Well intentioned, but unworkable: the NUS and cross-dressing

Genderqueer_pride_flagMuch has been said in the last few days about the NUS banning crossdressing from UK campuses. This is of course a massive overstatement. The offending resolution, passed at the NUS Women’s conference 2015, merely states that the conference should “issue a statement condemning cross-dressing as a mode of fancy dress”.

Reactions to the resolution have been largely negative (I had to go to a place no one should ever have to go – page six of Google’s search results – to find a blog post in favour of it) and a good  portion of that has been of the oh-won’t-someone-think-of-the-poor-straight-cis-men variety, which is just, y’know, *eyeroll*.

Here is the offending article in full. You can read a .pdf of the document here.

 con believes

The intent of the resolution is to decrease transphobia, but as the saying goes, intent is not magic, and the wording here is far from perfect. You do not have to search for long to find a slew of evidence supporting the assertion (noted under the heading ‘conference believes’) that trans and non-binary people are routinely denigrated in popular culture. This is categorically something we should work to end. Should cisgender men dress as women or, worse, ape hurtful and harmful trans* stereotypes with the sole intention of mockery? Obviously not. It’s tasteless, unoriginal verging on boring and it contributes to a culture of misogyny, trans- and whorephobia. It’s emphatically a good idea to ask people to consider their motivations when they cross-dress for entertainment. Likewise, it’s a good idea to promote sensitivity towards gender difference and acknowledge how our actions might contribute to a culture of transphobia and misogyny. But should we legislate against it? Well… no. Or at least, not like this.

The NUS womens’ caucus does not have the power to compel Student Unions and campuses to do anything, though it intends to actively encourage the banning of cross-dressing. Here – in no particular order – is why they shouldn’t.

 It’s gender essentialist

One of the weaker arguments against the resolution. To say that there is one way to dress if you are a man, or a woman, or genderqueer is beyond ridiculous. But society does say that, and like it or not, clothing is gendered. If it wasn’t cross-dressing wouldn’t exist.

We should be moving towards a world where any item of clothing is ungendered, and indeed we are – think David Beckham in a sarong, or any woman in trousers ever –  but the march of progress is a slow one and two steps forward should not be met with one step back. 

It’s harmful to non-binary and trans* people and TV/CD communities

genderqueerWhen a motion is explicitly designed to reduce transphobia, it is extremely important it does so in a way that is not itself transphobic.

Says trans activist Sarah Savage, “By banning gender fluidity the NUS are actively discriminating against gender variant people who are yet to fully understand their gender, and those who are still in the closet”.

 In other words, lots of people experiment with differently gendered clothing options way before they come out, using the plausible deniability of ‘fancy dress’ as a way to explore their gender before de-closetting.

“I dressed up for parties and stuff long before I admitted I was TV [transvestite], even to myself”, a cisgender male friend and recent graduate told me. Sharon, in their late 30s, agreed:

“I’m comfortably out to lots of people as non-binary/genderqueer now, but for nigh-on thirty years I was ‘cross-dressing’ (with more or less frequency in different periods) and in my teens and twenties sometimes described myself as a female-to-male transvestite (as well as ‘butch’) because the words for my gender identity weren’t available to me”.

If cross-dressing is not welcome in public unless some far away caucus of strangers has stooped to lend their blessing, that is not creating a safe space, it is stigmatising. If that blessing is contingent on satisfying a know-it-when-I-see-it set of criteria that inevitably will differ from judge to judge it comes worryingly close to making outness a condition of being happy in your own damn vest.

Here’s Sharon again:

“I don’t think people should be obliged to come out to themselves as trans or queer before they’re allowed to cross-dress in public. Such a requirement could be particularly damaging for non-binary gendered people, because we’re less likely to know that identifying as trans is an option, because of lack of information in the mainstream”.

Cisgender members of the TV/CD (transvestite/cross-dressing) community, often dismissed as ‘just’ fetishists, must be allowed to express their identity freely too. Even if they don’t consider their transvestism a queer identity. Even if they have no intention of ever looking like anything other than ‘a bloke in a dress’.

 Finally, since we should never underestimate humanities ability to produce awful human beings, the banning of cross-dressing also has the potential to be misused. Someone ‘just isn’t comfortable’ around transvestites? Tell the bouncer they’re breaking the rules.  A transphobe is pissed of the girl they just snogged is male bodied? Chuck ‘em out.  Sorry mate, it’s just our policy. Off you trot.

