Wednesday 20 February 2013

In vision (3) - male bodies, female clothes.

First of all, the title needs some qualifying. The adjectives "male" and "female" above refer to the usual cultural understanding of these terms – which is not necessarily correct, however. Or at least not always correct.

Take clothing, for instance: If someone (e.g. Michael below) refuses the gendering of clothing, then their "female" clothes effectively cease to be female. They are merely clothes which the local culture and history regard as female. Morphology (i.e. the body) might seem more straightforward, but if the person (e.g. Alex below) inhabiting a "male" body is not in fact male, what sex is their body then?

The important point is that the maleness and femaleness of things, such as clothing or bodies, is not a constant but depends on context. That which one person regards as female, say, may not be seen as such by someone else. They may regard it as male (opposite), or androgynous (either), or non-binary (neither), or not gendered at all (not applicable).

With that out of the way, for the purpose of this post all the pictures below show "female" clothing on "male" bodies.

In a post (which I've quoted before) on his own blog, Andrew O'Neill writes: “I think I have a hardwired notion that it is desirable to be a girl. I also have over the years accepted and internalised the fact that I cannot be a girl. Therefore it is desirable to be like a girl, and because of our hugely gendered clothing split, the easiest way to achieve that is to wear the clothes of a girl. If I looked more feminine, I think I would probably act a lot more feminine, but as I don’t want to try and fail to pass for female, I ground what I do in an acknowledgement that I am male. The identity I project outwards is therefore feminine male, rather than woman. I want to dress as ME, not as something I am not.

“I want to dress as me, not as something I am not” – I can certainly relate to that. And as a fellow transvestite, these are the questions I find persistent: Why does "feminine" presentation necessitate a female-looking morphology? Why aren't male-looking bodies sufficient?

Having just asked those questions, I don't intend to try and answer them right now, if indeed they can be answered. Ultimately, these are personal questions requiring individual and personal answers. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest that the answers “it doesn't” and “they are” at least be considered as possibilities. To that end I'm going to show a few pictures of "female" clothes looking good on a "male" frame. The four "models" (Michael, Jasper, Andrew, Alex) identify quite differently – respectively, across the spectrum: freestyler, femme, transvestite, trans-female – but that's not actually relevant here. What is, is that all have developed a personal style that expresses who they are in an attractive and (potentially) inspiring way.

Have a look at the following photos and see what you think:






My thanks to Alex Drummond, Jasper Gregory, Andrew O'Neill and Michael Spookshow for permission (last November) to use their photographs.

Further material: Andrej Pejic, Liu Xianping, Stas Fedyanin. Either Andrej (who featured in ‘In vision (2)’) or Stas would have been an obvious choice for this post, but rather too obvious. We can't all look like supermodels. (And anyway, Andrej would look good in a bin liner.) The point is for us to look good with what we have, or, at the very least, make ourselves feel good – this, after all, being the real function of fashion.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Second Anniversary.

So, I got the day right this time and I've now been blogging for two years. Slightly fewer posts in the second year than in the first, but I'm keeping up with posting something every calendar month. Anyway, it's quality not quantity that counts, isn't it.

Looking at the stats again: The most viewed post is now ‘Sissies, Trannies, and Jeffreys’ (my critique of part of Sheila Jeffreys' book ‘Beauty and Misogyny’) which currently has over 1300 hits. The links thereto from Helen Boyd, Clarissa, and Ozy Frantz have helped I'm sure. Thanks to them for those, and especially to Helen for reading the piece through and suggesting an alteration in the penultimate paragraph.

More stats: Monthly pageviews peaked at 1747 in January, due to an influx of traffic from somewhere on Facebook to my second ‘what is femme?’ post. Presumably somebody likes Elizabeth Marston's definition quoted therein and has linked to it (annoyingly, I can't find out where). Other than that, it's been steadily over the 1000 mark since last March, even if the number of followers refuses to rise (which is also kind of annoying). The USA leads by Countries, approaching 10000 hits, with the UK in second place on about half that; then Canada, Australia and Germany. The highest referrer is still Google, followed by T-Central, and now Reddit has popped in ahead of Samantha.

My own favourite post this year was probably the Jeffreys one, because it took so long to write – and it's very well written, too, I think :) – though I like ‘More on "women's" clothes’ as well (the sequel to ‘Femme clothes, women's clothes’). Others, such as ‘Eight Questions’ (which I'm in process of revising for Our Different Journey) and the self-castigating ‘14th August 2012’, have been partly superseded by events, since I finally came out to my mother and sister a few weeks ago...

David Bowie released a new single and had an old Ziggy Stardust picture in the paper, and a conversation with my mother got on to gender, and I finally said something like “I'm a transvestite – you knew that, right?”. And no, she'd had no idea. My sister (who I let my mother tell when visiting two days later) had some idea – she'd seen a pair of size 14 jeans and all my books – but nothing exactly clear either. Bizarre! I'd thought the evidence was both blatant and conclusive. Apparently not. Anyway, they were both supportive, and interested (reading my blog from start to finish), and not at all judgmental. I felt exposed and vulnerable for a few days, but that was about it really. The things we worry about, eh?

