Drag is creative and subversive. Photo: Getty
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The NUS bans drag as fancy dress - except it doesn't

The National Union of Students wants zero tolerance for students who cross-dress for "shock value". But cross-dressing is subversive and liberating - even when rugby players do it.

As my column this week is on universities and freedom of expression, I've been following NUS Women's conference with interest. The conference was widely mocked yesterday for a tweet saying: "Some delegates are requesting that we move to jazz hands rather than clapping, as it's triggering anxiety. Please be mindful!" You can read their explanation here - for what it's worth, it seems to be more about creating a laidback atmosphere for nervous speakers than catering to those with anxiety disorders. 

The conference also voted to renew the no-platform on radical feminist Julie Bindel, for (among other things) reiterating her belief that "bisexuality doesn’t exist as a sexual identity, thus erasing bisexual individuals’ identities and experiences" and having "criticised women who wear the niqab in her article for the Daily Mail . . . [by] refusing to believe that Muslim women have made their own decision to wear the niqab she denies Muslim women agency".

The funniest response to that first claim was the 400 women called Sarah who signed a petition saying they disagreed with her. The second claim raises some complicated questions. If "the NUS Women’s’ Officers and members of the NUS Women’s committee shall not offer a platform to any transphobic speaker, biphobic or Islamophobic speaker", who decides what qualifies as Islamophobia? It's true that criticism of Islam can function as a cover for racism, but equally, religious beliefs and practices must not be accepted unquestioningly in a free, secular society. Only this week, Maryam Namazie - who was raised in a Muslim family but is now an atheist and secularist - pulled out of a talk at an Irish university after it was suggested that a discussion on apostasy would "upset" Muslim students. And as someone facetiously, but correctly, pointed out on Twitter, many Islamist preachers are themselves homophobic (and, one presumes, biphobic). Is it Islamophobic to oppose them?

I don't mean to impugn the conference, or the activists and speakers there who gave up their free time in the cause of feminism. But I do want to reiterate how hard these debates are, and how common sense and a belief in people's basic good faith can get lost in the urge to codify every human interaction. 

There were many eminently sensible motions debated, including ones on childcare provision, support for rape survivors and better access to affordable housing. But it was this motion which really caught my eye:

This is an astonishingly conservative motion to be passed by a society which is otherwise so much at pains to stress the variety and fluidity of gender - for example, the conference has also resolved to "refrain from the use of 'sisters' and any other binary terms throughout the campaign".

This is because "the definition of Women for the NUS Women’s Campaign is 'all who self-define as women, including (if they wish) those with complex gender identities which include "woman", and those who experience oppression as women.' This contains people whose preferred pronouns are not 'She' or 'her' (e.g 'they') and that they do not identify with the term 'sister'."

The conference organisers add that "the use of the term 'sisters' is exclusionary of some women" and that "misgendering someone is an act of violence".

On this particular motion, we all know what the elephant in the room is here - or rather, the rugby player in the tutu. I'm sure some people do feel offended, or unwelcome, when great big hairy blokes charge around the college bar in stuffed bras singing songs about the Pope and a donkey and that one where the chorus is MY BELL END SHE GOT. But that's anti-social behaviour - which can be tackled on its own.

You can see from the list of exclusions how ridiculous the whole concept of the motion is. Essentially, what this motion implies is incredibly reactionary: all straight cisgender people must wear gender-appropriate clothes in their leisure time. Anything else is offensive to minorities. Let's look at why that is unworkable:

1) What is cross-dressing, anyway?

Here's a confession: I cross-dress at least once a week. I wear jeans, and flat shoes, a V-neck jumper and no make-up to work quite regularly. Sometimes I come in wearing exactly the same clothes as my male colleagues. If I tottered in wearing skyscraper heels, a perfect beehive and a bandage dress, they would assumed that I had lost a bet. Equally, for other women, dressing like I do would make them feel unfeminine and uncomfortable. Life is a rich tapestry. 

