Professor in drag

Philosopher Michael Gilbert discusses the delights and enlightenment that come with wearing a dress.

By Jacqueline Swartz
Published February 24, 1999 9:45AM (EST)

Late in the term of his second-year philosophy course on gender and sexuality, York University professor Michael Gilbert asks his class if they'd like to have a Q&A session with someone who is transgendered. Sure, says almost everyone in the Toronto class of 90 students. All semester they have been talking about what it means to be men and women, how gender relates to sex; they've discussed marriage, various kinds of love, what it means to be gay. Now they'll have the chance to see a "living deconstruction of gender dichotomy," as Gilbert puts it. Those who feel uncomfortable about seeing such a person, he warns, should not attend the next class.

A few days later, Brooklyn-born, street-smart Michael Gilbert, tenured professor and alpha male, shows up for class as Miqqi Alicia. "Her" walk is more tentative than the lumbering gait of Gilbert. She is dressed in a demure skirt and sweater and wears low heels. There is a glint of earrings underneath her shoulder-length salt and pepper hair, now released from its usual ponytail. Her legs are shapely, her nails are well-manicured ovals, but the whole effect is more Mrs. Doubtfire than RuPaul. Miqqi will never quite make it as a knockout woman. Also, the well-credentialed professor is sensitive enough to dress appropriately. "In class I follow the unwritten female professor rules: Display few bright colors and no skin."As she enters, the students giggle and whisper. There's a buzz. One student walks in late and practically trips on her double take. Miqqi talks for 10 or l5 minutes to let the class get used to the sight of him, now her. Transgender, she explains, is an umbrella term that covers anyone who is uncomfortable with, objects to or plays with his or her birth-designated gender.(By contrast, transsexuals believe they truly belong to the opposite sex.)

"The male cross-dresser doesn't believe he's a woman. I'm a man, with a man's body ... and I don't want anyone to touch it with a scalpel," he/she tells the students with a little grin of self-diminishing femininity.

The rapt expressions of the students show they're on his side. So do their comments. A clean-cut-looking male student points out that all professors impose their styles and lives on their class, from their worn tweed jackets with leather patches to the endless heterosexual references to wives and children. "The creepiness factor was avoided," noted a female student. "It's not sexual, he's not being caught going through his wife's underwear or wearing garters and heels." Indeed, Miqqi Alicia is more toned down Michael Gilbert than drag queen. The voice is softer but not really higher, the gestures are less assertive -- Miqqi flutters her hands where Michael would saw the air with his arm to make a point.

Later, over coffee, Gilbert meets with me to discuss the video that recorded Miqqi's classroom appearance. Confident, jovial and intense, he wants me to know that his students are impressed that he's willing to share himself with them. Lately he's been sharing himself with more than students: Print stories and TV pieces on Gilbert have appeared in the mainstream media during the past year. The self-outing was intentional -- Gilbert believes that if you have tenure, you ought to say what's unpopular, especially if you're part of a marginalized group.

"I have the obligation to expose myself as transgendered in order that others, for whom the risk might be greater, can also do so," he says.

Gilbert is part of a wave of gender-bending academics who put their bodies
on the line. That once meant facing a phalanx of cops because you wanted to
help stop the Vietnam War or Southern racism. But in the world of paradigm-rocking academia, the focus of revolutionary energies has irrevocably changed. While once campus radicals addressed explicitly political and civil rights issues -- racism, the widening gap between rich and poor, homelessness or America's military adventures -- now they often battle on behalf of "the body" and the elusive experience of inhabiting a sexual persona.

Born of postmodernism's disillusionment with scholarly detachment, the contemporary study of sexuality allows scholars to become players rather than simply distant observers or temporary tourists. Michel Foucault became both celebrated and notorious for his participation in San Francisco's gay bathhouse culture. Judith Haberstam, a wiry, suit-wearing, butch theorist at the University of California at San Diego, offers both a visual and conceptual understanding of gender fluidity. As Michael/Miqqi sums it up: "I'm living it, not just writing about it. I'm in the first person."

By teaching his class en femme, Gilbert becomes a walking illustration of one of the tenets that underpins much of his scholarship: Gender is just a
construct propped up by deeply imbedded conditioning. And what is constructed can be deconstructed; the fact that you're born one sex shouldn't limit your freedom to cross over into another. His Miqqi outings are as political as they are pedagogical. Cross-dressers are often ignored, he contends, living in the shadow of surgically altered transsexuals or flamboyant drag queens. To bolster courage and self-esteem among his kind, he edits a magazine called the Monarch: Canada's Transgender Reader and organizes support groups.

