Posted by: Emily | 22 February 2013

Cross-dressing and Transmisogyny on Purim

[Content warning for verbal abuse, rape culture, victim blaming, physical harassment, and swear words.]

The first time I ever wore girls’ clothes in public was Purim when I was eleven. I had the idea that it would be funny to dress up as the Energizer bunny. I turned one of my mom’s old gigantic hatboxes into a silver drum, and she borrowed on my behalf a friend’s daughter’s pink hoodie and pants. We made rabbit ears out of something, and a pair of oversized sunglasses completed the costume. It was a pretty great costume, I’m not gonna lie. But I’ll never forget the feeling when I put on those clothes: simultaneously exhilarated to finally have the chance to wear girl’s clothing in public, and angry and frustrated at the realization that people were going to see a boy in a costume, and not a girl. I almost called the whole thing off there and then.

The next year, when I was in sixth grade, one of my male teachers dressed up on Purim in a wig and dress. Not only was this my first experience of cross-dressing on Purim, it was the first time I actually even learned the word “cross-dressing”. I had to ask one of my classmates what it meant. This teacher was a gigantic man who towered over all of the students, and the sight of him in a dress was clearly meant to be funny and amusing. I didn’t want to laugh. All I saw was a parody of a thing I wanted more than anything else. It told me I would be an object to be laughed at, not a person to be respected. I wanted to cry, but I laughed along with my classmates, afraid of what might happen if I didn’t.

In my senior year of high school, six years later, I was starting to come out of my shell, take risks with my presentation, explore names and pronouns and different options among my close friends. And I decided that Purim would be a good time to continue experimenting, to take it one step further. I got a hold of a dress—blue, with flowers—which I stuffed into my bag and took to school, so that I could wear it as a costume. I knew that most people who saw me were again going to see a boy in a costume, but this time I was okay with that, because my friends were going to see me as a girl, finally, in public.

I’m not really sure why I felt the need to duck into the boys’ bathroom so furtively—it’s not like people weren’t going to see me after I came out. I went into a stall, changed as quickly as I possibly could, and came out. Thank goodness, there still wasn’t anybody else in there. I examined myself in the mirror, adjusted one or two things, and exited the bathroom. I went round the corner and went into the sanctuary where we were about to start the morning prayers. A bunch of other people were in there. Some of my friends gave me knowing smiles and even hugs. I got some looks and comments from some other folks. But all in all, I was starting to feel just the tiniest bit safe, even in an unsafe environment, even for just these few hours.

After the prayers and the reading of the Megillah, we went downstairs for lunch. As I came down the stairs, one of my classmates reached at the skirt of my dress and grabbed my bottom. I froze in shock. He passed me on the stairs, and I was too startled to move. I finally reached out with my hand and slapped him. He wheeled round.

“What the fuck?” I said. My voice was quivering.

“What?” he asked, faux-innocently, “you didn’t like that?”

“Why the fuck should I like it?”

“Well,” he condescended to me, “you’re wearing a dress.”

I trembled.

“Why the fuck did you just hit me?” he demanded, suddenly angry. I felt my hands at my side ball into fists.

I don’t remember what I said. I think I was going for something like “You’re not the victim here” but in truth I think it was just a string of curse words.

A few onlookers started to gather closer. One of them addressed me. “Dude,” he said, “chill out. It’s Purim.”

“That doesn’t excuse grabbing my ass,” I said.

“Well,” said someone else, “you’re wearing a dress. You’re kind of asking for it.”

“For real?” I said, incredulously.

“Yeah,” he explained. “You should expect that when you dress up like that.”

I never wore a dress on Purim again.

Purim is traditionally a holiday when up is down, black is white, and the normal rules of everyday life are thrown out the window. People often dress in costume, and cross-dressing is not uncommon. Rabbinical authorities are divided on whether or not the Biblical prohibition on cross-dressing is suspended on Purim, but either way, it doesn’t seem to bother most people.

So you might think that Purim would be a safe time for a nervous, frightened trans* person to experiment with changing their presentation. I know some gender minority folks who do in fact get a lot out of Purim, for exactly this reason, and more power to them. But I don’t. I can’t. It’s transmisogynistic. It’s not true, and it’s not safe.

When I see cis men on Purim dressing up for comedic effect as women, I do not see myself. The comedy hinges on the fact that men “trading down” by dressing up as women are funny, because being a woman is funny, and men being women is even funnier. This kind of humor is rooted in the intersection of transphobia and misogyny. Before coming out, before transition, I could have worn women’s clothes on Purim, and people would have seen a man in a dress. It would have reinforced their idea that I was, in fact, a man, playing at being a woman, because being a woman is something to be played at. It would not have been safe, and it would not have been true. I would be doing it not to be truer to myself, but to be an object of laughter. This is what transmisogyny looks like.

