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Awaiting the Rise of the Truly Revolutionary Force
Once cross-dressers ... really come-out, and begin to enunciate the politics of the direct, head-on challenge their very existence poses to gender regimes, I think we will have a truly revolutionary force on our hands, a potent force!
I wish I could count the times I've heard the phrase "... only a cross-dresser." And not just from transsexuals, but also from cross-dressing-identified people themselves. The reasoning seems to be that changing your very body, making a commitment to one sex or another, is somehow more sincere, more consequential, more (dare I say) radical than ... well, just dressing up. I freely admit to subscribing to this belief myself for a number of years. Until one morning ... I awoke, and with horror found myself trapped, absolutely trapped, in a bias cut, pleated silk, backless Halston evening gown not of my own design.
No, wait a minute. That's not right. Where was I? Oh, yeah, I think it's arguably the case that cross-dressing is the more radical identity, although I ought to state up front that I don't believe in either the identity of "transsexual" or "cross-dresser". This is not to say that I don't acknowledge and defend anyone's right to identify as either, for I do. But I regard both as political accomplishments, invented to contain various kinds of disreputable gender-queers and transgressors, rather than names which recognise any naturally-occurring identity.
In short, for me, just categories are inevitably not about truth, but about power: who has it and who doesn't; who gets to decide what's "normal" and what's "perversion"; whose ox gets gored and whose frock gets stored.
Now it's one thing to change one's body, as I have, to travel from one sex to another within the socially anointed binary. But in doing so, especially with the doctor's blessing ("You know, inside, your daughter Riki is really a woman, Ms Wilchins"), I fear I struck a Faustian bargain, I legitimated myself, but I accomplished this feat through an axial proposition that looks something like this - "I am really a woman inside / I am willing to change my body to be female / I am willing to commit my whole life to this / I don't do this because it is erotic but because it's my identity / therefore I should be a socially legitimate and respectable subject".
Unfortunately in the zero-sum game of gender politics, this logic succeeds to the extent that it delegitimises its converse. "You are not a woman "inside" / you are not willing to change your body, just your clothes / you are not even willing to commit your life to it / you are aroused by it (you pervert, you!) / you are such a social dipstick" Granted this equation raises me up, but at a price paid by those who cannot make similar claims. They, of course, go down. And those are ... you guessed it: your friendly, neighbourhood cross-dressers.
So it seems to me that cross-dressing is some kind of ultimate act of gender politics. It does not have a single thing going for it: not the doctors, not the binary, not a full-time commitment, not even a pledge that they're not doing it because it turns them on. Because of this, cross-dressing identified men confront conventional requirements for heterosexual male masculinity head-on. They stand on its head all that we're supposed to know about big, hairy guys being, well, guy-like. This brings on endless trouble with their jobs, wives, children, courts, military and so on. Frankly, despite all the times I heard someone say "I only do this to relax," it never sounded like a very relaxing thing to me at all. Every one of them put their life on the line when they walk out the door, perhaps down the wrong street, past the wrong patrol car, or into the wrong bar on the wrong night.
I sometimes amuse myself with the differing social legitimation of transsexuality and cross-dressing at work when people ask me, "So when did you have your surgery?" I respond, "Surgery, shmurgery. Hey, I just love wearing ladies' clothes." Gawd, you should see their faces fall ... at about three feet per second. All that compassionate understanding evaporates. Suddenly, instead of visions of a "woman trapped in man's body" they're seeing a weirdo pervert in lacy panties.
Now that I mention it, I remember years ago getting busted by the cops for using the women's changing room in a clothing store. They were distinctly unfriendly, looking me up and down like I was something they'd discovered after six months in the back of the freezer. That is, until I showed them my doctor's "carry letter" explaining that I was just a patient with a genuine diagnosis of "gender identity disorder". Then, of course, they both became amused, condescending, and at last middling friendly. They let me off with a lot of snickered warnings.
Now, granted I'm trying to focus on the politics of things here, because you can't focus on what the cross-dressing community is actually saying about itself publicly. Because the unfortunate fact is, most of the rhetoric coming-out of the cross-dressing community is banal to the point of tears. It's often along the lines of, "I dress but my wife won't accept me", "I dress, and my wife does accept me", "I dress, and I'm okay", "I dress, does that mean I'm queer?", I dress, does that make my wife a lesbian?", and my personal favourite, "I dress and it gives me an erection but I'm still a regular guy relaxing, here, have a Bud six-pack, let's watch the Packers and kick some butts after the game". I mean, really!
A lot of this is because cross-dressing is the more socially-despised identity. And the more despised and oppressed a group, the more assimilationist and conservative their rhetoric and politics. For when groups are radically disempowered they have no choice but to take an assimilationist conservative stance.
In other words, the experience of being a cross-dresser is still sufficiently dislocating, both socially and psychologically, that much of the community is still completely engaged in merely coping, rather than analysing, organising and confronting the systematic oppression which maintains and even mandates such dislocations.
But as they find their voice, the stridency, the demands, the political awareness and the organisation to contest that oppression will emerge. It's going to happen, just give it time. Once cross-dressers ever really come-out, and begin to enunciate the politics of the direct, head-on challenge their very existence poses to gender regimes, I think we will have a truly revolutionary force on our hands, a potent force. The only question is, how long will they think of themselves, and allow so many of us to think of them, as "... only cross-dressers?".
Riki Anne Wilchins
From Wikipedia and Amazon Books: Born in 1952, Riki Anne Wilchins is an activist whose work has focused on the impact of gender norms. While she started out as a transgender leader — founding the first national transgender advocacy group (GenderPAC) - her analysis and work broadened over time to include discrimination and violence regardless of individuals' identity. While this perspective has been widely accepted, its breadth has provoked criticism by some in the transgender community. Wilchins' work and writing has often focused on youth, whom she not only sees as uniquely vulnerable to the gender system's pressures and harm, but whom she sees as capable of "looking with fresh eyes". Wilchins' work has been instrumental in bringing transgender rights into the mainstream L.G.B.T. movement, and has helped bring awareness of the impact of gender norms to a wider audience. In 2001, Wilchins' work resulted in her being selected one of just six community activists named by Time Magazine among its "100 Civic Innovators for the Twenty-First Century". A founding member of Camp Trans, since the mid 1990s Wilchins has been highly active in founding a number of organizations and events focused on gender issues, including:
- The Transsexual Menace - the first large direct action group for transgender rights, which was modelled along the lines of Queer Nation and which at one point boasted representatives in over forty cities (co-founder Denise Norris).
- Hermaphrodites With Attitude - the first direct action group for the intersex (co-founder Cheryl Chase, Executive Director of the Intersex Society of North America).
- New York City Gay Community Centre Gender Identity Project (co-founder Dr. Barbara Warren, Director of Social Services).
- New York City Gay Community Centre Transgender Health Empowerment Conference, an annual event (co-founder Dr. Barbara Warren, Director of Social Services).
- Camp Trans, an annual educational event outside the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival that contests the exclusion of anyone who is not deemed a "womyn-born womyn" (co-founders Janice Walworth, Nancy Jean Burkholder).
- National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (co-founder Susan Wright, its first Executive Director).
- National Gender Lobby Day, an annual event on Capitol Hill (co-founder Phyllis Frye).
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