Cartoon: two female figures in a bar, and one says to the other “You’re a transvestite aren’t you? I like that in a man.”
The funny thing is, it happens all the time, only it’s usually another man who who says that to us. Yes I know the standard formula: “Just because I like wearing frocks, it doesn’t mean I’m gay. Under this sequined boob-tube beats a heart as heterosexual as John Wayne’s. The proof is, I love women so much that I want to be like them….”
And I have no doubt that the Woman magazine’s national survey on men’s sexuality was right when, a few years ago, it found that the proportion of gay men among TVs was not greatly different than among the nation at large.
Only… There is a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that this is not the end of the story.
Picture the scenario: There you are on a Saturday night at the bar of your favourite club. You have chosen that red silk blouse and the black velvet skirt that just skims your knees. Nail varnish, ‘Bet Lynch’ earrings, red heels.
The leg shaving alone took you forty minutes to perfect. Be honest now, this is not a get-up in which you expect to be discussing the chances of Arsenal for the cup and league double. You are not about to seriously chat up that smart piece of stuff in the corner. No, you are there with the intension of passing as an even smarter piece of stuff yourself, and getting chatted up in your turn.
I remember the first time it happened to me. A lad who looked about fifteen asked me: “Haven’t I seen you here before?” and like a twerp I reacted to this as a serious request for information, It only dawned on me later that this was the classic chat-up, the social equivalent of pawn to king four. Nowadays I know what to expect.
And what to expect is not to receive advances from a gay man. This is to say, not a delicate creature with limp wrists and a job in interior design, nor a Burt Lancaster look-alike with white tee-shirt, white jeans and a droopy moustache. The first one hasn’t existed since Julian and Sandy on ‘Round the Horne’, and the second will be too busy searching for another Burt Lancaster look-alike to give you a second glance.
Hadn’t you realised that gay men aren’t actually interested in anyone in skirts? It is quite possible to sit for hours in a gay bar and not be spoken to by anyone other than the barman, and then only to overcharge you for the drink.
No, this is where the social interaction between TVs and the real world gets very interesting. There are two common reactions in my experience, one from women and the other from not-really gay men.
From women, it is very common to be earnestly and sympathetically interviewed on what you’re doing, what makes you tick, whether you do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and (as the evening wears on and the conversation becomes more intimate) how you manage to hide it, you know, ‘it’. The reactions will be fascinated, encouraging, but always never sexual.
There may be some swapping of hints on make-up, and even swapping of wigs and boobs- well, not swapping exactly (dream on!) but touching and trying. But all this will remain at the technical level. At the end of the evening she will go off with the fella she arrived with, who has been spending this time getting in his ration of lager and smiling self-confidently to himself.
This is not to say that conversations of this kind are a waste of time. On the contrary they can lead to beautiful friendships, and every tranny can use all the friends she can get. I know a lesbian couple who are great fun for an evening out the town, and wouldn’t we all like a big sister to show us the ropes, go shopping with us and let us know when our slips are showing? But to expect it get much further than that is wishful thinking.
This leaves us with the other group of acquaintances we might expect to strike up – the fellas.
Let’s consider first the romantic scenario of the handsome young concert pianist on his evening off, who mistakes you for a front-page model and whisks you off to the Maldives on his private jet. It may happen, and even as I write a winged porcine has just gone soaring past the window….
The reality, in my experience is rather different. There was Mike, a burly Irish textile salesman in an attrocious emerald green cardigan. Married, he told me, and as befits a good Catholic, father of five. “Er, let me get this right, now. You are a man, yes? And you’re dressed as a woman?”
Nothing if not perceptive, our Mike. “This is very interesting, what you’re doing. D’you see, this sort of thing doesn’t exist in Ireland.” (He clearly didn’t know about the Dublin-based Friends of Eon)
“How do you mean?” I asked. “Well, er, ho….er, ho…sexuality.” There, the word was out, and I could spot the way the conversation would soon be turning. Did I know I was a very attractive woman? How would I like to go back with him to his hotel room…?
Henri, at the fancy dress ball in France, was far more debonair with his goatee beard and corsair looks – no, not an eye patch, but the kind of creased face that comes from living fifty years on a windy coast. He spotted me across the dancefloor while I was still sipping my first glass of dutch courage, grinned and pointed at me knowingly.
Within seconds he was whisking me away in a tango, oblivious of the fact that I couldn’t dance a step of it. Several dances and several glasses full of courage later, he sat down beside me and began: “Mais, est-ce que vous etes vraiment une femme?” – but are you really a woman?
“What do you think,” I asked him in my deepest baritone.
The third one was Dave, and here I began to suspect a pattern designed by fate. Dave was a lorry driver from Wolverhampton who must have thought it was his birthday when this blonde in the pub gave a cheeky smile and said that yes, the seat next to him was free. A few sentences into the conversation, and his delighted grin began to waver.
