Reflecting on the relationships between crossdressing, trans and feminism started me thinking about how gold medal winning gymnast Dominick Cunningham suffered at the hands of school bullies who mocked him mercilessly for taking part in what they said was a girls’ sport. When some radical feminists turn their anger against a male-dominated society upon transgender girls they too demonstrate that bullying comes in many shapes, sizes and forms – it is a power play in which the victim is belittled and diminished by the aggressor who often defends their attacks by pointing towards some perceived defect in their victim: being bullied (the narrative goes) is actually the victim’s fault! Given the vulnerability of so many in the crossdressing, trans and feminism world this is outrageous.
I remember the feminist movement slowly but surely gaining ground in the 1970s. In those days there was a strong bond between feminists and the developing movement for gay recognition. Crossdressing, trans and feminism coming together was not even a dream at that stage. Even then, some radical feminists poured scorn on crossdressers, and a few lesbians were openly hostile to men dressed as women, asking how dare they think they understand the pain felt by women after a few moments of ridicule on the streets? This was the beginning of the crossdressing, trans and feminism debate.
If a child is excluded by others, made to feel unwelcome and left alone, we have no hesitation in seeing this as a form of bullying, just as hurtful as name-calling and likely to leave as many emotional scars. We have all seen enough bullying in the workplace to understand that it is not just children who are bullied. Not just those in the crossdressing, trans and feminism community. Feminists were responding to long years of masculine aggression towards and patronising contempt for them. So many men regarded women at best as nothing more than ornaments, and believed that if women worked they were certainly not entitled to equal pay for the same job. So alien to our crossdressing, trans and feminism sensitivities.
Feminists had a point and thankfully, before the world started to open up to crossdressing, trans and feminism, they began to make a difference. Made in Dagenham might be a film about the early struggle for equal pay, but it is more fact than fiction. And the struggle, as women in Glasgow know all too well as they strike against the local council for equal pay, is not yet over.
But radical feminism with its take on the crossdressing, trans and feminism debate is in a completely different league: men are regarded as privileged at birth and they do not lose this by dressing as women or even transitioning to female. Simply no room for shared interests within the crossdressing, trans and feminism domains. The radical feminist argument opposing unity across crossdressing, trans and feminism is essentially this: the quest for transgender rights is regarded as nothing less than an extension of masculine entitlement and the continuing subjugation of women at the hands of men. People who should be walking hand in hand are divided over crossdressing, trans and feminism.
Let’s just think about that assertion of not being able to understand what is to be a woman because of some supposed momentary hostility towards someone dressed as a woman. There is undoubtedly some negativity out there to crossdressing, trans and feminism. Dressing as a woman in public can arouse a variety of emotions in others: surprise, curiosity, embarrassment, and occasionally insults. But these kind of reactions are not necessarily directed just towards those who cross dress. People stare. Yes, we know our mothers told us it is rude to do so. But we can and do stare at the unusual or the remarkable. A very tall person, especially if a woman, just as a very short man or woman can attract attention. A pram carrying triplets is always a source of wonder. When Grayson Perry, the celebrated artist, wears a flamboyant dress, he purposefully sets out to capture our attention. When punks first emerged on the streets of London, the deliberate discordance of their appearance demanded our attention. When Caitlin Jenner appeared on the front page of Vanity Fair, she captivated us with her wonderful crossdressing, trans and feminism stand. And three cheers for her standing out against the increasing negativity towards crossdressing, trans and feminism in the US and elsewhere.
Transgender rights within the crossdressing, trans and feminism arena are not really about appearance as such. They are founded upon a simple claim: that it is wrong to treat people negatively because of the person they happen to be – disabled, black, and clever, ginger hair, gay, transsexual, crossdresser. The list goes on and on. But what has complicated the crossdressing, trans and feminism debate is the view that what makes someone a woman is just a matter of self-perception. There has been tremendous resistance to the idea that regarding or identifying oneself as this or that gender is more than enough proof enough of being that gender. So the crossdressing, trans and feminism stories emerge: for example, the man dressed as a man who walks into the ladies toilet because, he says, he identifies as a woman. This can provoke cognitive dissonance (being disconcerted by what appears unusual) on a grand scale: is this an example of a man behaving badly to attract attention or an actual predator?
