Interview August 2021 Part I: Gender Issues

In the last two years I have gone through a transformation, as a result of which I now experience and define myself as a woman. Two women whom I am very fond of interviewed me about this transformation process in August 2021. The first part of this interview is reproduced here. The questions in this part were posed by Jane Goldbach and address gender issues. Jane Goldbach is currently working on her masters study on transformation studies at the University of Flensburg. During her bachelors studies on ethnography in Heidelberg, she worked both as a volunteer and in a paid capacity at the TransitionHaus, a project of Transition Town Heidelberg. It was in this connection that we got to know each other.

 

Jane: Wiltrude, when I got to know you, you were known as Wolfgang, and now you go by Wiltrude. Please tell me about your path from Wolfgang to Wiltrude, what moved you, what accompanied you, what were your impulses?

W: First, I have to go back a bit, some aspects go back to my childhood. As a child, I had long hair and it didn’t bother me if people thought that I look like a girl. I played quite a bit with girls. But I wouldn’t ever had the idea of calling myself a girl. Those were very different times.

Part of Wolfgang Höschele's half page in "Oracle 1983", the Yearbook of the TASIS Hellenic International School in Athens, Greece.

Self-presentation in school yearbook as a 17-year-old

During my university studies, I thought a lot about feminist issues, got to know various people, realized that I often understood women better than I could understand many men. Two women students whom I got to know appeared to me as highly intelligent when I talked with them one on one, but with their boyfriends they suddenly appeared stupid! They pretended to be more stupid than their boyfriends, so that the boyfriends would feel good! So I had some experiences about gender issues, and I found it much easier to identify with women who write about feminist issues than with the common image of manliness.

All the methods that men use to show that they are men appeared to me as proof of their idiocy. I really couldn’t accept such an image of manliness for myself. Also, I was not much interested in technology, but rather in complex relationships, whether those were ecological relationships or human relationships. Those are interests that are usually considered more feminine than masculine.

How I imagined myself as a woman when I was about 27 years old

I lived a long time in the United States, where I met my life partner Ishita, but then we moved to Germany. There I was involved with Transition Town Heidelberg, including a clothing swap, doing organizational work as well as clean up afterwards. After each such event, there is more clothing there than before. And it’s especially women who are involved, because most men aren’t interested. So then I was alone in a house full of women’s clothes, and one day I tried on a few. That was really intoxicating for me, I was overwhelmed! I found men’s clothing totally boring, and still do. Pants and shirt, only a few cuts, few colors. But when I tried on a skirt or a dress and it fit, then I didn’t want to take those pieces of clothing off any more! As a result, soon I wore women’s clothes in more and more different contexts. That was simply the right clothing for me!

This started a process beginning in early 2019, by now about two and a half years. Soon I wore almost exclusively women’s clothing – that is, often men’s shirts, but at least wearing a skirt, and I felt amazingly good doing that.

Then I though of a woman’s name for myself, Wiltrude, which is a combination of my middle names Rudolf and Willi. The name means “the strong willed woman”, a good name! Initially I used the name rather hesitantly. Jane, you were there at the name-giving ceremony, you were so supportive along with the other women there! Later I asked people to call me WoWi, as a combination of Wolfgang and Wiltrude. A few months ago I came to realize that it really is better if people just call me Wiltrude, that feels really good!

Since I have asked the people close to me to call me Wiltrude, and they actually all do that, the depressions from which I had often suffered until then have totally disappeared! My general mood is simply much better! And so there is no going back! So I am now Wiltrude!

J: That’s a really great experience as you describe it, that you were able to heal yourself from your depression, by changing yourself. That is really touching! By now I know from various contexts, that people ask how they want to be called, and what are your pronouns. Is your pronoun “she”, and do you consider yourself to be non-binary, or what are the terms by which you want to be called?

