Drag is creative and subversive. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496