Content note: this piece contains discussion of misogyny and transphobia.
I attended a queer zine fair in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal last weekend. There were so many people in attendance expressing gender in defiance of the binary, with beards and glitter and leg hair and lingerie and jewelry and shaved heads and colourful outfits. It was really affirming. Seeing so many gender variant people made me want to vary my gender expression more. I’ve been getting boxed in by the binary again, this time on the other side. I recently started “passing” as male and so have been leaning into that more, but I realized that I don’t want to move through the world looking like a straight, cis man. I’m uncomfortable with that. Sure, the targets that come with being read as female, as queer, as trans, and as gender non-conforming may be gone, but walking around looking like an average straight white guy isn’t for me—that isn’t who I am and it’s not how I want to take up space in the world.
My friend, after reading my first zine, suggested that my gender may be like a bent spoon. I have wanted to be read as male because I’ve been unbending the spoon. In order to “straighten” (no pun intended) the spoon out, I’ve needed to bend it in the other direction. I’ve needed to be misgendered as a man in order to compensate for being misgendered as a woman for so long, but even now “he” pronouns are starting to feel uncomfortable. They don’t upset me the way “she” pronouns do, but they also don’t fit perfectly. “They” fits best. It always has, ever since I first learned it was a viable option.
Seeing the rich array of gender nonconformity at the zine fair made me ask what my ideal expression of gender looks like. The answer is complicated. There is a part of me that loves presenting masculinely and being read as male, but even then I still like things that are colourful and cute, outside of what’s typically deemed masculine. I like blue-and-pink t-shirts, flower patterns, and quartz-stone necklaces. I like adding a touch of non-normative masculinity to what I wear, even when I want to be read as male.
I also like dresses. I bought a black lace dress from Value Village the other week and it’s absolutely adorable. I haven’t worn it out anywhere, though. I feel nervous. The people who know and are used to the more masc version of me might not “get” it. I’m worried that some may assume my wearing a dress means I’m “not really trans” or that I’ve “de-transitioned”. I’m worried that people will use it as another reason to intentionally misgender me. It’s tough. I feel like I’ve given up the ability to wear dresses, which wasn’t the point of my transition at all—I wanted more options for expression, not less. It’s easier if I wear a dress as a “costume,” like at a themed party or drag event. That feels easier to justify, not that I should have to justify it, but somehow, I feel like I do.
I worked at a summer camp after I’d just come out in 2015 where I presented almost exclusively masculinely. Near the end of the season, I threw on a dress because I wanted to and missed wearing dresses. The people I’d worked with all summer were mostly polite about it, but it did draw a lot of attention. There were many smiles, surprised expressions, and compliments. One individual, however, became distressed and confronted me, saying, “I’m sorry, I want to be supportive, but I’m really confused right now because you’re dressed as only one gender”. I can’t remember what I said in response, only how I felt: disappointed and frustrated. The implication of their words was that clothing is inherently gendered, and also, that my wearing men’s clothing was me somehow “wearing two genders,” the one I was assigned at birth being one of them. I’m not cross-dressing when I’m wearing men’s clothing. Neither am I presenting as a “single” gender when I’m in a dress. I’m just me, Sage, not more or less of one or another gender. Dresses are dresses, pieces of fabric cut in a specific way. You don’t have to be a woman to wear them. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, that it shouldn’t be a radical statement these days, but I do and it is.
I want to wear my black dress but I don’t want to deal with people’s reactions. Even if they’re not negative, I don’t want the attention: the surprise, the stares, the compliments, the questions, the opinions. Masculinity has afforded me the privilege of invisibility and I’ve grown attached to that. I remember what it was like to leave the house with long red hair and a summer dress. I remember I couldn’t do it without at least one catcall, stare, threat, or physical invasion of my space. That was before I grew facial hair and lowered my voice through testosterone. I know the added element of my genderqueerness will only make it worse.
In my ideal world, the world I hope we are slowly working towards, I could leave the house in a dress and not be met with shock, accusations of de-transitioning or being a “fake” trans person, invasive questions, misgendering, confusion, anger, or catcalls. I could leave the house in a dress and be met with not much more than a smile or, “Hey, nice dress”. In my ideal world, I could leave the house in a dress with a beard and not be met with violence. In my ideal world, I could play around with masculinity and femininity in whatever way pleases me and still be called “they”. I could be read as male, female, or ambiguously and be “they” regardless.
One day, one day.