Monday 25 August 2014

Frightening the Horses

When asked to comment on a supposed homosexual relationship between two of her colleagues, British stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (her stage name) made a comment which has become legendary.
Does it really matter what these affectionate people do-- so long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses!
Hay! How you doin'?
I suppose there are two ways to look at this comment (which has been widely quoted, misquoted, and even mis-attributed). The first is to interpret it as saying that homosexuals should keep themselves hidden from public view. The second way to interpret it (and the way I choose) is to take it as a whimsical remark saying: who cares what they do? What harm could possibly come of it?

This quote came to mind when my attention was drawn to this article, Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses, which was mentioned and discussed over on Thorin's blog. Written by Amy Bloom, and published in Atlantic Monthly in 2002, it is a ruthless (but not wholly unsympathetic) critique of male crossdressers. Bloom is observant, smart and articulate, and the article is well worth reading in its entirety. But it really hurts, and I've been struggling with my reaction to the article all week. The sub-title, taken from the body of the article, is this:
The world of crossdressers is for the most part a world of traditional men, traditional marriages, and truths turned inside out.
And the first line begins:
Bloom: Heterosexual cross-dressers bother almost everyone.
In the first half of the article, Bloom describes crossdressers. Distinct from transsexuals; distinct from drag queens. She talks to Ray Blanchard, and repeats some of his well-trodden dictums. Some of these, you will know, I agree with, including the one that crossdressers don't want to be like women; they want to be like men think women are. She talks to Tri-Ess, and quotes some of their material. So far, so non-descript. However, this material is probably new to the readership of the Atlantic, who are probably unfamiliar with the background.
Blanchard: Of course it's not relaxing. Heels and makeup and a wig and a corset? It's preposterous. Even women don't find that relaxing. Relaxing is a pair of sweatpants, clothing that doesn't even feel like clothing. Cross-dressers want to normalize this, to have it seen as relaxation and self-expression. Cross-dressing is an attempt to resolve an internal conflict, and it's not about fabric. If we had clothing for men and women that was identical in every way except men wore shirts with four buttons and women had shirts with five, cross-dressers would want more than anything to have the shirt with five. We don't know why.
Matronly: the Two Ronnies
I happen to agree with this viewpoint; it's not about the clothes! I would say that my crossdressing feelings are not about the clothes but about the role or expectations society has for me. It's a question I often ask myself (and consider on this blog): what would happen if men and women were all truly free to wear whatever they want? I think Blanchard's interpretation of the answer is as good as any other. And I absolutely do have an "internal conflict", whether it pleases me to admit it or not.
Bloom: This seems to me to be the heart of cross-dressers' dilemma, and the heart of mine in writing about them. Cross-dressing is a compulsion, but we must not see it as a sickness. A good wife should tolerate it because the man has no choice, but it isn't too hard to tolerate because it's a gift. It is about fun and pleasure—and it's a necessity. The necessity of cross-dressing is frightening to the men and to their wives, and their wish to tame it, to characterize it as a preference and a gift, is understandable.
In the second half of the article, Bloom deliberately goes on a cruise, with 25 crossdressers and their wives. She takes time to get to know them, motivated by an interest "in the less common ways in which people inhabit their gender". Bloom describes the appearance of the crossdressers.
Bloom: I have met cross-dressers whose presentation is just this side of Christina Aguilera [but] they look more like my formidable fourth grade teacher, a big, tall woman with a bolster-like bosom, thick legs, sensible pumps, hennaed hair, and twin spots of rouge on her cheeks. They have the matronly look so common to straight cross-dressers. A pronounced face requires pronounced makeup, and after the false eyelashes and even the subtlest contouring of the wider jaw and the thick brow, one can look beautiful or ridiculous, but one cannot look like most of the women around.
How they see themselves?
She describes how most of the crossdressers are eager to talk about themselves (something I can certainly relate to!) But then Bloom starts to discuss the wives.
Bloom: Sometimes the wives wish to come, to support their husbands and to enjoy the trip, or to hang out with other wives, like golf widows or wives in Al-Anon. Some come because their husbands need them to. Happy wives are everyone's favorites, but happy or cowed, enthusiastic or grimly accepting, the wives at these functions are simultaneously objects of much public appreciation and utterly secondary to the men's business.
It would be easy to dismiss this entire article as full of hostility, but I don't think it is. I think it is the result of someone who has really taken a good look at crossdressing, and come to her own (somewhat ruthless, but not entirely unsympathetic) conclusions. I suspect that Bloom and Helen Boyd would find much common ground.
Bloom: I come to see why so many women find themselves sympathetic to cross-dressers: Women are raised to be sympathetic, and protective toward the vulnerable, and there is something sweet, unexpected, and powerful about being a woman and sympathizing with a man not because he demands it but because you genuinely feel sorry for him, for his debilitating envy and his fear of discovery and his sense of powerlessness to live as he wants.
Debilitating envy? Check. Fear of discovery? Check. Sense of powerlessness? Check. Add in guilt and shame, and it would be a full house! But for me, the most powerful parts of the article are the vignettes of conversation with the various crossdressers and their wives. Here, she discusses "Felicity".
Bloom: On the third night of the cruise Felicity comes to dinner "en drab" as they say, looking like what he is— a heavyset Baptist minister who worked construction in his youth. With a flourish the headwaiter delivers roses to his wife, to applause from our four tables. Felicity puts his big hand on hers and squeezes it. He makes a toast to their thirty years of marriage and to her goodness and support. He begins to choke up; her remote look never changes. I can see that she is not pleased that he decided to dress like a man for her tonight. She is not pleased that he is so grateful to her for trying to believe that he cross-dresses only because he cannot express his warm and nurturing self while wearing trousers. Nor is she pleased, God knows, to sit with a bunch of men in makeup and dresses, some modest, some outrageous, some passable, most not, and call it an anniversary party.

