The "Guy-In-A-Dress" Line

It's at the heart of transgender -- and why people reject the whole transgender idea.

by Callan Williams
Copyright 1999

"Miss Gay America is about Gay men being Gay men, and the art of female impersonation," said Norman Jones, the owner the pageant, explaining that the policy against transsexuals is key to the pageant's philosophy.

"Otherwise you're a blob of collagen."

this is the great dividing line of transpeople
(or "just-a-girl" for transpeople born female)

some cling to guy-in-a-dress
some reject guy-in-a-dress
some ignore guy-in-a-dress
some attack guy-in-a-dress

and after all
it asks the question
can the expectations laid on history
and on biology
ever be transcended

or is there no hope
of transformation.

"Transsexualism is a much more profound, deep-seated identity disorder, not cross-dressing as a hobby they do on a Saturday night," said Dr Russell Reid, an English based psychiatrist who sees four new transsexual patients every week. "It's not the same as the gay boys who cross dress and the drag queens - that's a game, they're parody women."

The line that runs though the heart of the transgender idea, at least for people born male, is the line of where being a-guy-in-a-dress ends and where being a woman starts.

People who reject the transgender idea reject it because of their position on being a guy-in-a-dress. For crossdressers and female impersonators, they want to be a guy-in-a-dress, no matter what they do, retaining the position as men in the system of desire, whether they desire straight women or gay men. For transsexuals, they never want to be seen as guys-in-dresses, no matter what they do, retaining the position of woman in their cultural context.

"Identifying a drag queen as a trannie isn’t even comparing apples and oranges, it’s more like apples and Volkswagens.

"Trannies, as in post-op, pre-op, and often even non-op
are female identified and live our lives as women 100%, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I’ve recently been very irked to see some well known clubs using the term trannie, or trannies
to advertise artists who are bona fide drag queens.
They’ve never popped a hormone in their entire night lives.

"As a transgender woman I believe that it’s necessary to educate the public
that comparing a drag queen to a transsexual is offensive.

Though I adore drag queens, they parody women.

"Transsexuals are women; women who often have to struggle daily for our human rights.
Transsexual entertainers leave the nightclub and go to bed to wake up as women.
Drag queens go home, take off their make up and live as men.

"I believe it’s high time that when a popular club exploits the transgender theme,
they should be employing true transsexuals who often need the money more than a popular drag queen.
Chances are he has a day gig as a man. "

Glorya Wholesome, NYC Party Promoter, December 1999

In transgender spaces on the Internet, the discussion almost always turns on this issue: does biology and history define us as always men, no matter what we do to change our choices, our role or our body, or are we really defined by what we believe ourselves to be and to have always been?

For trans people, their stand on this issue defines how they approach the world with their own choices. Are they merely crossdressers, just changing clothes? Are they really women, with a disorder of having a female brain in a male appearing body that comes from birth? Are they just doing it for the show? Are they standing up for the right to be eccentric and individual and where whatever they want as a man? Are they demanding to enter women's spaces, with or without surgery? Do they claim there is no real difference between men and women, or do they want to keep separate from guys-in-dresses?

How can we approach this issue in a way that doesn't trigger our fears, push us to try and erase people who have a different position, and find some consensus?

wearing clothes culturally assigned to the gender which isn't connected with your birth genital configuration.

creating the appearance that you were born & raised
with the appropriate body for your gender expressions

someone who makes the choices assigned to woman

someone assigned as female bodied at birth or soon thereafter

someone with a male body who has been
surgically and hormonally altered to appear as female as possble.

The issue for transpeople-born-female is embracing manhood, not abandoning woman, so it's phrased slightly reversed -- the line is the "really a man" line. Drag Kings and Butches -- and even Les Feinberg -- avoid manhood and cling to their woman identification, for personal, political and sexual reasons.

it's much harder for women to crossdress,
they have a much larger wardrobe
though they can temporarily transsex themselves
with strapping breasts and packing a dildo
like drags and crossdressers temporarily transsex themselves
with tucked penis and breast forms.

