When I hear stories of enraged parents like Nigel Rowe, 44, and his wife Sally, 42, who removed their six-year-old son from an unnamed school after a male classmate was allowed to attend the primary school in a dress, it makes me wonder what some parents must think about me.
A transgender classmate can be ignored, isolated and bullied. It’s harder to ignore your lecturer when, in a dress, tights, court shoes and makeup, he’s - actually I go by the she pronoun these days - stood at the front of the lecture theatre telling you what you need to know to pass the course.
What must those parents of those fresh-faced freshers - I teach anything up to 500 in a given session - be thinking? The Rowe’s would no doubt be horrified. As they might a school in Milwaukee that organised an ‘official cross-dressing day’ and polled a thousand parents on a number of statements. 44 per cent agreed with the statement ‘This is the latest form of perverse indoctrination from leftists ensconced in public education.’ 19 per cent agreed that ‘This extreme perversion borders on child abuse.’ However, while 7 per cent agreed with the statement ‘What a clever way to sow gender confusion in hundreds of children at once’, nobody agreed with the statement ‘It’s good to break down hetero-fascist biases.’
While I’m delighted to contribute to the breaking down of hetero-fascist biases, this was not the principal reason I started dressing to work as a woman. No doubt to the disappointment of colleagues in sociology, I never suffered from being born into the wrong gender. They’re unlikely to find sympathy in the reason I cross-dress. I dress as a woman because I like wearing women’s clothes. I like the look of the westernised feminine aesthetic. I like the feel of the silky fabrics on my body. I like the process of selecting outfits, matching up jewellery and shoes and putting on makeup.
I’ve wanted to dress this way for as long as I remember. But it took over forty years to pluck up the courage and dress openly in women’s clothes. The first day I did is one I’ll never forget and will never be allowed to forget.
It was on the 27 July 2015 that forces stirred inside of me and swept me off of my nylon sheathed feet, out of my front door, and dumped me into the middle of the campus, a point from which there was no return. Neither students nor colleagues were forewarned. To them and to strangers - many now will have read about me in the national press here in New Zealand, heard me talk on national radio and, probably goggle-eyed, seen pictures of me in the celebrity gossip magazine Woman’s Day - I will forever be the lecturer who dresses in women’s clothes. Good.
How, then, on that first day did those 100 or so students sitting patiently waiting for me to give a lecture on popular culture react? I’ve been asked this question many times. Let’s pause on that momentarily. From a certain perspective what I had on was fairly conventional. After all, where I live and in most westernised countries, practically half the population can dress in such a way without so much as raising an eyebrow. Yet on me these clothes are anything but conventional, stirring conversations across the university and beyond.
Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from our exposure to trans people in the media and stories about boys donning skirts as a protest because they’re not allowed to wear shorts, the stigma on male-to-female cross-dressing is as profound as it ever was. Evidence of this is all around you, in the workplace, on the train, in the supermarket. For I wager that in a typical day, maybe even in a typical year, in such situations you will not encounter a man in any item whatsoever that we think of as women’s. Not a dress, colourful makeup, tights or heels, nor even a simple bag for carrying items in called a handbag.
What is this barrier in men that prevents them, except when accompanied by an alibi, from adopting such items into their repertoire? You may now be thinking of men you have seen wearing such items. They are what we call exceptions that prove the rule: you remember them because they stand out like a sore thumb. I stand out like a sore thumb too, and not simply because I ‘dress as a woman’. It’s because I dress as a woman at times and in places that are not constructed for gender-bending frivolity. At work, in regular pubs, at the shopping mall, on the train, my appearance is out of joint from that of others.
My students didn’t react. Or at least there was no visible reaction. People stare when they don’t know you can see them. Everywhere I go and no matter how frequently I go there, people double take. So would I. My appearance causes others to think. They think twice about gender. And I’m happy to act as a vehicle to get people thinking. Because when you do think about it, when you think about how progressive we supposedly are in our attitudes towards sex, it’s frankly absurd that in this day and age a male in a dress elicits any response at all.
In other situations the most likely response is laughter. After all, what’s funnier than a man who dresses like a woman?! It’s a joke that’s survived the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Holocaust and the Benny Hill Show. The joke is not lost on billionaire prankster Sir Richard Branson. He declared himself a believer in fun who likes ‘making sure everyone laughs’ when, having lost a bet to a pal, served as an attendant on one of his flights ‘Wearing lipstick, false eyelashes and mascara … a sexy red skirt, fishnet stockings and high heels’.
A man who dresses as a woman is evidently a joke. It is as if by wearing a dress a man is deprived of the power he’s entitled to. The likes of Branson stage their dethronement from the patriarchal perch. They pose no threat to anyone. But when a male dresses openly in women’s clothes without offering up an alibi, and fully identifies with the style he adopts, she demonstrates that the provenance of male power is in symbols not in nature. Men have no entitlement to anything. Relationships that have lasted millennia and which people are evidently wedded to are called into question by men who affirm their femininity in these visible ways. But according to the Bible:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.
Deuteronomy 22: 5
The reason why people are now seemingly unfazed when a westernised woman wears clothing that a typical man wears but not the other way around, is because it’s men who are vulnerable and with something to lose. When dresses and lipstick no longer denote woman, when a handbag is just a bag, when ‘men in tights’ no longer elicit laughter and they are simply different expressions of style, then we can speak of gender neutral clothing: the notion of gendered clothing is rendered meaningless. In such a world, one far removed from the one we have all been brought up in, gone would be the pressure on men to ‘man up’. Gone would be those attendant ‘crises of masculinity’ and the violence issuing from them.
Men bare their teeth when their masculinity is called into question. A woman in trousers does not challenge patriarchy, the structural relations that undergird the gender divide: men in dresses do. By scrambling the signifiers of dress, so that people like myself can wear dresses and makeup without eliciting a stir, we are all liberated from the social constraints imposed on our bodies and that we impose on others.
So, yes, I will gladly sow gender confusion in kids. It’s my duty to.
At last I have a physical copy of my book. Now it's real. pic.twitter.com/Txb3BNqN3r— Ciara / Colin Cremin (@colincremin) September 8, 2017
Ciara aka Colin Cremin lectures in sociology at the University of Auckland. Her latest book, Man-Made Woman: The Dialectics of Cross-Dressing, is published with Pluto Press.