All posts edited by Madeline Ricchiuto.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

NUS Controversy - Clearing the Air (Part 1/2) - The 'Drag Ban'

It's time to set something straight (well hopefully not). By now, many people have probably come across the 'controversy' surrounding the NUS (National Union of Students) LGBT+ and Women's conferences. This controversy is being completely fabricated by the media coverage.

Now, whether this is intentional or due to genuine misunderstandings I don't know, but in either case it is extremely problematic. Having represented my university at the LGBT+ conference and being the LGBT+ equality representative elect for my SU, I feel that it's important that you- whether you're a student or just a general member of the concerned public- know the facts.

Why don't we start with the motion from the Women's conference: Motion #406 titled Zero-tolerance for prejudice in our Unions and NUS. That sounds like a reasonable motion right? So what is getting everyone all up in a tizzy? Somehow, someone has construed part of the motion to "condemn drag." Here is the motion in full:

People seem to be getting caught up in Conference Resolves 1 and 2 : "To issue a statement condemning the use of 'crossdressing' as a mode of fancy dress" and specifically "to encourage Unions to ban clubs and societies from holding events which permit or encourage (cisgender) members to use 'crossdressing' as a mode of fancy dress." (Note: Condemning =/= banning, and encouraging a ban =/= forcing a ban.)

When taken at face value, sure it seems like drag could be included in this. Crossdressing can be a very wide and encompassing term. But (and this is a HUGE but) there is an addendum! Central to this out-of-proportion debate are the words "drag (in any direction) as an expression or exploration of queer identity is to be encouraged."

Read that again. Encouraged.

Drag is not being silenced, drag is not being taken away, or attacked. It was explicitly said that it should be encouraged.

So then what exactly is being condemned? From the motion: "Conference Believes...4. Trans people's lives are not appropriate subject matter for humour that is produced and controlled by cisgender people." and "5. Transphobic fancy dress should be met with the same disdain with which we meet other prejudiced or appropriative costumes."

Crossdressing is often used at social events and gatherings as a form of comedy. Think 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; reflecting (or a reflection of) what we see in the media. Most often, men dressing up as women, as the punchline of a joke or to shock people as opposed to a serious challenge or exploration of gender. Using crossdressing and trans* identities in this way is disrespectful, demeaning, and marginalizing women and people who question and explore their gender.

You might be wondering how this 'humorous' stunt actually affects trans* people and women. For one, when women are portrayed this way it reduces them to harmful stereotypes while also serving to minimize femininity without experiencing, or at least recognizing, the many issues faced by women. It reinforces masculinity as dominant and superior.

For those who genuinely explore their gender identities, it sends the message that their desire is trivial, ludicrous, and silly. It's something which ought to be fleeting, for one night, or you might be in danger of being seen as freaky, dangerous, a threat. This can often contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

A protest held in Istanbul in support of women
But, not all crossdressing is condemned by Motion 406. It states, ""If the intention of the costume is demonstrably that the gender element is for neither humour nor shock-value, it will be deemed acceptable." For example, while a friend of mine attended Boston College, he participated in a campaign titled "Don't Skirt the Issue: End Violence Against Women" (based on a protest in Istanbul - seen above) and such uses of crossdressing might not be condemned. Crossing gender to make a statement in solidarity can be acceptable.

Drag has a long history of being about more than just spectacle. Drag has been an art form that has emphasis on showmanship, critiquing on gender norms and values, and as a place that fosters community. This is starkly opposed to the crossdressing that occurs in popular culture. So, even if drag hadn't been explicitly encouraged in the motion it would almost certainly not be condemned as per the addendum. 


  1. This motion still seems to be at odds with genuine transvestitism where internal perception of gender need not be congruous with the clothes being worn. Using the wording in this motion, it seems to me transvestitism could actually fall foul.

    I also believe the distinction of mens/womens clothing is arbitrary, unnecessary and needs to be broken down. This motion seems to look to enforce it.

    1. NUS Women's Campaign policy already forbids that kind of enforcement, and this motion doesn't do so. ONLY humour and shock value cause clothing to be a problem.

      Lastly, transvestitism is a queer identity.