This is the problem: we can't yet change the sex of a human body.

We can, though intervention with hormones and surgery, change the appearance and even some body functions, femaling a male body, but not making it female, as a Texas court recently ruled in denying widows status to a transsexual woman to a man born male, ruling it to be a same sex marriage and void.

Even for transsexuals who claim they were born with a "female brain" in an otherwise normal male body -- a claim that cannot be made on any objective criteria -- have to ask why medical science should not work to fix their brain to their body, rather than the body to the brain.

It's not clear why transsexual surgery should be viewed as different than any other form of body modification, from breast implants to castration to genital nullification, none of which change the sex of the body even when they change some external sexual characteristics.

Being femaled may well add to the quality of your life, give you peace and standing to change your life, make sexual relationships better, even if it doesn't change the sex of your body. Do people of asian decent turn white when they get an operation to open the epicanthral folds in their eyelids and make them more round eyed than almond eyed? Or do they just feel better about themselves, change their appearance to others?

The Legendary Miss Iodine works as a boy at a local car dealership.
On the wall behind him is a picture of her in performance, slim and beautiful.

Iodine reports straight men often blanch when they examine the photo.

Why? Because she is so pretty, they think they might hit on her and take her home.

Does that make them homosexual?

The fundamental differentiation between humans is by sex. We read reproductive sex quickly, and we read it well.

Identifying people by sex is fundamental to control of reproduction and child rearing, which is the primary function of a system of gender. If human reproduction was not based on being sexually dimorphic -- and any species which is between 45-49% one thing and 45-49% another over a very large sample can be considered dimorphic -- then the system of gender, if it existed, would be very different.

If we cannot yet change sex, change males to females, females to males, then the division of people by sex which is fundamental to control sexual reproduction stays fundamental.

Gender is a system of communication that enforces social order around sexual relations, reproduction and child rearing though the establishment and communication of gender roles and expectations. Women are mommies and men are daddies. Since procreation is fundamental to the continuation of the species and the culture, gender is important.

Though gendered expression we advertise the role we are trained and willing to play in the dance of human reproduction. When our gendered claims are at odds with our individual behaviors, social pressure ensues. This is why people who are not firmly fixed in the gender/sex connection, by being femaled if woman or by staying man and male, give political activists headaches.

Transvestism is about changing your clothes.

Transsexualism is about changing your body.

Transgender is about changing your mind.

Every person born male with transgender feelings has to come to a position on being a guy-in-a-dress. Is being a-guy-in-a-dress a fact of life that will always be true for anyone born with a penis and identified as male at birth, or is being a-guy-in-a-dress a total erasure of the truth of who we know ourselves to be?

Whatever we choose, we know that is the line we have to watch, because we run the risk of having our manhood yanked from us because we are a 'femiphile' or we have the risk of being a guy-in-a-dress when people discover our birth genital configuration in any moment. It's this line where the skirmishes occur, this boundary that is policed heavily by everyone involved in transgender.

The premise of SSS has always been to say that just because a man likes to pad his body, dress up, wear makeup and be called by a woman's name, doesn't mean he isn't a real heterosexual man. Many transsexual groups say that "real transsexuals" were never really men, or even really male, that the appearance of functioning male reproductive organs was just some kind of birth defect.

A code the producers of Let's Make a Deal used to code contestants:
"Your Average Guy In A Dress"

Transvestites argue that if they just change their clothes, everything else stays the same, stays normative

Transsexuals argue that if they change their bodies, their "sex" changes, becomes normative.

Transgender folk argrue that as they change their minds, they become more fully themselves, whatever normative is. Some take this to an extreme and say society doesn't need a normative at all, others say that norms are useful, but should only be a starting point, not an end point.

crossdressers say "I am a normal guy, in a dress."
drag queens say "I am a normal gay guy, in a dress."
transpeople say "Guys who wear dresses aren't normative."'

transsexuals say "I am a normal female woman, who was born with a penis."
transpeople say "Women born with penises aren't normative."

