Men in Skirts - by Warren Joseph Bugeja
A year ago in Wellington feels like a lifetime ago. I happen to gate crash the capital during a pride week basking in the only four days of wind-free 2020 sunshine. Inconceivably now, in an unrelatable world of mask-wearing and social distancing, the Fringe Festival and the Arts Festival also converge over the quite-by-chance long weekend I’m there. Covid-19 is just a distant European storm on the horizon.
Travel is all about walking the unfamiliar. Senses are heightened, ideas seeded, aesthetics broadened, and creativity inspired. New habitats are explored whilst perceptions and viewpoints are challenged. Often enough, cultural exchange may occur on a passive level just by observing different lifestyles and behaviour. Traveling is as much about being exposed to novel emotional, intellectual, and physical horizons as it is about looking for the familiar in the unfamiliar.
In Wellington, my own notions about gender identity have been placed under a microscope. It is true, it is hard to keep up with all the acronyms and pronouns. Every year there seems to be a new letter on the abbreviation for the gender identity spectrum. I think it currently stands at LGBTQIAPK+, but that’s only because I looked it up on google.
Wellington, pocket-sized as far as capitals go, must be a progressive city. I know this country is helmed by an unabashedly feminist Prime Minister: who champions gay rights, gender equality, and unusually for a politician, preaches kindness and empathy, gauging her country’s well-being by its happiness factor, not by GDP growth. Nevertheless, attitudes and stereotypes die a slow death.
The city is wearing its most flamboyant colours, kitted out as it is for the rainbow anniversary.
However, the men in skirts I bump into on the street, not in the parade, don’t seem to be dressed up for the occasion. I hazard a guess that this business as normal. These brave individuals, and this is a retrospective conclusion, have 5 o’clock shadows on their chin, no make up, untidy shortish hair, two of them are wearing a jacket and shirt or blouse. So far, so ‘normal’. Incongruously they are clutching a handbag and wearing a skirt and the lower my gaze falls; flat, mannish shoes. One of the two has very hairy legs. Another man (for now I’ll stick to man) is wearing a beard, eyeliner, a long psychedelic dress and jandals. All three men I encounter, separately, are not trying to stand out from the crowd, not strutting about in that overdone feminine sway that men in drag exaggerate. Rather they seem to be trying to blend in, hurrying to work or getting errands done. It’s like they got up and said “Oh today I feel like putting on a skirt.”
Somehow this challenges me. My first reaction is why bother? It just seems so haphazard and messy. But then, fast on the heels of my first impression, the penny drops. These men are NOT in drag. This is how they felt like presenting themselves to the world. This is the outward manifestation of how they are feeling today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. This person woke up, did not bother to shave their beard to start off with, their armpits or their legs, but felt like putting on a skirt. Why the hell not? What should it matter to anyone? Yes, then I think how incredibly courageous to walk down a high street like that in rush hour and to be yourself. These people are pioneers.
Men have been wearing skirts and tunics for centuries after all. They probably stopped doing so when breeches came into fashion during the late renaissance. They still do in the Arab and Hindu world. Here in NZ it is not unusual to see a Maori male or a male of Samoan origin to saunter into a department store wearing a wrap over long skirt and most likely barefoot. But these are signifiers of otherness that set specific cultures apart.
Women braved the apparel, gender divide more than a century ago. No shock value nowadays, when presented with a short or shaven-haired female of the species donning trousers or a tuxedo. So in these pseudo gender enlightened times, why should a man in skirt raise eyebrows? Do we need another sexual revolution for men this time along the lines of ‘burn the trousers’?
The bottom line is: no matter how many women there are in parliament at present, western civilization, though very much in flux, remains -at least culturally-essentially a patriarchal society. Aspiring to emulate the dominant alpha in the status quo, is seen as flattering to the male ego, and okayed by society in general. Trousers are after all, very practical. However a man in a skirt, that is an object to be ridiculed isn’t it? Why would a male of the species want to ‘demean’ himself by presenting himself as a weaker and subservient individual, thereby discrediting the macho agenda of white male supremacy?
Hitherto, whenever I have encountered men dressed up as women, or even dressed up as a woman myself during carnival or a gender bender party, normally the spotlight is on accentuating the siren aspect of female sexuality; breasts are over emphasised; and skirts hitched up high. More Marilyn Monroe than Mother Theresa. Makeup is generally lurid and red. Drag Artiste phenomena, Ru Paul has made transvestism mainstream with his successful run of TV shows, no mean feat. Shimmering in sequins and boas, tottering on towering platforms, batting their impossible eyelashes in time to their on-the-beat quips, these talented divas have generated an exposure explosion to the notion of a man beneath all that glamour. Possibly it has a knock on tolerance effect for those identifying as gender non-binary or gender fluid. Yet to me drag races are all about turning this highly unrealistic stereotype of idealized femininity up a few notches. Real women don’t act or dress like that in their everyday life. So where does a biological man who wants to don a dress every now and then, but keep their ‘tache’ get his/their role models from? Sam Smith, British crooner and song writer, multi Grammy award and Academy Award winner who came out as genderqueer and non-binary in 2017 and 2019 respectively, springs to mind. “I feel just as much a woman as I do a man” Sam (who has adopted the pronoun ‘they’ explains their decision to embrace themselves after a lifetime at war with their gender.
