Abstract

This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.

Cross-dressing, in its contemporary Western sense, is the wearing of clothing not belonging to one's birth-designated sex. This simple (and simplistic) definition belies a raft of social, psychological, and philosophical issues. According to the various editions of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, transvestic disorder applies to a heterosexual male who receives erotic stimulation from wearing women's clothing. However, cross-dresser, the preferred term, requires for its existence a set of very strong institutional precepts the violation of which must be societally condemnable.

The first requirements involve the instantiation and supervision of a strong bi-gender system such as we have in our culture. More, there needs be a social or formal set of standards for gendered appearance that distinguish between the two genders and, ipso facto, the two sexes. These are required in order to make the idea of cross-dressing coherent. Were there no limitations or restrictions on what an individual could wear, there would be no cross-dressing. Indeed, while cross-dressing has a long history going back to ancient times — for example, in Rome and India (Bullough and Bullough 1993: 3–112) — it has always been present and has gone through different levels of prohibition (Stryker 2008: 17–18). While some cultures, including India, the Philippines, Thailand, and some aboriginal tribes, have a space and role for cross-dressing members though often without really embracing it, contemporary Western cultures by and large do not tolerate it. In cultures where the prohibition is strong, there are two requirements: first, a strict bi-gender system, and second, a prohibition, legal and/or social, against gender “impersonation.”

Cross-dressing covers a huge range and can go from donning one or two items of women's clothing, usually undergarments, for the purposes of arousal and masturbation, to spending days or weeks living and performing as a woman. It is quite remarkable that these widely different activities fall under the same umbrella. Often a cross-dresser, especially one with experience, will receive little or no sexual frisson from cross-dressing and certainly will not maintain a state of arousal during the entire episode. Indeed, as the cross-dresser matures, the sexual aspect diminishes and an interest in the growth and development of one's “woman-self” increases. What I have called the “committed cross-dresser” is interested in discovering more about his her-self and exploring his feminine side than he is about sexual release (Gilbert 2000: 2). Put simply, what may begin as a fetish need not end there. V. L. Bullough and B. Bullough (1993: 212) cite Havelock Ellis's objection to the term transvestite (and presumably cross-dresser) as putting too much focus on clothing, whereas a great many cross-dressers care at least as much if not more about the social role of the woman they portray. For this reason, I would urge the term cross-gender over cross-dresser.

Females as well as males have been involved in cross-dressing, but there is often a different judgment laid upon them. Women who have passed as soldiers have often been praised and applauded, though not uniformly (as for example in the case of Jeanne d'Arc). The Western patriarchal subordination of women means, on one hand, that it makes sense for a woman wanting freedom from oppression to try to pass as a man; but, on the other hand, she may well be attacked for trying to rise above her “rightful” place. Men, on the other hand, have no such justification, since by cross-dressing in a patriarchal society they are placing themselves lower on the power ladder, a move that is specifically against the very idea of masculinity and hence traitorous.

Nonetheless, the question remains as to the source of the disapprobation in our culture. Why should there be such societal angst regarding the person, woman or man, who wants to sometimes appear as the “opposite” gender? Stephen Ducat points out that taboos exist when there is an attraction to an activity that society wants to stem. “Unlike incest, cross-dressing, or exhibitionism,” he points out, “there is no taboo against having sex with cheese” (Ducat 2004: 29). His point is that no one wants to have sex with cheese, and, if someone does, no one else cares. This points to the attraction of males to femininity, to the temporary abandonment of the responsibilities and burdens of masculinity as construed societally. The bi-gender system outlines rigid rules of behavior for each gender, and not everyone is comfortable in their assigned role all the time.

Contemporary western society is slowly making room for and improving the lot of the transsexual. More laws are being eased, and more accommodation made, though there is still very far to go. The cross-dresser, however, receives little protection or benefit from these advances, because the cross-dresser, unlike the transsexual, is in constant violation of the bi-gender regime. He or she is not seeking admission into the non–birth-designated sex but only a temporary visa, so to speak, one good for several hours or a few days, confounding many social constituencies. Transsexuals often view cross-dressers as dilettantes, wannabes, or unsophisticated amateurs. The fact that a huge number of transsexuals began their life as cross-dressers seems immaterial. Feminists often deride cross-dressers for picking and choosing those parts of femininity they want and ignoring the rest, a charge not always without merit but one that certainly does not apply across the board. Cis-women often find cross-dressers interesting, while men become very uncomfortable.

The bottom line is that in Western Euro-American cultures there is a sense in which the cross-dresser, especially the out cross-dresser, is the true gender outlaw. Of all the members of the transgender community, broadly understood as those who defy the identity of birth-designated sex with lived gender, she or he refuses one gender and moves back and forth at will, thereby demonstrating the constructed and essentially artificial nature of the bi-gender dichotomy. Unfortunately, the censure laid on cross-dressers keeps the majority firmly in the closet where they are politically unable to become the sort of force needed by the transgender movement. Should the walls between the genders weaken and become more permeable, it is the cross-dresser who will demonstrate that one can have more than one gender.

References

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