(Let’s start things off with a disclaimer: I am a man who wears “women’s” clothing but I can’t speak for every man who wears dresses. Like most questions of etiquette all advice given must be then applied in regards to the situation. To quote Stephen Fry in his excellent piece on the beauty of language, “Context, convention and circumstance are all.” But onto the meat of this post.)
It’s 2012 (soon to be 2013, dear mother of everything that’s holy) and it’s highly probable that you’ve encountered a man in a dress. Maybe you were behind a man in heels while online at the grocery store, or perhaps a close male friend sometimes wears muumuus to parties. For the past two years I’ve been that man (well, I do prefer pencil skirts to muumuus, much more flattering for my figure) and I’ve had a some… awkward encounters with strangers, family members and friends who feel uncomfortable with my sartorial choices. Understandably, many people are uncomfortable when they first meet me. It’s not that they’re looking at me and comparing me to the Son of Satan, it’s simply that they really don’t want to offend me. I appreciate it that, I really do.
When approaching a man in a dress the most important thing for you to keep in mind is that (get ready for this, it’s a shocker) IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL. Seriously. The fact that I’m a male identified person whose wearing a fitted black black dress, fishnet stockings and sensible librarian shoes doesn’t mean that I’m a homosexual or a child molester or confused about my gender or an anarchist (For the record: I’m none of those four.) Smile, keep calm and treat me like you would anyone else.
There is the big issue of gendered words in the English language. I’ve had many encounters with people in retail where I’m addressed like this, “Hello, sir, sorry, madam, I mean, sir?, sir, madam, hello? I’m sorry.” If you’re in this situation then just breathe and remember, it’s not your fault. If anyone is to blame it’s the English language and its male-female based language. A few intrepid folks are trying to help rectify this by bringing in third-gender/gender-neutral pronouns (this is a link to the Wikipedia page on the topic) but these pronouns haven’t yet been fully adopted into language. When the time and situation allows for it a friendly, “Excuse me, may I ask what your preferred pronouns are?”, can’t hurt. In cases where there really isn’t a chance to ask about preferred pronouns then I’d have to recommend that you try to skip over any gendered-words. If you really, really, really have to use gendered-words like ma’am or sir then I suppose you’ll have to go with your gut. Really, we could totally use a form of polite address that doesn’t carry gender…
There’s a strange trend where complete strangers will meet me and then seem to want to demonstrate how down-with-blowing-up-out-dated-gender-stereotypes-and-roles they are by immediately saying something that acknowledges the fact that I’ve got a penis and I’m wearing a dress. These comments tend to divide into two categories:
You know, my cousin’s daughter has a friend who also realized he’s a girl.
How do your parents feel about you wearing dresses?
The first is, is, well it’s ridiculous. My clothing tells you jack-shit about my gender identity. To assume that you know anything about my gender identity is just a bunch of bull. And let’s talk about why you think I’m trans (AND let’s also point out that the way the first comment is phrased is quite problematic. If you don’t see anything wrong with the first comment please look at the links to resources at the end of this post.)- Maybe I am, maybe I’m not but either way YOU DON’T KNOW. You can ask my preferred pronoun or just don’t bring it up. This first type of comment is also irritating since it relies on a very divided concept of gender and gender performance that says that only female-identified people wear “women’s” clothing.
The second type of comment is really uncomfortable and quite frankly not really your business. If we’re close friends or are having a nice conversation about gender and gender-identity in which I share a bit of my own experience then great, ask away! When you’re a stranger this is just weird. You have no idea about my history with my parents and my sartorial choices. Perhaps I’ve had some really horrific experiences that I simply don’t want to talk about or maybe I haven’t, either way you simply don’t know. So please, unless we’re not complete strangers, how about you don’t bring this up? Great, thanks.
Here’s a quick re-hash of what we’ve learned today:
- Men in dresses isn’t a big deal. Really. I promise.
- A nice polite, “Excuse me, do you have preferred pronouns?”, is nice.
- Calm down, it’s not a big deal. Seriously.
- My clothing tells you nothing about my gender identity (or any other aspect of any of my other identities, for that matter) and to assume that you know my gender identity is kinda rude…
- Take a deep breath, you’ll be fine.
- YOU DON’T NEED TO TALK TO ME ABOUT MY FASHION CHOICES. Compliments? Compliments are great. “You look better in a dress than most women”? Not so great.
Most importantly- What I’ve written can’t be applied to every situation you’ll find yourself in. I’ve laid out my opinion on the subject but you can bet there are other men in dresses who disagree with me on this. Please feel free to respond with your thoughts on my suggestion.
Super Cool Resources On Gender And Fashion And Cool Things:
Genderfork: According to their “about” blurb: “Genderfork is a supportive community for the expression of identities across the gender spectrum.” This is less of a resource for self-education on gender identities and more of a beautiful online community that I highly recommend looking at.
Actually, just go TSER’s sweet graphics page for some rather well designed presentations. The focus is on trans* identities (and let’s face it, who among us couldn’t use a brush-up on how to not be a stupid-head on trans* identities?) but it includes some excellent information about gender identities.
And of course Planned Parenthood has a lovely page on gender.