Shop hopping

It’s been ages since I got new clothes. I think I’ve probably got as much as I want in my wardrobe now. Maybe I’ve found my ‘look’ and I’m happy with it? Or maybe I’m not going out as much as I used to, and now I can just re-use my old favourites? (It’s always a huge relief to find I can still fit into a dress I bought four or five years ago…)

When I first started building up my wardrobe (after deciding what clothes and footwear to go for), I just went with my girlfriend and built up a modest stock of cheap underwear and basic skirts and tops from local shops. For solo shopping trips, I’d go to shops on the other side of town where there was no chance of bumping into anyone I knew. (The easiest trips were to fancy dress shops – it’s not like you have to explain yourself…)

I'm so bad at snooker, I can't even hold the cue properly...

One of my earliest and favourite purchases.

I’ve always been determined to work within a strict budget – so a large part of Twist’s wardrobe comes from second-hand charity shops. These tend to be slightly opportunistic or impulsive purchases – I’ll see something on a mannequin and think “Hell, yes!” and (assuming it’s about the right size) buy it because if it doesn’t work out, at least I haven’t blown vast amounts of money on it. More often than not, I have a ‘look’ in mind and scout around seeing if there’s anything that comes vaguely close to it.

You never know quite who’s going to be behind the till. On an early venture, I spied a slinky dress in a window that was perfect, and went inside. It was packed with little old ladies rummaging through winter coats, but I apologised my way through the crowd to the cashier and told her I wanted to buy That Dress in the window. She had a mischievous look in her eye.

She opened up the display and shouted back to me, “IS THIS THE DRESS YOU WANT, SIR?”

I was damned if I was going to let her try to out-sass me or try to make me feel foolish, even in guy mode. So I shouted back with a cheery smile and a thumbs-up.

“YEP! THAT’S THE ONE! IT’S JUST MY SIZE!”

I don’t think anyone else in the shop was paying the slightest attention to either of us.

"We're not flying; we're falling with style!"

The zipper on this dress was… eh, ‘flying low’…

On another occasion I was looking for a vintage 60’s-style dress for a photoshoot (the one in the old fashioned airliner; apart from having to avoid a children’s party, that shoot passed without incident and the photos can be seen sprinkled throughout the gallery).

I found exactly what I was after in a charity shop in a very genteel, prim, proper part of town. The sweet little old lady (Edinburgh’s second-hand shops contain no other sort) behind the till struck me as the kind of woman who was probably schooled by Miss Jean Brodie.

She rung it up and said, “There you are sir, one ladies’ dress.”

And I got to use the Eddie Izzard line, “It’s not a ladies’ dress – it’s mine!”

I thanked her and packed it into my bag. She just blinked, speechless. I think I was a bit too modern for her tastes.

(It turned out the dress was too small, so I had to figure out how to pose without showing the gaping zipper at the side.)

When it comes to charity shops, I go for the secular ones – health, animal welfare, and social support. The only shop I refuse to donate to or buy from on principle is the Salvation Army (because it’s just not a very nice organisation).

castle gardens

Splashing out…

I have splashed out occasionally. On a trip to Orlando five years back, we got an idea of the political divide between two stores.

The first was an upmarket dress shop; lots of stuff I’d love to have tried out, but the sales assistant was a middle-aged woman with big hair who struck me as the type who was Afraid Of Change and would vote accordingly.

She asked my girlfriend if she was interested in anything.

“Nah, we’re here for him.”

The saleslady laughed politely.

“No, seriously, it’s for me. I like to rock a dress from time to time,” I told her.

“Well, you don’t seem the type!”

“Don’t I? Damn. I’ll have to try harder.”

Uncertainty crossed her eyes.

“Let me know if you see anything you like,” she told my girlfriend, and left us alone. We departed about five seconds afterwards.

Instead, I found a couple of slinky purple dresses – one sparkly, one not – in American Apparel. I’m guessing it was a couple of college kids running the shop, and they were totally fine with me buying dresses. Kids today, huh?

Sing when you're whinnying?

Got milk?