If all this sounds a little fringy, it's important to remember that Gilbert is not a recent product of an obscure postmodern-leaning school. He has strong establishment credentials: tenure, a C.V. heavy with publications in both traditional and trendy academic journals and more than 25 years of university teaching. After getting a Ph.D. at Ontario's University of Waterloo, and joining the philosophy department of York University in 1975, Gilbert specialized in critical reasoning. His first book, "How To Win an Argument" (now reprinted by John Wiley), was published in 1979. Since then, he has written two novels, one of which, "The Office Party," a psychological drama about a man who takes his co-workers hostages and has no demands, was made into a film in Canada in 1988 called "Hostile Takeover."

Like many who have wedded their sexuality and their scholarship, Gilbert's academic work in transgender issues only evolved after he come out personally. In 1984, when he was 39, his wife died. "I realized that life wasn't a dress rehearsal," he says. "I began to come out, and I felt less of a separation between my cross-dressing self and my academic self. I began to explore it philosophically."

His intellectual work around gender issues developed slowly as he built a bridge between his exploration of verbal disagreement and the incongruities of male and female styles of expression. In 1991, he started to work intensively on argumentation theory. In a paper titled "Coalescent Argumentation," he wrote
about how seemingly divergent positions could be articulated and then
joined: "I am concerned with exploring the ways in which people may disagree more effectively, and especially, with a greater possibility of ending in
agreement." Gradually, he became interested in the possibility of "coalescing" male and female stances, like two sides of an irresolvable argument finally communicating.

"I saw gender differences as relevant," Gilbert says, "particularly as I
slipped from one gender to another -- I could feel them more vividly. If you survey the way men and women communicate, you can identify certain differences. Some are important. Women have a greater attunement to nonverbal communication, they can get beneath the surface."

Like the vast majority of cross-dressers, Gilbert is a heterosexual man, and aside from this little fetish, he has led a rather conventional life. He has spent most of his adulthood married (his current wife is his third) and with children (he has one biological child and three stepchildren). Seen within this context, Gilbert tends to view cross-dressing as a way of escaping the strictures of masculinity. "Imagine being an alpha male and being able to flip to being a beta female once in a while. It's a release, like a holiday."
But this holiday, he's quick to add, is not some superficial day-trip; it goes much deeper than glammed-up drag. "If you are going to declare yourself a part- or full-time woman you have to go beyond appearances," he says.

Yet even within the process of building a new look, Gilbert finds fodder for thought. He approaches female garb and grooming with purpose and
rationality: To learn make-up skills, he went to a MAC store for lessons. And as he carefully plans what he's going to wear, he's also pondering the meaning of male vs. female wardrobes. Why is it that women have an expanded gender wardrobe -- from jeans to slinky dresses -- while men are limited to dressing, as he calls it, en drab? "It's OK to go up the gender ladder but not down," he says. "In our society, you never do anything that diminishes your power."

He also claims that his time spent in feminine form has influenced his philosophical understandings of argumentation and competitiveness. When he's a woman, he says, power and winning become less important. This different sensibility, he notes, has seeped into his work. "My argumentation theory is now a blend of animus/anima, male/female."

Despite the explicitly political claims of such gender scholarship, however, it's difficult to see how such ideas can have a radical impact on what we already know about male and female communication. There are, after all, many female philosophers, linguists and rhetoricians who can attest to the distinctions between male and female speech and presentation. Moreover, it's just the sort of observation that hardly requires a Ph.D. What then, is the ultimate value of male philosophers who wear dresses and F/M transsexuals who teach anthropology? Aside from making the college campus a lively carnival of sexual diversity and challenged assumptions, aside from giving an intellectual voice to a sexually marginalized group, such radicalism largely evades old notions of collective activism, merely articulating a very specific set of experiences.

What happens when all the transgendered exit their closets, as Gilbert is admirably helping them to do? What will their liberation mean to anyone who isn't another secret cross-dresser? It's a philosophical question that Gilbert and others in the transgender movement have yet to answer.

Jacqueline Swartz

Jacqueline Swartz is a writer living in Toronto.

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