It’s completely arbitrary

Only one person gets to decide if my outfit reflects my gender: me.  A footnote to the resolution claims one can ‘easily distinguish’ when an apparently gender swapped outfit is designed to provoke shock. This is  – what is the correct term to use here? – unadulterated transphobic bullshit. Not only does it apotheosize passing (on which more later), it also denies agency. You simply cannot know who is cisgender and who is not by looking at them.

 It’s classist

A supporter of this resolution, blogging at Issues of Humanity says “[t]hink of the stereotypical jock with a bad wig, a dress that doesn’t fit, some socks for breasts, and some tights. What do they do? They prance around as a spectacle”.

Quite apart from the fact that this same blogger tells us Drag (capital D) is acceptable even though, in the words of drag artiste Miss Marigold Addams, ‘drag IS for spectacle. It’s a performance, not a lifestyle choice’, this statement is brutally snobbish. It says, we are breaking down the barriers of gender, you are ridiculing femininity; we are drawing attention to gender as a performative act, you are just drawing attention to yourself. It says that people who like sports and beer – because, let’s be real, no one’s talking about the chess club and their ill-fitting dresses – are by definition anti-intellectual and don’t care (or understand) that there’s more to gender than frocks versus trews. It says, it’s ok for us, but not for them.

ESC2014_winner's_press_conference_11_(crop)There’s an economic element to this too: If you want to find out how people interact with you when you have breasts, you must spend money on them (cheapest on thebreastformstore.co.uk? £95). Balled up socks or a bag of rice will not cut the mustard. If you want to wear a silky slip dress, you better buy your own and it better bloody fit. Your wig must be of quality. Your income and your skill level must be a certain level. Otherwise, you’re clearly not doing it for the Right Reasons.

And if you can’t defend your choices in the proper lefty language a la mode? Well, you’re fucked, aren’t you?

It reinforces the (dubious) privilege of Passing

Passing – being taken for the gender you present as – is still unfortunately revered, despite such reverence being harmful to everyone. People must be free to identify as trans, genderqueer or TV/CD on their own terms, whether they have chosen to come out or A ban, should such a thing ratified, would disproportionately target those who don’t, or don’t want to, pass. Those who aren’t known to be some flavour of queer. Those visibly subverting the most common narratives of genderqueer and trans lives.


No one is obliged to privilege your intent over your actions, and when action and intent are incongruent, one or the other must change. The ways in which this resolution is harmful or simply unworkable far outweigh any potential good it might do. No one is saying that the mocking gender difference through should be protected, but a blanket ban on cross-dressing further marginalises already marginalised communities. And that is unconscionable.


The NUS did not respond to our request for comment.

First image: “Genderqueer pride flag” by Marilyn Roxie. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Second image: “crop of NUS Women’s Conference Resolution 406” by Libby Baxter-Williams. Licenced under CC BY-ND 4.0.

Third image “Gender Queer” by Charles Hutchins. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Flickr.

Fourth image: “ESC2014 winner’s press conference 11 (crop)” by Albin Olsson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Libby Baxter-Williams

Libby is a 30-something Londoner, who spends more time reading picture books than is seemly. She became a bi activist entirely by accident, but now she can't imagine living any other way. In the event of an emergency, she'll have a large gin and tonic, thanks.

3 Responses to Well intentioned, but unworkable: the NUS and cross-dressing

  • Harrow says:

    As a trans woman I agree with you that it’s well-intentioned but if enforced would produce serious collateral damage on the most vulnerable trans and gender non-conforming people. There is a clause in the motion which makes it somewhat less bad: “Likewise if the intention of the costume is demonstrably that the gender element is for neither humour nor shock value, it will be deemed acceptable.” But even with this clarification, it would be far too easy to drive people back deep into the closet because of a clueless or malicious enforcer. I have seen trans women get de-gendered for having the wrong transgender politics, at which point she would be an easy target for supposed “shock value”.

    • mm
      Libby says:

      It’s such a shame, because I really can see how the NUS were trying to do the right thing. But putting power into the hands of bigots (those “clueless or malicious enforcers”, nicely phrased!) is never a good idea.

  • Lindsey Spilman says:

    The presence of feminist politics can’t be overlooked here. Feminism has been anti drag since the 1970s and somewhere here is backlash and the wish to contain any possible gender fluidity.

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