What do the folks say?

So, here’s a question many of us have wrestled with: how do we tell our parents about our cross-dressing? Do we even dare? Is it worth the effort? Or is it enough to have a supportive group of friends?

Earlier this year a couple of my friends came out to their parents as trans (one m-to-f, one f-to-m). In one case, this was met with acceptance (and relief from their social circles); in the other, let’s just say the parents might need a bit more time – I gather their response was more doubting.

As my friend put it, it felt like their family was inadvertently hurting them through a misguided sense of trying to ‘protect them’, treating them as if they hadn’t already spent years thinking about their gender identity and the consequences of transitioning.

Another friend of mine transitioned a number of years earlier, and with the benefit of hindsight offered these pearls of advice (paraphrased):

  • By coming out to your parents, you might take a weight off your shoulders, but you end up putting it onto your parents’ shoulders
  • Your parents have lost a [son/daughter]; so even though you’ve thought about this for many years, you need to allow them time to come to terms with this – and grieve
  • Your parents have lost a possible future they would have expected for you
  • There might be a sense of guilt from your parents that they didn’t spot it/  understand/ help you sooner
  • While your friends might be understanding and supportive, how will your parents’ friends react to them? Your parents will also need to “come out” to friends and family.

Of course, this assumes fairly liberal, tolerant parents; not everyone is so lucky.

A friend once put me in touch with a guy who was starting to cross-dress, but didn’t have much of a supportive social community to rely on, and his parents were extremely socially conservative and religious (there’s a surprise), and utterly rejected and forbade it. My friend thought I might be able to help, (as a cross-dresser who’d already come out and was quite comfortable with my identity), but the problems this guy faced were huge, and had taken a toll on his wellbeing.

All I could do was reassure him that he wasn’t ‘wrong’; he wasn’t ‘deviant’; more than anything he simply had to become independent (especially financially independent) of his parents – that way they couldn’t threaten him, and anything they did wouldn’t harm him (of course, this ignores the emotional distress of his parents opposing him so directly). Last I heard, he’d moved to a new college and was finally able to come  out and start establishing a female identity.

As for my own parents?

Well, back in the 1980s when my mother happened to see Europe on TV singing The Final Countdown, her response was to ask “Are they men? But they’ve got long hair! And they’re wearing lipstick!” And later on my father, questioning my choice of Hawai’ian shirts, opined that in his day garish, brightly-coloured clothing like that was a sure sign of homosexuality.

The first time I told them about my cross-dressing, I was already an independent adult and had been living with my fiancée for a few years. Initially they took it as a joke, a one-off. When I made it clear that it wasn’t, they were clearly uncomfortable (but would never admit as much, being classic Brits). There were a few sarcastic comments made, and I decided that if they didn’t want to hear any more about it, I simply wouldn’t tell them. There was no reason to make it a problem.

This hasn’t given me any emotional distress. Sure, it’s frustrating not being able to share funny stories or adventures, or show them photos, but I’m constantly aware that it could be far worse (and it is, for those in other cultures, or for those who haven’t yet been able to establish themselves). I have some of the best friends I could ask for, and someone to share adventures with. I have no reason to complain!

Any advice, take-home lessons?

From my perspective – and do bear in mind how limited it might be – if you have to choose between coming out to an unreceptive or hostile family, or establishing your independence, choose independence first. Give yourself the social support and the safety of distance. Get to the point where “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

…in which I speak!

Just a minor note, rather than a full-blown blog post this time…

As Colin Firth once stammered, “I have a voice!” I did an interview for a podcast regarding my 2015 talk on Photoshop fakery, and you can hear me spout off at this link.

The interview lasts about 12 minutes. One question was kinda-sorta repeated (but not deleted), so I repeat myself a little. Anyway, this is the voice I use as both Twist and as me, which explains a lot of the funny looks I get….

 

The Kids Are All Right

I reckon the future’s in good hands.

I recently had the chance to help out and speak at a couple of school events dealing with gender issues.

In the first, I only provided links to some recent brain studies and helped prepare a presentation for two teenagers, made in front of about 1500 pupils and teachers. Their talk was powerful, highlighting the death rates among trans people, from suicides and murders, and making the case for (among other things) gender-neutral school uniforms. They did a bloody good job, too – it’s really quite uplifting when things like that happen.

The fact that they got the chance to do this – and the lengthy applause afterwards – made me wonder if we’re reaching some sort of turning point.

In the second, I got to speak to a pupils’ lunchtime group which discusses LGBTI issues, led by a couple of teachers. I won’t repeat what I said, since much of the information has already appeared in this blog (and the rest of it will appear in future posts). My main goals were to inform, reassure, and – when possible – to entertain.

The teachers appreciated the fact that I had citations for everything I said, and the pupils appreciated the fact that I covered a wide range of sex, sexuality, gender, history and culture (kudos from one girl when I included asexuality with the other types).

But if the group response was anything to go by, I think what they’ll *really* take away from it is my impersonation of Australian cuttlefish…

LGBTI kids still face a lot of discrimination, but public awareness is growing. Doubtless, things will improve further as more parents understand what their children (or their children’s friends) are going through and seek support.

In some schools in the UK, more pupils are challenging the rules on uniforms – skirts for girls, trousers for boys – and schools are starting to adapt.

Kids are more aware of these issues, because they are already part of the world they are born into.

Me, as depicted by the 4-year-old daughter of one of my friends...

Me, as depicted by the 4-year-old daughter of one of my friends…

In my own experience, a couple of my friends have been happy for their kids to see pictures of me, or meet me dressed up.

“[She] saw and liked your new Wild West photos.
She said, “Cool! He must have fun being able to dress in both boys’ and girls’ clothes.”

