April 24, 2016

Prince as a Crossdreamer, and What it Means for the Transgender Debate

We have lost Prince, AKA Prince Rogers Nelson, one of the biggest pop artists and composers in modern history, and I find myself marvelling at the fact that the world is mourning one of the most well known crossdreamers of all time. People do not seem to mind that he was one!
Prince in a female pose on the cover of Lovesexy

Mr. Sexually Explicit

Prince had very limited inhibitions when it came to presenting his sexual fantasies in lyrics. This was, after all, the man who told us about his Darling Nikki that "she was a sex fiend. I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine".

Nikki was partly the cause for Tipper Gore founding  the Parents Music Resource Center in the US.  This led  to the use of "Parental Advisory" stickers on album covers in that country, assumedly protecting children from harmful content.

So yes, you can safely say that Prince caused controversy as a person who made "dirty lyrics" and as such was classified as a "pervert" by those more emotionally restricted.

But he was never slammed, as I can see, for being a crossdreamer or someone making gender-crossing sexy. When going through all the obituaries and articles, I can't find one single negative reference to this topic. Searching the Net I can't find one single page where Prince and the stigmatizing and invalidating concept of "autogynephilia" are mentioned in the same paragraph.

"I'm not a woman, I'm not a man"

People do use terms like "queer," "ambisexual," "androgynous" and "polysexual" when writing about Prince.

 This makes sense given lyrics like the ones found in "I Would Die 4 U", a love song with strong religious or mystical overtones. (Video here. Full lyrics here).

Prince sings:
I'm not a woman
I'm not a man
I am something that you'll never understand
Then there is the famous Prince symbol or logo, which unites the male and the female  in one glyph.

But most commenters discusses this kind of gender-crossing with respect, or at least some positive fascination.

People never use terms like "transvestite", "transvestic fetishist" or "autogynephiliac", in spite of Prince dressing up in clothes that are undeniable feminine.

Mind you, I am glad this is the case, but I am curious as to what causes this immunity to the curse of so many gender variant and transgender people: The accusation of being some kind of sexual freak.

The Love Symbol of Prince, uniting Venus and Mars.
You  would think the supporters of theories that invalidate transgender people (and I use the term transgender in its wide umbrella sense of "gender variant" here) would feel compelled to use this blatant example of crossgender eroticism as their prime example of a "paraphilia", but no.

Prince as crossdreamer

Which is strange, because it is not as if he has been hiding his fantasies of being a woman, nor their sensual and erotic overtones.

In "Tamborine" he asks his female partner about what it feels like to be her:
Oh my God here U are
Prettiest thing in life I've ever seen
Close my eyes what's it like,
What's it like inside your tamborine?
In "If I Was Your Girlfriend" (full lyrics over at CDL) Prince presents the common MTF crossdreamer fantasy of being allowed to be a woman among women, opening the song with a shop assistant calling out to the female customers: "Look at the bargains over here, ladies..." followed by a snippet of bridal music.

He is looking for the kind of female intimacy that his role as a man denies him:
If I was your girlfriend
Would U remember 2 tell me all the things U forgot
When I was your man?
Hey, when I was your man
If I was your best friend
Would U let me take care of U and do all the things
That only a best friend can
He wants to help her pick out her clothes, wash her hair, make her breakfast. "Could we go to the movies and cry together?" he asks, and paints a picture of them being lesbian lovers, and he taking on the role of a woman:
Of course I'll undress in front of U!
And when I'm naked, what shall I do?
How can I make U see that it's cool?
Can't U just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend U could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, 4 U naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get U off?

This is not the only song where he touches upon some kind of gender fluidity:

"If I gave you diamonds and pearls, would you be a happy boy or a girl?" he asks in "Diamond and Pearls".

"I want to be your brother, I want to be your mother and your sister, too," he sings in "I Wanna Be Your Lover."

Playing with gender roles

He also playfully switches gender roles in movies and videos.

This is very clear in the video for the superhit "Kiss", where Prince dances around Lisa (one of the lesbian members of his band The Revolution) in a seductive feminine manner, singing in a high falsetto voice.

She sits still and composed, doing "the man's job", if we are to live up to the stereotypes. The gender bending is accentuated by Prince letting the female dancer "sing" the more manly part of the verse.

