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…

Because SIWOTI

You can be almost certain that someone will never change their mind because of a comment posted on social media. Does that mean we should never try?

When you get so accustomed to particular arguments and evidence, it can be something of a shock to encounter people who’ve clearly never heard them before, and have gone through life assuming that what they learnt at the age of 11 (simplified and summarised, if not superseded by now) must always be true.

What do you do when Someone Is Wrong On The Internet?

I had that experience on social media, and ended up regurgitating pretty much all of the sciencey posts I’ve done on this blog (with a couple of choice quotes I found elsewhere; unfortunately I can’t recall the original source).

Here’s what I wrote in reply:

“TL;DR version: sex, sexuality and gender aren’t ‘either/or’ concepts. If a person doesn’t fit into the way you think about the world, maybe *just maybe* the problem isn’t with that person?

The TL bit:

CHROMOSOMES
yes, there’s XX and XY, but there are other variants like XXY or XO (Klinefelter’s Syndrome or Turner’s syndrome); intersex people exist (and since 2003 are starting to be recognised on some nations’ passports, such as Germany in 2013).
– So I wouldn’t go about saying “XX or XY! Boy or a girl! End of story! Science!” because that’s not what the science says; things are more complex than that:

You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice – effing – versa.

SEXUALITY
Sure, most people identify as heterosexual, but homo-, bi-, and asexual people exist too. Whether or not people come out as such depends on how tolerant their society is; if it’s against the law or punishable by death, then they’ll obviously not want to say. Check Wikipedia to see how wildly the statistics vary between Brazil and Iran (for example).

Adler (1991) and Byne et al (2001) found a cluster of nerves in the hypothalamus was largest in straight men, smaller in gay men and slightly smaller in women (this develops before birth).
Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2010) found environment doesn’t affect sexuality. Bailey & Zucker (1995) say 63% of gay men and women don’t conform to ‘gender behaviour’ as kids (vs 10-15% of straight people not conforming.)
– So nature, not nurture, determines one’s sexual orientation – and it’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition – people can be more hetero-, or more homo-sexual (think of it as a range), or simply not interested (asexual; maybe 1% of people will identify as such).

BRAINS
Joel et al (2015) did 1400 MRI scans of brains; there are some sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour. We have unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females, some in males, and some common in both. Regardless of whether nature or nurture causes sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour, human brains cannot be categorized as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2008) showed that the interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH) in the brain is:

  • larger and more elongated in men and more spherical in women.
  • Male-to-female transexuals have a similar INAH to women, as do castrated males – so is the size of the INAH determined by testosterone? (But: study criticised for a small sample size and no study of different sub-types of transexuals.)

– So, there’s a bit of the brain that might well tell you what gender you are?

Swaab (2005) found sex differences in your body develop early in pregnancy (the first few months), but sexual differentiation of the brain occurs later in the second half of pregnancy and might be modified after birth by culture. This explains why, for certain transexuals, you can expect to see ‘female brain structures’ in people who are ‘otherwise male’.

  • So your body’s sex and your brain’s ‘gender’ can be different?
  • So can we really divide people into two genders? Not if we use biology, it seems!

On television, Secrets of the Sexes (BBC, 2005) said that men and women don’t always fit neatly into their respective groups. A University of Cambridge around that time study found that 17% of men have a ‘female’ empathising brain and 17% of women have a ‘male’ systemising brain. We aren’t ‘Male OR Female’; these are just end points on a range.
Hell, you can test yourself and find out where you belong on the range at this BBC website.

CULTURE
Why do we find it hard to accept there are more than two genders? Other cultures recognise three, four, or even five (such as Kathoey in Thailand, or Hijras in India, or ‘two-spirit’ people among some of the first nations of North America. Greeks accepted other sexualities, Romans accepted transgender folk. What changed?
Not wishing to upset anyone’s sensibilites, I’d just simply suggest that when the Romans adopted a variant of bronze-age desert mythology as their state religion, that’s when it started to get really difficult for women and transgender folk. This idea mutated and spread around the world for the next few centuries; almost all of us have grown up indoctrinated by aspects of it.

Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (BSRI, 1974) lists 20 ‘male’, 20 ‘female’ and 20 ‘neutral’ traits (eg: males are assertive, ambitious, swear a lot, etc, while females are meek, peacable, don’t swear… you get the idea). But by 1998, Holt & Ellis found recorded differences between men and women have decreased since the 1970s – men are less ‘manly’, women more ‘manly’ (but on average, men are still more impulsive)… at least in the west.

CONCLUSIONS?
Costandi (2013) found Sex is determined by genes; Gender is determined by culture/upbringing.
Elliott (2013) found male and female brains have far more similarities than differences; gender differences come from culture/ upbringing.

Just because we’ve been brought up to believe something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, or that we have to keep believing it. In the 21st century, bearded women win Eurovision, men can get pregnant.

Intersex people exist. Trans people exist. So do men and women. Denying any of these things will weaken whatever argument you want to make about sex and gender.

Before anyone says “But it doesn’t happen in nature!” – well, actually it does, from lesbian hedgehogs to cross-dressing cuttlefish:

…you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others)…

That’s it; I’m done. I’ve laid as much science on here as I dare to, given that nobody’s ever had their mind changed by a Facebook comment. But I just *had* to get this out because SIWOTI.”

Peace, out.

So, creeps reap what they sow?

It’s been a lot longer than intended since my last blog post, but my outings this year have been of a purely social nature; no adventures; no grand photoshoots; nothing to report (at least, not yet…).

I usually do my longer more serious, introspective posts (which always give me the stomach-turning feeling that they’ll start up a shitstorm) at the end of the year.

