Chal­leng­ing our no­tions of sex­u­al­ity

The Witness - Wheels - - INSIGHT - ALLEYN DIESEL

RE­SPLEN­DENT in glit­ter­ing gown, dark glossy hair, smil­ing eyes adorned by re­mark­able lashes — and a dark beard — she stands on the stage among thun­der­ous ap­plause. Con­chita Wurst, the al­ter- ego of Thomas ( Tom) Neuwirth, win­ner of the 2014 Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test with Rise Like a Phoenix.

Is it a girl, is it a boy? Does it mat­ter? I don’t give a sausage!

Wurst means sausage, but Thomas says his choice of name re­lates to the Ger­man ex­pres­sion “Das ist mir doch alles wurst” roughly trans­lated as “It’s all the same to me”.

He’s a strik­ingly beau­ti­ful Aus­trian man of 26, ex­tremely ar­tic­u­late and at­trac­tive when in­ter­viewed, and very will­ing to talk about his re­la­tion­ship to Con­chita. An openly gay adult, he has dressed as a girl from an early age, speak­ing about the dif­fi­culty in deal­ing with dis­crim­i­na­tion, ini­tially think­ing some­thing was wrong with him be­cause of his dif­fer­ence from other boys.

He feels he has “two hearts beat­ing in my chest”, that he, Thomas, is the pri­vate per­son, and Con­chita the public, fic­tional char­ac­ter, each re­spect­ing the other. He uses male pro­nouns when re­fer­ring to Thomas, and fe­male pro­nouns for Con­chita, but does not re­gard him­self as trans­gen­dered, de­scrib­ing him­self as a “record­ing artist and a drag queen”.

Asked why he iden­ti­fies with the per­sona of Con­chita, whom he as­sumed in 2011, he claims the fig­ure of the bearded woman is a sym­bol for free­dom and tol­er­ance, chal­leng­ing so­cial and sex­ual as­sump­tions, stim­u­lat­ing dis­cus­sion on “dif­fer­ence” and “nor­mal­ity”.

Her high- pro­file win in the Euro­vi­sion con­test es­tab­lished Con­chita as a popular gay idol, but, not un­ex­pect­edly, has pro­voked con­tro­versy in many coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly Eastern Europe, Rus­sia and Be­larus, where so­cial con­ser­va­tives and right- wingers have con­demned it as the un­ac­cept­able pro­mo­tion of les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, and trans­gen­der rights. Pe­ti­tions call­ing for the ban­ning of the Euro­vi­sion song, re­fer to the con­test as “a hot­bed of sodomy”, call­ing Con­chita “the pervert from Aus­tria”.

The New States­man de­fended Wurst, say­ing: “a vote for Wurst is an­other vote against Rus­sian ho­mo­pho­bia ...”

Thomas Neuwirth is not a new phe­nom­e­non, sim­ply the lat­est, high- pro­file ex­am­ple of a long line of cross- dressers ex­tend­ing back cen­turies in most cul­tures. Many fairly re­cent pop groups have fea­tured cross- dressers, such as Boy Ge­orge, Queen, Prince and An­nie Len­nox in suit and tie in the mu­sic video of Sweet Dreams.

In the early theatre, for ex­am­ple in Shake­speare’s plays, men played women’s parts, as women were for­bid­den to ap­pear on stage. Twelfth Night fea­tures dou­ble cross- dress­ing — male ac­tors play­ing fe­male char­ac­ters who dis­guise them­selves as males.

Nu­mer­ous mod­ern plays, movies and stage shows have de­pended on cross- dress­ing for their dra­matic ef­fect: Vic­tor Vic­to­ria, Al­bert Nobbs, the 1975 gay block­buster Rocky Hor­ror Pic­ture Show, Aus­tralian drag- queen Dame Edna Ever­age, Matt Lu­cas and David Wal­liams in Lit­tle Bri­tain.

And in South Africa we have our own cross- dress­ing icon Pi­eter- Dirk Uys and his much- loved al­ter- ego Evita Bezuiden­hout.

His­tory records in­nu­mer­able in­stances of women as­sum­ing male per­sonas, pass­ing as men their en­tire lives, to be ac­cepted in oc­cu­pa­tions for­bid­den to them. Many men have dressed as women to es­cape dan­ger or avoid be­ing con­scripted.

French Dadaist painter Mar­cel Duchamp posed for por­traits as his al­ter- ego, Rrose Selavy, at­tribut­ing sev­eral of his works to her. Ge­orge Sand, 19th- cen­tury French nov­el­ist, reg­u­larly dressed in male cloth­ing. Dorothy Lawrence, an English war re­porter dur­ing World War 1, dis­guised her­self as a man to be ad­mit­ted into the armed forces. Dr James Barry, a doc­tor in the Cape from 1817, was not dis­cov­ered to be a woman un­til af­ter her death. All chal­leng­ing so­cial con­ven­tions.

The Hindu tra­di­tion of­fers an in­ter­est­ing di­men­sion on sex­u­al­ity in the an­cient an­drog­y­nous im­age Ard­ha­narish­vara, the de­ity Shiva as half male/ half fe­male, sym­bol­is­ing the syn­the­sis of male and fe­male en­er­gies as the uni­ver­sal cre­ative force. Male and fe­male prin­ci­ples ( Pu­rusha and Prakriti) are in­sep­a­ra­ble, con­sti­tut­ing the unity of op­po­sites, and the ul­ti­mate non- du­al­ity of the Supreme Be­ing. Her­maph­ro­dite fig­ures are par­tic­u­larly as­so­ci­ated with aus­pi­cious­ness and fer­til­ity, pro­mot­ing the flour­ish­ing of cre­ation.

This be­lief is ex­em­pli­fied by the Hi­jra, com­mu­ni­ties of male cross- dressers and trans­sex­u­als, fre­quently called to dance at births and wed­dings, bring­ing their aus­pi­cious auras.

This pro­vides a pow­er­fully vari­ant per­spec­tive of the com­bi­na­tion of male and fe­male de­picted in one per­son, a fas­ci­nat­ing and provoca­tive im­age through the ages — chal­leng­ing stereo­types, and en­rich­ing our no­tions of sex­u­al­ity.

Each of us could prob­a­bly ben­e­fit from dis­cov­er­ing cre­ative ways of in­te­grat­ing the fe­male and male facets of our psy­che into a har­mo­nious whole.

Hu­man sex­u­al­ity is far more com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted than usu­ally en­vis­aged, cer­tainly not con­fined to two clearly de­fined and dis­tin­guish­able male and fe­male cat­e­gories determined by X and Y chro­mo­somes.

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