King For a Day

By Leslie Lawrence '72

I had been teaching at a small women's college in New England, a nice place but with too many bake sales. Faculty dress like bankers; they protest via polite memos. A few brave students have green hair or no hair or tongues studded with jewels, but by and large, daring, eccentricity, or even playfulness are rare. So imagine my surprise when a colleague stopped me in the corridor to say women's studies and faculty development were cosponsoring a Cross-Dressing Workshop.

Immediately I volunteered.

Not that cross-dressing has been a long standing interest, but I had recently attended a much-talked-about photography exhibit on the subject, and had seen a video there on a woman-to-man ("Drag King") workshop led by the same Diane Torr who would be conducting ours. Not for me, I had thought at first, but by the end of the video, when participants claimed the experience gave them more confidence and clout in the workplace, I was intrigued. My nontenure track job was scheduled to end soon, and I had been feeling beaten down, even wimpy. Clout, confidence--I could use some of those.

"Don't you want to think it over?" my colleague Laura asked.

"Nope," I said. "Put me down as a definite."

Leslie as a WomanWithin a few weeks, my voice mail started getting more interesting. One day Laura was telling me to begin thinking about the man I planned to become; the next, Betsy, reminding me I would need shoes and underwear--and a penis, too. Then Betsy again: Forget the penis, she and Laura would take care of that, as well as ace bandages for breast binding. She went on at some length about the construction of penises, and I, ignorant of the wondrous capacities of voice mail, marveled at the patience and presence of mind she must have had to send such a message to the dozen or so participants.

The day of the workshop, we gathered in the Special Functions room. I'd always found that name to be a mouthful, but now it seemed oddly appropriate. We drew the shades. Then, nervous and giggly, we disrobed, bound our breasts, discussed the proper way to position our disappointing penises (cotton batting wrapped in gauze!), donned the male duds we had each brought for ourselves, looked in the mirror, and saw . . . ourselves. Women dressed as men. But that was before the make-up man had his way with us. One by one we submitted to his gels, pencils, powders, and whiskers and were transformed.

Christine became Christopher, an Oxford Don with slicked-back hair, a pert mustache, wire-rims, and an effete, imperious manner. Though we'd not yet received any instructions, Christine instinctively knew that as a man she should abandon that tell-tale feminine trait: the smile, the aren't-I-cute/nice/comforting, confide-in-me/like me/love me/but don't-goose-me smile.

Deena, who had bought her suit and shoes at the Salvation Army, became Carlos, a mafioso in construction. I, in my own button fly jeans, sixties Frye boots, father's shirt, and neighbor's tie and khaki jacket, became . . . Well, I had thought I would want to be a "new man," sensitive, expressive, searching, and modest; but the moment I glared at my unsmiling, mustached mug with its five-o'clock shadow, I knew I had to be--longed to be--mighty man: crude, virile, self-assured, smug, and successful in all the ways I wasn't. Jeff Sykes was the name that came out of my mouth. No one I knew, but immediately he came into focus. Handsome, of course; bisexual; a rising sculptor with a tenured position at a nearby college (more prestigious than my own). I started shaking hands with the others who'd been made over. There was a nerdy science teacher, a strong silent cowboy, a swishy international art trader, a bandanna-clad forest ranger . . . each to his/her fantasy.

And finally we were ready for formal training: When walking, lumber; lean slightly forward and exaggerate the weight shift.

When dancing, move only from the waist down and stick to the step you learned in ninth grade.

When picking up a drink, do so decisively, with your whole hand.

When entering a room, don't check things out from the doorway, but charge in like you own the space.

And, most difficult of all, when talking, don't say much. Don't end a sentence in a questioning tone. Look slightly to the side of the person you're talking to, and if things get tense, just imagine your own eyes are set way back in the rear of your skull; that creates a feeling of distance--and safety.

After practicing each skill separately we were set loose to improvise at a "party."

"Hey Sykes, how's it going?"

"Not bad, not bad at all. Sold everything at the opening. Five galleries called last week."

Such shameless boasting was fun, as was strutting around, slapping the other guys on the back, making bold remarks I would normally censor or at least regret. How much more energy I had now that I wasn't worrying so much about everyone's feelings. And how much more relaxing to flop down into a chair, rather than remaining perched, ready for flight. I liked reaching into the bowl of beer nuts and not retreating on second thought, but digging in deep with my whole fist. I loved wondering about whom Jeff (or was it Leslie) was attracted to, and what this said about him/her/them. (The possibilities and permutations there were endless--and confirmed my belief that sexual attraction is as graspable as a spunky trout.)

