Clothes that clash

*UPDATE, 18th November 2014: well, this post has certainly lived up to its name!
It’s caused a few (civilised!) disagreements with my friends, on the blog and on Facebook; some agree with me on some things, others not. Where I think I should clarify things (based on feedback), I’ll add new text with an asterisk.

This rather misses an important point about being compelled to wear (or not to wear) certain clothes...

This rather misses an important point about being compelled to wear (or not to wear) certain clothes… [update 26 Aug 2016] see The Ex Muslim for reasons why.

I may not like what you wear, but I’ll defend to the death your right to wear it.
(apologies to Voltaire!)

I have, in past blog posts, argued that if we intend to use our clothes to create an impression, then that’s precisely the impression we create. However, sometimes other people will make inferences about you, based on what you wear, and you have no control over this, even if they are utterly mistaken. Which is a bit of a pain.

Some will go further, and proscribe certain clothing – not on grounds of safety or practicality, nor for the sake of uniforms or ‘fitting in’, but morality. Now if this is because they are running a private business, then I’d say “their house, their rules” and best of luck to them. If we don’t like it, we can take our business elsewhere.

Visitors to St Peter's should not wear orange mini-dresses or purple rowing bibs. I think.

Visitors to St Peter’s should not wear orange mini-dresses or purple rowing bibs. I think.

Where I do have a problem is when people try to police clothing choices on the grounds of ‘public morality‘ (which is the polite way of saying ‘the most uptight members of society will impose restrictions on the rest of us’, having failed to learn that prohibitions never work.)

For example, Iran and North Korea require men to have fucking awful hairstyles, and the Taliban required men to grow beards. The Jewish Tzniut requires žsleeves to cover the elbows and shirts to cover the collarbone, and skirts to cover the knees. žSome women also avoid overly eye-catching colours, especially bright red; strict Jewish law requires married women to cover their hair. Presumably because women’s hair is made of magic and beams out lust rays to men?

In some parts of the world, men wear long flowing garments and cover their hair. So, too, did women (traditionally). But that didn't go far enough for some tastes, and now they are compelled to dress like ninjas...

In some parts of the world, men wear long flowing garments and cover their hair. So, too, did women (traditionally). But that didn’t go far enough for some tastes, and now they are compelled to dress like ninjas…

Restrictions on women’s clothing (among much else) is apparent in those countries which made strict interpretations of Islam into public policy. Some say the veil‘s a religious thing, some say it’s cultural; some women support it, some women protest it.

Regardless, it’s an item from the feminine wardrobe I would be perfectly happy to go without. But as much as I might loathe the veil and everything I think it stands for – I regard it as insulting and demeaning to men and women alike – I would never want it banned. *(It could be counterproductive, limiting the freedom of veiled women even to go outdoors – if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s unintended consequences; and laws used to ban things you dislike might also be used to ban things you do like, too.)

If, as a cross-dresser, I want to argue that I should be allowed to wear whatever I like, then the same must apply to anyone, even if I don’t like their choices. I do not believe people should be compelled to choose or refrain from their clothing choices.

Of course, there doesn’t have to be a law that compels people to dress a certain way (or not). This month’s (November 2014) Twitter ephemera is the story about the scientist in Rosetta Space Mission who wore a kitsch t-shirt whilst waiting for the Philae probe to land. An observer inferred from the man’s clothing that he was sexist and this was symptomatic of a community hostile to women.

This opinion hit the internet and many thousands of people decided it must be true. But it wasn’t: his friend, a seamstress called Elly Prizeman made the t-shirt for his birthday. As she says herself, there was no message. The t-shirt is not symptomatic of sexist community.

Sexualisation is in the eye of the beholder?

Sexualisation is in the eye of the beholder?

*The t-shirt in question featured cartoon women in tight or skimpy clothing, all wielding guns. Is that an example of sexualised imagery? From my perspective, I’ve run about in tight or skimpy clothing wielding toy guns, and I didn’t do it because I thought I’d look sexy; I did it because I thought I’d look cool.

*As for the scientist, I have no reason to think that he thought he was representing anyone but himself. The first I saw of him, he was showing off his probe tattoo on live international TV/streams. I would’ve hoped for discussion about his part in the science team. This was way before I even gave his shirt even a first thought (watching on a low-res, small display). Before I saw the shirt, I thought he was being unprofessional and drawing attention to himself rather than the mission. At least he apologised.