Personally, I try not to buy stuff online – I like to actually see what the hell I’m getting first – but last year I succumbed to the temptations of a sale at Black Milk. Their range is of the tight’n’stretchy variety, so It takes a bit of dietary punishment to wear them confidently. I could go nuts clicking on purchases, but then a little voice has to restrain me: just when, precisely, do intend to wear a PVC skater dress?

Sometimes, the idea of wearing something is far better than the reality of it.

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And a one, and a two…

Gender-neutral toilets already exist. Every home has one, (unless there are two and the ladies and gents of the house retire to different ones?). And anyone classed as ‘disabled’ might also feel that they’ve been de-sexed as well, since the wheelchair sign applies to mode of transport rather than genitalia.

Even so, when I go out cross-dressed I plan ahead a bit. I try not to eat or drink too much beforehand, to minimise any trips to the smallest room in the building. It can also depend on what I’ve chosen to wear for the evening; sometimes there might be a bit of structural engineering works to undo before I can -you know- do anything.

I like to have some idea of where I’m going – ideally, does it have a disabled toilet? I can justify this on the grounds that when cross-dressed, biology and presentation cancel each other out, making me gender-neutral. Also, if I can’t run in heels, breathe in a corset, or eat big meals (it might wreck my makeup), I’ll pretend that they all count as a disabilities.

Sometimes, I don’t have that option. As always, I think I have it easier than anyone who’s transitioning (and at the mercy of short-sighted local laws when caught short). I identify as a guy; I’m a bloke; a dude (but I refuse to think of myself as ‘manly’); it’s just that I’m wearing a skirt. So I’ll use the gents’ toilets, thank you.

These situations are where I get all brazen (I won’t say ‘cocky’…). At a restaurant with friends, I went to the gents to fix my lipstick after the meal. A guy walked in after me and immediately went into Embarrassed Brit Mode (imagine a young Hugh Grant doing his flustered-and-stuttering routine).

Gent: “Oh, christ! I’m terribly sorry! I thought this was the gents!”

Me: “Nah, you’re okay; this is the gents. I’m just doing my makeup.”

Gent: “Um… um… …” [leaves, unrelieved]

I don’t know if this would work for anyone else – there are some places I wouldn’t even dare – but acting like what you’re doing is nothing out of the ordinary is a great way to convince people that it really isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

Mind you, there was another meal where I attended in a red Star Trek dress, and it took about thirty seconds to convince the diners who came in after me that they were actually in the right toilet. I think the trick is to take advantage of the awkwardness and be proactive with it. If someone else feels awkward, that doesn’t mean you have to as well. You can’t show weakness when you look fabulous.

On the other hand, if I’m in a pub setting where I haven’t been before, and there isn’t a disabled toilet, I can either nurse my drinks very slowly, or rely on the goodwill of female friends to check the coast is clear in the ladies’ toilets (that’s happened before as well).

If any readers live in a jurisdiction where toilets have somehow become sexualised, I dearly hope things change soon. Apart from death and taxes, needing to have a pee is something else none of us can escape from, and I see no reason why this should be made difficult for anyone.

The best solution I’ve seen is this:

toiletsigns

Tomb Raiding at Edinburgh Comic Con

You’re never too old to scare yourself. And if you ever want a safe place to go out cross-dressed, I thoroughly recommend comic/science fiction conventions. These are two things I found out for myself last month.

I had it in my head to enter the cosplay contest at Edinburgh Comic Con 2016, but I wasn’t entirely sure which character to dress up as. So I asked my friends. Three costumes involved the catsuit: Emma Peel from The Avengers TV show (but I reckoned hardly anyone would be able to distinguish her); Selene from Underworld (but I needed a much shinier catsuit to do her justice); and Black Widow from The Avengers films (but if videos and photos of the 2015 con were anything to go by, I’d be up against dozens of Black Widows). That left Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft (the 1990s version).

I’ve already gone out as Lara for a friend’s birthday, as well as an early-morning photoshoot (which was largely uneventful, so nothing to write about; photos can be found randomly throughout the blog gallery), but going to a comic con would be my first time just on my own, talking to a bunch of strangers (although I did meet quite a few people I knew anyway).

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A couple of Rogue Ones?