It probably helps when you can provide a friendly, familiar face (if not a respectable one…) 😉

“…it was interesting to me when she met you in full Twist mode because it challenged her expectations at an age when she was probably quite binary (genderwise)”

Obviously, openness and acceptance aren’t going to happen everywhere, immediately. But they do seem to be spreading and accelerating.

“Twist is the biggest challenge to identity norms I’ve offered my children.”

It’s going to be interesting to see where this all leads. A couple of years ago, I introduced a talk by Nathan Gale, who expressed the hope that trans- and intersex issues would be mainstream within Nathan’s lifetime. Back then I wasn’t so sure, but now… hm!

 

 

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.

*

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.

blogimagery61-bloatyhead

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).

blogimagery62-photoshopfail

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…

photoshopfail-weights

(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?

blogimagery63-acceptable-photoshopping

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…

 

I Got The Power!

izzard-quote

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.

Appropriating ‘inappropriate’ clothing

Generally speaking, a gentleman should not wear clothes that reveal his balls.

Generally speaking, a gentleman should not wear clothes that show his balls.

I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one.
Marilyn Monroe

Depending on where you are, cross-dressing may or may not be deemed ‘inappropriate’. For that matter whatever you wear, cross-dressed or not, might be ‘inappropriate’. Just who in the hell are these self-righteous little sods who decide what’s appropriate or not, and should we pay attention to them?

Obviously, I’m not referring to the pragmatic reasons clothing might be inappropriate (say, going out in a blizzard at -40C in a bikini, or wearing long, flowing, baggy, hippyish garments when working next to the gears of a combine harvester), but the moral, cultural, and aesthetic aspects (and I’ve already posted a couple of things about ‘morality’; suffice to say I think morality is a really dumb basis on which to criticise or proscribe clothing).

Culturally inappropriate?

Whether or not we consider clothing appropriate or not depends on the culture we grow up in. People either ‘fit in’ like the rest of us, or else they stand apart and remain foreign. It’s also a common misperception that ‘our culture’ is rich and diverse, while people in ‘other cultures’ are all the same. This may sound contradictory, but people are funny that way.

For example, we might hear of Arabic outrage, or an Indian assault over women in skimpy dresses, but it would be wrong to assume that ‘The West’ is uniformly liberal when it comes to clothing. It’s a sad statement of fact that women anywhere in the world might feel they have to choose very carefully what they wear.

Bestie-cartoon What’s ‘inappropriate’? Uncovered head hair? Showing ankles? A bare midriff? Going topless? Showing off underwear (whether from a lack of belts, or a g-string ‘whale tail’)? Tight clothing? Full nudity? Standards vary depending on where you are and the times you live in. Fashions change (for brevity’s sake I’ll skip a potted history of fashion for another post), but this doesn’t mean that those at the forefront of those changes don’t have to put up with a lot of crap for being different.

So much for culture. I’m just grateful for the one I happen to be in.

It is better to be looked over than overlooked.
Mae West

Aesthetically inappropriate?

Apparently some colours work well together, and others do not. I’m not sure if this boils down to anything more than current taste – certainly, I have no idea if there’s any consistency to the idea. How does it work? Search me! When I started out, I just paid attention to what the mannequins were wearing in clothes shops and took it from there.

BethDitto04What about being fat or thin? Maybe you feel that certain clothes are inappropriate for particular body shapes or sizes. Well, so what? A few years back I introduced a talk by Dr Mark Tovee from Newcastle University on standards of beauty. As I recall, it’s down to perceptions of health. In sub-Saharan Africa in countries where HIV is prevalent, the onset of the disease is marked by rapid weight loss – so being larger and fatter is taken as a sign of health, and therefore more attractive than being slim or skinny (thinking of the Venus de Willendorf, a similar preference may have existed in paleolithic times). In any case, whatever someone’s size and shape, I’m struggling to see why an observer’s opinion of their clothing choices should matter.

dressingchildren(2)-elizabethan

Elizabethan children

1958_wedd_barb_children_small

1950s children

There’s also the matter of ‘dressing for one’s age‘. Like all the previous things I’ve mentioned, if you care about this, then you will no doubt get on very well with other people who care about it too. But really – what does it matter? Sure, people can and will complain about adults dressing ‘like children’ (or ‘comfortably and casually’, perhaps?), ignoring the fact that fashions change. In ye olden days, children’s clothing was more or less the same as adults’ (see picture above, top, from Elizabethan times); to my amateur eye, it seems that the idea of making childhood special and sacrosanct with its own separate dress code is a phenomenon of the Victorian and 20th Century eras (see picture above, bottom, from 1958). Maybe our culture is reverting to previous norms?

12651383_1096725220367770_5213789724792823436_n

The idea of ‘dressing like a grown up’, or dressing for your body shape, or in the ‘right’ colours is basically a social marker for identifying ‘people like us’. And if you’re not part of that crowd, you will be looked down upon by those who are in it. Now apply this to ‘dressing appropriately for your gender‘.

Frankly, anyone who thinks me wearing a dress is ‘inappropriate’ can fuck off. (And that’s me being polite.)

If you can afford to wear what you want without repercussions, do so. I have no advice for anyone living in a place where law or culture is hostile to cross-dressing, and I wouldn’t be so presumptious to pretend to have any answers for them – All I can say is, I hope that their circumstances improve.

In a similar vein, I’m not going to tell anyone else how to run their lives. I have certain aesthetic preferences, and I judge for myself whether or not someone’s clothes ‘look good’… but I’ll just keep it to myself. Why should anyone else care what I think of their clothes? To whose benefit is it to make someone feel bad about what they wear? If they feel good wearing them, that’s all that matters, surely?