Passing has become a “Be All” goal for many but it shouldn’t be. It was two years ago, at the age of 46, that I plucked up the courage and wore women’s clothes to work, the University of Auckland where I lecture in sociology. A big factor in stopping me doing so earlier was the idea I had gotten into my head that to wear women’s clothes publicly I needed to pass ‘as a woman’. Sites offering advice to cross-dressers reinforce this idea. We’re given to believe that if we don’t pass people will think we look ridiculous and their presumed laughter will be justified.
Lucille Sorella, the self-proclaimed ‘stylist and femininity advisor’ behind one such site, claims to be a ‘HUGE advocate for transgender rights’. But ‘one thing that upsets’ her, she says, is that many ‘crossdressers and transgender women [she sees] in public look so ridiculous, they make the entire transgender community look bad!’ These ‘gals try so hard to look good, but the simple fact is that they’re making fools of themselves.’ No wonder, she declares, that ‘so many people stare and laugh’.
It’s all or nothing. You pass or you don’t pass. People tell me that I ‘almost’ pass as a woman’. This doesn’t mean I’m less likely to be looked at. If anything, as my own experiences of dressing openly testifies, people are more likely to look at me. I’m like one of those waxwork dummies of a famous celebrity: there’s something unsettling, not quite right. My appearance produces an uncanny effect that causes people to double take. When people double take they’re thinking “Is that a woman?” “No, on second thoughts, it’s a man dressed as a woman.”
I would also double take if seeing a male dressed like me. The curiosity my appearance provokes does not automatically imply hostility. I want to challenge perceptions of gender and what people regard to be a natural woman or man. I find it absurd that in this day and age a dress denotes woman and find it insulting, even misogynistic, that a man in tights is considered a joke. If by wearing women’s clothes openly without passing I help normalize the idea of a man in makeup, pantyhose and dresses, then I’d rather ‘not pass’. I’d rather give courage to the vast majority of cross-dressers who, like myself, don’t pass and, as was the case with me, feel ashamed of their male bodies and thus reluctant to wear women’s clothes in public. There’s no shame in not passing. Be proud in your pantyhose.
My makeup skills have improved considerably over the past two years. I’m developing my own style, a feminine chic, and have built up a wardrobe of clothes for different occasions that carry well on my body. It’s a fast track apprenticeship into womanhood. So two years on the aesthetic is necessarily more refined than it was. I was recently featured in New Zealand’s highest circulation magazine Woman’s Day. They interviewed me for the piece and, with the help of a stylist/makeup artist, photographed me in a variety of dresses. But even with the help of professionals, I’m no closer to passing today than two years ago when I didn’t know what a bronzer was let alone where to apply it.
I’ve undergone no voice training and make no attempt to ‘disguise’ my voice. I’ve not had laser treatment. Despite my hair being grey and slightly receding, I don’t wear a wig. My legs look good in pantyhose but any man ogling them would likely feel duped upon observing my buttocks, hips and shoulders. The point being that even if I tried, I would still struggle to pass and would no doubt be expending considerable time and money in the failed attempt, a fact not lost on those in the business of ‘helping us’ to pass. I oppose the conventions on how a male should look and dress, so why conform to those on how women should look and dress? Sure, I want to ‘look good’ in women’s clothes and even dress ‘appropriately’ for the occasion and my age. I want to look ‘refined’, even ‘chic’, and so I do take lessons from women. My style is if anything a conventional feminine one. But I don’t see why this should extend to disguising the fact I’m a biological male, except of course for fear of how others might react.
No matter how much practice you get at home or how often you go out en femme with your transgender mates, none of this prepares you for the challenges of daily dressing as a woman. Going to a club known to be trans friendly is of a different order to going to work where you’re the only cross-dresser in sight. Despite the fact some colleagues were aware that I liked to cross-dress, my status as a man was never called into question when I only dressed at home or on special nights out. I never experienced what it’s like to ritualistically put on makeup every morning or present in women’s clothes to friends, colleagues and students so often they’d be shocked to see me in men’s.
Every day is an experiment and every day you test yourself and others. You push the boundaries. You exceed the limits of what you had hitherto been prepared to do and in turn exceed the expectation of others. You become stronger, braver, and your sensibilities undergo a change. Women give you advice. You share beauty and fashion tips. The clothes start to become you. It’s now your style. It’s consistent with the expectations of friends and colleagues. It’s how they perceive you. I look in the mirror and see a woman. I don’t pass but am no less confident in the woman I’ve become. This is what it means to not pass well.
As children we’re encouraged to go out and socialize because, as we all know, it’s by socializing that we develop rounded personalities. However much training you undergo in the home or among cross-dressing friends, nothing is as effective as learning through every day encounters and interactions. My training into womanhood is in this respect in degrees organic. The process is in degrees like that of a child being gendered: unconscious and unthinking. Imperceptibly, day-by-day, I’m becoming more of a woman and less of a man. But it is in degrees not like that of a child. Because I was socialized to become a man my training into womanhood must in degrees be forced, that is to self-consciously learn how to present in different situations as a woman.
There’s a huge market in self-help books that do as much to stoke the anxieties of self-conscious and insecure adults as it does to relieve them. This is the danger of the advice we seek on how to pass as women. Some of it is useful and indeed essential. However, there’s despotism in the idea that we must train our voices and that passing, if not a prerequisite, is every transvestite’s goal. We become slaves to an idea and victims of it, forever cursing our misfortune for having the ‘wrong’ body and unable to pass. Instead of reveling in the joys of wearing makeup and pantyhose, our lives are full of sadness, regret and longing.
To dress publicly is to take a leap into the unknown. I don’t pass but people still nonetheless accept me as a woman. They’re disarmed by my air of insouciance and by the confidence in which I go about my business. Whatever I feel inside, I interact with others as if there’s nothing unusual about my appearance. I’m as casual and friendly as when dressed as a man. If you appear at ease in yourself people typically feel more at ease with you and even though you don’t pass and have a masculine voice they typically act as if you really are a woman. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s good enough reason for calling myself a woman. That’s what it means in my books to pass as a woman.
Those who can and do pass will blend in better than me. They won’t challenge perceptions and thereby are less susceptible to abuse. I understand the importance of passing in this respect. But you don’t need to pass ‘as a woman’ to embody the idea of womanhood and live as a woman. Like many transvestites, I wanted to dress daily and openly in women’s clothes. I wanted to be able to select an outfit each morning and go through the daily routine of applying makeup, to feel what it’s like to live as a woman every day, not just imagine or fantasize about it. Instead of wearing pantyhose under my trousers, I wanted to wear them openly, to wear black pantyhose thereby making it obvious I had them on. This is what I now do every day.
None of this would’ve happened had I remained a slave to the fascism of passing. The joys of daily dressing as a woman and wearing those clothes all day every day would’ve remained unknown to me. I would never have become enriched and developed the confidence of a woman through daily interactions with people from different walks of life: I would never encounter those people or discover affinities that would otherwise have remained hidden. As more and more of us overcome the inhibition to dress publicly, as we become more visible and, we can only hope, society becomes more tolerant, it’ll be easier for all of us, irrespective of how we look, to become the women convention – not the body – has robbed us of.
Man-Made Woman: The Dialectics of Cross-dressing by Ciara Cremin is available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.
These links borrowed from Stana’s great blog, Femulate
👠 The University of Auckland faculty directory page for Dr. Cremin.
👠 An NZ Herald interview with Dr. Cremin’s about her new book.
👠 Dr. Cremin’s Facebook page.