I think I am generally viewed as averagely feminine, and was surprised by how easily I could transform myself, by how quickly the new me felt nearly as genuine as the old--a good lesson in the power of appearance. A good opportunity to question whether our gendered behavior is as natural and innate as most of us assume.

Leaving the college, I was grateful it was already dark, and by pure coincidence, Halloween. The plan was to regroup, still in drag, at a Thai restaurant. Though I pride myself on not giving much weight to public opinion, the prospect of being perceived as a gender outlaw--or an ordinary man--was terrifying. Nevertheless, even in the relative privacy of my car, I remained Jeff, instinctively shifting gears more forcefully, changing lanes with more bravado. And outside again, debating how much to withdraw from the money machine, I rejected the habitual $60 in favor of the more manly $80. Yes, I thought, this being a man has a lot to recommend itself.

But as I strode toward the restaurant, anticipating dinner with a bunch of men, my love affair with this trip ended. I didn't want to talk stocks or conquests or even galleries and dealers; I wanted to talk girl talk. To lean in close, confess all, nod sympathetically. In short, I wanted myself--and Laura, Betsy, Christine, Deena, et al.

They must have wanted the same. When we entered, we resisted smiling, which wasn't easy, since it's one thing to be cold and imperious with one's friends, quite another to be that way with proud, eager-to-please waitpeople. But once we gave our orders, we (except for the make-up man who, according to rumor, was actually a woman, or had been until recently) slid easily back into our female selves, smiling big, passing around tastes, "processing" our day.

When the author tried dressing for success, she went way beyond navy blue suits and sensible heels. What did the effort get her? That depends upon how you define success.

Several had not enjoyed the experience nearly as much as I. They didn't want to be like men, or they wanted too much to be like men, or they feared they were already too manly, or . . . or . . . Some were unable to explain the resistance they felt. We all steered clear of the attraction issue.

Halfway through my pad thai, remembering the hour, I asked Betsy, a psychologist, if she thought my four-year-old son would be upset if I arrived home in drag.

"Remove the mustache," she advised. So I did. But I didn't know what to do with the hairs. (My pocket? The pink tablecloth?) "Just toss 'em under the table," Lisa suggested. "That's what a man would do." We all laughed. I tossed, then went to the men's room. Fortunately it was a single. No one to see my feet pointing the wrong way, to share my surprise when my penis fell out. I washed off the mustache glue and five o'clock shadow, and, looking into the mirror, saw myself again, smiling. With a sickening thud I was struck with the realization that in all my adult life, I had never exited a public rest room without first checking out that smile.

Driving home, I reverted to my old languid shifting. When I arrived, my son just shrugged at my outfit and was disappointed that the mustache was gone. He wanted one himself, not pencil but real hairs, and I regretted not putting the wad in my pocket.

Leslie as a ManThe next day, I felt a bit jet-lagged--not so much tired as shaky and disoriented. But as with my re-entry after other exotic sojourns, I was surprised at how quickly I readjusted to my old culture. By lunchtime barely a tic from Jeff Sykes remained. I was walking, talking, smiling, and thinking like the old me--only now I had the unsettling knowledge that, without much effort, it could be otherwise.

As for the other participants, no big changes so far as I know. But I did notice a normally mousy woman wearing a bright red blouse one day, and another wore jeans to a faculty meeting. Christine, whose reassuring smile is back, insists her professional life would be easier if she were Chris. As for Jane, who seemed so much more at home as a man that I thought she might have signed on as Kevin for the long haul--she returned as Jane, wary as ever.

Months have passed. I enjoy passing around the pictures; everyon eis interested, some envious. The man who cuts my hair (and spends part of each weekend as a woman) asked the most right-on question, "Was it fun?"

Lately I've noticed that I like to send mixed messages with the clothes I wear--pearls with jeans, clunky boots with granny skirts. I've taken to buying more expensive footwear (shoes really do make the woman, or at least influence the way she moves and feels). I don't long to be a man again. I no longer immidiately assume that a quality I lack but admire in others, men or women, is beyond my reach.

When I went for my annual conference with the dean, I tried to smile less. The effort didn't hurt; it didn't help. My contract still ended. I can't claim to have gained clout, but I do like to think that ever since that day, I have felt less depressed, even a little--well--cockier. But if that's true, my change of mood probably has less to do with having been a man for a day than with my shored up faith that, as my son's annoying T-Shirt says, I Can Be Anything! It's a good feeling to have when you're an academic looking for a job in Boston.

A National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Leslie Lawrence's work has been published in many periodicals and anthologies, includingThe Boston Globe Magazine, Redbook, the Colorado Review and Women on Women 1. Her essay "Fits & Starts" appears in the Spring '97 issue of the Massachusetts Review. Since writing "King for a Day" Leslie has only found temporary and adjunct teaching positions.

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