Why are some people fine with cross-dressing (and ‘alternate lifestyles’ generally), while others freak out at the idea? Just what is wrong with these poor souls who can’t accept it?
The difference between the two mindsets became apparent in the reactions to the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner, Conchita Wurst (the transgender stage name of Tom Neuwirth). Described by mainstream media as a ‘drag act’, Conchita is perhaps better described as an example of genderfuck – and certainly not transexual, like previous Eurovision winner, Dana International.
It seems highly likely that Conchita was deliberately playing on people’s reactions (an excellent analysis here); in Conchita’s words,
“Over the years I tried to fit in, and I changed myself in every way you can imagine. I just wanted to be part of the game. And then I realised: I create the game.”
In other words, Conchita knew that, as the ‘bearded lady’ she’d be controversial; she was banking on it to raise her profile.
You’d think that for a competition with a substantial gay fanbase, and the appearance of transgender performers in previous years (like Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka in 2007), a bearded lady wouldn’t really have that much impact. But that would be to underestimate the forces of social conservatism. The voices raised against Conchita (and Verka, and Dana) include nationalists and religious leaders, tinged with xenophobia and homophobia; a perfect storm of in-group loyalty, out-group hatred and moral disgust.
I suppose a lot of this stems from thinking that things were better in the past – specifically when you were a child and had a simple understanding of the world; and that as you get older (and in theory develop a more realistic understanding of how the world works), anything new won’t seem as good as the stuff you’re used to.
This could work for information as well as culture and technology. Remember when the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto, saying we shouldn’t really call it a planet? There were some who, having been brought up to believe that Pluto was a planet, absolutely hated the idea that what they were taught as kids might have been wrong. And that was just astronomy.
Before we’re even born, people want to know if we’re going to be a boy or a girl – and depending on the plumbing of our lower abdomen, we’re raised according to one of two things, with all the stereotypes and expectations culture imposes on us. From the start, we’re conditioned to believe we are one thing or another, and that ‘the other’ is foreign to us. This ‘gender binary’ may seem instinctive, but I suspect it’s likely to be something reinforced by religious culture, based on a specific, desert-dwelling, bronze-age mythology that got a bit out of hand.
There are other cultures around the world and throughout history which recognised three, four or even five ‘genders’:
Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).
So, if you’ve been brought up to believe that there are only two types of people, and that anything else is ‘wrong’, it will be quite hard to accept the idea that gender is a range with male and female end-points, rather than a binary (find out where you lie on the range here!). It’s entirely possible that before we’re born our genitals can develop according to a male, female or intersex template, and our brains could develop in what might be called a more or less ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ way. Trying to force someone to be something they are not can’t turn out well.
I’d say that socially conservative types are keen to emphasise differences between people that support their agendas (sexual, racial, linguistic, national, etc), because they’ve been brought up to see the world a particular way and can’t bear the thought that their cherished notions from childhood might be mistaken. That’s why they freak out at anything that goes against them; they just don’t know how else to react. Do they deserve sympathy? Well, only if they don’t have the power to make life very difficult for anyone who doesn’t fit their simple worldview.
But that’s a topic for another blog post…