*Now this is just my preference here, but: just as a reporter shouldn’t be talking about the clothing/hair/makeup choices of a US Secretary of State, rather than foreign policy (for example), reporters shouldn’t be paying attention to the body art or dodgy clothing choices of a comet probe scientist. IMHO, of course. And yes, people should pay no more attention to women’s appearance than they do to men’s.

*As for the issue of women being under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths), it might’ve been more instructive to take a screenshot of the Rosetta control room, showing the ratio of men and women present. I think this would have made the point about women’s under-representation in STEM work far better (on the day, I think I spotted only two women). But the internet ran with a tacky shirt instead – not the best target, perhaps?

But reading your own messages in a garish t-shirt is trivial, and not just because of the ground-breaking space mission it took attention from. There are far more serious problems with the concept of reading messages in clothing.

For example, in a 1977 Wisconsin rape case, the judge considered the sixteen year old complainant’s clothing and sentenced the defendant to probation. The judge called for women to “stop teasing” and for a “restoration of modesty in dress.” Clothing was admissable evidence in Alabama, Georgia and Florida in the 1980s and 1990s, used to undermine a victim’s credibility. In February 2011, Manitoba judge Robert Dewar claimed a rape victim “was asking for it”, which ultimately prompted Slutwalks in cities around the world.

Attitudes in the UK were similar. It took until 2009 before plans were introduced for judges to issue instructions to rape trial juries to ignore common misconceptions about rape, including the victim’s mode of dress.

Our clothing choices are merely symptomatic of our personal tastes, and nobody should assume knowledge about us that they don’t have.

This is also true for cross-dressing. You cannot make assumptions about a man in a skirt beyond the fact he evidently wanted to put it on and probably thought he’d look or feel good wearing it.

Historically, cross-dressing was banned in a number of places (a brief history of such laws in the USA can be found here). I’d far rather live in a culture which, by law, allows freedom of expression.

It can only be a good thing, any time society recognises that cross-dressing is harmless, and not immoral – in fact, it is more moral to allow it (but, again, not to compel it).

There are all sorts of reasons why men cross-dress, but observers will come up with their own explanations instead, and this will probably have very little to do with the truth.

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*Why do we wear what we wear?

*I think a distinction needs to be drawn between ‘external compulsion’ (law, culture, religion) and ‘internal compulsion’ (wanting to wear something because you think it looks/feels good). I’m simply arguing against the ‘external compulsion’ and went for the most obvious examples. I’ll deal with ‘internal’ ones in another post, soon.

*I cannot presume to know why someone wears what they do; if they say they’re happy to wear it, I must assume that’s true.

*Do I judge people by their clothes? Hell, yeah… but that doesn’t mean 1) that I’m right, nor 2) that I should.

“My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.”
– Eve Ensler

Keeping up with modern life and reality

Why are some people fine with cross-dressing (and ‘alternate lifestyles’ generally), while others freak out at the idea? Just what is wrong with these poor souls who can’t accept it?

The difference between the two mindsets became apparent in the reactions to the  2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner, Conchita Wurst (the transgender stage name of Tom Neuwirth). Described by mainstream media as a ‘drag act’, Conchita is perhaps better described as an example of genderfuck  – and certainly not transexual, like previous Eurovision winner, Dana International.

It seems highly likely that Conchita was deliberately playing on people’s reactions (an excellent analysis here); in Conchita’s words,

“Over the years I tried to fit in, and I changed myself in every way you can imagine. I just wanted to be part of the game. And then I realised: I create the game.”

In other words, Conchita knew that, as the ‘bearded lady’ she’d be controversial; she was banking on it to raise her profile.

You’d think that for a competition with a substantial gay fanbase, and the appearance of transgender performers in previous years (like Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka in 2007), a bearded lady wouldn’t really have that much impact. But that would be to underestimate the forces of social conservatism. The voices raised against Conchita (and Verka, and Dana) include nationalists and religious leaders, tinged with xenophobia and homophobia; a perfect storm of in-group loyalty, out-group hatred and moral disgust.

The Orthodox Church has spoken out against bearded men wearing dresses. Without any sense of self-awareness or irony, it seems.

The Orthodox Church has spoken out against bearded men wearing dresses. Without any sense of self-awareness or irony, it seems. Don’t they look happy, though?

I suppose a lot of this stems from thinking that things were better in the past – specifically when you were a child and had a simple understanding of the world; and that as you get older (and in theory develop a more realistic understanding of how the world works), anything new won’t seem as good as the stuff you’re used to.

