Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Pharmacist Baffler.

I've blogged about Andrew O'Neill before: firstly in ‘Genderpunk’, and then as part of ‘In vision (3)’. This time it's to recommend his two-part show on Radio Four about gender and sexuality, which is currently up online here. The first episode (broadcast on December 16th) has “15 days left to listen” (at time of writing), so don't wait too long before checking it out if you're going to. Maybe he or someone will bang it up on YouTube later, or maybe they won't; who knows.

In episode one, “comedian and transvestite Andrew O'Neill gives his thoughts on gender identity”; in episode two, “comedian Andrew O'Neill delves into sexual identity and homophobia”. Yes, it's comedy – or more exactly, serious topics addressed via the medium of comedy, with a few random instances thrown in of being silly (which never hurts).

The first episode was the most pertinent to me (and this blog). It's primarily about transvestism (aka pharmacist baffling) with Andrew talking/joking about language, definitions, difference, dysphoria, gender expectations, repression, secrecy, finding yourself, fear of rejection, coming out, finding a way to be yourself, and so forth. Since my way to be myself is similar to his – though far less “brazen” – a lot of what Andrew says about himself goes for me too. So I smiled and chuckled and laughed out loud when what he said was "funny because it's true"; or was funny because obliquely true, as he approached a topic from an unexpected angle; or was just funny.

Sorry, no quotes here to make you laugh. Comedy routines are best heard afresh, rather than second-hand, or after being read. And it may well be copyrighted anyway. So you must go and listen to it yourself if you want to. As another recommendation, Grayson Perry tweeted: “great prog Andrew, hilarious and not just because I recognised every single experience! Well done!” And, yes, it is all Eddie Izzard's fault.

A couple of things did jar with me a little, though, as an engaged and critical listener (i.e. as another transvestite):

Andrew seems to be rather down on our “female persona” siblings. Maybe that's a false impression caused by lack of time, in trying to get as many points across as meaningfully (and as funnily) as possible. You can hardly convey the countless nuances of transvestite (never mind trans) identities in a half-hour comedy slot. All the same, I'd argue that cross-dressing in a "female" way, trying to create a female appearance, is not necessarily sexually motivated, nor the manifestation of immature ideas of femininity. It may indicate a bigender – or, indeed, binary transgender – identity for a start; but often it's more an accommodation than anything else. The urge to present as a feminine woman, rather than a man in a dress, can't be so easily dismissed; and while it may require some complicity, that's not the same as (self-)deception. Moreover, femininity has more cultural – and hence more personal – resonance when presented in female form, which makes it more effective expressed like that, especially if it's by necessity occasional.

In the second show, I noticed an inconsistency – between “transvestites are no more likely to be gay than the rest of the population” (i.e. might be gay) and, later, “the sexuality of transvestism is an overdriven heterosexuality” (i.e. not the slightest bit gay). The second of those made me shake my head: “No, not my sexuality.” But it's always difficult, when talking largely about your own experience, not to extrapolate and generalize from that. So I'll let this one go and just scribble a note in the margin: “#NotAllTransvestites”.


  1. Andrew is very good. Thanks for publicising this.

    'Overdriven heterosexuality' is an interesting theory: I'd like to hear more on this idea.

    With regard to 'female persona' - and perhaps the whole concept of male femme - isn't it natural that the urge to identify as femme should go beyond clothes to desire a femme body and a (within our culture) fully femme persona, i.e. female ones? xx

  2. “Overdriven heterosexuality” is quite a standard idea: that transvestites like women so much, we want to look like women. I guess that may be true for some of us – most reasons are true for some people – but to me it seems more like a post-hoc justification, as well as having serious homophobic undertones: “I may wear women's clothes but I'm not gay; I'm actually super-straight.” Hmmmm. It's the “I'm not gay” part which stands out there, I think. Andrew can get away with it himself because he's clearly not the slightest bit homophobic.

    Re the urge to go beyond clothes, there's a quote by Jack Halberstam (from Female Masculinity) which is very relevant here:

    “Because of its reliance on notions of authenticity and the real, the category of butch realness is situated on the sometimes vague boundary between transgender and butch definition. The realness of butch masculinity can easily tip, in other words, into the desire for a more sustained realness in a recognizably male body.”

    Change “butch” to (male) “femme” etc (see here) and you get the same sort of thing as you wrote. But I wouldn't say that it was “natural” exactly; rather, that there are complicated border territories, and that, yes, the urge can sometimes go further. Or, to qualify that as well, that there becomes the realization that something more (or something different) is required.

  3. Thanks J!

    You are astute in noticing Andrew's inconsistency. Obviously intellectual scrupulousness is not a priority on radio comedy shows. xx

  4. Thanks Deb.

    Although... my “noticing” was retrospective really. The “sexuality of transvestites” bit stuck out because it wasn't correct for me personally. And I remembered something else earlier about “no link between the gender you present and the gender you fancy”, which I certainly agree with, but which didn't match up either. Hence...

    Then again, if I was to list everything I did agree with, I could easily fill several pages. This in particular: “my gender stuff is a source of happiness.” Yes, it is for me too – mostly, anyway. I like being a transvestite :)

  5. Thanks for pointing us towards this, Jonathan. I found the hilarity among the audience a bit distracting (as often on radio comedy shows) but he makes some great points. I never knew that the one-verse condemnation of crossdressing in Deuteronomy was followed by a much longer injunction on "bird nest etiquette"!

  6. Hi Dabrela. Yes, there's some seriously weird shit in Deuteronomy – and Leviticus too. But they do seem awfully lenient towards cross-dressing. Other “abominations” (especially miscreant women) are supposed to be put to death, whereas we just get called names. Perhaps I should write to someone about it.