For most of my life I’ve thought I’d like to wear a skirt but it’s only been the last few years that I’ve started to. The main reason I told myself I didn’t do so was because it is (mostly) socially unacceptable for a man to wear a skirt. Now, it’s an interesting question of whether or not I am “cross-dressing” in doing so. If you strictly define cross-dressing as wearing clothing traditionally associated with a gender that someone doesn’t identify as then I guess I am. (There is a whole other discussion about gender and clothing that I won’t get into here.) But I don’t wear a skirt because I want to dress like a woman. I wear it because I find it cooler and more comfortable when it’s hot out. I don’t think of myself as a cross-dresser.
There are a couple of cultural biases that come up here that took me a while to shed. First, why should the fact that it is socially unacceptable for a man to where a skirt be an issue to me? Perhaps my biggest internalized reason was because of the conservative nature of my work environment. Maybe that’s enough reason and maybe it’s not. But that was always in my mind. The second cultural norm was to start by wearing kilts. It is socially acceptable for a man to where a kilt. (Since I came across someone that didn’t know this, I’ll point out that a kilt is a specific style of skirt – most notably from the nature of its pleats, although the plaid tartan fabric is also a traditional indicator.) It seems like a really weird distinction to make that a particular style of skirt makes a difference in which gender can wear it. I’ve since decided I don’t really like the kilt style of skirt and have started wearing other styles. (This includes silk tie skirts my girlfriend has made for me. I’ll also put in an unpaid plug for my favorite skirt by Macabi Skirts – they have pockets and belt loops!) The power of societal bias has shown itself in that it seems virtually impossible for people to call what I wear skirts rather than kilts – simply because a man is wearing them.
More importantly, it has been a surprising, especially when wearing a kilt, as to how often someone asks what I’m wearing underneath. I finally came up with my standard response: Would you ever ask a woman that question? Now, I’ve never had the situation go beyond this simple – yet totally inappropriate – question. But I’ve read and heard that it is common for people to actually lift men’s kilts to check – or even follow a man into the restroom to check. A letter to Dear Abbey talked about a man literally having his kilt ripped off of him! And when the police were called they started to arrest him rather than the perpetrator. Then, when the police finally understood what happened, they just laughed it off!
Let’s be clear. Lifting a man’s skirt is just as much an illegal sexual assault as it is when doing so to a woman. I think it should also be clear that it isn’t the potential exposure of someone’s genitals that is the issue here. Even if nudity was totally socially acceptable (which I think it should be) the action itself would still be a problem.
Now, having someone lift a man’s skirt doesn’t come close to the level of ubiquitous sexual harassment and assault that many women endure, but I think it illustrates how much sexually inappropriate behavior is still considered socially acceptable.
(The cover image is from Wikipedia with this caption: “One of the earliest depictions of the kilt is this German print showing Highlanders around 1630.”)