W: I do prefer it if people talk about me in the female form, but not everybody has to do that. For example, where I work, people still refer to me as a man. Everybody knows, that I constantly wear women’s clothes, but there I am still Mr. Höschele or Wolfgang. That’s okay with me. I don’t feel the need to explain to people to whom I am not close that I am really a woman. It’s easier to tell them that I am a man who likes to wear women’s clothes. Everybody accepts that. In that sense, non-binary is really very fitting for me. I can also say that in my inner being, psychologically, in my soul I am a woman, but bodily I am a man. That is simply the case, and there is no necessity to change that. I don’t have to change my body because of that. I am not trying to totally become a woman.

J: Exactly, you feel or see both in yourself, and want to live both.

W: Yes.

J: How is it when you move around in public, when you sit in the tram or go on a walk, do you experience unusual situations or get into conversations?

W: Rather rarely actually. Some people look at me a bit longer, maybe just to figure out whether I am a man or a woman. Of course, I can’t read their minds, I don’t know what they think. But altogether I must say I raise very little attention, and I am very satisfied with that.

Sometimes, especially in the beginning when I still had a mustache, there were more frequent comments, but mostly positive. One woman called to me on the pedestrian crossing, saying that she thought it was great that a man has the courage to wear a skirt! Once a mother came running after me with her three or four-year-old son. The son didn’t dare talk to me, but his mother spoke for him. She said that he thinks it is great that I wear a skirt in public, because he wears skirts at home but doesn’t dare do that in public! These kinds of reactions I have experienced, which was really gratifying! Very rarely there has also been a reaction that was negative in some way, but in two years that happened maybe three times.

J: That’s a really beautiful story, how you can appear as a positive model and you get feedback about that on the streets!

When you talked about your feminist times and your studies, you said that there was a lack of positive male role models and that you found the female role models much more positive. Have you found new role models now because you can identify with them more easily, because you see yourself as a woman and call yourself a woman?

W: I can’t really think of specific individuals. The authors whom I have read and that I liked, I still like, regardless whether they are women or men.

But I just feel more relaxed and free to orient myself according to women as role models, or according to ideas of what is appropriate behavior or interests for women. I don’t need to think at all about whether it is considered appropriate if I do something as a man, because I’m not a man!

In general, I think that men are not challenged enough concerning working on relationships. Men are expected to be concerned with technology, or with control, with earning money, but they are not really expected to concern themselves with complex issues concerning relationships. Women often blame them that they don’t do this, but they are not really prepared from childhood to address such issues.

But I find relationship issues to be the really important issues for society. We have more than enough technology but far too little engagement with questions how we can live together better. How can we support each other so that we all can live well? How can we give space for other living things, other species, so that they also can live? All this is complex work on relationships, both concerning ecosystems and human relationships. We have to put enormous work into this. This involves skills that so far women have been educated to acquire more than men.

J: I find that really interesting. You have talked about your becoming a woman as liberation. Is that what you mean, that you feel freer to address issues that you find interesting and that move you?

W: Yes, I find this image of maleness restricting. It is quite simple, one can create a simple world for oneself, in which one let’s say works in a technically oriented job to earn money. If one earns more money, then one is successful. Particularly technically oriented jobs are often paid better than those focusing more on human relationships. But for a person for whom all this is not enough, then this established picture of maleness is restrictive. I actually always told myself, I want to be the best person I can be, and for that maleness or femaleness is really totally irrelevant. But, in some way this image of masculinity is still restrictive. So it’s a liberation for me to say, I am a woman, and I don’t need to waste a single thought on masculinity!

J: Now we have heard a lot about what motivated you personally on your path. Do you understand this as a private matter, your particular path of becoming woman as liberation, or do you also want to use your clothing style, which is always also a message to others, as a conscious message to the world?

W: Yes, with one’s choice of clothing every person communicates something to other people in their environment, that is inescapable. Of course, I don’t know what exactly people read, but they can certainly read that I am not a normal man, let’s say! That perhaps I identify more with being a woman, and that I certainly have no fear to present myself in a way that will be seen as feminine. That I certainly do not consider womanliness to be anything inferior to manliness. It is inescapable that I communicate a lot, and I want to do that. I certainly want to look different from a conventional man!

J: Now I would like to address your social vision. In your work on systems change and systemic consulting, in your proposals for an economy of abundance of life, I have experienced you as a person who thinks very systemically and is oriented to solutions. How would you describe the discourses about gender, transgender, non-binariness from a systemic perspective? What moves you about this and what are you wishes for a future society?