On arrival, I headed to the ‘green room’ where cosplayers could get changed. The first guy I spoke to was Andrew, getting changed from Bane to a shadow stormtrooper. He was my guide and guru to my first con. He also didn’t realise I was a guy as well, at first. When I caught up with him throughout the afternoon, he’d introduce me to various friends to speak to, so I could confirm for them that he wasn’t lying; Lara Croft was a dude. This was actually great fun!

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I was glad to see I wasn’t the only 1990s icon at the con…

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Why yes, I *am* a slut for cameras…

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Covered from all angles (I think Leeloo was glad to escape and check out the rest of the con after this!)

Some of the reactions were priceless – one of my favourites was a guy who, after taking my photo, said “Thanks” and I said “You’re welcome!” …and then his eyes bugged out a bit.
“You’re a man?!”
“Well, yeah, sure.”
“Uh…”
(And then he left in a hurry. I’ve encountered this response before.)

That said, pretty much everyone else was cool with it…

Stark contrast?

I gotta be honest; I don’t recognise this character… my nerdy knowledge has limits!

An Intrepid selfie…

This was an incredibly safe, family-friendly environment. There were parents and kids all in costume (kudos to the very young girl dressed as the dancing sapling Groot from Guardians Of The Galaxy). The rules for interacting with cosplayers (essentially: look don’t touch; no photos without permission; don’t be a dick) were displayed on large pop-up stands, but I think everyone just took them as read. Everyone took pictures of themselves with everyone else. It doesn’t matter what size, shape, age, or gender anyone is – it’s all about the costumes.

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It was kinda weird seeing so many different genre characters mingling together… shopping. It’s the ultimate mix of the fantastical and the mundane.

Anyway, time was marching on and the cosplayers had to queue up for the contest. As I predicted, I saw a multitude of Black Widows (and Suicide Squads, and X-Men), but apparently a glut of Deadpools the previous day had deterred anyone from dressing up in red and black.

It was a long, nerve-wracking wait. I’d never competed in anything like this before (and had no expectation of winning; I was merely hoping to be remembered), and those nad-mashing leather shorts were really, truly uncomfortable (but Lara Croft does not cry; therefore neither would I).

After The Flash and Wolverine did their turns on stage, I was up. As the write-up of the con in Starburst magazine put it:

…a Lara Croft greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and unease after revealing herself to be an alarmingly convincing cross-dressed man…

I seemed to create an impression anyway. Someone in the midst of the audience said:

A good number of folks were surprised when he spoke I do have to say. I saw the reaction of two teenage boys when [Lara] spoke and it was priceless.

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I’m told there was a massive intake of breath from some quarters. On stage, I was just aware of a short pause and then applause. The facial tectonics of the emcee were a sight to behold as well, as he rapidly reappraised who he was dealing with.

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This is my “Surpriiiiise!” smirk. Des, the emcee, recovered well (“Stay professional… stay professional…”)

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“Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it; strike a pose, there’s nothing to it…”

“So what made you dress up as Lara Croft?” Hm. Yeah. What indeed? In retrospect I wish I could’ve come up with a wittier answer than the one I did (I could’ve mentioned the fact that like Lara Croft I have a habit of digging around for old things – apart from a clip-on ponytail, everything I wore came from charity shops, and was perhaps the cheapest costume at the con).

I’d also given thought to a short performance of how Lara picks something off the floor (shuffling around left and right until she’s finally in the right position, and then inexplicably drowning), but it’s hard to know if others will find it as funny as I do. So I limited myself to a final pose for the cameras before bounding off stage.

By the end, the well-deserving winner was a home-made Chappie. I understand a video of the contest might be available at some point – I’ll post it here if I can. I’ve already had a suggestion for a costume for next year’s comic con which some of my friends are keen on. And you know what? I’m tempted. It’ll take a lot of dieting and buying stuff I’d wear precisely once, but I’m tempted… sort of… kind of… maybe….

Photos shamelessly stolen from Andrew Judge, Mustbe2sday, Nick J Cook, Dave Jolie, Chi H Lau, Scott Mathie, and possibly others at Edinburgh Comic Con… sorry if I missed anyone!

Gendered agenda addenda

During Edinburgh’s 2016 Science Festival I got to introduce a talk on world cultures which recognise more than two genders, by Professor William Naphy. It’s a topic I’ve briefly alluded to in a previous blog, but this seems like as good a time as any to go a bit more in-depth.

