Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

Last week, a friend of mine made the following comment on Facebook:

“Your friendly reminder.”

Under that comment was an article from Everyday Feminism titled, “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” The article begins like this:

Halloween is a holiday about glorifying all things spooky and scary, a day to dress up in a costume for the sake of having fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween.

Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

I read the article. I thought the argument was made clearly, simply, and expertly. And yet, that article generated one hundred and forty-nine comments, many of which had an angry, defensive, and snarky tone. My friend’s reposting of this article generated twenty-five comments, many of which were similarly angry, defensive, and snarky. It stunned me, actually, that so many people were unwilling to consider the possibility that certain costumes just might be offensive.

So. Halloween is coming up in a couple of weeks. I encourage you to read the article from Everyday Feminism. I also encourage you to read my blog post from October 2012, which I’ve reposted below. And I’d like to ask this of you: If you read the article and my blog post, and if you find yourself feeling reactive, please don’t post a comment immediately. Instead, go inward, and take some time to ask yourself why you’re feeling so reactive. Ask yourself what buttons are being pushed, and what nerve is being touched. Think about it. Write about it. Talk about it with others. Sit quietly and uncomfortably with it. But don’t immediately react, and don’t immediately shut down. That will yield a much more productive conversation, one I wish had happened on my friend’s Facebook page.

* * * * * * * * * *  

Think about the costumes you dressed in as a child, or saw other children dressed in. How many children were dressed as Indians, complete with fringe and feathers? Or as a Mexican, with a large-brimmed sombrero and a brightly colored blanket? Or maybe as a kimono-clad Japanese woman, her face whitened and chopsticks in her hair?

The student images above say it all:  This is not who I am, and this is not okay.

A student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) recently launched an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” – a campaign that has taken off like wildfire. College campuses across the country have begun to distribute these posters on their campuses. As of last week, these images have been shared on social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr more than 50,000 times. Given that Halloween has a longstanding association with poor decision-making (think Mischief Night and college drunk-fests), it seems like a prime opportunity to convey the message to think before you do something offensive and stupid.

Extending the concept to LGBTQ oppression, the Cantu Queer Center at UC Santa Cruz has taken this campaign one step further by creating their own set of posters. Headlining with the statement, “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume,” the campaign calls attention to the fact that many people (especially young heterosexual males) consider Halloween the one time of year where it’s okay to cross-dress – to take gender identity and make it into a costume.  You can see an example of their poster below:

“Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” poster by the UCSC Cantu Queer Center, inspired by the Ohio University STARS “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign.

Frankly, when I think back to my high school experience, I can think of a LOT of boys who dressed in drag because they thought it was a big joke. In fact, I can think of quite a few people who did exactly that in college – and they, too, thought that this was hilariously funny. And it’s pretty offensive, when you think about it.

The irony, of course, is that Halloween is notorious for being a BIG gay holiday. Up until 2006, San Francisco hosted an annual “gay Halloween” street party (the party ended when nine people were wounded in a shooting, prompting the city to call off the event). Mardi Gras-like Halloween events have sprouted up in gay enclaves like Christopher Street, West Hollywood, and Key West. There are lots of reasons why Halloween has become such a big deal in the LGBTQ community. It’s a holiday with pagan roots, appealing to those who have been shunned by mainstream churches. It’s a way to be flamboyant and theatrical while still being closeted – if you’re wearing a mask, people won’t always know who you are, and this was particularly important in the days before gay liberation. But on a very basic, obvious level, doing drag and playing with gender, which is usually totally unacceptable in our essentialist two-gender system, is fair game on Halloween. In fact, in the LGBTQ community, there’s something seriously wrong if NOBODY is doing drag on Halloween.

So why is it okay for people in the LGBTQ community to do drag on Halloween, but it’s not okay for a bunch of straight male high school students? An analogy that comes to mind is the use of the word “queer.” Why is it okay for me – a member of the LGBTQ community – to use the word “queer,” but it’s not acceptable for non-ally heterosexual people to use that word?

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

When people engage in cultural appropriation, they’re borrowing aspects from a cultural group (usually a group that has been subjected to marginalization and oppression) without a true respect or appreciation for what they’re doing. Wearing dreadlocks because it’s “cool” is a form of cultural appropriation. Naming baseball teams and summer camps after Native American tribes is an example of cultural appropriation. It involves commodifying the “trendy” elements of a culture without recognizing the decidedly “un-trendy” historical oppression that group has been subjected to.

Many historically oppressed groups have coped with cultural appropriation by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. When groups engage in cultural re-appropriation, they reclaim terms and aspects of culture that have traditionally been in a disparaging way against that group. When LGB people call themselves “queer,” or lesbians call themselves “dykes,” or trans- and gender-variant people call themselves “trannies,” they’re engaging in cultural re-appropriation. Interestingly, this concept has spread to a vast number of groups – the word “fat” is used by large women and men in the size acceptance movement; the word “crip” is used in the disability activist community; the concept of “geek culture” is emerging among people who belong to said culture; various racist terms have been reclaimed by different racial and ethnic groups. Cultural re-appropriation is an act of empowerment – it’s saying, “We own this word – you can never again use it against us.”

