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Dressing up, dressing down

  • Posted on November 1, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Last night was Halloween: all hallows (saints) eve, originally for remembering the saintly dead. It has gone from a remembering or an honouring, to a commercial amalgam of all kinds of festival elements and large-scale imports of US activities, that currently is dishonouring of the dead and, increasingly, dishonouring of the living. The misuse of cultural identities in fancy dress has now extended to parody of disability and mental illness.

I would rather go with Samhain as it was (elements came into Halloween in order to Christianise it, including moving the date of All Saints Day). It is still useful to recognise that the old dies so that the new can come, revitalised. And even that the dead stays away. We may not doubt it, and ensure it with ritual, but being actively reminded of the cyclical nature of things in my opinion is good. This year in the UK the autumn season is blurring summer long past its expected end; the year is refusing to die in some ways. Shopping in shirtsleeves in November doesn’t seem quite right, and bees and butterflies are still around. The interwoven cycles that depend on the seasons and their timing will be distorted, and some dependencies of one species on another will break down as expected food sources aren’t there later.

A few weeks ago it did get chilly, and I swapped around my wardrobe and seasonal suitcase, pulling out the warmer clothes. There’s something of old friends about this: clothes you haven’t seen for a good six months. But outside my window, just as I feel uncertain about what to wear, the trees are still very green, some only just starting to turn yellow. They are just going with the flow: if the sunshine and rain are both there, it’s leaf time. Dressing down for winter will come, and I will dress up.

What is it with dressing up, though

I have rarely been to fancy dress parties, including Halloween. Quite apart from the gore and horror, I actually don’t like doing it! Ironic, surely? One of the big not-so-secret things about Halloween in the USA, is the occasion it has long provided for people to wear clothes of the ‘opposite’ gender. For some it may be opposite, but for people with unanswered gender identity questions, or who are closeted transgender, it is a chance to be hidden in plain sight, especially if they do it rather well. A friend showed me a photograph of his great grandfather, and friend who is dressed as a woman in a European national costume. The friend looks so completely natural that we have our doubts as to whether this is indeed just fancy dress. I included a poem Found Images in my first collection Realisations, on this theme some time ago.

And then so many trans* people can remember their earliest days of shucking around in their mother’s high heels, wearing girls’ things from the dressing up box. I did, a bit. And yet for some reason I always found dressing up (when other people were around) hugely embarrassing. Even the thought of it made me feel awkward. My wife might speak about dressing up as meaning dolled up, glad rags and all that. Of course, if you aren’t about to get your best dress out, there isn’t a lot you can do. Suit? Loud tie? Least-worn shirt that isn’t just a stripe? The jumper you would never wear for work?

The first time you fully dress to go out (or even share time with someone else) in clothes not of your assigned/presumed gender you can feel a mess of mixed feelings. Are you doing it inconspicuously; are you prepared to be noticed; are you comfortable? Because for sure you are making a statement and opening yourself up to anything from surprise to ridicule. If dressing up is already a hugely embarrassing thing anyway, allowing yourself to feel natural can be very hard. But what are you doing?

I can’t remember how many times I trotted out: ‘They aren’t women’s clothes, they’re my clothes!’ I was not dressing up at all, I was just wearing what felt right. My very first description to my wife, the day she returned after a weekend away, during which I had bought and worn women’s (outer) clothes for the first time, was simply: ‘it just felt perfect’. Fateful words.

Over the following two years, I felt too painfully close to the world of cross-dressing (transvestism), which I came to see clearly was not the right description for me. It was a curiosity for me that some would go to events dressed in male clothes, where ‘dressing facilities’ were available. They would socialise in clothes of their preference, then change and return home. Being dressed ‘as a woman’ was not dressing up (maybe sounding too child-like) but simply ‘dressing’. For me, that all seemed very sad, and I could never be comfortable with ‘dressing’ any more than I could with ‘dressing up’. Surely, all my clothes were simply my clothes.

What is it with dressing down?