W: Gender is often described as a performance, that one performs as a woman or a man or something else, and that one has to learn how to do this. This means that kids have to learn how to present themselves as boys or girls or something else. How they finally do that, for that every person finds their own solution, in interaction with other people. That is a systemic interaction with many different people. What emerges from this can never be predicted exactly, and that is what creates societal change. There has been quite a lot of change in the last several decades, but there is a lot that has yet to change if we are to successfully address the social and ecological challenges of our time. What I do specifically is not meant to be a model for other people, but just my specific solution, my particular gender bricolage. Every person needs to find their own solution. I think in any case it is important to be open to a variety of solutions, and that there is not a single solution, but many. It is important to be able to experiment, so that we can freely find good solutions that contribute to the abundance of life of all people.

J: Thank you so much for this fascinating perspective and the valuable vision that you stand for. I find it very touching and moving. My heartfelt thanks for this wonderful interview, Wiltrude!

W: Many thanks to you!

Interview August 2021 Part II: Clothing and Creativity

In the last two years I have gone through a transformation, as a result of which I now experience and define myself as a woman. Two women whom I am very fond of interviewed me about this transformation process in August 2021. The second part of this interview is reproduced here. The questions (except for the last one) in this part were posed by Franziska Fendesack and address clothing and creativity. Franziska Fendesack has devoted virtually all of her professional life to clothing technology. She is a master tailor, has studied textile management and has worked several years in Hong Kong. Next to her full time work as team leader in technical product development at a fashion brand she also works as a consultant for women who are starting businesses in the textile industry.

 

Franziska: It’s fascinating what we have heard so far from you, Wiltrude, about your change, transformation, becoming yourself, the best version of yourself as you said. I remember when we first met at the Transition House. The entrance door opened, and there you stood, you had a blue skirt with an Indian pattern. You stood there so matter of factly and were clearly a man wearing a skirt! I just thought, this is going to be interesting! And I still think so!

I would like to ask you a few questions explicitly about your clothing style. You experienced a change of identity in the last few years that you express through your style of dress. How did you experience the several phases of becoming a woman, what did that mean for you, what made that possible, and can you remember specific pieces of clothing that accompanied and made visible this transformation?

W: Yes, as I had mentioned, it began with the clothing swap from which I obtained several pieces of clothing. There is for example a maroon colored skirt that I continue to enjoy wearing and that fits me exactly, a lucky chance! I can go cycling with it, and I went on a dyke march with it in 2019, in the middle of that there was a thunderstorm and we all got drenched! It started with things like that, which I found in the clothing swap and that more or less fit me.

Then I began to modify some things, such as a few things from the clothing swap that didn’t really fit me. Out of those I created some different things. Those were not the first things I ever sewed – I have sewed for a long time, sometimes I repaired some pieces of clothing. One time I even sewed a costume for Mardi Gras in New Orleans from some cloth from India, which I wore for that occasion. But then I didn’t have any other occasions to wear it again.

I never wished to sew pants or shirts though. Nowadays, because I can immediately and often can wear the skirts or dresses that I sew, I have much more motivation. Once I had begun, I also wanted to have more items of clothing, especially skirts. At the time being I can’t afford to just go shopping, and it’s much cheaper to buy a piece of cloth and to make a skirt out of it! Also, then I can make exactly what I want to have. Certain shops, like Delta Fabrics in Mannheim, obtain their fabrics from ecologically responsible sources, at least most of them. So there I don’t need to worry as much about how it was produced, what the ecological footprint is. I can select a fabric that I like and then create a skirt or dress that fits me exactly. That carries a whole different energy when I wear it. And I really enjoy sewing, otherwise I wouldn’t do it! Altogether that leads me to making my own pieces of clothing.

With every piece of clothing that I make, I learn something new, other techniques, or how to treat this kind of fabric, and so it evolves onward.