“Er, excuse me for asking this, but you are a woman aren’t you?” “This evening I am, yes.” “Ah, good.” And then the double-take. Really, Dave was well out of his depth. My voice was rather deep? Because of my cold, I explained.
“But you have very feminine hands,” he assured me. Or was he trying to reassure himself? At any rate, alongside Dave’s great shovels, even Mike Tyson might have been said to have feminine hands.
So, what was the pattern that I saw emerging? That I seem to attract rugged middle-aged men? Ah, well, mustn’t grumble: I’m no longer in my first flush of youth myself. No, it’s not that. It’s firstly that all these three, so far as I could judge from what they told me, were full-blooded heterosexuals and yet they went for me.
Am I so utterly convincing? No way. Because all three of them, at a certain point in the conversation asked the crucial question: am I or aren’t I a woman?
Now this is not a question that real girls get asked. No man seriously in search of a partner for the evening asks the lady he’s dancing with if she is really a woman (he might ask if she’s really a lady, but that’s another issue….). It seems a calculated way to get a slap across the face and a stiletto in your instep.
No, the very fact that they dared put the question meant that deep down they already know the answer. And yet, when given an honest reply and modest proof, they all three pursued the bedroom sales patter.
It seems to me that there are two things happening here. One is the astonishing way in which the human mind is influenced by sensory input from the eyes in far greater proportion than from the logic centres of the brain. “He’d try to get off with a lamp-post if you put a skirt on it”, the old saying goes, and it seems to be entirely true that, with a modicum of snazzy dressing and careful make-up, even the least feminine of us can create a visual impression that overwhelms some men’s sense of reason.
If this is what you’re looking for, I can recommend the combined effect of strongly contrasting colours (especially red and black), lots of serious hair (blonde but not peroxide) and red high heels. All of this amounts to what is known to anthropologists as a Supernormal Stimulus.
“A supernormal stimulus is one that exceeds its natural counterpart,” writes Desmond Morris in Manwatching. He explains how man ‘can improve on his own physical features in many ways’ and can similarly ‘supernormalise’ the world around him by artificial means.
“If he wishes to improve his height, he can wear high-heeled shoes: if he wishes to improve the smoothness of his skin, he can wear cosmetics….. There is no end to the many ways in which he has amplified his body-signals as a means of improving his sexual displays….”
True, when Morris writes of ‘man’ he means humankind and not males, but the relevance to transvestism is striking.
All this might explain why Mike, Henri and Dave were fooled for a moment or two by the sight of a fancy hairdo or an off-the-shoulder dress. But I have known other men for example who have invited me to dance, and then left me standing on the dancefloor a moment or two later once they discovered their mistake, with a shake of the head and a muttered “No, I can’t take this”.
What made our three examples persevere? Were they totally sex-starved? This seems unlikely, since in two of the three cases there were plenty of Real Girls in the immediate vicinity, and even Mike could have chosen a different club to stroll into on a Wednesday night in Manchester.
No, it seems evident to me that on occasions we TVs act as a safety valve for men who are tempted by the idea of homosexuality but without being turned on by the physical appearance of other men.
What drives these what one might call ‘crypto-gays’? Not, I think, any kind of intellectual leaning towards homosexuality, as it is sometimes claimed by the critics of open-speaking on gay issues. These critics argue that the media hype about homosexuality will persuade otherwise straight men (or children, as this phobia is often directed against gay teachers) off the straight and narrow.
I gained no impression that any of the three men I described had made up their minds that they ought to try gender-bending and had hunted me down as their excuse.
No, their inclination, so far as I could tell, was a genuinely emotional and physical one. Perhaps more than their more conventional colleagues and more than many writers on the subject, they had realised that the strict categorisation of male/female, gay/straight, simply does not match reality.
We all know the kind of psychological author who attempts to divide humanity into clearly defined types (yes, all 6,000 million of us). The truth is that these boundaries are mental constructs – they do not exist in the real world, but have been made up by humans.
The reason may be religious. The ancient Jews had a mania for categorising and then keeping the categories seperate that went far beyond the well-known meat/milk duality. It was for instance forbidden to mix linen and wool in the same garment, a law that appears only a few lines below the well-known verse forbidding a man to put on a woman’s dress or vice versa. (Deuteronomy 22).
It’s curious, don’t you think, that those who argue against transvestism on religious grounds don’t get equally het up about polyster-cotton sheets…?
Or else the reasons may stem from a human need for security, to have things cut and dried, to know where one stands. Maturity, it is said, is the ability to live with ambiguity: by that standard there are a good many immature people around.
Whatever the cause, Mike, Henri and Dave seem to have overcome the straitjacket of conventional categories and surprised themselves in the process.
“I don’t usually do this sort of thing you know….” I suppose we trannies must be good for something!