Is cross-dressing offensive? Should I, as a cross-dresser, take offence if and when people say things that make me uncomfortable?
As a straight, white guy employed in an affluent, technologically-advanced part of the world, it could be fairly argued that I am ‘privileged’, and therefore spectacularly unqualified to talk whether or not people should be offended by things. On the other hand, I consider myself somewhat disinterested and sceptical, so I believe that any argument should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of the person who makes it. I recognise that this is perhaps idealistic, and not everyone will agree.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to distinguish between insults and offence. Insults are given, deliberately. Offence can be taken, regardless of whether an insult was intended or not. People can take offence at things said or done innocently (as a result of ignorance) or not-so-innocently (as a result of prejudice). Where things get murkier is in the area where an offender doesn’t recognise their own prejudice, and can’t understand why others are getting upset. I like to think these people should be given the chance to change their minds (or, failing that, their public statements).
So, is cross-dressing offensive?
Other forms of dressing-up are unacceptable – such as ‘blacking up’ as a minstrel, or dressing as a Nazi. Some might include certain forms of fancy dress. (When it comes to fancy dress, if you have to describe something as ‘funny’ or ‘sexy’, the chances are it’s neither.) As much as I might find Samuel L Jackson cool, and as much as I might want to dress up as Jules Winfield, Mace Windu or Nick Fury, I’m constrained by the fact that others will see this as racist. (Or, in the context of crossdressing, replace those characters with Star Trek‘s Lieutenant Uhura, Firefly‘s Zoe Washburn or Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Tia Dalma, all of whom would make for some awesome cosplay).
Getting a tan (from sunlight, booths or spray) is acceptable; using theatrical facepaint probably not – because paint can be washed off in minutes and you wouldn’t have to deal with people’s reactions to darker skin, I suppose.
Is cross-dressing sexist? Nobody has said anything like that to me yet. Maybe it depends on the context and the clothes worn – if a man saw women as subservient, or as sex objects and wanted to dress like a subservient woman or as a woman-as-a-sex-object, then I suppose that would count (even if sexiness is in the eye of the beholder). How can you tell the difference, though? A French Maid costume might be obvious, but telling the difference between cross-dressed Black Widow cosplay from a ‘sexy catsuit’ might be trickier.
As mentioned previously, I can fake up a cleavage, and nobody’s cried foul over it. I’m also in the ‘privileged’ position of being able to remove it all when I get home and go back to looking like just another white guy; I don’t have to deal with people’s reactions to me presenting myself as a woman for more than a few hours at a time. I’m still puzzling over why this should be acceptable -applauded, even- yet other forms of dressing-as-something-you’re-not are unacceptable. Maybe I’m naive; maybe I’m blinded by privilege; maybe I’ll understand some day.
Should I take offence?
I prefer to refer to myself as a ‘cross-dresser’ because (in my head) it emphasises the fact that it’s just about clothes. Also, I reckon it sounds more casual than ‘transvestite’, which sounds like I’m either medicalising my clothing choices, or that I’m incredibly pompous about it.
If someone calls me ‘tranny’ (or asks if I’m ‘pre-op’), I correct them only because I think they might be conflating ‘transexual’, ‘transgender’ and ‘transvestite’, and what I do has nothing to do with sexual identity. ‘Tranny’ can also be said in a sneering, dismissive tone – as an insult.
Then there’s the media coverage of transvestites (or transexuals/ transgendered) which seems to reinforce the notion that there’s something wrong with them, or to make their actions seem like those of a madman: Chelsea Manning and the death of Gareth Williams (as reported by The Sun, for example) spring to mind. No wonder Eddie Izzard took pains to describe himself as an executive transvestite.
Now, I’m well aware that I’m quite ‘privileged’, and as such, I shouldn’t have much to complain about. Generally speaking, I don’t (OK, let me qualify that: I try not to, but sometimes little things will piss me off and I’ll get vocal about it). I agree with Stephen Fry’s observation that taking offence amounts to little more than whining about something you disagree with.
I take it further, and do my best not to take offense (bearing in mind that I’m lucky enough not to be oppressed or disadvantaged). I think there are far more productive ways of dealing with these things, like giving people the benefit of the doubt and enlightening them if possible. Why attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance?
People are allowed to express themselves the way they want, but on the understanding that others will interpret this in ways they might not expect or intend, as I’m sure more than one Twitterstorm can demonstrate (one of the reasons I choose not to participate in Twitter).
If someone says something disagreeable, yet their intentions are ambiguous, I like to think I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than make them the focus of outpourings of anger. And if their intentions are to offer insults, I’d like to educate and give space for people to change their minds, too. But then, I suppose I can afford to.
Generally speaking, I’d prefer to let people talk and change their minds, rather than tell them to shut up. I’d hope that others would be as accommodating towards me…
*I wrote this in my head at 3am, promptly forgot everything by the time I woke up, and frantically tried to distil it into what you’ve read here. It could probably have been phrased better, but you can’t have everything…