Cross-dressing in James Joyce’s Ulysses

All is changed by woman’s will… with this ring I thee own.

Leopold Bloom, drunk in the brothel at midnight, is effortlessly dominated by Bella Cohen. The massive whoremistress is dressed in a three quarter ivory gown, and cools herself with a black horn fan.

-Married, I see. And the Missus is master. Petticoat government.

He confesses it is so.

-You are mine. It is fate.

He begs her to dominate him. She lets him retie the knot in her boot. She places her heel on his neck, and grinds it in.

-Bow, bondslave, before the throne of your despot’s glorious heels.

Having dominated, Bella is coaxing: “Come, ducky dear, darling, there’s a good girly now. Oh, ever so gently, pet, get ready, I want to administer correction.”

“No more blow hot and cold. What you longed for has come to pass. You will shed your male garments, you understand? and don the shot silk luxuriously rustling over head and shoulders and quickly too.”

“You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille, with whalebone busk, to the diamond-trimmeÄŹ pelvis, restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes stamped, of course, with my hoseflag, wigged, perfumesprayed, with smoothshaven armpits. The frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees… ”

He confesses again. “I tried her things on only once, to save the laundry bill… ”

“It was Gerald who converted me to be a true corsetlover when I was female impersonator in the high school play.”

She will make him work as housemaid, emptying the chamber pots. She auctions him off to the Cailiph Haroun Al Raschid. “The scanty, daringly short skirt, riding up at the knee to show a peep of white pantalette, is a potent weaponand transparent stockings, emerald gartered, with the long straight seam trailing up beyond the knee, appeal to men about town.”

Bloom, broken, closely veiled for the sacrifice, sobs, his face to the earth.

Hadley Freeman

Currently, anyone who wants to change gender needs to have lived in their chosen gender for two years and been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. If the changes go through, anyone will be able to declare they are a man or woman, regardless of whether they have made any actual changes to their lifestyle or body. This is known as “self-identification” … a lot of women have argued that predatory men could now come into female-only spaces unchallenged.

“A lot of women have argued.” That is like “People are saying”, the phrase Trump uses with his most outrageous lies. Possibly no-one will swallow it, and he will roll back from it. A journalist, even a columnist, ought to know the truth of the matter, which in this case is that self-ID will make no difference at all.

“A lot of women” claim that all trans women are “predatory men”. That does not make it true. Hadley Freeman’s article does not make it clear what she thinks, though men pretending to be trans women and dressing as women to get into women’s spaces are unlikely, as there are so many other easier options for predatory men. And men with beards pretending to “self-identify” enter women’s spaces only in diseased imaginations. Hadley Freeman praised the “feminists” who went to a men’s swimming session claiming to self-identify as men, but their stunt shows that self-id in law will make no difference. What matters is what people do.

So it seems that the “predatory men” Freeman fears are actually trans women, who are often terrified of being confronted. Before I went full time I had to investigate whether I could make a go of transition. That involved going out dressed female and using women’s facilities, before I made definitive changes to my lifestyle or body. I never asked permission of women as a class- I just did it, as other trans women always have. I had the support of women friends, then and now.

A feminist might argue that not asking women, just encroaching and presuming, was typical male behaviour. I don’t see an option. I was never challenged. I now feel that women learning to challenge encroachment is a good thing. Kasia Urbaniak, a former dominatrix interviewed in the Guardian, said women go speechless and self-conscious of how they are coming across, then acquiesce, shut down, minimise themselves and their concerns. Rather they should change the power dynamic by turning the attention back outwards, on the encroaching man. What are you doing here? What right do you think you have to come here? This involves breaking hardened social conventions where the “deck is stacked against her”- Patriarchy, in other words. Urbaniak observes men relaxing and deferring when they find she is the one with authority.

Justine Greening, then the Minister for Women and Equalities, announced a consultation on self-ID on 23 July, to be published “in the autumn”. Theresa May plugged it at the Pink News awards on 18 October. Since then a lot of women have argued that self-ID is the end of feminism and the ultimate triumph of Patriarchy. They seek to enflame hatred and fear against me, and people like me. When people pretend I am a threat, they licence themselves to attack me. I fear the Tory delay actively seeks to inflame tensions.

The refusal to make it clear whether the “predatory men” are men pretending to be trans women, or actual trans women, makes the anger and fear seem slightly more reasonable. It opens the door for hatred which can then be directed at us.

Freeman writes that “women and trans women” will have to work out a solution. Sometimes we will share space, sometimes not. This will be difficult, especially for my lot, if trans women in women’s space are the first lesson women have in confronting ~male~ encroachment. I went to see my friend Marysia, who pointed out a male among the females. She said it was malnourished and underdeveloped, and proposed a cull. It was a deer, she was working on the Balmoral estate, and still the story runs in my mind…

Integrating the self

I have not spoken to my counsellor for over a month, so have a lot of material to work with. I tell her of my dispute with Quakers, lunch with my friend, my holiday.

-I did a little light bullying.
-I don’t think anyone has ever said something like that to me. “How was your holiday?” “Oh, I did a little light bullying.”

I worked quite hard to make sure my friend had as good a holiday as possible, and when I could not find a way threw my weight around to make sure I got what I wanted from it. In particular I was not going to do boring things because conventionally they are supposed to be fun, especially as my companions had such limited ideas of what those were. And because he values my company so much, my friend has to take a certain amount of shit from me.

-You are very hard on yourself.

Yes. “Bullying” and “giving shit” are harsh words for me. I was kind. I was reasonably self-assertive. I was as creative as I could be. My judgment of myself is harsh, and I am allowing the judgment and trying to stop it preventing me doing what I want. Bullying is wrong. My inner critic calls my action bullying, yet I do it anyway. In unsatisfactory circumstances I am happy enough with my conduct.