Update 13 April 2016: you can listen to the talk via the Edinburgh Skeptics podcast, starting 4m30s in. (Warning: if you do listen to the first few minutes you can hear me erm-ing, um-ing and ahh-ing through an intro to a poet and to the speaker…)

The talk was really excellent – densely packed with information, yet presented in a very clear and accessible way. I won’t regurgitate the talk verbatim, but the significant take-away messages were these:

  1. There are cultures around the world and throughout history which recognise three, four, or even five genders. From their point of view, they don’t ‘have’ three (or more) genders – there are three (or more) genders.
  2. ‘Genders’ and ‘gender roles’ seem to be inextricably linked – for example, in certain cultures if a woman wants to run a business, she will be seen as a ‘businessman’, and is not allowed to become pregnant (because ‘businessmen’ do not get pregnant). These are entirely separate from matters of sexuality.
  3. Just because a culture recognises more than two genders, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s open, tolerant and socially liberal – sometimes there can be very strict rules about what each gender is allowed to do, and the jobs they can take on.
  4. Following on from the last point, people in these cultures are likely to be disinclined to talk about genders; it would be as impolite as asking complete strangers about their sex lives.
  5. Generally speaking, across the world, there appears to be a bigger deal made about men adopting female gender roles than women adopting male roles.
  6. The influence of gender-binary cultures is adversely affecting the ones which recognise more than two – a culture which might celebrate a third gender could now start describing people in binary terms  – ‘gay’ or ‘trans’, rather than whatever words they have to describe a concept which we don’t have the words (or even concept) to describe in English.
  7. The cultures with more than two genders could be said to have more than two labels or pigeonholes to stick people into. Sure, it’s better than limiting it to two, but it can still be an inflexible system.
  8. I suspect the model we’re moving towards in ‘Westernised’ cultures is one which doesn’t see people as one thing, or another, or yet another, but rather has us occupying different points on ranges: a range of sex; a range of gender identities; a range of sexualities.

2016-ScienceFestivalAfter the talk I spoke to some of the audience in the bar afterwards. As you might expect, it drew a lot of interest from people who are, or have been through, transitioning (m-to-f and f-to-m), or otherwise gender non-conforming in various ways. I don’t really get involved with communities or support groups (because reasons), but I really enjoyed hanging out with other people who’ve had to come to terms with being at odds with what society considers ‘normal’.

If anything, I came away thinking more strongly than ever that each of us has to act as an ambassador for everyone else. We probably need to learn as much as we can about sex, gender and sexuality, even if we don’t think it applies to us, because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will latch on to us as their ‘token’ expert in these matters.

If we want to live in a more enlightened culture, that means sometimes fielding questions from other people which might be crude, or insensitive, or blithely ignorant and we’ll have to reply openly and honestly. To borrow a phrase from Jim Jeffries‘ stand-up routine about gun control:

…we have to play to the one per cent of society who are such fuckwits they ruin it for the rest of us. We have to move as slow as the slowest person to keep society moving…

Anyway… we all agreed that Professor Naphy’s talk was an eye-opener, and he did an excellent job of presenting other viewpoints we simply aren’t used to. It’s not often you can come out of a talk having to rethink certain bits of how you think the world works, but this was one of those times.

 

How to use your looks for mind control

Winners wear red (this may depend on what counts as a 'win')...

Winners wear red (this may depend on what counts as a ‘win’)…

I’ve often pointed out that if our clothing has an effect on other people, that’s their problem, not ours. I suppose it’s time to science this matter: how can our clothes affect other people?

There are a few brave souls out there who’ve experimented with changing their look and documenting reactions for our edification: for example, trying out goth, vintage and natural looks; or varying levels of makeup on a dating website. While these articles are often quite entertaining and insightful, they suffer from the problem “N=1”; they’re just one-off stories and it’s probably a bad idea to generalise from them, no matter how much we might want to agree with them. The same goes for the ‘common-sense’ ideas about the messages other people pick up in our clothes. As a general rule of thumb, common sense ain’t so common (or sensible, for that matter).