Prince as lesbian

Lisa Coleman and her friend Wendy Melvoin are the ones who have most clearly commented upon Prince's female side.  In an interview with Out they give us the following amazing series of quotes:
Lisa: He was little and kinda prissy and everything. But he's so not gay. 
Wendy: He's a girl, for sure, but he's not gay. He looked at me like a gay woman would look at another woman. 
Lisa: Totally. He's like a fancy lesbian. 
Wendy: I remember being at that Sexuality video shoot and him on stage with that little black jacket and that tie thing around his neck and his black pants with white buttons on the side. 
And we looked at each other for the first time and I thought, Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy. It doesn't matter what sexuality, gender you are. You're in the room with him and he gives you that look and you're like, Okay, Im done. Its over. He's Casanova. He's Valentino.
Was Prince transgender in any sense of the term? His interview on Ophra seems to indicate that he was, but I haven't found any other references to him saying so.

Was Prince Gay?

Many male to female crossdreamers of the gynephilic, woman-loving, persuasion will often questions their sexual orientation, over and over again, as the fantasies of switching the typical gender roles in bed -- as in being the bottom instead of the top -- is immediately associated with being "gay". Internalized homophobia may make this a problem for some, at least for a time.

I do not sense much homophobia in Prince, at least not before he became a member of Jehova's Witnesses (even if he in one song fantasizes about turning a lesbian woman around).

But he does question his own sexuality, while at the same time celebrating the diversity of gender and sexuality.

"Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?" he asks in "Controversy".

Here's from "Uptown:"
"She saw me walking down the streets of your fine city It kinda turned me on when she looked at me and said, "come here". Now I don't usually talk to strangers but she looked so pretty  What can I lose, if I, uh, just give her a little ear? "What's up little girl?" "I ain't got time to play." Baby didn't say too much. She said, "Are you gay?" Kinda took me by surprise, I didn't know what to do I just looked her in her eyes and I said, "no, are you?" Said to myself, said "She's just a crazy, crazy, crazy little mixed up dame. She's just a victim of society and all its games." Now where I come from we don't let society tell us how it's supposed to be. Our clothes, our hair, we don't care. It's all about being there. Everybody's going uptown. That's where I want to be."
There is no doubt that Prince loved women, so if his sexual orientation was ambiguous, it was as a bisexual or polysexual.

Beyond the Fetish

Which brings me back to the original question: Why hasn't Prince been used as an example by those who wants to reduce crossdreaming and gender variance among male to female crossdressers and transgender people?

I suspect that it has something to do with what Wendy alluded to in the quote above. Prince was an extremely attractive man, to the point of making a lesbian woman admit as much. Straight women flocked around him, at the same time as he managed to become a bit of a gay icon.

The stereotype of the woman-loving male to female crossdresser and crossdreamer, however, stipulates that he has to be some kind of unfeminine and unattractive "man in a frock", the kind of image transphobic bathroom billers in the US try to paint in order to keep trans women out of public restrooms.

This is the stereotype presented by those promoting the "autogynephilia" theory as well.  The only male to female transgender people who can be even remotely feminine or sexually attractive are the androphilic, man loving, trans women or -- as Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey so insultingly call them: extremely effeminate gay men.

The male to female "non-homosexual" transgender "man" is an evolutionary dead end, according to this theory, a man lost -- in love with his inner woman -- without much interest in women "out there" -- again according to Blanchard.

People like Prince, as well as other straight or bisexual male rock and pop stars who have flirted with gender variance or who express some kind of femininity, are ignored by transphobic scientists and activists because they prove that "androgyny" or being genderqueer or some shade of transgender does not necessarily make you uninteresting in the eyes of straight women. It may, in fact, make you more attractive.

I suspect that is why they do not mention people like Prince, David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, because their example messes up the whole mental map of the scientists lost in the pathologizing version of the binary.

There are many reasons why the work of Prince is important in a gender and sexuality setting, and this is one of them: He was a living proof of the stereotypes being exactly that: Stereotypes.

See also: Prince's legacy in the context of trans history

Thanks to Uli and Lost. Main photos from the New York Times.

See also:  Christina Cauterucci on "How Prince Led the Way to Our Gender Fluid Present"
Marcus Patrick Ellsworth: "Words of Liberation, Prince's Lyrics and Queer Identity".
Pence Kornhaber: Prince: "Gay Icon, Whether He Wanted to Be or Not"
Zeba Blay: Prince’s Revolutionary, Complicated Relationship With Black Masculinity
Alyssa Rosenberg: Mourning Prince and David Bowie, who showed there’s no one right way to be a man


  1. Beautiful post Jack. Thank you so much!

    I remember falling in love with Prince as a child. It is so sad that he is no longer with us.

  2. I live in Minneapolis and have seen Prince up close on several occasions. Though I never spoke to him, he was a friend of a friend -- actually, a friend of several of my friends.

    One thing that was ALWAYS clear to people here: Prince was not gay. He showed exactly zero interest in men. That suggestion was all for show, opening doors for him to do other things.