One of this year’s Wellington fringe line ups featured a 50 minute mime and physical theatre performance by NYC-based artist, Ania Upstill , entitled ‘Transhumance’.
Waiting to enter the show is a group of schoolgirls in uniform. Amongst them, standing apart, is a person whose gender I can’t place. They are leaning against the wall of the theatre venue wearing a ‘keep your distance’ scowl. That is how I interpret their expression anyway. I would say that this person was a boy. Everything about them signposted ‘boy’; but they were wearing a rather unflattering long skirt on top of black brogues. The other girls had shorter hem lines. There was no facial hair; but this was a pre-pubescent classroom and this person sported a very boyish hairstyle. I’m singling them out because everything about them seemed to be silently screaming I’m different, don’t pigeonhole me.
The blurb promoting Transhumance invites audiences to ‘dive into the absurd as we follow one clown’s magical journey across the landscape of gender in search of a place to call home’.
Anita’s gender binary meme is a train station. Using just one suitcase of props, she initially exits the station as a blank canvas. Looking around she finds a map of the female human body. Opening her suitcase she has to match what she finds therein to the map; and eventually learn how to wobble in heels and put on a dress. Soon she becomes the victim of sexual harassment, cleverly depicted in a dance where her imaginary partner insists on placing his (we presume) hand lower and lower down on her back. A voice over ‘yes and no’ sequence teaches her to be shameful of her underarm hair and that her breasts need to be highlighted. Unhappy with this map, she removes the appendages of constraint and gets back on the train. This time, the next stop is a map of the male body. At first she enjoys his new found freedom in trousers; and getting cheap laughs for what would not be seen quite as humorous in a female role. But then his freedom becomes hampered with the charade of having to keep up the appearances of manliness. His gun toting aggression turns inwards and he becomes a victim too. The last station has no map. The actor tears the dress in two which now transforms into a jacket and combines it with a handkerchief which in act one stands in for a breast, in act two for male genitalia and act three, it transmutes form into a neckerchief. The actor feels most themselves in this open ended zone, ‘an in-between world’, where they are free to create themselves to fit and reflect whom they are inside.
The performance is brief, funny, thought provoking and involves audience participation. No words are spoken, yet we all get it.
Unchartered territory is scary but exciting. In the age of covid-19, there are indeed no maps to go by.
Gender fluidity is just one of the new frontiers. This person presenting themselves in the street walking in the street dressed half like a man, half like a woman is a pioneer. This is what the future will look like. Imagine a star trek control deck, gender identity even species identity is never an issue. It’s a given. In the future everybody will be able to dress according to the mood they woke up in. Who cares? Why should people care? Why should they feel affronted? Perhaps, because they are forced to confront their own dysmorphia, and how they might compare to media gender stereotypes.
In the future everybody will be able to cross-dress according to the mood they woke up in
Pink for girls blue for boys. How ridiculous and why? Have you ever questioned the history behind this color partisanship? Most likely not because it is coded into our gender perceptions during infancy. Now I love color, the brighter the better. I find the sea of black and greys in winter (when a splash of color would be most grateful) and amongst artsy types in galleries highly unimaginative. Like a magpie, I’m attracted to a canary yellow, wooden necklace in the museum shop within the City Gallery Wellington. This necklace shouts sunshine. It’s ‘obviously’ for a woman, but why? These men in skirts have suddenly made me question this. That’s why diversity is healthy and necessary. I’m not one for jewelry, I don’t have a tattoo and I’ve only started wearing a wristwatch because I don’t want a cellphone against my skin. In short I like to feel free and unencumbered and probably have issues with commitment. Nevertheless I’d wear this necklace just because it’s so bright and cheerful. Indeed I’d like to wear this necklace ‘just because’. I just want to have the option to do so without the stares of judgement, as opposed to those of appreciation. If I were a chieftain of some exotic tribe nobody would take me to task over the necklace would they?
On the way back to my car after the show, I pass by an alleyway just off Manners Street. Three people in hoodies are lurking there, drawing on their cigarettes and occasionally spitting. One holds a beer can in his hand and another is cussing. Now these types would never wear a bright hoody. It’s always a drab blue or black or grey. Following on from the performance, these guys seem to be ones full of fear because they have to conform to a very limited range of acceptable behavioral displays which they continuously need to affirm to each other. These guys always roam in a gang of three or more, never less. Alone they’d be too cowardly to hurl insults at anyone. I feel sorry for them, trapped as they are by another stereotype. I wonder what the world would be like if mob logic was pink and unicorn-ed ? Further up the street, this is when I pass the man wearing the hippie dress. I hope he is isn’t heckled when he passes that alleyway. Now who is braver?
We find and renew ourselves in the treads and trails of our collective human histories, where nomad meets the settler at the intersections of trade routes and travel destinations. They say change is as good as a rest. I like to think it’s the whispers and echoes of all the international strands of DNA within us, calling us home. Home to wherever we want it to be, however we want to express ourselves. One day, in the none too distant future a man in a skirt won’t make us stare.