Once again, my thanks to anyone who's read anything I've written, and especially to everyone who's taken the trouble to comment.

Here's to Year Three :)

Monday 4 February 2013

Terre Thaemlitz.

Last Saturday I was in the Tanks at Tate Modern for ‘Gender Talents’. From the preliminary blurb:

Gender Talents: A Special Address, convened by Carlos Motta, presents an international group of thinkers, activists, and artists in a symposium that uses the proposition or manifesto as a structuring device and starting point for discussion. These ‘special addresses’ will explore models and strategies that transform the ways in which society perversely defines and regulates bodies. The event seeks to ask what is at stake when collapsing, inverting or abandoning the gender binary. Here the relation between self-determination and solidarity in processes of systemic change form the foundation of a pragmatic exploration of ways of being ungoverned by normative gender.

Make of that what you will – or not. It's the sort of stuff you churn out when you want arts funding (and there we were at Tate Modern after all). The event itself was more interesting. The symposiasts were (in order of appearance, double slash denoting discussion periods followed by short breaks): Carlos Motta, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, Del LaGrace Volcano, J. Jack Halberstam // Dean Spade (by video), Terre Thaemlitz, Beatriz Preciado // Giuseppe Campuzano, Xabier Arakistain, Campbell X, and Wu Tsang & Safra Project. (Follow the link in the first paragraph for brief bios.)

I'm not intending to review Gender Talents though. I've hated writing reviews since back when I had to do it regularly. Trying to think of something to say that isn't banal and derivative, even when you like what you're reviewing – in fact, especially when you like it... Instead, I just want to mention my favourite speaker of the day: Terre Thaemlitz.**

Terre runs Comatonse Recordings, which “is dedicated to the production and dissemination of non-categorical contemporary electronic music”, so I was down with him already. However, she also does a nice turn in iconoclasm, in particular debunking essentialist queer and trans narratives and their implicit hierarchies. Not from a position of superiority, denying people their (our) own truths as individuals – rather, it seems to me, from a position of inferiority: Oi, we're down here and you're stepping on us in your rush to be assimilated into the dominant culture, so consider the political consequences of what you're doing, okay? Then again, possibly that's not what he means at all. Perhaps it's best if you read what she has to say for yourself.

To that end, I'd suggest ‘Terre interviews Terre’ from October/December 2011. Here are a few snippets to get you started:

You might call me non-essentialist, non-op MTFTMTF... (...)
"Non-essentialist" (or sometimes I say "anti-essentialist") means that I reject the notion of my gender identity stemming from something natural, such as an "inner essence". ("Essentialist" refers to people who believe their gender is innate or biological, such as a belief in "being born this way".) Particularly in relation to social organizing and political issues, the downside of any essentialist argument - asking for rights because "I can't help it, I was born this way" - is that it removes all self-agency and capacity for choice around the issue at hand. (...)
"Non-op" means without having had any operations or medical procedures (you may have heard of the more common term "post-op", or "post-operative", used in reference to people who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery).
"MTF" means "Male to Female", which refers to people who deviate from an initially male-identified gender identity (conversely, "FTM" means "Female to Male"). I tend to list them in an endless cycle, "MTFTMTF...", because my self-representation is open-ended and goes back and forth.

[F]or several years now, when writing about myself I alternate gender pronouns (...). I prefer this to conventional "neutral" pronouns ("one", "they") because gender is never neutral under patriarchy. (...) By simply rotating "she" and "he", the focus remains on unresolved questions of gender identity within patriarchy, while rejecting the notion that "third-gender" pronouns offer a comfort zone or escape route (although they may for others). Also, because "he/she/he/she" rotation is disorienting and annoying to most everyone, I feel I am inviting the reader to share in the awkwardness and inconvenience I continually feel around issues of gender identification.

I do not identify as a man unless the social environment makes it absolutely necessary (such as in my passport). At the same time, this refusal to identify certainly does not mean I am "transcendent" of gender, and I would never say anything individualist like, "I'm not male or female - I'm just me". Society does not grant us that freedom. "I" am always in relation to "you", which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only as malleable or fluid as "you" will allow. This will change depending on whether "you" are a stranger, a friend, a lover, a family member, a physician, another trans-identified person, intersexed, transsexual, a government official, etc.
For example, when I am in women's clothes and say, "I am transgendered", the reaction is completely different than when I say the same thing while wearing men's clothes. When I wear women's clothes, it seems "real" to people. They seem to accept my femme appearance as part of a longer physical transition - they may imagine I will one day undergo medical transitioning. When I wear men's clothes, what I say is more likely to be heard as the word-games of a dilettante with no material connection to their notion of "true" transgendered bodies. This is the gap in which I exist.

That how you identify depends on context... absolutely!

So, yes, I'd certainly recommend reading the whole of Terre's interview with himself. And you can find more of her writings here. And if you want his music, you can buy it from her here. And there's a mix he did for Resident Advisor available here.

I could get quite used to this rotating pronouns business :)

** The text to Terre's address at Tate Modern can now be read here.