The division between transpeople is not their behavior or their desires, but their level of rationalization and pretense. It is not what they feel called to do, but how they choose to manage and justify those callings.

Do we deny the feelings? Do call them a sickness that needs a cure? Do we sublimate them?

How do we face the pressure to appear normative when we know that we are not normative -- we are males who are called to make choices society has categorized as feminine, as appropriate to women and not appropriate to men?

Do we try and just indulge being a guy in a dress, or do we run from every really being male?

Transgendered people are exceptions in a vast sea of people for whom the idea of social division by genital configuration makes perfect sense. There has never been a society without gender, and the vast majority females like being women, males like being men.

It's easy for transgendered people to know what they hate, what they reject, what they find oppressive, what they want to run from. It's hard for us to know what we want to be, where we are willing to settle and assimilate.

We may be an immigrant to woman, or we may be in exile from man.

you can have lots of fun
being a guy-in-a-dress.

after all, I should know.
I identified that way for about eight years
even using my given boys name
just changing my clothes.

costume, costume, costume
play and fun
on-stage or off
crossdressers and drag queens
cocky under a mini-skirt.

really a guy
dressing up and playing
swagger and bravado
fun fun fun.

There is nothing like that moment when your gender switches in someone's eyes.

It might be the moment the cop reads your license, or the moment the guy next to you starts hitting on you. In that second, you aren't anymore what you believe you are, you have been re-gendered by the observation of another.

There is a choice in that moment: try to reclaim or play it as it lays. Do you assert you are really a man, try to claim you are really a woman?

Jhana Steele, actress and Las Vegas showgirl, replied to a reporter who said she fooled him into thinking she was a woman, "No, I convinced you I am a woman." Part of that is the extraordinary way her body has been feel femaled, and part of that is the seamless choices of a woman she makes, but she doesn't fool anyone -- she just expresses her truth.

the word crossdressing
should be removed from vocabulary
replaced with transgender.
to crossdress is to focus on clothing
not expression
to somehow link clothing with sex
and make sex determinate.

crossdressers, of course
would disagree.
they cling to being men
who just wear cross-clothes
about the objects
and not what they mean.
(which is that the wearer isn't really manly).

Kymberleigh Richards, former publisher of Crosstalk (and not nearly as easily femaled as Ms. Steele), recalls when a twenty-something gent with a set of Lexus keys who was ahead of her in line at the Thrifty Drug turned and said "You're not fooling anyone, you know." Kym replied, "Good. That wasn't the point."

The reason we want to pass as being born the normative sex for our gender presentation is simple: it means we don't have to negotiate the fears of other people, don't have to worry about what people think every time we go into the women's room.

(and others)
denied normativity
define themselves as normative
striking out against others
they see as not normative
even when external observers
see little difference between the two.

crossdressing is normal, but gays are bad.
transsexualism is normal, but crossdressers are bad.
drag is normal, but transsexualism is bad.
indvidualism is normal, but assimilation is bad.
passing is normal, but standing out is bad.
heart space is normal, but critical thought is bad.
feminist separatism is normal, but men-only spaces are bad.
and so on
and so on
and so on...

at least,
i'm not sure i get the point
of being a guy-in-a-dress

(and every transperson born male
knows they are a hair's breath of being a guy-in-a-dress
in any moment they are exposed
no matter how femaled of body and woman of role
they are.)

no matter how good being a guy in a dress is
some people have to separate from being one
in order to become something new.

"A fanatic is someone
who can't change their mind and
who won't change the subject,"
said Winston Churchill.

If we can't change out minds
and society won't change the subject from being a guy-in-a-dress
how do we grow up?

Is trans behavior about concealing your history and biology, or is transgender about revealing your inner spirit?

Is the only choice we have to lie, either to lie about who we were, to lie about our body, or to lie about our inner feelings? Is there a way to tell the truth about both things and not be dismissed as a guy in a dress?

If we do tell truths most people find conflicting, both male and woman, do we become marginalized, written off as weird, freaks, out of society?

How do we create mature models of transgender if transgender stays only an adolescent phenomenon, about change and not about stability, about being a transforming child and not taking a role as a stable parent?