2017 has certainly provided a bit of food for thought in the wake of this year’s eruption of sexual harassment scandals (ranging from rape and other sex acts, to unwanted physical contact, to verbal harassment), going back decades.

I could easily add my name to the #metoo hashtag (if I used Twitter), but I’d have to add it to a #I_am_hardly_blameless_myself hashtag as well.

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#I_am_hardly_blameless_myself
To put it briefly, learning to socialise was a steep catch-up learning curve in my first year at university, and I found myself socially ostracised more than once because I had no idea what I was doing wrong (but I certainly knew that I was doing something wrong). Maybe I had a toxic personality; maybe it was extreme social immaturity. Whatever it was, if I could go back in time, I’d happily strangle my 17-year-old self and damn the time paradoxes.

Have I ever creeped women out? For certain (I had enough self-awareness to realise that my teenage attempts at flirting were about as welcome as being chatted up by Gollum). Have I ever said inappropriate things? Yes (thankfully I was able to channel these impulses into improv comedy instead). Have I ever touched a woman inappropriately? I’m sure I probably did – but I’m also sure that was the extent of it, though. It’s not like I was a rampant sex pest in the style of Pepé Le Pew; just an annoying teenage shit.

On meeting up with one of my university friends a couple of years back, she assured me that whatever I said or did (that had me twitching and gibbering to myself years or decades later with embarrassing memories) “At least you apologised.”

What changed? I learnt not to be a dick, through a process of trial and error, I guess. A year or two of solo travelling helped as well – going around the world with nothing more than you can physically carry means you have to sharpen your social skills pretty damn quick. I’d say I was in my early-to-mid-twenties before I was an acceptably functioning member of civilised society.

What about #metoo then?
It was also at university that I started crossdressing, and I’ve already written about the great fun I had.

But there were plenty of moments when guys – and it was only the guys – creeped me out: trying to lift my skirt at parties (several times – what were they hoping to see?); inviting me to sit on their laps (certainly not, if it’s going to feel like you have three knees); once asking if I ‘wanted to be fucked like a bitch’ (by a total stranger at a party – I assume he’s had a lifetime of going home alone at night); grabbed from behind and dry humped (three occasions); and then, of course, there was the whole ‘if a man is dressed as a woman then it must be funny’ thing to get over. I prefer to dwell on the good stuff that happened instead (all of these were in the late 1990s, so pre-Twist days).

More recently, however, sometimes people (men, women, or otherwise) grab or touch Twist (or ask bizarre questions) and I either don’t mind at all, or I don’t let it bother me.

Sometimes it’s just curiosity (“Are those tits real?” *poke* – “Would you really have done that if you thought they were?”); sometimes it’s just for fun (I tried very hard not to dissolve into giggles whilst being motorboated at a party once); hugs and touches are perfectly okay too (I’m not much of a huggy-touchy person myself but I won’t ever turn them down).

Some things are okay when I feel safe and it’s among friends. As for how other people might react to those same things, your mileage may vary.

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This was bloody funny actually. 😀

So, is there anything I can conclude?
I can only speak for myself here: feeling sexually harassed was something I felt more acutely when I was younger, and more unsure of myself, and low-status. And it only ever happened when I was cross-dressed, so – and it’s important to note this – it’s not like I had to face this sort of thing all the time.

These days, as Twist, I’m a big girl and I can take a lot, and I’d let someone know if they’d gone too far.

What’s my take on all the sexual harassment scandals? These are only my current thoughts, and they may or may not change (and bear in mind that explanations are not excuses):

  • If a guy says they can’t remember something they did years ago, it’s probably true.
    But – in my last year on university, a woman I met with some of my friends said I’d made a highly inappropriate remark to her way back in my first year. I had no memory of this at all, but I said that it sounded like the sort of thing I would’ve said, and apologised to her for it. If you can recognise you’ve screwed up, it seems like the least you can do.
  • Some guys have no idea they’re doing something wrong.
    Maybe it’s immaturity; maybe they can’t pick up on social cues; maybe they’re used to a touchy-feely or bantering culture (I always blame things on stupidity before I blame them on malice). I suspect a lot of people don’t realise that others won’t think the same way they do – while guys might be flattered or amused by (sexual) attention, it doesn’t mean women will be flattered or amused by the same sort of attention (depends on the person, I suppose?). Never underestimate how stupid young men can be.
  • Mixing sexual relationships with work relationships sounds bloody dangerous at the best of times.
  • Age-wise, if you want to avoid being skeevy, a neat rule of thumb I heard is:
    don’t date anyone who is younger than [half-your-age, plus seven years]. Even better, don’t blithely assume that you’re date-able.
  • Anyone shown to have abused their high status deserves to be publicly brought down. Justice must be seen to be done, and nobody is above the law.
  • Guilt and shame work best when they’re self-inflicted. Unfortunately, some people have egos too big for this to work, and need the evidence of their wrongdoing screamed at them from a thousand directions.
  • Lastly, and probably least popularly, there is a damn good reason why the law has presumption of innocence. Mob justice is ugly, fickle, hasty and forgetful, and it can turn against the innocent as well as the guilty, no matter if we like them or not. (The two links in this bullet point give different views on the matter; I recommend reading both.)

I’m a long-term optimist. It’s not going to be quick; it’s not going to be an even improvement, everywhere, for everyone – but things will improve.

Also: I’m really fucking glad I went through my teens before social media was invented.

*

I have a few Twist things planned for 2018 (if I can summon up the courage), and I still have a backlog of photos to add to the gallery.

More blogging later! 🙂

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….