When I met The Ladyboys Of Bangkok…

The Ladyboys’ show has been visiting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since the 90s, and it’s only recently I went along to see them. It put me in a thoughtful mood… (this had been in my drafts folder for far too long!)

First of all, it’s impossible not to be aware of sensitivities regarding words and names, and that ‘ladyboy’, however it might have been regarded in the past, is now considered offensive (‘kathoey’ is the correct term in Thailand). Personally, I specifically use the term to describe the show or the performers (like it or not, that’s the brand name they perform under; and changing the name would likely confuse the fans and harm the business). Whether you take offence at the name or not, it was clear to me that many in the audience for the Ladyboys were devoted fans who loved the show.

When they first came to people’s attention in the UK in 90s, they were treated as something of a punchline. I spent my student summers working in a Fringe venue box office, and was involved with a show each night so I never really had the chance to go along and watch. To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested. The only time I saw them was when they were caught out in a rainstorm walking through one of the city parks – they stood out because compared with the locals and fellow Fringe-goers they were all outstandingly pretty (even off-duty), and they were wearing the most gloriously impractical clothing for a Scottish summer (and platform heels on cobbled streets is a brave decision!).

It was a long, long time later before a friend suggested we go along and check out the show, and I figured what the hell – clearly they were doing something right to have lasted this long, so why not see what the fuss was about? All I really knew was that they pitched their tent where they could, and the music was loud. Otherwise, they just felt like part of Edinburgh’s artsy background noise.

The show is an energetic song & dance cabaret mixing solo and ensemble performances (and a ton of costume changes), with lots of lipsynching to well-known songs and parodies (like the adult version of She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain When She Comes, with lyrics like “I was very nearly coming when you came…”). In between are smaller sketches and audience interactions. Some of the Ladyboys’ troupe were boys; one was relatively senior in years, and swapped between male and female presentation throughout the show; one was more diminutive and what they lacked in height they made up for with a powerful pair of lungs to belt out songs; and one was a slightly plumper jester/’madame’ who would harrass the men in the audience.

The audience was mostly middle age to elderly women, and quite often little old ladies would jump up and try to dance during the performance – sometimes being steadied by a friend or relative.

A notable scene – played straight – involved the senior Ladyboy slowly changing out of her evening gown into a suit while singing I Did It My Way – singing as a woman until the very end, when she removed her wig and sang as a man for the last refrain. I found it oddly affecting – I’ve long known that I won’t be doing Twist stuff forever, and at some point I’ll take the wig off and never put it back on again. Will I do it singing My Way, or will I simply not realise it’s the last time? That was the sober part of the show – it can’t be comedy and high energy all the time…

The only other bit that gave me pause for thought was the the jester/madame’s humiliation of men in the audience. Every so often she picked a victim, dragged them on stage, and groped them to cheers from the audience. The worst one I reckoned (hoped!) had to be an audience plant (we saw him later leave via the staff exit) – he refused to kiss the jester/madame on stage, so she got him on the floor and dry-humped him. My friend and I understood how this routine started as a way of “power-rebalancing”, by dishing sexual humiliation out to the men, but it felt kind of dated. (That, and I’m not keen on ‘prank’ humour – it’s a bit like comedy wanking in that the only one really having fun is the one doing it, not the one who’s on the receiving end…)

In all other aspects, the show seemed to be really in tune with the times in its message and inclusivity. Everyone was gorgeous, funny, and talented, and I’m amazed at the energy they put into the performances, given they do both lunchtime and evening shows (we went at lunchtime). But if the performers weren’t the Ladyboys, would there be anything special about it?

Afterwards we had a chance to get our photo taken with them. I felt kinda frumpy standing next to them (okay, a lot frumpy) – who wouldn’t want to look as good as they do? – and I got a lovely reaction from them when they heard my voice and figured me out!

Spot the odd one out…

You must be a bit of a Psycho!

I don’t normally write a blog post just to share someone else’s work, but when I find that someone else has already said what I was going to say, and said it better, why the hell wouldn’t I share it?

Originally, I was going to do a run-down of my favourite films about cross-dressing, (I previously did my top 20 songs split into part one and part two), but then I realised how thin the list would be: Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, Ed Wood… eh, and then what? A lot of films are just plain nasty when it comes to trans folk generally, starting with Psycho and its chin-stroking pontificators at the end deciding “well, obviously Norman Bates was batshit – he wore dresses, duh!” (I paraphrase, of course.) Then came the 90s, where it was all about recreating the big reveal of The Crying Game for comedic purposes in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Naked Gun 33 1/3, or for salacious purposes in The Jerry Springer Show on TV.

Where did all this come from? Did it have its roots in the sexual morality of the Victorian era? Or could we go back to Shakespeare for an explanation? (After all, boys used to portray female characters in Elizabethan theatre because women weren’t allowed to, which led to a number of plays having fun with gender roles.)