At one point we reach a stop, and she says she has a question. Fire away.

-You said your internal policeman tasered you for not being sufficiently manly. Did he not get the memo?

We laugh. Apparently not. It is good to be conscious of him, though, rather than just being paralysed. I love the way I make her laugh. I am telling my stories as elegantly and quickly as I can, wanting to get the meaning over, but enjoying how I word them well.

Before lunch, H told me a coat would look good on me. I am playing control games. I like them. If that is her controlling me- what does that do for me? It is what I want. It gives me a sense of connection.

-Would you have bought the coat yourself?
-No. Never. But I love it.
-So she is appreciating a part of you which is usually silent, and giving it a voice.

I am addicted to attention. Or at least that is approaching the truth, one facet of it.
-You are being attractive, and valuing that.
-Crying in public could be that addiction. Yet it seems to me that when I cry my unconscious communicates to my conscious how strong my feeling is, and if I can fully accept my depth of feeling I need not show external symptoms. That can be useful.

She does not demur to that.

I have known I am screwed up and at war with myself all my adult life. I am closer to finding the cause of that than I have ever been, and to finding ways round it. My father was feminine, my mother liked that, they both knew it was utterly shameful and no-one must ever find out. I had one honest conversation with my father about it, three months before he died.

This is my work. It is intensely valuable, because I am valuable.

Being controlled, and passive. My best experience of sex so far was with a man who let me lie back, doing nothing, and with gentleness, empathy and generosity opened me up. I was curled up and self-protective, and he got me to open myself to him. He licked me out. “You taste Goood,” he said. I want to do none of the work, and be accepted.

Bullying. It is a harsh judgment. I am crying.

She says it is difficult to integrate the self when it is so repressed. At her request, I show her my yellow coat. It is very yellow.

We arrange another appointment, and then I watch Star Trek Deep Space Nine. I like it. It is decades-old SF entertainment for teenagers, and I still like it. It is beautifully done. I pause it to think.

Do I need it to be in some way objectively good, before I am allowed- can allow myself- to like it? Now I am weeping hard. NO! I like it! Yet this is an exceptionally good episode, ep 3/7, “Civil Defense”. I love the clever ways they come up with to reduce the threat, always making it worse until the end. I love the way the characters respond in ways like themselves: Quark and Odo flirt together beautifully, subtly showing their regard and care for each other as they bicker. It is funny. At the end, there is surely the tiredest clichĂ©- the computer counts down the seconds to Self Destruct- and the tension of it grips me. I love their heroism: continually knocked back, everyone keeps buggering on. I loved the sense of the characters, and see it is the only DS9 writing credit of Mike Krohn- his only other credit is one TV movie, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Lightning. I may watch that episode again, however ridiculous the whole world might find such a complete waste of time.

Past issues

Colin, a transvestite who may still go by the “femme name” Fiona, was very good to me. He had a boat on the Norfolk Broads, and I spent many happy long weekends on it, driving up and down the rivers, visiting Norwich and the pretty little towns, country churches, pubs and restaurants, in an alcoholic haze. He came to stay with me in Oldham, and we went out together to the Village (the gay area of Manchester) and the Northern Concord weekends, taking lots of tranny photos of each other. Several on my page Snap Snap Grin Grin were taken by Colin.

He did not think I was sensible to transition. He told me of a friend of his, an accountant, who had transitioned and gone to college to learn to be a hairdresser, but reverted after nine months. He portrayed this as a ridiculous mid-life crisis, and the reversion a return to common sense. I felt at the time that if someone was uncomfortable in the presence of a tranny, they would find a TS accountant less disturbing than a TS hairdresser- imagine, one of them touching your hair! Now, I sympathise with the woman, I might have wanted a complete break from accountancy too.

Colin had other friends who tolerated his habit of dressing up in “little girl” costumes, which he had hand-made. Once we drove to the south of England to a company which made disgusting false breasts aimed at the TV market, including a model with a reservoir so that liquid could ooze out of the nipples. I loathed “dominating” him, as he was in control: I got him to kneel in the porch once, in winter, to cure him of it, and sat reading, but felt miserable doing that, and called him in.

Our friendship ended after I transitioned. He promised to take me to the theatre dressed male, but when he arrived he insisted on wearing drag. I drove him there, and strode off in my sensible flats while he tottered after in his far-too-pale foundation, laid on with a trowel, and a mutton dressed as fetus minidress, but just before we left his daughter had phoned and I had snapped at her, and that was the breach of our friendship.

Oh, I am angry and hurt. Now. I hardly know how much I am angry with him, and how much with the situation. His wife tolerated his cross-dressing as long as he did not do it too much, but sometimes she felt threatened by it: his freedom to cross-dress varied.

I hate the queerness of it, the restrictedness of it. I felt I could dress female in the Village when I was terrified dressing in the shopping centre and the supermarket. With some reason: I went with colleagues to a night club in Oldham once, and a bloke tried to snatch my wig. I loathe the transvestite scene, with its jargon- GG for the few wives and girlfriends who turned up stands for “Genuine girl”- and, I am genuine. Yes, yes, tolerance in all things, and if I find them disgusting how may I respond to someone who is revolted by me, and- Oh, the fear, and the unnaturalness, and the fetishism!

I dressed there when I was too frightened to dress anywhere else. And, dressing there, I had an acute sense of my own unnaturalness and wrongness which I have not entirely shaken off. Miserable thinking of it, I lash out here at the mostly inoffensive Colin- my first draft had his surname and the name of the town he lived in, and I thought of putting in a photograph of him, which would be unkind.

I have a right to exist. I have a right to be me, and not to pretend, and it is still hard to accept that.