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25 March 2015

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.

By Helen Lewis

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:

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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.

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