Anyway, as far as modern film is concerned, just as I was doing my initial research I found Lindsay Ellis has just released a thorough, hour-long look into pop culture transphobia (with a pretty comprehensive takedown of JK Rowling’s recent essays and fiction) and there’s no way I could do it better:

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UPDATE:
Films with crossdressing, a non-definitive list…

The good (Twist recommends!):
Some Like It Hot (1959)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975),
Tootsie (1982)
Nuns On The Run (1990) – disclaimer: I haven’t seen it since the early 90s…
Ed Wood (1994)
Kinky Boots (2005)

I’ve heard they’re good (but I’ve never seen them and by this point I’m not sure if it’s still worth it):
I Was A Male War Bride (1949)
The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1993)
Mrs Doubtfire (1993) – yes, yes, I know, Robin Williams doing a Scottish accent means I should love it, right?
To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)
The Birdcage (1996)

The bad (these aren’t great from any kind of trans perspective, even if they have other qualities):
Psycho (1960)
Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994)

I’m assuming they’re bad (but nothing’s compelled me to find out):
Big Momma’s House (2000)
Sorority Boys (2002)
The Hot Chick (2003)
White Chicks (2004)

Other films of note (crossdressing isn’t a big part of the story, but a character/portrayal or surprise reveal involves crossdressing or body-swapping):
Thunderball (1965) – see here
Back To The Future Part 2 (1989) – Michael J Fox plays Marty’s daughter as well
The Crying Game (1992) – everyone forgets it’s a thriller about the IRA for some reason…
Shallow Grave (1994) – Ewan MacGregor partying in a dress y’all
Austin Powers (1997) – taking after Thunderball!
Con Air (1997)
A Bug’s Life (1998) – Denis Leary as Francis the ladybug? 🙂
Wild Wild West (1999)
It’s a Boy Girl Thing (2006)
Stardust (2007) – Robert DeNiro’s sky captain (even if the crew are less accepting)
Sherlock Homes: A Game Of Shadows (2011) – hey, I didn’t say it had to be *good* crossdressing!
Cloud Atlas (2012) – an interesting case, because it’s about the actors playing recurring personalities in different bodies (age, sex, gender) across different time periods.

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!

Ch-ch-changes

The only way you can be who you're meant to be is by having the freedom to make a lot of mistakes along the way...

The only way you can be who you’re meant to be is by having the freedom to make a lot of mistakes along the way…

I used to be afraid to admit to myself that I wanted to cross-dress. Then it became easy. I think the changes that allowed it to happen were as much psychological as social.

The best thing anyone can do when they’re still young is to leave home; there’s no other way to find out who the hell you are. I’ve written before about my childhood cross-dressing impulses, concluding with my first week at university when I met a girl who encouraged me to go to a Rocky Horror stage show wearing some of her clothes.

It was also at university I had my mind blown by the early internet (a shout-out to all those who remember using Netscape with dial-up modems!) which was young and unregulated (perfect match: so was I!) and introduced me to a whole bunch of cross-dressing and trans issues.

Even so, there was a lot my mind just couldn’t grasp; and what I couldn’t grasp I just dismissed. For example, in a philosophy tutorial group, one of the participants was middle-aged and trans. I never figured out if they were male-to-female or female-to-male. I just thought “Are you a hermaphrodite or something? No idea! Don’t know; don’t care; why won’t you shut up about male/female stuff? Men have balls, women don’t – why are you making a big deal about it?” (I was kind of a dick back then.)

It was the 1990s. As much as trans issues impinged on most people’s minds, they would have involved drag acts, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, the arrival of The Ladyboys of Bangkok, and a whole bunch of awkward episodes of The Jerry Springer Show in which young trans women decided the best way to come out to their boyfriends was on (inter-)national television (one of the happier outcomes can be seen here). The only female-to-male examples I can think of are Hilary Swank Boys Don’t Cry and the character of Jack in Pitch Black (which actually came out in 2000).

In any case, trans issues were a mostly seen as a punchline. In the midst of all this, comedian Eddie Izzard was a breath of fresh air. He made it clear that cross-dressing wasn’t seedy, or weird, or deviant. It was just about the clothes. For my part, at university I limited my cross-dressing to theatre, and the occasional party: ostensibly, just for fun.

Fast forward about ten years or so, in which there was a long break from cross-dressing after graduation, working abroad, and then trying to re-establish myself in the UK.  Finally, I felt comfortable enough coming out to my girlfriend (written about here) and ‘Twist’ rapidly came about.

What changed?

For one thing, I was older, more broadminded and more knowledgeable; my views of how the world worked had changed considerably since my teenage years (I won’t claim to be wiser, just not such a dick). I had gained self-confidence and the emotional security of a relationship and social group. In short, I gained the ability to not give a shit what other people thought of me. If there’s one thing you need in life, it’s that.

