This article was written in 1996 and posted on TGForum by Riki Anne Wilchins, then the leader of a gender-activist group called The Transsexual Meance. In light of the discussion of what is “transgender” I thought this might be instructive.
“GENDER: a vast, interlocking cultural network of meanings which produces eroticism across the surfaces of objects and bodies, including their shapes, sizes, colors and movements, by associating them directly to the power relations in the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure.”
“…Only a Crossdresser”
Notes on the More Radical Identity
Riki Anne Wilchins
(Caveats: I speak here only, of course, for myself. Also, I don’t generally find comparisons of the type suggested by my title to be useful, but I think a little corrective is overdue. Finally, I realize that I write mainly from the femme perspective: this is not to diss the men, but to stay closer to personal experience. – Rikster)
I wish I could count the times I’ve heard the phrase “…only a
crossdresser.” And not just from transexuals, but also from
crossdressing-identified people themselves. The reasoning seems to be that changing your very *body*, making a *committment* to one sex or another, is somehow more sincere, more consequential, more (dare I say?) radical, than… well, just dressing up. I freely admit to subscribing to this belief myself, for a number of years. Until one morning… I awoke, and with horror found myself trapped… absolutely trapped, in a bias-cut, pleated silk, backless Halston evening gown *not* of my own design…
No, wait a minute. That’s not right. Where was I. Oh yeah. I think it’s
arguably the case that crossdressing is the more radical identity, although
I ought to state up front that I don’t particularly believe in either the
identity of “transexual” or “crossdresser.” This is not to say that I
don’t acknowledge and defend anyone’s right to identify as either, for I do. But I regard both as political accomplishements, invented to contain various kinds of disreputable genderqueers and transgressors, rather names which recognize any naturally-occurring identity.
In short for me, just categories are ineviably not about truth, but about power: who has it, and who doesn’t; who gets to decide what’s “normal,” and what’s ‘perversion;” who’s ox gets gored, and who’s frock gets stored.
Now it’s one thing to change one’s body, as I have, to travel from one sex to another within the socially-anointed binary. But in doing so, especially with the doctors blessing (“You know, inside, your daughter Riki is *really* a woman, Ms. Wilchins”), I fear I struck a Faustian bargain. I legitimated myself , but I accomplished this feat through an axial proposition that looks something like this — “I am really a woman ‘inside’ / I am willing to change my body to be female / I am willing to commit my whole life to this / I don’t do this because it is erotic but because it’s my identity/ therefore I should be a socially legitimate and respectable subject.” Unfortunately, in the zero-sum game of gender politics, this logic succeeds to the degree that it *de-legitimates* its converse: “You are not a woman ‘inside’ / you am not willing to change your body, just your clothes / you are not even willing to commit your life to it / you are aroused by it (you pervert, you!) / you are a social dipstick.” Granted this equation raises me up, but at a price paid by those who cannot make similar claims. They, of course, go down. And those are… you guessed it: your friendly, neighborhood crossdressers.
So it seems to me that crossdressing is some kind of ultimate act of gender politics. It does not have a single thing going for it: not doctors, not the binary, not a full-time commitment, not even a.pledge that they’re not doing it because it turns them on. Because of this, crossdressing-identified men confront conventional requirements for heterosexual male masculinity head-on. They stand on its head all that we’re supposed to know about big, hairy guys being… well, guy-like. This brings on endless trouble with their jobs, wives, children, courts, military, and so on. Frankly, despite all the times I hear someone say “I only do this to relax,” it never sounded like a very relaxing thing to me at all. Every one of them puts their life on the line when they walk out the door, perhaps down the wrong street, past the wrong patrol car, or into the wrong bar on the wrong night.
I sometimes amuse myself with the differing social legitimation of transexuality and crossdressing at work when people ask me, “So, when did you have your surgery?” I respond, “Surgery. Shmurgery. Hey, I just *love* wearing lady’s clothes.” Gawd, you should see their faces fall… at about 3 feet per second. All that compassionate understanding just *evaporates.* Suddenly, instead of visions of “woman trapped in man’s body” (Film at 11!), now they’re seeing head shots of “weirdo pervert in lacy panties with erection” (no film, no eleven, no news a’tall).
Now that I mention it, I remember years ago getting busted by the cops years ago for using the women’s changing room in a clothing store. They were distinctly unfriendly, looking me up and down like I was something they’d just discovered after 6 months in the back of the freezer. That is, until I showed them my doctor’s “carry papers,” explaining that I was just a patient with a genuine diagnosis of “gender identity disorder.” Then, of course, they got both amused, condescending, and at least middling friendly. They let me off with a lot of snickered warnings.
Now granted, I’m trying to focus on the politics of things here, because you can’t focus on what the crossdressing community is actually saying about itself publicly. Because the unfortunate fact is, most of the rhetoric coming out the crossdressing community is banal to the point of tears. It’s often along the lines of, “I dress, but my wife won’t accept me,” “I dress, and my wife does accept me,” “I dress, and I’m okay,” “I dress, does that mean I’m queer”, “I dress, that make my wife a lesbian,” “I dress, does that make *me* a lesbian,” and my personal favorite, “I dress and it gives me an erection but I’m still a regular guy from the ‘hood just relaxing here have a Bud 6-pack let’s watch the Packers and kick some butts after the game.” I mean, really!
A lot of this is because crossdressing *is* the more socially-despised identity. And the more despised and oppressed a group, inevitably the more assimilationist and conservative their rhetoric and politics. For when groups are radically disempowered, they have no *choice* but to take an assimilationist, conservative stance.
In other words, the experience of being a crossdresser is still sufficiently dislocating, both socially and psychologically, that much of the community is still completely engaged in merely coping, rather than analyzing, organizing and confronting the systemic oppression which maintains and even mandates such dislocations.
But as they find their voice, the stridency, the demands, the political awareness and the organization to contest that oppression will emerge. It’s going to happen, just give it time. Once crossdressers ever *really* come out, and begin to enunciate the politics of the direct, head-on challenge their very existence poses to gender regimes, I think we have a truly revolutionary force on our hands, a potent force. The only question is, how long will they think of themselves, and allow so many of us to think of them, as “…only crossdressers?”