy of the wonderful book I Passed as a Teenager by Lyn Tornabene. You can find copies on the Internet still, and there is still some interest in it. The reviewer from is helpful and illuminating.

In brief, Tornabene, at the age of 33, enrolled as a 16-year old student in an undisclosed high school in the USA, with her friend posing as her aunt and guardian. She spent a full term as a student and writes forthrightly about teenage life as seen from the inside: the teachers and lessons of course, but much more interestingly the teenagers themselves; their social strata and very finely-honed hierarchies and boundaries.
Tornabene: I am a lucky woman. I like my days. I am a journalist by trade and a housewife by inclination. I have a husband called Frank who is too good to me. I have a pseudo-Tudor house in Long Island, New York, which warms my soul. I like to read and putter and talk to myself. Nevertheless, one fall morning-- precisely one month before my thirty-fourth birthday and two months before my tenth wedding anniversary-- I put on a size 9, pink cotton button-down shirt, a size 11 camel-coloured wool skirt which didn't reach my kneecaps, and enrolled as a junior in a high school somewhere in the United States...
As someone who remembers adolescence as basically agony for most of the time, I found the book very compelling and insightful. I abjectly failed to understand the behaviour and motivations of teenage girls even when I could study them, as it were, up close. Who wouldn't want another go at high school, with one's adult confidence and experience and maturity to draw upon? I know I would!

The only weakness in Tornabene's book is it's age. It was written in 1969, and a lot has changed since then: video games, drugs, taking weapons to school, social media and cyber-bullying are just some of them. These changes will be more pertinent in some places than in others, and some of the things which seemed edgy and daring at that time are now more or less quaint. Any takers for a modern update?

Anyway, why not get a copy of Tornabene's book and read it?

A few years ago my children and I were at a fete. It was a lovely sunny day, and there was candyfloss and hotdogs and stalls selling trinkets. Various performers wandered freely among the children, making balloon animals, painting faces, or wearing the costumes of characters from Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit scurried about looking late, and the Mad Hatter spilt his teapot everywhere. But the most interesting character, we all found, was the Red Queen. Instead of running around, she stood absolutely still for minutes at a time (indeed I thought at first she must be a mannequin herself), but from time to time she would deliberately make a tiny movement or gesture. You've seen, no doubt, performers who act in this way in the streets of many large cities.

My kids were entranced. The actress playing the Red Queen was very beautiful (of course) and was not only wearing a highly elaborate costume, but was also painted head to toe in deep red. She was surrounded by a circle of spectators, who were speaking only in whispers. Why? I don't know. My children likewise spoke in whispers. Who is that lady, daddy? "She is the Red Queen." Why doesn't she move? "Because thats's part of her act," I explained. And because by not moving she gets three times as much attention as all the other performers, I didn't add.

There was magic there, of course. There was a bubble of illusion, in which we willingly complied. Anyone could have stepped forward and just poked her in the arm: the illusion would have been completely ruined, of course, and therefore, no one did. The bubble was willingly maintained by all who were involved.

But it wasn't a queen from a children's story. It was an actress in a red dress. And I found myself wondering what pleasure she got out of it. It's fun, of course, to amuse the audience and get applause. Even I have trodden the boards at my local am-dram company once or twice. But perhaps there is more to it? Perhaps there is the pleasure of dressing up in costume and being someone different, just for a while, especially if that someone is beautiful and magical and interesting.

I did not poke her on the arm to ask her, but appreciated the moment and moved on.

Both Tornabene's book and the Red Queen have direct relevance to my view of crossdressing. Lyn had what surely must have been a bit of a spicy thrill (though she somewhat plays this down in the book), acting in the role of someone she is not. There must have been moments of almost discovery, and moments of exultation in successfully keeping her secret in front of everyone. Even better, she had plenty of time to enjoy it: a whole term, not a rushed afternoon or even a long weekend.

Likewise the Queen, I feel sure, was, at least partially, enjoying the pleasure of stepping out of her normal life and being someone special for a few hours. She was also fortunate to be beautiful enough for others to want to admire her while she did it.

I am aware that my crossdressing is about escaping for a while from my normal life, to an extent, and being someone who doesn't have my problems for a while. To actually pass in public for five minutes is something which I have barely done, let alone for longer, but I completely understand the compulsion among many crossdressers to actually achieve that.


  1. I understand the pull of wanting to escape from life and pretend to be someone else for a while. I often fantasized about doing so, about dressing as a woman and passing and having people not realize who I really was. I guess it's not so different from what children do in their imaginative games. It's easy to see why it's fun and thrilling. But morally, I wonder about it. Pretending to be someone else in the privacy of your own home seems fairly harmless, because then it's just for you and you are not deceiving other people. But going out on the town seems entirely different. Yes, you are doing something which would surely be thrilling and fun, but you are trying to deceive people, and something seems morally wrong about that to me.

    1. In UK law there is a phenomenon called "Intention to Deceive". Some crossdressers are more aware of it than others. In brief, if I dress and pass as a woman publicly, but continue to use my own name, identity (e.g. bank cards and whatnot) and phone number, the law is unconcerned. On the other hand, if I attempt to assume a new identity (e.g. applying for a passport in my fem name, which is not recognised under law) then I have the Intent to Deceive, and I have committed a crime.

      (In fact one Scottish bank, and I don't know if they still do this, made a thing for a while that they would issue you with a bank card in your fem name (but drawn on your own current account) so that you wouldn't have to be embarrassed by presenting a card belonging to Jim Bloggs where you were trying to pass as Jane Bloggs. I never bothered to pursue this further at the time, and I didn't have an account with that bank, but I remember thinking it was fairly evolved for the Scots).

      I am not intending to deceive. I am not intending to break the law, or to deceive people. In any case, the point is fairly moot, since I don't pass in public, so haven't got the opportunity to legally (or morally) test this case!