Whilst cross dressing has become more mainstream cross dressing is still very much deemed outside the “norm”. And I’m saddened to say that the rejection of cross dressing has a long and painful history. Although, we all realise (or I hope I have convinced you so) that the link between sex, gender and sexuality is broken and fashion cannot readily express all three things sufficiently, for some reason fashion and cross dressing still is strongly linked to homosexuality. It seems that any deviation from the traditional 1950’s “Meet the Jones’s” framework is considered gay by my standards.
But is it because cross dressing has a sordid and ‘sinful’ history? Is it because cross dressing has for a long time been used as an outlet for repressed homosexuality and even prostitution? Or is society more enlightened to realise that times have changed and in turn the nature of cross dressing or rather (gender bending) has also changed? I hope for the latter. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the culture and society we are conditioned in influences our ideas of cross dressing. As the U.K was largely Christian and cross dressing was once the sign of homosexuality maybe that’s why individuals with alternative gender identities or gender bend are treated with hostility, perhaps even sub-consciously. Let’s explore.
The main reason cross dressing is often rejected and has been continuously viewed as outside the “norm” throughout the course of history is because it’s often connected with tyranny. As human beings we naturally like to be accepted and to some degree follow the rules and “norms” society has set for us. Cross dressing was an emblem of misrule because it broke all conventions of “normal” masculinity and femininity, thus it was a marginalised sector of society, treated with hostility and prejudice, something which still exists even in modern day. However, back in the earliest of civilisations cross dressing was viewed as particularly bizarre and even immoral, often linked to acts of riot and demonstration as well as sexual and social deviation.
Throughout history cross dressing has been a troubling yet joyful force which has been powerful enough to survive the centuries despite its controversy. During the medieval period transvestism transposed to a political level. Political rebels and the impoverished lower classes frequently cross dressed for the purposes of riot. This further reinforces cross dressing as something outlandish, loud and socially defying. In 1603, for example. Mere Folle and “her” troupe attacked royal tax officers in Dijon: in Beaujolais in the 1770’s, male peasants put on women’s clothes and attacked their landlord’s surveyors: the Welsh riots of the 1830’s and 1840’s against taxes were led by “Rebecca” and other transvestites and so the list goes on. In these examples, cross dressing had a central and anarchic purpose in the destruction of social order. This may explain why society has for so long rejected cross dressing and seen it as “outside” the “norm” as it has been demonstrated as such by rioters throughout history.
As well as being used for rioting, cross dressing has also been used to solicit trade, sexual trades. Many men dressed up as women in order to get customers. No wonder people thought cross dressing was a bit naughty! The Pueblo Indians in New Mexico used to keep trained male prostitutes, called “man woman” in each village. In India, homosexual prostitutes who dressed as women had painted tresses, swaying hips and painted lips. In Japan, male geishas were trained in feminine arts and were known as “sister boys”. (Lady boys ring a bell?). In China, during the Sung dynasty (1127-1279) transvestite prostitutes who were known as “mock women” were organized into guilds. Such male cross dressers still exist in Mediterranean countries of Europe, Africa and America. They are for the most part despised by homosexuals, rejected by transvestites and used by heterosexuals only when the occasion demands it. They are truly the wretched of the Earth caught up in a horrible fate, revealing a much darker side to possessing a dual identity and transvestism.
The public visibility of transvestic prostitution has meant that transvestism has often been confused with passive homosexuality or effeminacy. In the reports of transvestitic activity in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries no real distinction is drawn between transvestites and male homosexuals. In fact for all practical purposes, there have been very little. Peter Ackroyd in “Dressing Up” states, “…they had all been driven ‘underground’ where, in the darkness, everyone looks the same. There was a grand disorder everywhere, as though those who were considered deviant were forced into a frantic but in some ways courageous proximity” (p.57) And so this may explain why society often misconstrues transvestism and alternative identities as sexually deviant or homosexual, as it’s been represented as that for a long time. Such cases of transvestism were forced “underground” further fuelling its ambiguity and separation from regular society. It has for centuries been seen as something that must be repressed or hidden. Its saddening to think of all the individuals throughout history that were never recorded and will never be known.
In 1903, in Dortmund, “a young man committed suicide in a hotel where he had arrived the previous day. He was a thirty-two-year-old workman from the district of Koslin in Pomerania. When the door of his room was forced open, he was found stretched out on his bed, dressed in a white bridal gown and veil; on his head was a garland of myrtle. He had shot himself in the heart.” There have existed a large number of transvestites who lives were as desperate and unrelieved like that of the workman from Pomerania. These individuals remain to be marginalised section of society; often treated with hostility and has been the case for a long time.
Now this research may seem a little outlandish. However, I simply wanted to explore why society has such a strange and distorted views of individuals with alternative gender identities and transvestites. Upon finding the more sordid examples of cross dressing throughout history and even today, it’s understandable why. Individuals with trans* identities and transvestism have been taken as “taboo” for what seems like forever. Be it prostitution, demonstrations or homosexuality, cross dressing has often been linked to more deviant and darker elements of humanity and society; elements that for many of us find easier to ignore…but times change.
This is 2014 and transvestism is no longer practised by those who want to attack their landlords or to sell their body (although this is the fate for some individuals unfortunately). We are in a more enlightened society and these examples which are from the earliest civilisations should act as a reminder that times have changed and social attitudes should too.
Ackroyd, P (1979) Dressing Up, Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession. Simon and Schuster.