Maybe the ultimate trans operation is having the stick removed from your butt, the rigid pole that we use to hide our true fluid nature, the pole that stops us from becoming all we can be.

i don't identify as a transsexual
trying to transsex my body
being femaled
but many transsexuals have said
I seem more like a transsexual
than many self-identified transsexuals.

i do identify as transgender
making new choices
regendering my mind
by moving beyond old patterns
to womanspace

but what does that mean
to the young black man
behind the cash register
who says
"I'll help you next, sir"
to my woman painted face?

The word ma'am would choke in his mouth
he can't be fooled
he can't be lead astray
by guys-in-dresses.

The drill is the same
the only thing you can be
is a guy-in-a-dress
and don't you forget it.

Any wonder why
long-term stealth transsexuals
scream bloody hell at any notion
that draws a line between them
and people who claim to be

They know
in a heartbeat
their years and their efforts can be swept away
because of a bit of birth
and they can be sir again
to a smug teenage face
who claims a victory for his shallow view
of the truth.

The question for me is the same: How do I feel safe making the choices of a woman? It's a question many struggle with -- being terrified people will feel betrayed if they see us as a woman born female -- passing -- , then discover she is born male and then feel betrayed and lied to.

The choices most trannys (born male) have discovered is

  1. to be well femaled -- though that is rarely possible later in life, and requires we conceal our biology and history
  2. to only choose safe women's choice, a kind of benign and sweet and impotent life that won't trigger attacks,
  3. to make their status as tranny clear, staying on some level a man-in-a-dress, an eccentric individual. This requires that they not make totally woman choices, for that would communicate woman -- they have to retain man choices to signal that they are not woman.

lets read these choices

  1. to lie
  2. to be silent and placating
  3. to live in no-man's/no-woman's land, apart from gender

I am at a workshop for GLBT people and the facilitator insists on calling me "he."

"What am I saying that makes you believe I see myself as a 'he?'" I ask.

"Is it my women's shoes, my women's stockings, my women's dress, my women's makeup, my women's makeup, my women's hair?

"Or is it just the fact you can determine I was born male,
so that one fact overcomes everything I am saying about myself, about who I am?

"Can't you hear over my penis?"

How does one deal with transpeople?
Honor who people show you they are,
not who you expect them to be.
See their heart,
not just their body and/or history.

Of course, that's how you should deal with everyone.
Transpeople may be execptional,
but on some level,
every human is an exceptional being.

Is trans just about the drive to change clothes, and not the drive to express something deep within?

Is trans just about being born with the wrong body, and not being born with the power to cross worlds, walk though walls others see as solid?

Is trans just about performing on stage, and not about the performance of gender we make everyday?

Is trans for people born male just about guys in dresses, or is trans about saying that guys-in-dresses aren't really guys at all?

We can't yet change the sex of a body, no matter how many operations and how many powerful hormones we survive.

We can change our choices to transcend history and biology. We can define our role in culture by defining how we perform who we are inside.

Do we try to learn the tricks of the trade and pass, or do we work to actually learn the trade we claim?

I really do love my clothes
my new tights are wonderful
and painting my face
is an ephemeral work of my art
but as much as the phrase
I want to be a drag queen
runs though my head
guy-in-a-dress playing clown

my secret dream
my lost dream
my hardest dream
is simply to be a woman
so I can make the choices of a woman
and never worry about being exposed
even when a lover gets me naked.

I can be a a drag queen,
a big bold queer guy-in-a-dress,
but if that was enough
I would have been happy
years ago.

Gender roles are good and valuable.

Rules are a basis for a stable society.

Transcending those rules, though, and creating new ones, is the only way progress can be made.

There ain't no rules around here!
We're trying to accomplish something!
Thomas Alva Edison

guy-in-a-dress is the cleft
and people whose reality says
humans should be separated by penile status
(including gay men, feminists, transsexuals and crossdressers)
keep that division alive.

Callan Williams' writing can be found at

2000-01-28 18:53 -0500