Praise be: We’re trans-forming

Trendsetter: Angular and enigmatic, Grace Jones made cross-dressing sexy in the 1980s. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Trendsetter: Angular and enigmatic, Grace Jones made cross-dressing sexy in the 1980s. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)


The recent death of David Bowie – renowned for exploiting his androgynous looks and wearing dresses, make-up and leotards – provoked much discussion on the blurring of gender boundaries.

Conchita Wurst, the winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, who wowed the world with her resplendent gown and her long, glossy hair and beard, is the alter ego of Tom Neuwirth, a young Austrian man.

Annie Lennox is remembered for her androgynous dressing at the 1984 Grammys, where she shocked the conservative Reagan/Thatcher era by wearing a mannish suit, skinny tie, fake sideburns and lipstick. Her image of a “drag king” made a strong gender-bending statement, one she frequently repeated.

Jamaican pop star Grace Jones cultivated her statuesque, androgynous appearance, claiming her masculine side “is a bit stronger” than her feminine side.

  Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, written in 1928 and inspired by Woolf’s relationship with the novelist Vita Sackville-West, relates the story of Orlando, who morphs from male to female and back over 300 years. Woolf explores how a change of sex forces a re-examination of identity, raising the question of whether identity depends largely on the perception of a male or female persona created by clothing.

Yet, regardless of sexual fashion indicators, does one remain the same essential personality underneath? We all, to a greater or lesser degree, conform to the expectations of society and its fashions, which largely determine our identity and the way others perceive us.
A more gender-neutral environment could liberate people to manipulate their shifting identities and uncover their true nature.

  The 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show explored androgyny through a spoof on Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, Dr Frank N Furter – apparently male, but wearing lingerie and fishnet stockings, and singing: “I’m a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania.” Brad and Janet, two naive newlyweds, are introduced to his unsettling castle of androgyny and lose their innocence.

The enthusiastic following of this in-your-face remake of a classic narrative, which held particular appeal for the gay and transsexual communities, is evidence of the desire to claim a sense of identity in an often hostile environment.

History presents numerous strong, assertive and courageous female figures, some of them divine, challenging male dominance and its stereotyping of women as weak, simpering and submissive – including Athena, Durga, the Amazons, Boadicea, Britannia and Freya, the Scandinavian goddess of love, riding a chariot drawn by sleek, powerful cats.

These role models have encouraged women to stand tall and face the world more confidently, and such questioning of gender stereotypes has started creating a more receptive attitude to the complex subject of human sexuality.

Transsexuals – who choose to identify with the sex opposite to their birth sex – and their quest for an authentic identity has begun to be regarded with respect. Those who describe themselves as gender-variant cover a wide range of identities: those who identify as male to female or female to male, or transsexuals who may or may not wish to have hormone treatment or surgery, as well as cross-dressers, drag queens and drag kings.

More people are now acknowledging that each individual should be allowed the freedom to choose and live out his or her self-defined sexual identity.

  Stories of people such as travel writer Jan Morris, who wrote about her 10-year transition from male to female in the book Conundrum; American economist and historian Donald McCloskey, whose journey to becoming Deirdre McCloskey was recorded in Crossing: A Memoir; and, more recently, the high-profile account of Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner have highlighted the emotional turmoil experienced by many in their quest for their authentic selves.

  Recently, South African publication Trans recorded the experiences of local women and men who have made this momentous decision.

Revelations of how intolerance affects those regarded as sexual deviants – such as lower life expectancies, a high incidence of unemployment and poverty, being denied police protection and basic medical care, high suicide rates and even murder – are contributing to understanding and compassion for those who choose alternative paths.

We all stand to benefit from this exploration of the wide range of human personality, breaking the hegemony of constricting sexual stereotypes and helping build a gentler, more tolerant world less divided by rigid barriers of gender expectations.

  Alleyn Diesel has a PhD in religious studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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