There are a couple of findings I kinda liked:

1) Winners wear red

In a study of Olympic combat events (Hill & Barton, 2005), ž55% of bouts won by competitors in red. Okay, but maybe those competitors just happened to be better fighters? Another study of Taekwondo bouts (Hagemann et al, 2008) used clips of matches in which the competitors wore blue or red. These clips were shown to ž42 referees who would award points. Sneakily, the same clips were shown again, but with the colours digitally swapped over. It turned out that on average, fighters in red were awarded 13% more points than those in blue.

So, it looks like there’s some evidence that the colour of our clothes can affect how other people react to us. Just bear in mind that these studies were in a purely sporting context, and there’s nothing to suggest whether these are innate or biological reactions, or based on cultural cues. And there’s more to winning than simply wearing red (just ask Charlie Sheen).

2) Sexiness is distracting for about half of us

žA study on decision-making and bargaining (Wilson & Daly, 2004) presented (presumably heterosexual) male and female participants with pictures of attractive or plain people of the opposite sex and asked them to rate their attractiveness. Then they would take part in a exercise in which they’d have to divide up sums of money and judge whether to take a small, immediate reward or a larger reward later.

Women will not be attracted my men's attempts to be sexy.

Women will not be distracted by men’s attempts to be sexy.

They found that, generally speaking, women weren’t really affected by the pictures of attractive men and didn’t make poorer choices. However, pictures of attractive women made men perform worse (compared with neutral pictures). The effect is more pronounced in men with higher testosterone levels.

Sexiness makes men stupid. Science says so. So there!

Sexiness makes men stupid. Science says so. So there!

Conclusion?

Even if the way we look affects other people (and remember, these can be very subtle effects in very specific situations), I don’t think this is any reason to dictate what we can wear.  I don’t think any of this has any impact on the principle that if someone else is distracted or made uncomfortable by what they see, that’s their problem not ours…

 

Adventures in Crossdressing (part one)

(I cropped out the guilty faces...)

(I cropped out the guilty faces…)

I figured I’ve written enough blog posts in the past few months dealing with some very general, weighty issues and it was high time I got back to talking about just having fun dressed as a girly.

I think it helps a lot if you can take a potentially nerve-wracking experience and regard it with some slight detachment. In some ways, I’ve found it can be like operating like an undercover agent, gauging people’s reactions to you. Acting cool and glib can work as well – if challenged, telling people you’re crossdressed “just for the hell of it”, “because it seemed like a good idea at the time” or “hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it” can be quite disarming.

For some reason, people keep wanting to touch my boobs, especially women. When they ask, I just say, “Go right ahead; they’re not real and I won’t feel a thing.” When men ask it tends to be a ‘what the hell are those things made of’ sort of inquiry, with a tentative prod or squeeze. Women tend to approach it more from the ‘but if you’re completely flat chested, how do you get it to look like that?’ angle, and confirm that my chest does not move or feel real after all.

Helping out at the IgNobel UK tour...

Helping out at the IgNobel UK tour…

Still, it’s better than the time after I took an impromptu part in the Ig Nobel UK tour’s visit to my home town in 2012, when a complete stranger grabbed my arse. It turned out to be a middle-aged woman whose first pint of beer of the evening was so far in the past it wasn’t even a memory.

“I wanted to talk to you but I didn’t know how to start,” she explained.

“You could always say ‘hello’,” I suggested.

After that, I just answered her questions. Once we’d dealt with what, how, and when, she asked why I was cross-dressed. I gave her the ‘Just for the hell of it’ answer. She seemed satisfied with that, thanked me for my time, and staggered back to the bar.

This is the expression I have when I'm put on the spot and asked to summarise the differences between 'transvestite', 'transgender' and 'transexual' in less than 60 seconds.

This is the expression I have when I’m put on the spot and asked to summarise the differences between ‘transvestite’, ‘transgender’ and ‘transexual’ in less than 60 seconds…

I don’t mind answering people’s questions as long as they don’t monopolise my time when I’m out. The way I see it, if they’re asking, they want to know more and I’m happy to help. I have a talk on cross-dressing I gave to a couple of UK Skeptics In The Pub groups, and figured I was well-prepared with a handful of Frequently Questioned Answers at the end, before the audience Q&A got going.

