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Eddie Izzard Was A Gender-Nonconforming Icon. What Happened?

His old stand-up shows a man secure in his femininity, but still fully aware of his biological reality.

Sarah Othokian
Sarah Othokian

Eddie Izzard has really let me down.

20 years ago, he was important to a lot of us because he was a man who dared to be himself. Unlike most men in makeup, he even had a little philosophy behind it.

In his 1998 stand-up special Dress To Kill, he explains, "‘Cause if you're a transvestite, you're actually a male tomboy, that's where the sexuality is. Yeah, it's not drag queen, no; gay men have got that covered."

His perspective gave words and hope to many people I knew in the gray areas—because not everyone is straight or gay, butch, or femme. We don't all fit into society's boxes. Some of us couldn't hide it, or didn't bother to.

"I'm a professional transvestite, so I can run about in heels and not fall over, ‘cause, you know, if women fall over wearing heels, that's embarrassing; but if a bloke falls over wearing heels, then you have to kill yourself!"

There's still that shade of misogyny—failing at femininity is even worse for a man. I guess he never really did escape it.

But Eddie described an experience of growing up you don't see in nostalgic movies, one that sounded more familiar to some of us. Spoken to for the first time by someone like us.

"This is male tomboy, and people do get that mixed up, they put transvestite there - no no no no! Little bit of a crowbar separation, thank you! And gay men, I think, would agree. It's male lesbian, that's really where it is, ok? Because… it's true! ‘Cause most transvestites fancy girls, fancy women. So that's where it is. So it’s Running/Jumping/Climbing trees... putting on makeup when you're up there. That's where it is!"

The male lesbian bit was a little circular humor. The message we got was, it's ok to be different. You don't have to push yourself into a ready-made identity. It's ok to be yourself.

But not always easy.

"I was going to be in the army when I was a kid. Yes. I say that, and people go, 'Oh, yeah, yeah!' No, I was, I was going to be in the army when I was a kid ... Before puberty, at school, I didn't tell kids I was a transvestite ‘cause I thought they might kill me with sticks, you know?"

His personal story of being blocked from following his dreams because he didn't fit the look hit me so hard, I remembered most of it all these years later. This man planted seeds in my mind that eventually helped me work through my internalized misogyny and take hold of my own agency.

"I didn't join the army, as you might have noticed... Yeah, ‘cause there's not much makeup in the army, is there? No? They only have that night-time look, and that's a bit slapdash, isn't it? ... the American armed forces have a distinct policy of "don't ask, don't tell" towards the alternative sexualities. If you're a bloke wearing a lot of makeup, you know… I don't think they need to ask, really!"

He was definitely glamorous, but still all man:

"And they're missing a huge opportunity here, ‘cause we all know one of the main elements of attack is the element of surprise! And so what could be more surprising than the First Battalion Transvestite Brigade? Airborne wing! The airborne wing parachuting into dangerous areas with fantastic makeup! And a fantastic gun!"

This is a pretty butch fantasy, and I kinda love it.

"Also, if you're a transvestite, you get lumped into that weirdo grouping, you know?"

Oh yes, we knew. You're normal or you're a freak, especially growing up.

"Like J. Edgar Hoover, what a fuckhead he was! They found out when he died that he was a transvestite, and they go, 'Well, that explains his weird behavior!' Yeah, fucking weirdo transvestite! (pointing to himself) Executive transvestite. It's a lot wider community, more wide than you'd think…"

This is important stuff for young people to hear! Far more accepting and encouraging than telling them their interests mean they were born in the wrong body.

But Dress To Kill is not all sexual politics. Eddie rambles through WWII, the Church of England, but my old favorite was a bit about British colonialism ("Queen Victoria became Empress of India. She never even fucking went there, you know?") where cultural assimilation takes the slogan, Tea and Cake or Death!

"You! Cake or death?"
"Uh, death, please. No, cake! Cake! Cake, sorry. Sorry..."

Good times.

He came across as smart, catching his audience missing a joke:

“The French, who were on your side in the Revolutionary war, they play more esoteric characters. They have characters who turn up and go, 'My name is Pierre! I come from Paris. I’ve come to have sex with your family.'"
"Help yourself... because of the debt of honor to General Lafayette."

The crowd didn't react properly, and Eddie almost paused:

"You know your own history, right? The Revolutionary War! Hung out with Washington. Lafayette. Street named after him in New York. Forget it!"

Snobbery was played for laughs.

"I'm an action transvestite, actually, as well as being an executive transvestite. I'm an action transvestite! ‘Cause it's Running/Jumping/Climbing trees, you know. So I went snowboarding when I was in Aspen ... And there's only two positions in snowboarding: One is looking cool; the second is DEAD! Right?"

Now I see he wants to be addressed with "she/her pronouns" and I can only shake my head. When I heard a while back he decided he was "non-binary" I was upset for a minute. But I put it out of my mind, I've traveled a long way since Dress To Kill, and I guess Eddie has, too.

The world has conveniently forgotten about it. Dress To Kill seems to only exist these days as clips on YouTube, or with terrible audio at DailyMotion (but the Wikipedia page was updated with shocking speed.) But in a dusty corner of the Internet, I found an old fansite full of love and transcripts.

Meanwhile, coverage this week has been bizarre, "Izzard has been known for decades for her fashion and style on stage and television, to which she has said: ‘They’re not women’s clothes. They’re my clothes. I bought them.’"

Tortured verbiage aside, using this quote here hurts my head. In its original context, it's an example of how arbitrary the social roles for people really are. He used to understand this.

But somewhere along the way, Eddie took his eye off the ball. "In 2017, she told the Hollywood Reporter: 'I am essentially transgender. I have boy mode and girl mode. I do feel I have boy genetics and girl genetics.'"

Seems like an odd preoccupation for a 50-something comedian. His understanding of science suggests he should keep his thoughts to himself. Everyone has genes from their mother and their father, that's how sexually dimorphic reproduction works!

But some kind of brain rot has him convinced his mother's genes entitle him to "be based in girl mode from now on." He's using his current project as a dry run for the shiny new pronouns. "This is the first program I’ve asked if I can be ‘she’ and ‘her, this is a little transition period.” Of course, he's having a great time being catered to. "It feels great. One life, live it well.”

OK, Boomer.

What else did I expect? 90s kids never did get any persistent guidance. Those claiming authority only ever seemed to want to be heard, before continuing on along their own trajectory. I don't know Eddie, of course. But I sure feel bad for any male tomboys out there, they must be very lonely right now.

As a former regular tomboy, I try to represent as best I can. Like the old It Gets Better campaign, we can show struggling young people there's more to life than being bullied into boxes.

But 2020 is a million miles from 1998. These days, the bullies are doctors and social workers. Eddie Izzard is just the latest in line to abdicate his responsibility to the rest of us to figure out his bit of the puzzle. In 2020, we're all alone in lots of ways we didn't used to be.

Thanks for the reminder, Eddie. Happy New Year.


Photo by Robert Linsdell

OpinionGender IdentityCelebritiesCulturedragfemininitygender criticalgender rolesMediamenself idtranstransgender