So what counts as cross-dressing here? Under this glorious new dawn, are men allowed to wear black lipstick and nail polish, or is that now verboten (sorry, goths)? What about long hair (sorry, computer science students)? What about skirts (sorry, Scottish men at Every Bloody Opportunity, Burns Night is cancelled)?

2) All dress is fancy dress.

This motion pre-supposes that cross-dressing is easy to identify. But one of the beautiful things about clothing as a system of signification - as a language, essentially - is how unstable and contextual it is. I appreciate this is a real bummer when you are trying to write a law, or a conference motion, but drawing the line between cross-dressing and, er, straight-dressing is hugely complicated. How about men wearing sarongs? What if they are from a country where men traditionally wear sarongs? The motion also assumes that you can differentiate between someone cross-dressing for the "right" reasons and the wrong ones. Good luck with that. 

3) Intent isn't magic - but that doesn't matter.

Cross-dressing is always an exploration of queer identity - because it makes obvious the fact that gender is a performance. The motion suggests that as long as the cross-dressing is not done for "shock value", it is OK. But the whole point of cross-dressing is shock value. It is jarring to see categories we assume to be stable so obviously undermined and that makes it attractive to experimental, iconoclastic people. It's why performing artists from kd lang to Conchita Wurst have made gender non-conformity part of their artistic expression. 

When I was at university, we had cross-dressing nights of the type now deemed repressive by the NUS. The atmosphere always seemed (at least to me), very queer-friendly; because even the manliest men were being shown quite how much of their gender role was a performance. I'm not claiming that it magically cured homophobia, but it did suggest that people were open to the idea that the unspoken gender conformity of "real life" was, objectively, really weird. If you can accept that there's no real reason women wear skirts and men wear ties, that gets you closer to acknowledging there's no real reason that women are expected to be carers and men are expected to be cabinet ministers.

4) Drag is liberating and playful.

A few months ago, a radical lesbian feminist pulled me up short by suggesting that drag was offensive in the way that blackface is. Her rationale was that it involves a dominant group (men), appropriating outward signs of the group deemed inferior (women) as a costume. In addition, some drag performers rely on misogynistic stereotypes of women: that they are screechy, bitchy, gold-digging shrews. 

The counter-weight to this is that drag can also be incredibly playful and subversive: it has often allowed camp gay men an outlet to express themselves in a way that would get their heads kicked in if they attempted it in the outside world. Regimes which have tried to repress gender non-conformity in dress do not have, shall we say, the best record of being tolerant in other areas. (Cabaret springs to mind.) Frankly, we should be encouraging more manly men to loosen up a little. Get a skirt on. You have nothing to lose but quite a lot of warmth around your calves.

5) Even straight, cisgender people have a complicated relationship with gender.

The oddest part of the motion is the idea that outside of trans or queer circles, cross-dressing must always be appropriative and oppressive. This smacks of implying that straight, cisgender people don't ever have a complicated relationship with their own gender identity and expression. The motion effectively says: oi, straight, cis people, dress in the way our current culture, at this period in time, deems appropriate to you. As I said above, it's conservative. It's also incredibly essentialist. It also makes no sense when you compare it with the condemnation of Julie Bindel's opposition of the niqab, which rests on the assumption that "choice" makes any action empowered and feminist. What about the rugby players who choose to wear tutus? Why are we denying them their "agency"? You can't say: "Oh, cross-dressing is liberating when I do it, but you boring squares are not allowed!"

***

I'm sorry if it feels I have wasted a very long blog post on a very short motion by a small group of students. However, it's important to explore how seemingly progressive positions can reflect an underlying conservativism. I understand - and support - the rationale behind the motion, which is that boorish dominant groups should not intimidate other students, particularly ones who already feel marginalised or vulnerable. If students feel bullied or intimidated, then we need to tackle the mechanisms by which that is happening.

But even well-meaning actions can have unintended consequences and any kind of crackdown on cross-dressing is something I feel compelled to object to. The motion's hamfisted attempt to police clothing standards also shows we need more nuance and empathy in conversations about "cultural appropriation", because culture is fluid, chaotic and promiscuous. It absolutely resists being captured and codified. Today's cross-dressing is tomorrow's banal casualwear.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear