Sunday, 26 February 2012

Crossdressing Terminology

When I was growing up, I found the experience of knowing that I liked to dress as a girl but not knowing others like me existed very alienating.
I didn't even have the language to describe my predicament. All I knew was that I liked to wear female clothing and wanted to live as a female some day but that such things weren't "normal" and were thus "shameful".
So to help future generations (and even the ones that currently exist), what follows are descriptions of various labels that people have used to describe those that crossdress.
Please note, to keep this in the realms of widely available (and thus, hopefully, widely understandable) knowledge, I have used descriptions found on Wikipedia and coupled this with famous examples provided by myself that I hope help illustrate the point.

Crossdressing is the act of wearing clothing and other accoutrement commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society. Crossdressing has been used for disguise, performance art and as a literary trope in modern times and throughout history.
Margaret Thatcher's
Spitting Image puppet
Nearly every human society throughout history has made distinctions between male and female gender by the style, colour, or type of clothing they are expected to wear, and likewise most societies have had a set of norms, views, guidelines, or even laws defining what type of clothing is appropriate for each gender. It does not, however, necessarily indicate transgender identity; a person who crossdresses does not always identify as being of a gender other than their assigned gender.
The term denotes an action or a behaviour without attributing or proposing causes for that behaviour. Some people automatically connect crossdressing behaviour to transgender identity or sexual, fetishist, and homosexual behaviour, but the term crossdressing itself does not imply any motives.
Thus, one might say a woman such as Margaret Thatcher is a crossdresser as she is a woman who regularly wears a suit and thus guilty of "wearing clothing and other accoutrement commonly associated with the opposite sex". Certainly, one only has to reflect on the way she was lampooned in Spitting Image to see the effect the way she dressed had on the popular imagination - Margaret Thatcher was a woman pretending to be a man!

Transgender (often shortened to "trans") is a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviours, and groups involving tendencies to vary from culturally conventional gender roles.
Transgender is the state of one's "gender identity" (self-identification as woman, man, neither or both) not matching one's "assigned sex" (identification by others as male, female or intersex based on physical/genetic sex).
"Transgender" does not imply any specific form of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, or asexual; some may consider conventional sexual orientation labels inadequate or inapplicable to them. The precise definition for transgender remains in flux, but includes:
  • "Of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these."
  • "People who were assigned a sex, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves."
  • Chaz Bono
  • "Non-identification with, or non-presentation as, the sex (and assumed gender) one was assigned at birth."
A transgender individual may have characteristics that are normally associated with a particular gender, identify elsewhere on the traditional gender continuum, or exist outside of it as "other", "agender", "Genderqueer", or "third gender".
Transgender people may also identify along several places on either the traditional transgender continuum, or the more encompassing continuums which have been developed in response to the significantly more detailed studies done in recent years.
Thus, I would argue that one of the most famous transgender individuals in the world at the moment is Cher's son, Chaz Bono, since his gender identity (male) does not match his assigned sex (female).

Drag Queen
A drag queen is a man who dresses, and usually acts, like a caricature woman often for the purpose of entertaining.
There are many kinds of drag artists and they vary greatly, from professionals who have starred in films to people who just try it once. Drag queens also vary by class and culture and can vary even within the same city.
Although many drag queens are gay men, there are drag artists of all genders and sexualities who do drag for various reasons or purposes. Women who dress like men for the same purpose are known as drag kings.
Generally, however drag queens are males who dress in a female gender role, often exaggerating certain characteristics (such as make-up and eyelashes) for comic, dramatic or satirical effect.
Dame Edna Everage
Other drag performers include drag kings, who are women who perform in male roles, faux queens, who are women who dress in an exaggerated style to emulate drag queens and faux kings, who are men who dress to impersonate drag kings.
The term drag queen usually refers to people who dress in drag for the purpose of performing, whether singing or lip-synching, dancing, participating in events such as gay pride parades, drag pageants, or at venues such as cabarets and discotheques. In the United Kingdom, alongside traditional drag work such as shows and performances, many drag queens engage in 'mix-and-mingle' or hosting work at night clubs or at private parties/events.
Drag is a part of Western gay culture.
There are many examples of drag queens to choose from in Western culture but the one I have chosen is Dame Edna Everage as, when I was growing up, she was the first person to spring to my attention as "a man who dresses as a woman", making me feel not quite so alone any more.