    And while he was clearly very interested in women, what many non-trans folks failed to recognize was that he was actually enthralled with the femininity itself, in all of its various forms. When he went to clubs, he would scan the crowd for the girliest girls, and those would be the ones he'd invite back to Paisley Park later. He loved long legs, high heels, short skirts, make-up, big breasts, curvy figures, long hair and all of the feminine trappings.

    I was never privy to what he did with these women once he got them back to Paisley (beyond dance with them, which I certainly witnessed), but I got the distinct impression that what he really wanted was to look at them, and even emulate them.

    Of course, I could only view this through my own trans lens, so I may not be able to be objective. But he so loved wearing make-up and lace and high heels and soft flowing fabrics that I long ago concluded he was trans (or a crossdreamer, if you prefer) and had found the perfect cover short of transition: creative genius and rock star. As they came along steadily, the lyrics of the songs (which you've done a great job of collecting, Jack) just served as confirmation for me of what I had already concluded.

    My own personal reaction to him was very complex. I was obsessed with his music and all of the minutia that went along with it (I have literally hundreds of vinyl discs and CDs and audio tapes and bootlegs and videos, etc.). I was fascinated by the image and the blatantly feminine touches. But when I saw him up close (such as in his studio or at a club), his vibe was surprisingly masculine, and the feminine trappings seemed somehow incongruous. He was highly competitive, and decidedly macho. I found myself vaguely repulsed.

    In my own mind, I considered all of the machismo to be sort of a dodge, as if he could get away with the feminine trappings only by offsetting it with macho behavior. There's no question that if he were not the star, the men surrounding him would have been laughing at him. As such, he always seemed a little sad to me, as if he couldn't really live the femininity he would have preferred. He was stuck being a macho guy in lace and mascara.

    Maybe this is going too far, but I thought a lot about this subject when he was alive, and it all came back again with his death. My personal conclusion was that he definitely was a crossdreamer, but the extent of that may never be fully known because he felt forced to hide it -- perhaps in plain sight.

  3. Thank you Nadine, for your kind words, and thank you TransLora for sharing this fascinating first hand experience with Prince as a crossdreamer.

    The machismo of MTF crossdreamers is often a "dodge", as you call it, a kind of hyper-correction or an attempt at bolstering a fragile to nonexistent masculinity. On the other hand, most of us -- cis people included -- are a blend of masculinity or femininity (the kind and sensitive father, the aggressive and dominant mother), so I guess this part of him could be real as well.

    Wendy and Lisa refers to Valentino and Casanova, which brings up images of a kind of feminine masculinity in my head. (I realize that the previous sentence is paradoxical, but I guess this is a field of complex ambiguity :)

    There has been an ongoing discussion on whether the large number of gay people in certain artistic communities is caused by their need to reconcile opposites and explore and define their own identity. Maybe this is the same for many crossdreamers, Prince included. And he had,as you point out, had found the perfect cover short of transition: creative genius and rock star.

  4. Fascinating article Jack. Prince was clearly someone who resided somewhere between man and woman and could care less how that was viewed by others. His sometimes ambiguous sexual signals show how complex we can be as individuals and given the milieu where he practiced his craft he could get away with it more than if he worked in an office where you would be more obliged to pick a side.

  5. Jack, you said, "...I am curious as to what causes this immunity to the curse of so many gender variant and transgender people: The accusation of being some kind of sexual freak."
    Perhaps the answer is related to the following. There have been studies in psychology that indicate tolerance of "deviance from social norms" is correlated with competence. In other words, the more competent one is perceived to be the greater the tolerance for any departures from social norms. A television report, some years ago, discussing this correlation used an example of a mysterious individual seen each morning walking down Wall St. in New York city along with all the other "suits" on the way to work. This individual had long, unkempt hair, a beard and mustache, wore jeans and a t-shirt, wore sandals and carried a briefcase. Investigation revealed that this mystery man was the head of technology and network operations nationwide for one of the top investment banks in New York. In short, a lot of competence will usually buy you a lot of tolerance.

  6. That makes sense, David. It is hard to contest the fact that Prince was a highly talented artist.

    I also suspect that the fact that he was a "ladies' man" inoculated him somewhat from the "paraphilia" diagnosis.

    It was much easier to attack Michael Jackson, as Blanchard protege J. Michael Bailey did when he discussed the possibility that Jackson was both a pedophile and an autogynephiliac.

    Which brings me to the most obvious way of delegitimizing people from marginalized groups: Explain any undesirable trait as an effect of them belonging to this group, while the same trait found among members for the majority is considered and exception to the rule. Black criminals are criminals because they are black. White criminals are criminals because they are unique individuals.


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