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“For individuals who chose to break society’s most fundamental rules, the stakes could be very high indeed.” Image by George Henry Dancey (1864-1922), “The New Woman’s Ball” (detail), Punch, 11 April 1895.

An internet search on recent discussions of cross-dressing in the media reveals a myriad of articles, ranging from toddlers to be taught about sexuality and cross-dressing in a new Australian national program, to Newtown Performing Arts school being criticised for allowing cross-dressing, to traditional Indonesian cross-dressing performance art under threat from authorities who are denying them the ability to perform on television. It is clear that cross-dressing, sexual and gender identity remain highly contentious topics in wider society. Lucy Chesser’s Parting with my Sex frames cross-dressing as “disruptive of stable binaries – not just male and female, or heterosexual and homosexual, but across culture more generally. [It] intervenes the crisis of category itself.”

Drawing from the history of cross-dressing in an Australian context, Chesser’s book provides a thorough investigation, with examples such as bushranger and cultural icon Ned Kelly, who was purported to have dressed as a woman to conceal himself from the authorities. However, Chesser’s most impressive and comprehensively researched example is that of Edward De Lacy Evans, a woman who presented herself as a man. Evans, who was born Ellen Tremaye, even married three times before his socially determined gender was discovered by authorities. The story is unique, quirky, and ultimately tragic as the reader realises the extent to which Evans was abused by invasive medical professionals. Chesser assessed his ‘cure’, describing his decision to get up out of the hospital bed and dress as a woman again as a symbolic acceptance of his doctor’s prognosis and relinquishment of his male identity. He lived the remaining 21 years of his life as a woman, though Chesser does lead one to wonder how society’s restrictive ideas of gender norms forced him into this particular pronoun and way of life.

Parting with my Sex also distinguishes between changing cultural understanding surrounding cross-dressing and how it has become more sexualised. Chesser’s introduction even incorporates charming images of her grandmother in the 1920s, dressing up in her brother in law’s clothes while he dressed in hers. “For her, the photographs were evidence of youthful energy, exuberance, daring fun, play acting and over the top hilarious adventures. She was utterly unembarrassed by them.”

Perhaps the only venues in which cross-dressing has been historically deemed acceptable seems to be on stage or in dressing up for masquerades, both of which could be seen to provide safe performative spaces in which cultural anxieties could be played out. Through Chesser’s thoughtful and well-researched analysis, the reader can see that there has been a fine line between the potential for cross-dressing as being perceived as light-hearted and harmless, or dangerous and mad.

Hannah Oakshott is a Master of Publishing student and Media/Comms/Journalism graduate interning at Sydney University Press. She enjoys well written female characters, reading and writing about fairy tales, and a good cup of tea.

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