F: I also think that it makes a definite difference whether one buys something ready made in a shop or whether one gives form to one’s own vision with one’s own hands by one’s own agency. I am certain that this is a big difference. Every time that I see you in something you made, I think you are so proud of what you created for yourself, fantastic! Surely this is part of what helped you overcome your depressions, that you stand up and care for yourself!

I would like to turn to another question, which is one of your important topics, that is social, ecological and economic sustainability. You just mentioned it. If you sew your own pieces, when you obtain the materials where you can follow where they come from, then you don’t have to worry so much how this piece was produced. The topic of sustainability is omnipresent for you. In which ways do sustainability, sociology and economic sustainability play a role for you in regards to the clothing that you wear?

W: Yes, I do think a lot about how clothing is produced and consumed. That is closely connected. Thoughtless consumption promotes production methods that are harmful for the environment, for the sewing workers in Bangladesh or elsewhere, and everything that is connected.

Nowadays there are more and more businesses in the textile and garment industries that try to establish commodity chains that are socially and ecologically responsible from beginning to end. An example is Marketplace India. That was started by two Indian women who live in the USA, who design clothing for the American market together with women sewers in Mumbai and surroundings. The garments are then manufactured by cooperatives of women sewers. They make beautiful pieces. I think that we need to support such things, and this is only possible if we really think about what we buy. If one doesn’t buy a new piece every week, but rather buys things a bit less frequently but spends more on each piece. And thinks about what do I buy, what do I really need – so I look good in it, so it’s practical, and so I can wear it a long time. Then one can spend more money on each piece. This is about consuming with awareness.

If one doesn’t have much money, or if one enjoys it, one can also think about producing more oneself. Then if possible one buys the sustainably produced fabric, and puts a lot more thought into what one makes, what one wants to wear, what expresses one’s own personality, and what one wants to wear for a long time.

One can put that succinctly as putting more thought into each garment.

F: Superb! And I really have the impression at each of our meetings that you practice this to perfection, that you devote a lot of thought into what you do, what the story is behind each piece. Some of your pieces you also upcycle after all.

Are there any particular stylistic eras or specific styles that inspire you?

W: Well, for one I just experiment, look around at what is worn around me. Or for example once I bought a used top that I like very much, and that I continue to wear, and then I made another similar one from linen in emulation of that one. I see models all around me.

Regarding eras, I’d rather say that I feel inspired by the clothing that is being worn today in India, or what men in West Africa wear. In India, there are kurtas and all kinds of different garments with interesting cuts. Some of the cuts don’t differ that much between garments for women and men. The colors are often very different, but what the men wear to weddings often doesn’t differ from women’s wear that much even in the colors. That piece that I made for Mardi Gras years ago was based on Indian garment styles. I don’t have that piece any more, at one point I threw it away because I didn’t have any occasions to wear it!

About West Africa I like the robes that men wear there, the cuts and the colorfulness. That I find inspiring.

F: Yes, I also have that impression every time I see you. It’s not just that you are quite clearly a man in women’s clothing, but also you don’t hide yourself by wearing inconspicuous or black or white colors. On the contrary you are somebody who revels in colors and uses them to communicate. Now also, you are wearing a beautiful red silk top – what you wear can explode! I find that wonderful to see, you are like a butterfly that spreads its wings in the most flowering colors.

Apart from that, you once mentioned that because you have a body that is seen as male, your femininity requires special emphasis. How do you achieve this impression to the outside, or do you have a feeling of femininity through your dress, specific cuts or materials?

W: For one thing, if a woman wears pants, she is still a woman and is perceived as a woman. If I wear pants, I am immediately seen as a man.

F: It depends on the cut of the pants!

W: Yes of course. The pants that I wear these days are women’s pants, and I like to wear those a lot. They fit me much better than the jeans I used to wear. I always had problems finding jeans that really fit me. With women’s pants that are a bit loose and are made of soft fabric, that is no problem at all. But I do want to make it a bit more obvious, that I am wearing women’s clothes, for example by wearing skirts or dresses. And also handbags. It took me a while to turn to handbags, but recently I have made my second one.

F: Yay!

W: I think gradually I am going to make more accessories. That’s also a way to make use of remainders of cloth!

F: Absolutely!

