Men Get So Confused When I Cross-Dress

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As discussed in a previous post, I like to wear ties. Recently, I’ve gotten more ambitious with my gender play, wearing my hair short and occasionally cross-dressing with binders. It has been fascinating to watch the reactions of people around me.

Generally speaking, people at my school take no notice. Women especially seem unbothered by the subtle change in my appearance every now and then.  The few men, on the other hand, tend to appear nervous and confused.

I refer to a time recently when I was walking across campus wearing jeans, a binder, and a button down shirt. In the distance, I noticed a man approaching, which is particularly noticeable at my school because I go to a Women’s College. He noticed me, too.

His gait did not falter as he watched me walk. We both looked away, of course, careful not to be obvious with our notice of each other. As we got nearer, I watched him panic, becoming more confused about my gender as he saw me up close. His eyes fluttered, he hesitated, he kept walking. I could imagine him thinking, “Do I greet this person? Is that a man or a woman?”

Presumably, if I were more obviously female, he would cast his glance away and pass me by (if he even noticed me at all), as men usually do when I wear bras or earrings on this campus. Ironically, I get much more attention from men when I appear masculine or androgynous.

I read somewhere on the internet once that men have two different non-verbal acknowledgments: the quick upward nod, meaning “sup” or “hey” and the singular downward nod, meaning a respectful—“good job” or “right on.” For some reason, I internalized this strange analysis. Whether or not it’s accurate, I don’t know. In any case, this man eventually decided to give me a quick upward nod and a solemn, “Hi.” I returned his greeting with secret amusement.

He did not smile when he greeted me—he was not flirting. He was not recognizing me—we did not know each other. His hello was a greeting of solidarity, of acknowledging our mutual belonging in a social group. I suspect that men on this campus take that sort of thing seriously. His panic, his hesitation, were likely caused by the lack of clarity in my presentation. He wasn’t sure if I was a man, and therefore he didn’t know whether his solidarity was called for.

image I’m not sure if he ever figured it out, actually. With a binder on and short hair, I appear alarmingly like a young man, but my soft face and small stature make that reading a little hazy. Nevertheless, he settled for a greeting at the last possible second.

Afterward, I pondered the implications of his split-second decision. Would ignoring me have been disrespectful after we so obviously noticed each other? Was he afraid of potentially disrespecting a fellow man and greeted me “just in case,” so to speak?

photoWhat if he had realized I was a woman dressed like a man? If I had been dressed the same but without the binder, so that my more obvious breasts could tip the scale and declare me a cross-dressing woman, would he have made a different decision? Perhaps nodded but not said “hi”? Would he still feel solidarity with me?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Perhaps my reading is all wrong and he could tell I was cross-dressing and greeted me anyway. Social psychology says that people will inevitably band together and “other” those who are different, drawing nearer to those who are alike. Is this another sign of that phenomenon?

My point is: my eyes have been opened to a whole different world, one of solidarity, respect, and the benefit of the doubt. I won’t lie when I say it felt good to be included in that world, to be given that benefit of the doubt.

What if everyone could have it? Imagine how the world would be a kinder and more inclusive place, where all people felt encouraged to fulfill their unique potential.


8 responses to “Men Get So Confused When I Cross-Dress

  1. Intriguing post; I look forward to your insights and smile when I see an update notice for your blog in my inbox. I offer some reflections in appreciation for your frank comments.

    Complex situation. I’m recalling a study that showed that men were something like twice as good at deciphering male emotional clues as women were. My guess is that this is a key survival skill for young males who have to negotiate their way through male dominance hierarchies. Your presentation offered mixed signals, hence his uncertainty as to how to respond without triggering a confrontation. A key point is that in male dominance games, it’s not the number of contests you win that count, it’s the number of contests you lose that determine status. In effect, avoiding a contest with dignity counts as a win.

    I expect that there are also generational issues at play here in that your generation isn’t as tightly bound by gender conventions (at least not superficial ones) as older generations have been. I was especially drawn to your saying that your “eyes have been opened to a whole different world, one of solidarity, respect, and the benefit of the doubt.” Men afford each other that respect in part because of the significant consequences that are triggered when one doesn’t live up to that standard. For most men, “respect” isn’t a synonym for “admire” or “hold in high esteem.” Rather “respect” is more akin to the concept of being wary of loaded guns, high-voltage electricity and rattlesnakes.

    Men do tend to afford each other the benefit of the doubt, and then deal harshly with those who betray that trust. It might help to contrast the difference between “A man’s word is his bond.” and “A woman has the right to change her mind.” By your walking a line down the middle, it’s correspondingly hard for a man to figure out which truism he should rely on when interacting with you. He needs to know whether, when things get difficult, will you stand by your word?

  2. I was on a tram years ago, on my way home. There was a beautiful woman sitting opposite me. From the top of her glossy brown hair to the dainty feet encased in the highest heels I’d ever seen, this was one elegant lady. I was in my jeans and t-shirt and felt like a slob. I’d be reading my book and looking up now and again. She was gorgeous but unreal and I couldn’t pick it until I was almost at my stop. This lady had an Adam’s apple. I wasn’t judging her / him but I was curious and would have asked lots of questions if I’d known her. She’d caught me looking, I’m sure she was used to it. She smiled and I smiled then I left. 🙂

  3. This was an interesting read. I get that hesitant ‘Oh-shit-is-that-a-man-or-woman’ response when I’m unsure and it just stifles me but more often than not I treat everyone I meet as a friend if/until they prove otherwise

  4. Last time I wore a dress to work they got nervous because they thought I was going for a job interview. To me clothes are clothes, but I like to wear things that reflect who I am …. hence my closet is a frock free zone.

  5. That confusions all boils down to insecurity. I recently overheard a conversation on the subway that you might enjoy. I nearly missed my stop it was go good. Two women were having an argument–the one had a problem with gay guys and she was trying to explain why.
    This was one of the reasons: “Those gay guys trick men to have sex with them. They dress like a woman and trick them.”
    I wrote out the whole conversations on my page if you’d like to hear the rest:

    Great post by the way. More of these stories need to be shared.

  6. I think that any cross dressing, whether males dressing in a feminine manner or the reverse, would be most confusing to “equality” feminists, especially those who insist that all psychological or behavioral differences are socially constructed. I would think, that for them, a cross dresser would only be playing into these oppressive cultural roles, and that the ideal in terms of androgynous dress and behavior would look quite different from cross dressing, which only switches roles, and more resemble something like Maoist China in 1959, or at any rate something indistinguishable by gender.

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