A transvestite refers to a person who crossdresses; however, the word often has additional, less favourable, connotations.
Although the word transvestism was coined as late as the 1910s, the phenomenon is not new. It was referred to in the Bible and traces back to Ethiopia and the origin of man. The word has undergone several changes of meaning since it was first coined and is still used in a variety of senses.
Eddie Izzard
Magnus Hirschfeld coined the word transvestism (from Latin trans-, "across, over" and vestitus, "dressed") to refer to the sexual interest in crossdressing. He used it to describe persons who habitually and voluntarily wore clothes of the opposite sex. Hirschfeld's group of transvestites consisted of both males and females, with heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and asexual orientations.
Thus a transvestite should not be confused with a transgender person as a transgender man or woman is someone with serious gender identity issues where a transvestite often does not.
A famous example of a transvestite, who happily describes themselves as such, is Eddie Izzard.
Eddie is an award winning comedian who famously presents himself in public in female attire and make-up. Although his look is often more androgynous, he quite happily describes himself as an "Action Transvestite".

Gender Bender
Gender bender is an informal term used to refer to a person who actively transgresses, or "bends," expected gender roles.
Gender bending is sometimes a form of social activism undertaken in response to assumptions or over-generalisations about genders.
Some gender benders identify with the gender assigned them at birth, but challenge the norms of that gender through androgynous behaviour and atypical gender roles.
Boy George
Other gender benders may self-identify as transgender or genderqueer (a term more popular amongst youths), feeling that the gender assigned to them at their birth is an inaccurate or incomplete description of themselves; some are transsexual and desire to change their physical sex through hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery, while others were born intersexual.
The person who had the greatest influence on me growing up, who I feel could accurately be described as a "gender bender", is Boy George.
Although he very definitely looks female (particularly so when he first came to fame), he has never attempted to mimic the bodyshape of a female and also, quite obviously, uses the gender marker "Boy" as part of his name to clarify any confusion over his gender identity.
Therefore, in my book, he is very definitely a "gender bender" and I believe he is quite happy with that description of himself.

I have very deliberately left "intersex" to last because, in my opinion, it should not fall into this list at all. However, because of the lack of understanding, it does get used as a metaphor for someone who crossdresses.
Wikipedia describes the condition as follows:
Intersex, in humans and other animals, is the presence of intermediate or atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish female from male.
This is usually understood to be congenital, involving chromosomal, morphologic, genital and/or gonadal anomalies, such as diversion from typical XX-female or XY-male presentations, e.g., sex reversal (XY-female, XX-male), genital ambiguity, or sex developmental differences.
An intersex individual may have biological characteristics of both the male and the female sexes.
Intersexuality as a term was adopted by medicine during the 20th century, and applied to human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female.
Lady Gaga
Intersex was initially adopted by intersex activists who criticize traditional medical approaches to sex assignment and seek to be heard in the construction of new approaches.
This state may or may not include a mixture or absence of sexual orientation.
Thus, as it is a physical condition, I do not believe intersex should be confused with people who crossdress.
As stated above, a crossdresser is someone who wears the "clothing and other accoutrement commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society". So how can someone who has "intermediate or atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish female from male" be accurately described as a crossdresser when there is no opposite sex for them to be associated with!
Although there have been many rumours about intersex individuals (most notably 800m sprinter, Caster Semanya, and popstar, Lady Gaga), as far as I'm aware, there are no officially confirmed intersex individuals that are popularly known today.

The above labels that society applies to crossdressers, are the mere tip of the iceberg. There are many more and very few of them are flattering.
So to me it seems that the key issue with applying labels to people is how we use those labels.
Far too often society uses labels to objectify people and make them easy targets for abuse. Whether it be Jews, blacks, homosexuals, trans people or however else we divide ourselves up next... I think it would be far more productive to use labels to help us understand our society and use that knowledge to improve living conditions for our identified groups.
After all, no matter what their race, religion, belief, sexuality or gender... people are people and they should always be treated as such.