More verbal ambiguity in English! Dress-down Friday is a workplace idiom (again from the US and Canada) meaning to go to work casual, instead of in business attire. It’s a relaxation to make people feel more comfortable and less formal. A dressing-down, on the other hand, is a reprimand of military origin, where insignia of rank are stripped off as punishment and demotion.

Being myself was never a matter of dressing up, fancy dress, or feminising. It was just a matter of getting used to clothes with more variety, more shape and style, more colour and pattern, and that felt right. But I wrote here long ago about how female to male transition increases the honours, whereas male to female transition is a removal of status, privilege and rank. So if anything my ‘dressing up’ was ‘dressing down’, even though it increased my own comfort enormously. My style at work was not executive (a woman dressing ‘up’ to look as important as a man) nor dressing down (jeans and tees), because I had no inclination to look like a man in either direction. I wanted actively to look different to how I was before, and so for three years I almost never wore trousers or jeans. And to be honest, female-cut jeans can be awkward!

Dressed up? Dressed down? Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York … and when he was only halfway … he was neither.

There are huge quandaries for people in transitioning. Your sense of identity is changing on the inside, and may not settle for some time. You may be gender queer, or androgynous – or anything. Are clothes too certain a statement, or not certain enough? Don’t go buying an expensive dress if you soon decide you are trans-butch! But people do worry about presenting at a gender identity clinic saying they are female, but dressed in jeans and jumper. Are you really full-time? Full-time what?

The bottom line is that for other people seeing you around, your clothes signify something, like feathers on a bird: brown=female, colourful=male (yes, birds are largely the other way round!). This should not mean, however, that you have to dress to impress. ‘Today I am dressed as a woman dressed as a man!’ should be OK, and in fact you might feel perfectly female in a suit, or in jeans and tee. But it seems that even ordinary clothes are a form of dressing up to communicate. I’m in this party.

Finding a balance

This morning there will be people around here who are exhilarated by cross-dressing on Halloween. This morning there will be wives, partners and friends breathing a sigh of relief that the clothes have gone away, and that the clear pleasure shown last night need not be seen again for some time. Grayson Perry is OK because Grayson/Claire is a flamboyant artist. Drag is OK because it’s mainly part of flamboyant gay culture. It’s dressing up. But please, please don’t tell me that what you did last night was not really dressing up at all.

Clothes define no-one, and they don’t classify anyone. They don’t give you an identity and they don’t change you. You change them. Some of us need to work with clothes freely, in order to find what really fits. Not to add insignia or status, but to dress down to what is really comfortable. This changes, and sometimes we need to be assertive (all the times I was the only woman in the room wearing a skirt) and sometimes we need to be clear. But it is for no-one else to use your clothes to define or categorise you either. Maybe you need to be smart and presentable for work, maybe you want to do fancy dress (but please think about why you are choosing what may be a parody of someone else’s life), maybe you want to be safe and practical. Be prepared to change as well, and to allow clothes to express you, not define you, because who and what you are is your business.

I objected a year ago to wearing a sexist brass band uniform, stood by my principles, and left. At the time, a compromise would have damaged my sense of identity. The first thing I did after surgery? I bought trousers; and now I wear trousers and jeans quite a lot. They fit, not just physically, but mentally too, and I am never mistaken for wearing them.

Dressing up? Dressing down? I just get up in the morning and get dressed. And I do have a posh frock or two, ready for those still-hoped-for special occasions with someone special. Ah well!

Found images

  • Posted on November 1, 2014 at 12:49 pm

The sepia girl stares expressionless,
shuffled from the pack of brown mottled paper
in crisp white lace dress and Sunday shoes.
She’s young, innocent and a long time ago –
it’s the camera that says she cannot smile.
I imagine her jumping up and running free.

Next a military man, too young to fight,
a smaller square, a formal pose –
maybe the one before leaving on campaign.
He’s innocent too, unsmiling but proud
in uniform undisturbed by war.
I imagine him standing up and marching away.

Now a grey-tone picture of an older man,
and he is grey too, gravity of age, no smile
in suit and tie, tall starched collar, cane.
Nothing in his stiff upper lip betrays his life –
his wars and wages pushed it deep inside.
I imagine him staying there when all have left.

