If you are not au fait with transgender sub-culture, the term dressing service may be completely new to you. It descrtibes businesses that allow customers who may find it otherwise difficult, to crossdress and explore aspects of their personality and feelings in comparative safety and privacy. As I have
described elsewhere, when as a young person I felt able to cautiously explore why I needed to crossdress I first went to a shop called Cover Girl, which at the time was on Upper Street, Islington, London.
Cover Girl did not sell clothes – it sold mostly underwear. And there was no facility to try anything on. Some years later Transformation opened shops in London and Manchester which did sell some clothing and then offered (expensive) opportunities to have your make-up done for you, or to wear something from a narrow and slightly quirky selection of outfits. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Tramsformation’s business model was to extract the maximum cash from its captive audience for the minimal service, on the basis that there was nowhere else to go.
In due course, as the transgender scene grew, others saw a further business opportunity in offering a range of outfits to try on and giving people the chance to crossdress in a less formal environment. Some of the first dressing services of this era were in people’s homes – I remember visiting a woman called Linda in her house near to Aldgate tube station. She would often have several customers in the house at one time. The first customer would arrive and have their make-up done, and then try on various outfits over the next few hours. While they did so, the next customer would arrive and have their make-up done, and so on.
The era when I depended on dressing services seems impossibly far away now. I never enjoyed going to them very much, necessary step though this was. They were expensive, the selection of clothes was often limited, and once you were dolled up you would find yourself sitting on the sofa in a frock next to someone else in a frock, and attempting to engage them in conversation. Those who identified confidently as crossdressers didn’t seem like me, but I was also too scared to talk to those who identified as transsexual (to use the only label in circulation at the time) for reasons which are subsequently rather obvious.
Anyway, one time at Linda’s dressing service, I was indeed sitting on her sofa next to another trans person. Uncomfortable too, as these services tend to offer (and you tended to want) to lace you up into a corset, because you desperately want to change your body shape. So I found myself trussed up next to this other person, attempting to make conversation, when she casually made a rather nasty racist remark. And I thought to myself, but didn’t say to her, “We are part of a minority too, and we suffer as a result, and sitting here don’t you make that obvious connection?” To which the answer is, of course, no. Because whatever you’re wearing you are still who you are. And what she and I had in common was transness, but not much more.
But even though she was making intolerant remarks and I was temperamentally liberal and inclusive, I was still involved in my own distancing from reality. One part of me felt sad that I could only even slightly express my true self by travelling across London and putting on a dress behind closed doors. Another side of me was secretly relieved at doing so because it helped me avoid acknowledging my minority status. That is, even though I did not feel typically male, the mere act of living socially as male allowed me to benefit from male privilege. And being perceived as a white, middle-class male put me in the majority, which in some ways of course is a comforting position.
So there’s a double-edged situation here. As a closeted trans woman you can draw comfort from the fact that people feel you are part of the majority, and treat you in particular ways which come routinely with that status. There’s a security in that which requires a certain amount of determination to discard. But on the other hand, there is the strain of living at odds with, really in conflict with your true self – the sheer, substantial and never ending effort to keep the reality of your self and your situation at a distance.
I didn’t take huge advantage of male privilege, even if I took refuge in it. Because I wasn’t confident and felt isolated, I took unwise career decisions, didn’t take advantage of opportunites, found it difficult to form meaningful relationships and struggled to assert myself. That situation gradually started to improve, perhaps partly as a consequence of age and experience, and then more rapidly as I started to come to terms with my true self more, even though for a while I could not admit to myself that was what I was doing.
I will write another time perhaps about my experience in work of (from the outward peception of colleagues) apparently “instantly” becoming female at work, and the implications in terms of which parts of my work behaviour I took across intact, which I discarded, and which new ways of working started to become possible. A more profound, though less immediate change, was realizing. amd owning, my minority status – both as trans, and as female – first in my post-transitional social setting, but then more significantly realizing the negative impact society’s view of trans people has had on my entire life, how it shaped my self-perceptions all the time I was closeted. And of course, why society’s view of gender was one of the key reasons I was closeted, and that I stayed that way for so long. Now that I have crossed that particular rubicon, I look back on it in anger. Quite a lot of anger. Which makes we want to try and ensure, through whatever modest contribution I am able to make, that fewer people have to live that way in future.