For this blog, rather than talk about the creative process of making, I wanted to talk about my experience of exploring cross dressing.
It has, in many ways been a slow process of small steps.
I remember being in clothes shop, Fatface in about 2014, not long back in Newcastle after graduating from Nottingham University, browsing tops in the women’s section. Well, browsing is perhaps grandiose. Browsing doesn’t bring to mind nervous sweating, double guessing, itchy skin and rapidly flashing neurotic life narratives as I picked out . . . a top. A long sleeved t-shirt of sorts. Fitted, bright pink, from the women’s section.
I took it to the changing room and tried it on. More sweating. More nerves. Did I dare? What did this mean? What would be the consequences?
I bought it, and started wearing it, but it took a certain amount of emotional effort.
It took longer, months, months longer, to go out and buy a skirt, or start wearing dresses, but that too was something I learned to enjoy. For the feel of the material. For the way it made me feel internally like I made more sense. And also, to be honest, for the confrontational element. I’ve never really tried to pass as a woman. When wearing a dress, generally, I manifest as a man, or boy, in a dress. Along with feeling more personally comfortable, I believe there’s a political element to this – it creates some visibility for a space between more rigid gender manifestations.
Part of the project I’m undertaking is about researching around historical gender play and I’m not at all sure I know enough yet to explore the following point more widely, but perhaps the same thing once occurred when women started wearing trousers. Or was the transgress in that case made more acceptable by the element of practicality that went along with that change? Long skirts weren’t going to do the trick in a munitions factory. Is it a mark of patriarchy that practicality trumps aesthetic in expression?
Fast forward to 2016 and, having spent most of my time wearing dresses, I’d occasionally be wearing ‘boys’ clothes and pass someone in the street, usually a man, who would give me a funny look, or a deliberate avoiding of eye contact, and I’d be thinking, ‘what’s the issue? I’m dressed ‘normally’ today’, and then notice that I had my nails painted, or something similar, some small transgress from the norm, and realise both how far I was now from feeling nervous about buying tops from the women’s section and also realising how small a deviation it can take to make a stranger uncomfortable sometimes.
I think that that’s changing, slowly but surely, and for all that I think the generation I’m growing up in will be remembered for division, war and the slow demise of democracy, the growth of visibility and freedom of gender expression is a positive factor.
I was recently at a workshop trying out material for my new show Fitting and a friend of mine was talking about how her young son would often go to friends’ parties with both a spiderman outfit and a dress, in case he wanted to ‘do twirls’.
I was reminded of a time when I was about 6. My sister and I had a dressing up box, as I think many kids do, full of mum’s old clothes, hand me downs and charity shop finds. One Sunday evening, after playing dress-up, I remember asking my mum whether I could leave my nail varnish on for school the next day.
She said that I could, but that I had to understand that I might get picked on for it. I thought about it, and took it off.
That was the late 90s. It seems to me today that it might have been easier to leave it on. That there might be more space for that decision. Not easy. But perhaps easier than then.
All the same, I feel like there’s a lot more room for growth in acceptance of middle ground identities.
Having begun to experiment with gender, in terms of clothes, a lot, I began being asked whether I wanted to transition. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself as well. But I think it’s interesting that it seems harder for a lot of people to understand a position in the midst of a spectrum rather than at one end or another of it. This area between rigid definitions is something I’m interested in. It’s something I want to explore with Fitting.
Even as I write this, I find myself feeling defensive, find myself thinking, ‘enough with the excuses, go all the way, pick a thing, be a thing, be one or the other.’ Maybe it’s internalised but something has to be present to be internalised and I feel that, while difference in our society in terms of gender and sexuality has increasingly been embraced, the progress towards acceptance of fluidity between binary standpoints has been slower.
With my new show Fitting, as with my last show Sticking, I hope to increase visibility of that central, lesser defined standpoint. Or rather sprawl and stretch through the spectrum ‘point’, finding a space of comfort outside of the pressure to be one thing or another.
You can follow Matt on twitter @MattMiller2805 and check out his website here www.mattmillertheatre.com
First published June 2018