The Photographer’s Gallery
During a brief interlude in London, I did as Londoners do – which is get way too drunk on a Friday night and then do something ‘cultural’ on Saturday. So when I stumbled to Soho’s Photographer’s Gallery, to admire their collection on cross-dressers from the 1880s, my emotions were at liberty.
And it was really moving. Every characterful photograph spread a warmth through me, and (beyond last night’s liquor) it was unprepared for admiration of the subjects’ immense bravery. A male fetishist in female lingerie; the first female students shocking in trousers; prisoners crossdressing in concentration camps, fighting their own battles within the war. All of us owe so much to these people who shatter socialised conventions. They create the wide open spaces in which the rest of us make our small shifts to freedom.
The body is more than its biology. It is a cultural object that reflects or rejects social values. Its subversive potential has always been suspected by institutions like schools and armies who use uniforms to tame and discipline it. Less obviously, we also wear uniforms in everyday life. These are the uniforms of gender: dresses for the ‘weaker’ sex (who needs mobility in the household); suits – straight and colourless – to keep the ‘stronger’ sex upright and unemotional.
These are the means with which gender is defined and assigned, for our bodies to imitate until it’s internalised. Until we think that is who we are. I’ve internalised it. I think I’m feminine as well as just female. Why though? I’m argumentative and reckless and loud— but I do love skirts and scented candles. I am not an expert on gender, I have no academic background nor the personal insight of somebody who struggles with gender identity. I’m ignorant, and – I’m realising – actually quite small-minded.
Sex and gender
What is genuinely difficult for many of us to understand, is that gender is not sex. But Under Cover presents you with irrefutable evidence. One can be biologically male and characteristically female, or biologically female and characteristically non-binary. And it is very hard to imagine that feeling if your self-identity suits your ‘native’ gender, which means many people don’t believe it’s real. They explain it away with rebelliousness or experimentation or sexual orientation, because that is less confusing.
Style and gender
Many people think that, by dressing as the opposite sex, one is identifying as the opposite gender. Cross-dressing almost seems like an assertion of gender, because it celebrates reductive staples of femininity and masculinity, like hair removal or make-up or muscle definition. But while cross-dressing can reflect transgender identity, many times it does not. Men who wear ‘feminine’ outfits might still identify as male and women who wear ‘masculine’ outfits might still identify as female, and they might be straight and they might be gay and they might be somewhere in between.
If eliminating what gender is not is relatively easy, pinning down what gender is continues to elude me. It strikes me as a bureaucratically convenient but realistically self-defeating attempt to pin gradational characteristics – like ‘confidence’ or ‘sensitivity’ – to binary categories. Why? To solidify a division of labour? To stereotype the seemingly other in order to make sense of it? But it can’t be done. You can’t pin gradational characteristics to binary categories.
Gender means different things to different people. Some see it as binary and some see it as gradational and maybe that’s fine, because at the end of the day it doesn’t actually exist at all.
‘Masculinity’ has always been attached to the binary ‘male’ category, but its aesthetic characteristics have proven somewhat temperamental…
Prejudice creeps in
With all that in mind, a person might be a homosexual Ms with a penis and a dress and quite frankly, why the hell – by what rational thinking – should anyone be uncomfortable with that? But people are. And I am not pointing fingers and saying, ‘You abominations!! Why the hell are you uncomfortable with that!?’ Because I get uncomfortable too.
If I glimpsed stockings under my dad’s trousers, I would feel uncomfortable. I would hide it, but I would feel it. Once, I would’ve felt as though my whole worldview had been turned upside down. I hate that I would feel it – it’s totally irrational, socialised small-mindedness. But I would feel it still.
This is not a matter of culpability: gender norms are so ingrained that we probably all need to look at the prejudice in ourselves before pointing out anyone else’s. A good place to start is at The Photographer’s Gallery, whose Under Cover exhibition is free during the day.