To be sure, this is a controversial idea. Some people in the gay community – particularly older people who remember the sting of these epithets – find the words “queer” or “dyke” to be highly offensive. At the other end of the spectrum, some people view any violation of gender boundaries – whether it’s by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or a group of heterosexual college males – to be a positive thing. In fact, some would say that the “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” campaign takes things a little too far, punishing them for pushing the envelope on gender boundaries.

I think it’s important to reflect on these questions: If you’re going to wear a costume, are you willing to learn about the person inside the costume? Are you willing to consider the baggage of oppression that is held within that costume? Are you willing to fully experience how others respond to you while you’re “in costume” – and to consider how it might feel to those people whose “costumes” can never be taken off?

Happy Halloween to you all.


Filed under biphobia, Castro neighborhood, coming out, disability, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBTQ, racism, San Francisco, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia

7 responses to “Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

  1. Very thoughtful, Gayle. I must confess that I’ve dressed in drag on Halloween without giving much thought “to the person inside the costume.” It was just the (obviously silly and unconscious) thing to do. A gaggle of gay guys spending HOURS together making each other up — in retrospect that bonding was the part of the experience I really relished — and then going down to the Castro in San Francisco, bustin’ loose.

    But I gotta say, those high heels really hurt, so I certainly put myself in the place of the woman inside my costume (“Camilla”) from THAT perspective!

    – Keith

    • Camilla!!! I love it!!!

      On a more serious note – I do think there’s a difference between a group of gay men dressing up, playing with gender, having a bonding experience, and partying in the Castro. Drag has been such a big part of gay culture, partly as a way of playing with gender, partly as a way of reclaiming the feminine. And, if you go back to the 1950s and 1960s, drag was a way of being out without being out, so to speak. You could dress up and party in the Castro while concealing your identity, if necessary.
      On the other hand, when I think of the boys I went to high school with who dressed in drag, I don’t see it as coming from the same cultural standpoint. Boys with gender and heterosexual privilege dressing in drag conveys a different message, I believe. They weren’t playing with gender as a way of pushing boundaries – if anything, I think they were expressing their male privilege even more strongly by dressing in drag.
      Thanks for your comments, Keith!

  2. Gary Hollander

    Thanks for this posting, Gayle. This weekly oasis of thought (yours and mine) on issues of LGBTQ life have come to mean a lot to me. Your commitment to our corporate community ethic is quite generous. Thanks. (Cheers to Keith, too, for chiming in.)

    This posting coincides with another question I have been asking myself as an old white gay man. What would I be like had I not foreclosed the discussion of my own gender expression? Unlike Keith, I would never have allowed myself the luxury of drag as an adult. It would have too profoundly humiliating to dance on the edges of my experiences as a bullied sissy in childhood. As a poor child I had to wear my sister’s shoes a few times when we had no money for shoes for me. Surprisingly this experience has not affected me when seeing men slide into pumps; but I am horrified by parents who let children masquerade as homeless people.

    Decades ago, a lovely mentor of mine was encouraging me to be mindful by suggesting I really experience each morning shower as a cleansing and apppreciation of myself. I was trained as a Catholic monk and learned to pray as I put on my habit each day. Your comments are prompting me to revisit these practices of mindfulness, dressing each day as I do as a middle class gender normative man — a costume that could use some attention. I am content with me identity as a man; my costume of that, however, seems worn, outmoded, thoughtless.

    • I love the mindfulness application to dress and costuming! Everything is drag, if you think about it – I do “work drag,” “mom drag,” “queer woman out with her partner drag.” We’re just not aware most of the time that how we carry ourselves throughout the day has a performance element to it. This gives me food for thought regarding how I can cultivate my own “drag awareness” – staying present to my experience. Thank you for that.

  3. thebrownfaggot

    I’ll start off with my subjective lens: I’m a genderqueer second generation refugee diaspora victim who is an active member of the radical queer movement.

    This article is somewhat problematic in that it ignores that gender is not some immutable identity, but rather a performance and act (see: Judith Butler). When straight men playfully dress in womyn’s clothing, this is as much gender expression as when I wear bronzer or a purse. However, if the costume involves tropes or harmful conceptions of femininity, then it becomes a problem.

    My 2 cents.

    • Thanks, thebrownfaggot, for your comment. I’m familiar with Judith Butler’s work, and I agree that gender is very much a performance. However, I also think that the way we “do gender” is a powerful form of communication, and it reflects where we stand on the power hierarchy. When a group of straight male high schoolers do drag and see it as a big joke, that denigrates women and, in their minds, reinforces their sense of masculine power. Fun and playful expression is one thing, but ignorance and abuse of power is another.

  4. I really wish people would just use common sense when choosing a costume. As a rule I stay away from cheap mass produced or “sexy” anything. I’ve heard conflicting opinions on whether kimono or saris are ok to wear as costumes, but it’s pretty consistent that “sexy geisha” and “Bollywood Princess” are not great choices.

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