It does not have the feel of someone who is a genuine member of our crossdressing, trans and feminism world. It is precisely this kind of example which is used not only by radical feminists but by those who despise the LGBT community and the very thought of crossdressing, transgender and feminism, saying amongst other things that our daughters deserve safe spaces and need to be protected from danger: ladies toilets and changing rooms should be out of bounds to anyone born male. So the fallacy of generalisation is employed: arguing from a single problematic case to the general. Because one dog is rabid, all dogs are rabid; because one man has raped a woman, all men are rapists: just silly, but people do argue in silly ways. Even from those involved in the crossdressing, trans and feminism debate who should know better.
Even so, there has to be something more than a bald crossdressing, trans and feminism assertion of identifying as a woman to underpin the claim that one is transgender. I will never be a prima ballerina just because I say I am one. Sheila Jeffreys in her book Gender Hurts: a feminist analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism always uses the male pronoun to refer to anyone born male who identifies in any way as female. Put simply: radical feminists – resisting the potential unity across crossdressing, trans and feminism – like Jeffreys do not accept the view that one may feel like a woman trapped inside a male body. Being a woman is a state which they say cannot be assumed by someone born as a male. There is no such thing, they often argue – contrary to the evidence of crossdressing, trans and feminism, as a female brain.
Rather, they say, biological women are conditioned by their lifelong experiences to feel ‘feminine’ – meaning in their terms: being submissive and desperate to be sexually attractive. Wanting to allow the woman within to emerge is no more, they say, than wishful and pointless thinking. But the weight of scientific evidence indicates that there are very real structural and functional differences between male and female brains. Good news for crossdressing, trans and feminism, because we may not always have the brain we are supposed to have!
Now in some ways keeping the crossdressing, trans and feminism debate on an intellectual level disguises the animosity which can and does underpin the antagonism between radical feminists and the movement for transgender rights. There has been aggression from both camps. Bullying comes in many forms and from many directions.
Crossdressing does not emerge as a momentary impulse, although the first experience may be impulsive. It is born of a long process typically starting when the crossdresser is young. Step by step the feelings grow stronger. Year after year, crossdressers are driven to dress. Often in the privacy of their own homes or hotel rooms. But sometimes more openly. The persistence of dressing is a vital point in the discussions about crossdressing, trans and feminism.
The dead giveaway though in the crossdressing, transgender and feminism debate is the use of a flawed approach in the feminist argument. Instead of focusing upon supposed weaknesses in the logic of the transgender rights, an attack is made upon the character of those who see themselves as transgender. Another crossdressing, trans and feminism fallacy: the use of ad hominem argument – attack the person not the idea. They cross dress, it is claimed by some – relying on questionable psychological foundations, because of an erotic compulsion, christened to give the idea more apparent force autogynephilia. Others dismiss crossdressers as exhibitionists. Whilst these characteristics may be true of some, it is certainly not true of all.
The fallacy of generalisation too is in action again against crossdressing, trans and feminism. And added to this is the not so subtle undertone of deviance: how can a man dressed as a woman be anything other than a pervert? This is the crossdressing, trans and feminism bully in full flow. And their arguments neglect the very real possibility that those born men may also have within them feminine determinants hard-wired into their brains and genetic composition which create the need to be a woman, even if (sadly) circumstances allow this only on a part-time basis.
When dressed as a woman, we can and do feel entirely different, supported by our crossdressing, transgender and feminism feelings. Remember Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks who said that when she came out of the dressing room wearing her pencil skirt and sweater, with bullet bra and girdle beneath, she moved differently, she felt altogether different. Empowered rather than diminished. We have all felt this when dressing – a massive contribution to the crossdressing, trans and feminism debate. We all use clothes to suit a variety of moods. And feeling sexy is just one of these. Many crossdressers have a strong sense of liberation. Others feel calm and at one with themselves. So many different emotions arise. There are no rules here … whether one is born male or female.
So, thinking about Dominick Cunningham’s fight to win through against the bullies: he did this by focusing on being the person he is and developing his potential as a gymnast, ignoring the taunts. When thinking about our place in the world of crossdressing, transgender and feminism, we can all learn from this. Being ourselves and developing our full potential as a woman is not always easy. But it is the only way to be true to our nature wherever we position ourselves on the crossdressing, trans and feminism spectrum.
I would really love to hear your thoughts and comments on this article. Thank you JJ x