‘That’s your great grandfather’, she called.
‘All of them. Yes, I know – the dress.
They all did. Such pretty boys that
went to war, to colonies, to banks –
trading British manliness for all their lives.
I imagine they forgot their growing days.’

‘I wouldn’t look at those’, she called.
‘Erotica is as old as the camera – or paint!’
The tiny prints scatter on the table,
ivory nudes, draped in studios –
nature for the discerning gentleman.
I notice one is different, lift it up.

There’s a coy sepia smile in this one,
unblemished by time, rarely seen by light.
In elegant gown, jewels, upright, proud –
and innocent too. On this rare occasion
inside out, this one true picture of him.
I imagine he remembered the lacy dress.

 

2012 © Andie Davidson

Passing: please be honest

  • Posted on August 25, 2014 at 10:03 am

As one who has been there, please take this as sound advice, not as criticism. I too stood behind my own front door wondering what would happen if I opened it and walked down the street. I too spent ages doing my make-up, trying to work out when too much was more obvious than not enough. In the shops, I too had to scan the skirts racks dressed as a man. I too walked the same direction of the traffic to avoid passengers’s eyes. I too took selfies and doubted myself, sat in the back corner of cafés and still got noticed.

I too played the passing game.

This week, just to show everyone I was doing fine after surgery, I quickly popped a picture of myself wearing flowery trousers, on Facebook. It wasn’t to invite or ask anything, just to say I’m OK. 60 ‘likes’ later, I thought: that’s nice!

And this week I dropped out of a transgender group on Facebook because I’d had enough of the constant parade of cellphone selfies (cellfies?), either in mirrors or at arm’s length, all captioned: ‘Do I pass?’. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the feelings, no, it’s the intended kindnesses that are unhelpful and disingenuous.

‘You look gorgeous, hun!’ can be true, but only in exceptional cases. What we really want to say to each other at this stage is, ‘Well done for trying, chin up.’ What we need to really say, is to share some tips on getting past the dead giveaways. We need to point out the obvious that we’d prefer went away, and tread an honest line between the knock-backs and the sound advice. This week I did read one honest and kind response, extensive and helpful.

What I really want to say is, don’t tell someone they are ‘passing’ when they clearly are not, because they have some things to urgently learn. It does them no favours to have a false impression, so is not a kindness at all. This is a very practical business, not a bundle of fun, however liberating owning your own gender feels.

I’ve written this from the MTF point of view, because to keep writing the alternative FTM in can be unreadable, and this is the way round I am most familiar with. But much applies both ways; don’t feel slighted.

Passing

Passing is a poor term that is supposed to mean ‘convincing in the gender role intended’. It is important, because you’re never going to gain confidence if everyone thinks you look, sound or behave like a man when you’re trying to live as a woman. If you are ever going to gain confidence in your gender, whatever it is, then looking like you’re in disguise, rather than natural, will not help. This is not to reinforce the binary model of gender, but to say that if you are trying not to stick out, do try to blend in. You will only do this through keen observation, not of other trans people, but cis people.

If you hold yourself as a man and dress as a woman, you will stand out. If you walk as a man, or gesture as a man, you will stand out. If your clothes feel unnatural to you, or if you dress inappropriately for your age or your social setting, you will stand out. If you speak (verbalise) like a man, and make no attempt to modulate your voice or change pitch at all, you will stand out. It’s a lot to do all at once, so go and use the Internet, scour YouTube, and practice out of public gaze until you understand what it takes. Find a cis friend or a trans friend prepared to weather your storms and need for attention, but only if they are prepared also to be honest.

And understand this: you will not be great when you start, you will need to grow a thicker skin, but that one day you will look back and cringe – because you are no longer like when you began. We are not gorgeous, hun, we are making do, trying our best. But we need the truth, matched by the determination to get each new thing right. And in the end a selfie on Facebook will not be about passing, but about looking happy and natural.