This could work for information as well as culture and technology. Remember when the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto, saying we shouldn’t really call it a planet? There were some who, having been brought up to believe that Pluto was a planet, absolutely hated the idea that what they were taught as kids might have been wrong. And that was just astronomy.

Before we’re even born, people want to know if we’re going to be a boy or a girl – and depending on the plumbing of our lower abdomen, we’re raised according to one of two things, with all the stereotypes and expectations culture imposes on us. From the start, we’re conditioned to believe we are one thing or another, and that ‘the other’ is foreign to us. This ‘gender binary’ may seem instinctive, but I suspect it’s likely to be something reinforced by religious culture, based on a specific, desert-dwelling, bronze-age mythology that got a bit out of hand.

There are other cultures around the world and throughout history which recognised three, four or even five ‘genders’:

Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).

So, if you’ve been brought up to believe that there are only two types of people, and that anything else is ‘wrong’, it will be quite hard to accept the idea that gender is a range with male and female end-points, rather than a binary (find out where you lie on the range here!). It’s entirely possible that before we’re born our genitals can develop according to a male, female or intersex template, and our brains could develop in what might be called a more or less ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ way. Trying to force someone to be something they are not can’t turn out well.

I’d say that socially conservative types are keen to emphasise differences between people that support their agendas (sexual, racial, linguistic, national, etc), because they’ve been brought up to see the world a particular way and can’t bear the thought that their cherished notions from childhood might be mistaken. That’s why they freak out at anything that goes against them; they just don’t know how else to react. Do they deserve sympathy? Well, only if they don’t have the power to make life very difficult for anyone who doesn’t fit their simple worldview.

But that’s a topic for another blog post…

I'd like to caste people out of their blissful ignorance with a bit of tasty, tasty knowledge...

I’d like to cast people out of their blissful ignorance with a bit of tasty, tasty knowledge…

False advertising

“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”
~ Dita von Teese

As I’ve said before, I’m grateful to the people I know for being so accepting of what I do. I also understand that for many other cross-dressers and would-be cross-dressers, they encounter a lot of hostility. I think there’s a number of reasons for this, but I’ll summarise them as briefly as I can.

1) Religious “morality”

“A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai.”
~Deuteronomy 22:5

Well, Adonai can go screw himself. This is usually cited as the earliest example of a prohibition against cross-dressing, and although the intent of it is open to interpretation, the message is fairly clear. In case there was any doubt:

“It is in itself sinful for a woman to wear man’s clothes, or vice versa;
especially since this may be a cause of sensuous pleasure;
and it is expressly forbidden in the Law [Deuteronomy 22]”
~Thomas Aquinas

We can’t have people dressing up for fun, can we? That would be bad thing, surely! Once it was established that certain clothes are not for men (or women), and that cross-dressing was immoral, the concept could tap into people’s sense of disgust.

2) Thwarted expectations and cognitive dissonance

The idea that cross-dressing is immoral can lead to people being disgusted, but I suspect there’s more to it than that.  If someone (a straight man, say) sees what appears to be a woman he finds sexually attractive, and then discovers that the woman is actually a cross-dressing man, this can lead to cognitive dissonance: “How could I find a man attractive? I’m not gay!”

Depending on how easy-going the man is, he could shrug it off, or congratulate the cross-dresser on being convincing. On the other hand, if the man was brought up in a conservative, religious culture where homosexuality is to be feared, he will respond with resentment – the merest suggestion that he might be gay won’t result in a moment of quiet reflection of what it means to be attractive, but a knee-jerk response of anger.

3) “False advertising”

Why might someone be angry at cross-dressing? Well, if men assume that women dress for men’s benefit, advertising sexual availability (and we’re just getting started at dispelling that idea), then they are likely to think that men who dress in women’s clothing must want to have sex with men too, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of cross-dressers are straight. In this view, cross-dressers are trying to ‘trick’ innocent men.

“If someone wears a skirt, they must want  to be fucked by a man” is victim-blaming; it’s the myth people can tell themselves to avoid the realisation that what’s really going on is the thought, “If someone wears a skirt, men must want to fuck them.”

Changing attitudes won’t happen quickly, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen at all.

“It’s all about aesthetics, and it’s fuck-all to do with morality.”
~Renton, Trainspotting

I suppose I could have summarised this whole post with this image:

From Art of Trolling at Cheezburger