Even now, after changing my name, and my pronouns, and my presentation, some of my cis friends still encourage me to dress up as a woman on Purim. “You must love Purim,” one of them said to me, “because you can really be you on Purim!” I want to ask to this, “What gender do you think I am the rest of the time? What gender do you think I present as in my day-to-day life?” This isn’t the point of Purim. Were I to put on a costume like this, with the understanding that it is supposed to be a costume, it is not a true representation of myself. Truly cross-dressing for me would be putting on a suit and tie, and, well, that just doesn’t interest me much either. Neither of these would be true about me.

In high school, I actually dared to do this, and it was my first experience of sexual harassment and unwanted touching. It makes me physically sick to remember this incident. In what I had thought was going to be a safe environment, I was betrayed by the realization that people perceived as women or even as men dressing up like women are somehow also perceived to be “asking for it”. I was betrayed by the classmates who failed to stand up for me when this happened. I learned a valuable lesson about (trans)misogyny and harassment—that being female, or performing femininity, makes you a target—and I regret that I had to learn it this way. I regret how unsafe it made me feel, and how unsure I was after that of my own personal truth.

If you are a trans* person and you enjoy dressing up however you enjoy it on Purim, please, don’t stop. Express your truth however you’re going to express it. If you’re just starting to experiment, do not let anything I’ve written deter you. Experiment however you’re going to experiment, and do what feels right when it feels right to do it. Just because I didn’t have great Purim experiences doesn’t mean you won’t as well. Yours might be fantastic. Don’t let me stop you from exploring.

If you are a cis person who is cross-dressing on Purim, please, please think about it carefully. Consider the implications, especially to trans* people. Think about it from the perspective of a trans* person who sees you. What message are you sending to them? Are you supporting them? Demonstrating allyship? What if they’re not out yet, and they see you? What might that tell them about being trans*?

Purim is a holiday when the truth is supposed to come out. I hope that we can all do our part to make this truth is one of inclusivity and affirmation.


Responses

  1. Very sorry that happened to you, especially in a school, which is supposed to be a safe place for all its students. As you said, frustrating intersection of misogyny, transphobia, along with just plain ignorance and stupidity.

    The more I study, the more I continue to struggle over “traditional” Judaism’s focus/preoccupation on separation and identity hierarchy– likely the product of many years of defensiveness, persecution, and a intellectual strain of OCD. Despite plenty of talking heads claiming otherwise, it is inconceivable to me that there to be a universal creator being who happens to only (or primarily) care about straight, cis, matrilineal Ashkenazi men.

    • Just pointing out, it’s ableist to refer to oppressive beliefs as “OCD”, which is an illness, and one that many people who are not hetero cis men have.

      • A fair point, Tim.

    • I think there’s something to that. I would also add “white” and “able-bodied” to “straight, cis, matrilineal Ashkenazi men”.

      • Oh definitely! I was shocked to read about the halachic issues involving deaf people and the Torah service.

        Yes, the Ashkenazi bit was a reference to the continual white bias present in many Jewish communities– particularly sad/ironic given what the Avot & Immahot likely looked like.

      • Yeah. Deafness and Judaism—this is a topic I shall be exploring soon.

  2. I think you are just describing misogyny, transmisogyny is a word typically used to describe misogynist trans guys.

  3. Very powerful piece. Thank you for writing it.

  4. Several years ago I attempted to costume myself as a very frum man — wore a black suit and white shirt, tzitit, peyos, and so on — on the theory that Purim is a time to wear costumes which a) allow us to be someone we aren’t and b) allow us, in so doing, to reveal something about who we are. I don’t present on a daily basis as super-religious — and yet there’s a deeply religious core in me which is often disguised by the more visible aspects of how I present myself in the world.

    I hope that my costume that year didn’t come across to anyone as me mocking or clowning masculinity — or for that matter mocking or clowning visible religiosity. But rereading this post right now, I’m reminded that it arguably doesn’t matter what I “meant” for my costume to say. As a cis woman I can approach gender-bending costuming from a position of privilege, and I need to be mindful of that. Thanks again for this post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rachel, and for the story—like I was saying, when you start playing around with gender, in general you can “trade up” but not “trade down”. And this is the big problem when it comes to costumes and varying levels of privilege.

  5. Very thought provoking.


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