The biggest lesson to learn is that when you have tried to blend in, nothing makes so much a single difference as your own confidence. You will probably never be a paradigm of the femininity you have in mind (though you might), but that does not mean you can’t be just like a lot of other women your age. They are not all idealised magazine models either. But you can tell they are comfortable in their own skins and clothes. That is what you are aiming for first.

I see ‘passing’ much as I see transition: it is a process that you think about at the beginning and forget about at the end.

What about non-blenders?

This is an equally important perspective: those who almost belligerently assert their right to look different, even odd: ‘I am being true to myself, I don’t care what people think, why should I?’

Maybe for you this is important, at least for now, and indeed you have every right to walk safely, looking however you like. Attacks on goth-attired youngsters are not unknown, just as on any LGBT person. If being different is important to you, please just look out for yourself and play safe in places where violent and/or drunk people have been known to attack. No, it isn’t fair or right: the street is as much yours as anyone’s. No attack or abuse is your fault; just recognise things as they are, when you need to be safe – and report all hate crime, if not for you, for the next person.

But also recognise that not all of us are like this. Many of us going through transition do go through the ‘exciting phase’ – after all being set free feels pretty damn good. But to get on with life, whether it’s working, entertainment, shopping, meeting up with friends or whatever, we want to ‘arrive’, by which I mean becoming naturalised in our felt gender. For us, going out with friends who are non-blenders can make us very self-conscious. It isn’t transphobia, it’s just running counter to what we’re trying to achieve. We might be the most supportive person you’ve ever met, but that doesn’t mean we want to be blatantly outed by association. If we support you, try also to support us, and if that means trying harder, being more careful, blending (you may think it’s compromising), then at least think about your impact on other trans people.

But this is a digression: ‘passing’ means blending, not asserting our right to be immune from opinion. Some is unavoidable. Some of us do not want specifically male or female identification because we’re non-binary. People of all kinds and ages encounter problems when others can’t tell what we are. But this is not what I’m writing about here. Uncertainty is one thing, and society has to get over it. Being a non-blender is your choice, and all I’m saying, non-judgementally, is that standing out affects blending trans people too.

What about non-transitioners?

It is perfectly legitimate to see yourself as fluid or dual gender. Just because I have transitioned into what I guess is a binary way of life, does not mean that I have forgotten my early earnest assertions to be two-spirit, both in one person. If this is you, then the same applies. If you want to just live a natural blended existence, your aim is to feel comfortable in your own skin. It might be you like wearing a pink tutu at Sparkle, but just don’t expect not to get stared at for wearing a mini skirt and showing your stocking tops, in a too-shiny synthetic wig in the city on a Tuesday afternoon. If being dual gender is you, then why stand out in the female part, when you don’t stand out in the male part? If you like the attention and stand out in both, then feel free, but don’t protest society’s raised eyebrows. Maybe one day we shall embrace flamboyant lifestyles wholeheartedly, and maybe you can be an agent for change, but if you do not want to, as above, observe keenly, YouTube, practice and learn what it is to live and move as your fellow-gender friends and groups.

If non-transitioning is your holding-place, while you work out what you need to do, perhaps facing family problems, breakups and so on, you may find critical break points. Do you go for that permanent laser treatment on your face? Do you get your ears pierced? Do you pluck your eyebrows? Remove the hair on your body or legs? Or even grow your hair out? Only you can decide, but recognise that in these times of compromise you will need workarounds.

Most of all, this is a time to be working out just how far this will need to go, and if you don’t get it right enough to avoid stares, comments or worse, it will ruin the confidence you need to go the distance, or make a decisive change. Going ‘full-time’ without confidence is a psychological disaster. If you row your ducks up: name change, clothes to the charity shop, all your documents in order, gender clinic, counselling, support groups, etc., you need to roll over quickly and with certainty. Then is not the time for people to be telling you you’ll never make it, because you look ‘like a man in a dress’. And even if you have a fair idea that this is what they’re thinking but not saying to your face, it will make the whole process anything up to and including unbearable.

If you are not intending to put yourself through this kind of trauma, don’t do it to anyone else by suggesting they are ready and presentable when they are not.