Having dealt with the obvious ones already, I was less prepared for questions about where, precisely, I shaved – once it was established that the question wasn’t about ‘which room in the house’, but ‘where on the body’, I said anywhere that was likely to be seen by the general public. I was also asked if I’d ever had sex whilst cross-dressed. I said I’d answer the question if they could explain why they wanted to know, and what they were going to do with this information?

There are ways of avoiding answering questions, and There Are Ways Of Avoiding Answering Questions

Frequently questioned answers...

Frequently questioned answers…

One of these days I really should take the talk around the rest of the UK…

 

I Got The Power!

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Cross-dressed or not, I think it’s terribly important to own your clothing choices, so they aren’t simply ‘current fashion’; you aren’t dressed ‘like someone’ or ‘like something’ (which implies you’re wearing fancy dress); you are dressed as you.

Reading some of my fellow bloggers, I’ve picked up on a recurring theme – that dressing a certain way makes them feel ‘more like themselves’; or more comfortable; or happier; or empowered. And I think that’s marvellous. Few things demand that you learn and exude confidence like dressing differently from the crowd – even if you’re ‘blending in’. Without overthinking it, if you’re happy with your reasons for dressing in whatever way you like, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.

In certain ways I wonder if some of my fellow-bloggers are empowered by finally getting to dress as who they are, while I feel empowered by dressing as who I’m not. My own approach to cross-dressing is on a far more superficial, cosmetic level. But even so, I do find it empowering.

For one thing, it’s not routine. When I put on a skirt or dress, it’s a special occasion. I’ll make an effort. I want to look good, and if I stand out at all, it’ll be on my own terms – if I feel I look good, then why should I care if others don’t think so? I’m dressing for myself, not for them. It’s a difficult thing to pick up, this not-giving-a-shit-about-others’-opinions, but once you master it you open up another channel of happiness.

As Twist, I feel higher-status than I usually do. Part of it comes from feeling glamorous in a way I can’t as a guy; it’s easier for Twist to get and hold people’s attention. Heels making me taller, and a cleavage that isn’t easily ignored, also help. As Twist I feel like I can get away with saying or doing things I otherwise couldn’t. Perhaps it’s my way of accessing ‘The Bubble’ described in 30 Rock?

There are some things I’ll happily wear, and some things I won’t.

I can’t see myself wearing anything which I feel would lower Twist’s status – so don’t expect to see any French maid costume photos (hell, even if I did get photos like that, you wouldn’t expect to see any of them!). Bold, bright colours; something that might show off legs or cleavage; I’ll wear these because I want to show off. If I’m going down the fancy dress route, I’ll dress as a character that’s strong, or heroic, or iconic in some way – but with my own little twist… I won’t dress as a ‘low-status’ woman, because, quite simply, I don’t know any and I can’t see why I would be applauded for doing so. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. If anyone else wants to (for whatever reason) – that’s their business, and if it makes them happy, rock on! Just not for Twist.

xena-meme

I suspect that even other ‘cosmetic’ cross-dressers like me can find ‘strength and passion and power’ while identifying with something we’re ‘not’ (borrowing a phrase from Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s essay on race and culture).

I should also point out that I’m not saying that there’s a dividing line between ‘cosmetic’ cross-dressers, and those who identify as transexual, transgender, bi-gender or gender-fluid. As with most things, I suspect these tend to be arbitrary points on a spectrum. I am but one example of someone who doesn’t conform to ideas of a strict gender binary, and as such I can’t see myself as a representative of everyone else. I’m happy to speak for myself, and to speak in very general terms (backed up with copious cite notes and references) for others, but otherwise, my position is similar to that of Peter Dinklage on ‘little people’:

“I don’t know what I would say. Everyone’s different. Every person … has a different life, a different history. Different ways of dealing with it. Just because I’m seemingly okay with it, I can’t preach how to be okay with it.

On a related note, he also said something that chimes with my take on cross-dressing:

“… the older you get, you realize you just have to have a sense of humor. You just know that it’s not your problem. It’s theirs.”

It doesn't matter what you wear, how you wear it, or why - as long as it empowers you.

It doesn’t matter what you wear, how you wear it, or why – as long as it empowers you.