The times seemed about right too. In the past few years, more famous figures have come out as trans: Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien (who said he was ‘70% male‘); The Matrix co-creator Lana Wachowksi; the writer Chaz Bono (Sonny and Cher’s son); Lady Gaga’s alter ego Jo Calderone… leading up to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance on the cover of Vogue magazine in July 2015.  Gender-swapping was given less mocking treatment in comedies like It’s A Boy/Girl Thing (2006), and trans actors are getting prominent roles in BBC TV shows like Boy Meets Girl and Eastenders. Trans issues are generating a lot of media coverage.

Do I wish I could go back in time and come out as a cross-dresser sooner? There are two problems with this line of thinking. For one thing, I’ve changed (so even if circumstances were favourable when I was younger, I’d still lack confidence I have now); for another thing so has culture (so, even if I had the confidence I have now back then, the social circumstances would still be against it)… I think all we can do is make the most of what we’ve got and hope for the best.

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Postscript:
I was different in the 1990s; I just didn’t get it. But by being presented with things that went against everything I thought about the world, by having to argue my case and lose, I ended up changing my mind about a lot of things. For me, this is one of the important parts of leaving home or going to university. One’s ideas must be tested; one must always know how to argue for what is correct and pick apart what is wrong; one might find nuance and subtlety where least expected.
For this reason, I cannot support the ‘no-platforming’ of people whose ideas are misguided, outmoded, or just plain wrong. Those ideas will not be destroyed by censorship or silence; only confrontation and constant exposure to facts and evidence can see to that. (The thought occurs that if someone’s response to an argument is to try to silence their opponent, then they either don’t have a counter-argument, or they lack the wit to argue.)
For my part, I will provide whatever facts and evidence I can find. I will not silence those I disagree with because I want to allow them the possibility of changing their minds without ill-feeling. In other words, I try not to be a dick about it.

Photoshop and the art of self delusion

Talking about 'Lies, Damned Lies, and Photoshop'...

Talking about ‘Lies, Damned Lies, and Photoshop’…

Is it okay to Photoshop yourself? Or rather, when is it okay? The photo above shows me giving a talk for this year’s Skeptics on the Fringe. It has been Photoshopped. The lighting in the original had me glowing vivid magenta under the stage lights, so I figured a more human-coloured skin tone might suit me better. Does this make me a dirty, dirty liar?

I won’t repeat the contents of the talk here, apart from a few notes which relate (however faintly) to cross-dressing. (Treat any mention of “Photoshop” as referring to that program, or an almost-as-good-but-free alternative.)

A while back I mentioned one of the old blogs which inspired this is one. If I recall correctly, a few of the posts there took a dim view of cross-dressers who shared pictures of their faces badly Photoshopped onto female models. For a dated, famous non-crossdressing example, Oprah Winfrey was once photoshopped onto another actress’s body for the cover of TV Guide. It might have worked, too, if her head wasn’t sized too big in proportion to the rest of the body, making her look like she’s suffering from’Bloaty Head’ in the old Theme Hospital game.

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I can understand the desire to see a picture of oneself on a perfectly-formed body (one which has almost certainly been Photoshopped itself), especially if you feel you can’t physically indulge in the fashions you want to. But if you’re going to share them online, you have to make sure you’ve done a decent job and that you’re honest about it, or you’ll end up being called out on your bullshit (which can be surprisingly easy to do).

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It’s incredibly tempting to take one of your photos and tweak it before posting it online. Even if you don’t go to the ridiculous lengths that fashion, beauty and magazines do to thin out, stretch and smooth their subjects to barely-human degrees, you can still bugger it all up with a few misconceived tweaks. In the examples above, the ‘Liquify‘ tool was used to enlarge breasts, or to reshape hips and thighs without squeezing a Thighmaster. The unfortunate Photoshoppers seem to have forgotten that warping the bodies will also involve warping wrists, and the backgrounds, too…

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(Ignoring the background of a picture can be the downfall of many an unwary Photoshopper…)

My own take on Photoshopping yourself is: why bother?

Seriously, what is the point? Your friends will see what you really look like when they meet you. You might be able to fake your photos until you look slimmer, plump-breasted, slender-thighed and wrinkle-free, but you can’t Photoshop yourself.  Far better to work with what you’ve got and make the most of it. You could learn to take better pictures, or which poses and expressions look good for you. There are all sorts of ways you can glam up without touching a computer. And that’s before you even think about changing your diet and lifestyle to something healthier…

Is Photoshopping ever okay?

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During the talk I conducted a highly unscientific straw poll of the audience. Under what circumstances was Photoshopping acceptable? For example, is it okay to crop out bits of the background you don’t want, to focus on you as the subject? (Everyone agreed it was.) Was it okay to adjust the levels (let’s just say brightness and contrast) to brighten the image? (Everyone agreed it was.) But what if you left your coat and handbag in the scene and removed them? (Most people thought it was okay; a few thought it wasn’t.)

So it seems you should only Photoshop your pictures with a limited set of honest intentions; don’t change the way you look.

I like to give myself another excuse: for my own artistic amusement…

If you're going to Photoshop your selfies, at least make it worthwhile...

If you’re going to Photoshop your selfies, at least make it worthwhile…