Honesty, please

Honesty is not cruel, if it is constructive. Don’t tell someone they look crap, tell them too much pink doesn’t work on it’s own, try balancing it with a bit of grey. Tell them to learn to hold their head up and smile. Tell them about better foundation, or pan-sticks, tell them to moderate the eyeshadow, hint with mascara rather than plastering it. Tell them to brush their hair the other way, or to have it cut to the shape of their face. Tell them that to alleviate a square jaw, wear a lower, rounded neckline. Tell them that a really nice necklace is more distracting of an adam’s apple than a black polo neck, or that a lower heel would be really elegant.

Tell them things that have worked for you, point them to websites that help you learn to change your voice, or walk differently. Tell them that fun as those tights are, women their age tend not to wear them to work. Tell them that their body shape can’t do stripes, or to practice a gentler smile, a head tilt. Tell them what you have found to be different about the way that women speak, discuss, ask in shops, and gesture. Tell them how you have learned to observe, where has been better to go when in the learning phases, tips on discrete behaviour on public transport.

Tell them all these things, because that’s how we get there in the end. But don’t think it’s a kindness just to add your ‘gorgeous, hun’ to the Facebook accolades.

This is confidence game, not a pageant, and it’s hard work feeling natural. You grew up learning to imitate other boys and men so that you would fit in. There is a lot of undoing to do. You didn’t copy the girls’ mannerisms; they were doing it to fit in with each other too. Natural behaviours and fitting in only come with confidence, and the only confidence worth having is that based on honest self-appraisal and learning the work-arounds for the things you can’t change.

It isn’t about ‘passing’, it’s about confidently being yourself, with a bit of (honest) help from your friends. Don’t ask if you’re passing, ask what the most immediate giveaways are, and take it on the nose.

Steam radio and my tranny experience

  • Posted on May 4, 2013 at 9:14 pm
valve radio

I alluded in a previous blog (Risk of shock) to the joys of valve radios, amplifiers and similar. Not quite the kind that you toasted marshmallows on, and I remember ‘acorn valves’, which were the first step in miniaturisation. They were easy. If they glowed, they were probably working, and if the wax capacitors around them were mere blobs, something had gone wrong. Of course in those days they took time to warm up: no instant sound. A bit like my digital TV and radio really … I remember it well But I also remember buying my first, small white…

What’s dis for ’ere?

  • Posted on April 6, 2012 at 9:32 am
Even early on in realising that being trans was just the way things were, I never had a problem telling people and trying to explain. For all the rudeness it will never get better unless we also inform.

He wasn’t stupid.
He just misheard in innocence.
I tried to explain my skirt but he stared
at my handbag beside his beer.
What’s dis for, ’ere?
That’s my handbag, I said.
It goes with my gender.
But you’re a bloke, yeah?
Well, yes and no.
(Do I look like one, I mean, really?)
It’s just that when you say man or woman
you leave no space in between.
And that’s where I am.
Yeah, but I could tell,
so why do you do it?

Because it just feels right.
Do you like that t-shirt?
I pointed to the alcoholic brand.
He laughed.
Yeah, that’s why I’m ’ere!
Why am I here?
I sat with him because he jeered.
He wanted friends to know
he was the quick and clever
spotter of trannies on the street.
I could never wear a shirt like that.
Would your girlfriend?
Nah, it’s all flowers and stuff for ’er.
But you wouldn’t mind?
S’pose it would be cool.
And go with her jeans?
Well, yeah, but that’s dif’rent innit?
So we’re all a bit different really
and girls can be boys?
Yeah, but not the other way round,
I mean, it’s, well, girly.

And I don’t feel laddish;
it’s not what’s inside me, so
this is what you see.
Like I said, it’s ‘dys-phor-ia’,
gender dysphoria:
I’m just uncomfortable as a man.
Still don’t understand, mate.
No, he never will.
I take my bag and smile.
Maybe I should have given him a miss.

2011©Andie Davidson

This and other poems on transgender are in my collection from Bramley Press: Realisations