Thursday 12 April 2012

What am I?

I am an insect, and the first half of my name reveals another insect. Some famous musicians had a name similar to mine. What am I?

I remember enjoying riddles of this kind when I was a child. If you feel like having a go at the one above, the answer is at the bottom of this blog post: no peeking now.

So here is a more pertinent riddle: I am a man who likes to dress in women's clothing. What am I?

Surprisingly, there isn't an easy answer. Perhaps the answer you would first choose would be transvestite. Actually I don't like this word. It was coined in about 1910 by the famous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, and means nothing more than someone (male or female) who wears clothing of the opposite sex. Hirschfeld, it must be said, was sympathetic to transvestites, and did not attempt to explain (or cure) the behaviour. Of the transvestite, he simply wrote "He is what he is".

Why I don't like the word is that it sounds clunky and unpleasant to my ears. Second, it seems to have become associated with all the things I personally dislike about crossdressing: such as hairy truckers posting pictures of themselves wearing suspenders. Its short form tranny is even worse in this regard. For me it carries connotations of perversion and abnormality. For me, then, transvestite isn't simply a description, it is a derogatory label, almost an accusation.

If you read a lot, you might come up with autogynephilic, a word coined in 1989 sexologist by Ray Milton Blanchard, meaning "someone who loves himself as a woman". It's neat to pack all that information into a single word, though it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue (or the keyboard). While I sympathise with this description applied to me, the word suggests more than there might actually be: I might love myself as a woman, but I might not. So I don't apply it to myself.

I think most of us agree that a transsexual is someone who feels they were born into a body of the wrong sex, and seeks hormonal and surgical treatment to convert them into the opposite sex. As mentioned elsewhere in these posts, I am deeply sympathetic to transsexuals, whilst being pretty sure I am not one. However, Charlie Jane Anders writes in the prologue to her wonderful book The Lazy Crossdresser:

Q: What is the difference between a transvestite and a transexual?
A: About two years.

So perhaps my complacency is misplaced. Anders, on the other hand, identifies as a trans woman. I am not exactly sure what that is. Wikipedia isn't of much help; it has a vague description which seems to suggest someone who is partway along the path from male to female. Hormones? Surgery? Not clear. On the subject of famous authors, Helen Boyd's spouse Betty Crow seems to describe herself as simply trans, which is an even less definite term.  I don't identify with the terms trans or trans woman, though I sympathise with the search to find a term which is descriptive but without the pejorative connotations of transvestite.

I am sure we all agree that the term drag queen applies to a male performer who dresses as a woman for the purposes of entertaining others. This may be exaggerated, or a caricature, as part of burlesque, or as more careful female impersonation. There is a wide range of such performers, but in each case it seems accepted that the motivation is for entertainment, rather than because one innately wants to express femininity. That said, I can't help thinking that some of them do it so well and so convincingly that they must have some desire or inner proclivity which inclines them towards this sort of expression in the first place.

The word drag is somewhat derogatory. Its derivation is obscure. It may simply be a contraction of DRessed As Girl, or may have its origins in Polari, a secret homosexual slang from the UK of the early 20th century. (I first learned about Polari from Lawrie Taylor, sociologist and broadcaster of Thinking Allowed on the BBC). In any case, I am not a drag queen.

There are dozens more labels: T-girl (or gurl, or grrl), androgyne, shemale, sissy, MTF, and so on. It seems there is an attempt to divide up men who wear women's clothing into finer and finer categories. And members of these categories sometimes insist quite vociferously that they don't belong in any other categories. How dare you call me a tranny, when I am clearly a T-girl?

So where does that leave me? I am a lumper, rather than a splitter. I tend to think that there is more that unites us than divides us, and therefore I am looking for a term which describes only behaviour: not motivation, not feelings, not outcomes, just a description. And as a genetic male who likes to wear women's clothing, there is no better word than crossdresser. That's what I am. It says nothing about why I do it, or where it might lead in the future, or what my gender identity or sexual identity is. It is just me. I am what I am, with a nod to Magnus Hirschfeld, and just possibly Popeye the Sailor Man.

(The word you may still be looking for is beetle).

Addendum: 14th November 2012

I can't help adding in a new category of terminology, which I have increasingly come across. Perhaps as an extension of the word cosplay ("costume play"), there is now crossplay, as well as crossacting and even crossdreaming. People who adopt these labels may be further attempting to distance themselves from the ungainly title of transvestite. But giving something a different name doesn't take away from what it actually is!


  1. Vivienne,
    after all these years, I now find out I'm a mean a Crossdresser. Now I can All kidding aside, how come, with so many of us seeking answers to the question who are we, and why are we, there is yet no inkling of an answer? If I can get a Canadian Government grant to study the issue, I might have something to do in my retirement.
    The more of your blogs I read (I should have started at the fist and not at the last, doh), the more I read of myself. Thank you for these. My blog is currently more of a life story than anything else. That will change I'm sure.

    1. Hi Michelle,
      Thanks for dropping by, and posting a comment. I've really enjoyed reading your blog too! It's certainly been a very interesting life story!
      Best wishes,

  2. Grok here. Finding a satisfactory label seems to be a problem for a number of non-conforming groups. The labels of mainstream society are either clinical or derogatory.

    1. Hi Grok,

      Scientific terms I am OK with. I agree with you that derogatory labels are not acceptable. On the other hand, I think that there are a lot of confusing terms out there already, and I think this makes it difficult for the general public to understand trans people: are we all the same, or divided into a myriad of similar groups who all insist they are distinct from each other? (To quote from Monty Python "Q: Are you the Judean People's Front? A: Fuck off! We're the People's Front of Judea!")