Felicity says, "It's like there are three of me in this little boat: the husband, the cross-dresser, and the minister. I can hear the falls approaching, and I know, I know with all  my heart, one of us will not survive this ride." He begins to cry, and I get tears in my eyes. As I hand him some tissues, his wife glares at me and says, "You sure do get involved with your interviews".  She must think that some pretty fancy footwork is required to wind up so sorry for the crossdresser and not for the wife; when I look at her sympathetically, she almost spits. Pity from people like me is not what she wants either.

The men I met were by and large decent, kind, intelligent, and willing to talk openly. Their wives were the same, many of them under the additional pressure of having to make the best accommodation they can to a marriage they did not envision and do not prefer.
The final section is the one which Thorin quotes; the one where Bloom talks about crossdressing as an exclusively sexual fetish.
Bloom: The greatest difficulty people have with cross-dressers, I think, is that cross-dressers wear their fetish, and the gleam in their eyes, however muted by time or habit, the unmistakable presence of a lust being satisfied or a desire being fulfilled in that moment, in your presence, even by your presence, is unnerving. The combination of the cross-dressers' own arousal and anxiety and our responsive anxiety and discomfort is more than most of us can bear. We may not mind foot fetishists, but we may not wish to watch them either.
Wearing her fetish?
This notion touches on what another of my correspondents called, with unmatchable turn of phrase, "wanking in public". It is clear that Bloom considers this to be what crossdressing is: a sexual fetish expressed publicly. Perhaps she is worried about the horses.

So much for the article. Why does it upset me so much? Because I can see truth in it. I can pretend that none of it applies to me, but the fact that it makes me deeply uncomfortable doesn't make it wrong. I seem to fit Bloom's model pretty well: educated, professional, intelligent, kind, and willing to talk openly.

I do wonder what other people see when they see Vivienne. I am sure they don't see the same as I see. I wonder if they look at me with abhorrence, with scorn, or with pity, with silent tolerance rather than open acceptance. But I can cope with all that. What is worse is something Grayson Perry touched on: crossdressing causes everyone a lot of pain; the crossdresser himself, and his spouse (and sometimes their kids).

My wife really struggles with crossdressing, and we are a long way from her coming with me on a cruise where I can wear a dress every day. And yet a very good description of my wife would be "having to make the best accommodation she can to a marriage she did not envision and does not prefer". Grimly accepting, indeed.

I had hoped to summon a series of carefully constructed arguments to demolish Bloom's article, but I find I cannot. What she describes is not my present, but it comes uncomfortably close to what might possibly be my future.

Interestingly, Atlantic Monthly doesn't seem to have this article available in its online archives, though other articles from the same issue are available. I wonder if it has been deliberately withdrawn, and if so, why?

I can make some points, though. Whether Bloom likes it or not, my own crossdressing desires will never go away. I would rather not be this way, and I would really rather not cause anyone else (especially my wife) any discomfort as a result.

The fact that this is the way I am does not make me a bad person. It does not make me cruel, manipulative, exploitative or otherwise objectionable. Trust me when I say, I have a host of positive attributes. There are a lot of behaviours out there which are a lot worse than crossdressing, which seem to be tolerated.

I think things are changing. I don't think all crossdressers fit with Bloom's archetype (even she says as much), and I think that public crossdressing is becoming commoner (and less noteworthy) all the time. A generation ago, if we had seen two men or two women showing affection publicly, there might have been societal discomfort or even overt disapproval. These days, it's no big deal any more (though no doubt, disapproval persists in some quarters). Is homosexuality a fetish? Are gay people acting out their fetish in public? Surely homosexuality is all about sex? Actually no. But people may well have felt that way once. And in the same way, perhaps crossdressing will come to be accepted as nothing out of the ordinary. Nobody bothers any more to ask why some people are gay. The accepted answer is: they just are.

I can promise you one thing in closing. No matter what I wear, no matter how high my heels, or how red my lipstick, the horses will not mind one little bit.

Addendum 24th September 2014

I sent an email to Amy Bloom via her publisher, telling her the article was continuing to provoke debate, and inviting her to comment. I received this reply:
Sorry! I wish to thank you for the invitation and say that I am currently up to my eyes in a new novel. I don't have the psychic room, right now, to engage with other, interesting projects.

I am naturally disappointed that she has declined to discuss the article with us. If she changes her mind, I will be sure to let you know.