W: Those are pieces of clothing that are obviously feminine. Or I wear a pink and black dress that I recently sewed. That is a color that is seen as feminine these days. A hundred years ago, that was a masculine color! That’s totally arbitrary. One communicates in the language that is spoken today in the place where we live. And here and now, pink is feminine! So I like to experiment with colors, see whether it suits me and whether I enjoy it, and so then I do it!

F: And that it definitely appears to do! Do you have any specific sources of inspiration that you use for your expressions in textiles?

W: One important thing is the variety of fabrics. As an example, there is the skirt that I made from a poncho. It’s a handwoven fabric, the yarn is rather thick, the material is heavy. It’s very different to work with this fabric than with much finer machine-woven fabric. It was an experience to see, what can I make with this material? That was a bit more difficult, but I worked out a result that I really like. So, it inspires me to engage with fabrics, what can one do with this or that fabric? What can one do with silk, or with linen, etc.? If I had some thought about a piece of clothing that I wanted to make, but then got a fabric that is not really suited for this design, then the design changed! I find that exciting!

F: Now we have talked a lot about what your clothing means regarding your identity, your expression, your playing field about textiles, but what function does clothing have for you in the end?

W: Of course it has the simple function to protect us from rain or sun etc.! But obviously we wear it for much more than that. Otherwise we would be able to walk outside naked if the weather is nice!

F: Or in a potato bag!

W: Yes!

Clothing is also self expression, an expression of the social role that one plays. If one works in a bank, one has to wear something different than if one works at a theater ticket counter. Clothing is an expression of many different aspects of oneself, and of cultural belonging, such as to which culture or religion one feels part of. And so clothing is a means of communication.

F: Absolutely! And I have the impression that you are now very free in your style. You wear items of clothing of which one strongly notices that they are very individual, and that you won’t be put in a box. Except by reference to obviously feminine or masculine clothing – that it is not masculine. I find that very exciting! In that context, what connection is there for you between creativity and femininity?

W: As I mentioned before, I find masculine clothing boring, and so I was not inspired to sew as long as I wore men’s clothing. I just find the variety of forms and colors and cuts that one can make with women’s clothing much richer, and so I find it much more enjoyable to make women’s clothing. I could imagine though, if there are men who like to wear skirts or dresses, that I would like to sew something for them. If more men are interested in this, to discover something, to try things out, then I would like to help them!

F: I hope the world hears this offer!

Can you describe to me how your creative process flows from the inspiration to the final piece of clothing?

W: I’ll take as an example the green summer dress that I recently made, because I had no real summer dress! What kind of a cut do I make? I had made a top from a book recently, and that seemed fitting to me for the top portion of the dress. With that, I wanted to have a skirt portion that hangs loosely, with interior pockets. For that, I thought I’ll make a square cut that I pull together a bit at the top. I found a beautiful green muslin fabric, which is incredibly soft and feels comfortable on the skin and is very airy! For the pockets I used sleeves which I had once cut off from an Indian shirt. I was able to use additional fabric remainders for the neckline. So now I have this wonderful summer dress!

F: And it suits you very well! Thank you very much for the interview!

Jane: Yes, thank you for this fascinating perspective. In this connection or beyond, what does fashion mean for you generally, in a society or for each person? What role can fashion play in societal change?

W: Well, if one speaks historically, fashion once was what was worn at the French court, and which was then transported to the rest of Europe. Fashion was created at a particular place, and then everybody else followed that. The conception of fashion obviously evolved enormously since that time, there are various fashion centers, fashion for the haute couture, fashion for the more normal people and so on. My vision would be that fashion continues to evolve to something that really develops bottom up. That often happens after all, as when some trends from the Hip Hop scene are picked up for example. But I don’t hope that such trends are picked up by some big fashion labels in order to make huge profits, but that fashion becomes something that continuously arises from the people. That they develop new things for themselves, create new trends and modify them, so that there is no centralized development of fashion, but that it emerges everywhere and creates new modes of expression.

Jane: That is fascinating how you combine all these discourses to create an entire vision of the future! I find it very exciting to hear what all flows together in your presentation!