Gendered Clothing

Figuring out clothing in a gendered world is so complicated. There are so many things that I found before I began transitioning that are comfortable and look good on me but that I hesitate to wear because of how they are gendered or perceived. I wish I could just wear whatever felt good to me without having to worry about overcompensating on my gender expression in hopes of being read more accurately in the world.

Every choice I make about how I dress impacts how people see me. If I was a cis woman, I could take advantage of the full range of clothing and most people wouldn’t question my gender. But being a non-passing trans person, I feel like I need to dress a certain way to signal to both cis people and other trans people that I’m not a man. My options are opening back up a bit more now that I actually have more feminine curves but I still have to think about it daily. Is what I’m wearing going to be perceived sufficiently feminine to legitimize my identity?

Growing up I had zero sense of fashion. There were a lot of reason for that. For one, I was homeschooled so I didn’t have a lot of examples of what other kids were wearing. For another, there was a lot of pressure to fit the mold of conservative Christianity and I was constantly being told to put on collared shirts or cheap slacks which wouldn’t look good on anyone. And to this day I can’t stand to wear navy blue bottoms with white shirts because that was the cult uniform. But mostly, I was just awkward in my body because guess what, I was trans!

Whenever possible I would dress down in sweats or jeans and a tshirt. Mostly that was because so much of the time I had to dress up for church or to be presentable at some event and when I did so I was deeply uncomfortable. Because the more “dressed up” you get, the more gendered clothing becomes. Suits and ties are a strong indicator of gender (or sexuality depending on your body). And because that was the wrong gender, I felt very awkward in my skin whenever I wore them. I was constantly complaining that I felt strangled by ties and I hated wearing suits. I rationalized those by telling myself it was because I had a wider neck and got hot easily. But really, I was chaffing at the expectations that came along with them.

Once I became an adult I cycled through many different styles trying to find a way to be comfortable and still professional. Most of the time I ended up looking rather preppy but rarely was I what you would call fashionable. I started to get there towards the end when I was dressing more like a flamboyant gay man. But I honestly have no good sense of straight male fashion. I wanted to wear what the beautiful women around me were wearing.

Rarely do I wear high femme outfits like fancy dresses and heels to work. Because that’s not the kind of person I would normally be. And when I do wear something to an event like that it is often because I view gender as a costume or I’m overcompensating for how the rest of my body is perceived. For so much of my life I thought I was a feminine boy when really I was just a tomboyish girl. I just wish I could dress that way without being seen as a man.

On losing friends

Something I talk about less, mostly because it’s hard to dwell on, is how many friends I’ve lost over the years. So many former friends have either actively or passively rejected me over the years because of various turning points in my life and a lot of it ties back to gender.

I grew up in a very conservative household and for all of my childhood, that was my only circle of friends. Being homeschooled I didn’t have much opportunity to meet people who weren’t like me. My entire social sphere were also Evangelical Christian and very socially conservative themselves. So when I started to become more liberal in my politics and thoughts in college, particularly around supporting sexuality, I lost most of my childhood friends, even my best friend and the only cis man I was really ever close to.

Of course since I am a very extroverted person, I made a lot of new friends in college, particularly in the first couple years. But many of those people were also Evangelical Christians because of where I went to school and who I was when I started. So many of them slowly drifted away as I went further left in my thinking or because of my relationship to my very toxic ex spouse who I met in college.

The third round of loss happened when I decided to get divorced because of the emotional abuse and incompatibility with my ex wife. Many of our friends at that point either took her side because of the lies she told or didn’t know how to respond (because women can’t be abusers, right?). I also lost most of my communities during that time because I could no longer go to the same church or spaces for fear of running into her.

To be quite honest, if I hadn’t already started building polyamorous community and met my now spouse before that time, I’m not sure I would have survived. I had been deeply depressed for a long time and I felt very betrayed and isolated. And because of how my ex treated me and controlled our money, I had no savings and no self worth. The final straw in that marriage was me starting to awaken to my queerness and gender and she wanted me to remain closeted for her convenience because she was ashamed of her own asexuality.

But I rebuilt and kept going. Partly because I am an obligate extrovert and I had no other choice. My new partner’s friends and chosen family took me in and were so supportive during that time and they are still my closest friends. During that time I also started building new romantic relationships with my partner as we dated together.

Unfortunately a couple years ago in what we now call “the summer of hell,” I lost a major relationship of 2 and a half years. The person I had been dating decided that instead of breaking up with me cleanly, they would say they wanted to be friends but then behind my back spread rumors and distance themselves emotionally. And when I brought it up, they tried to blame me for that distance. Unfortunately we had intertwined our communities and polyamorous households so much at that point that I felt like I lost half of my family when they betrayed me. And even over a year later, I feel that loss of community very deeply.

But again I threw myself back into relationship building. I joined a trans community group on the path to becoming a nonprofit on their board. I invested a lot of time and energy into trying to create the type of community I wanted to see. Then a fellow board member turned on me and very aggressively painted an inaccurate picture of me that cause many other community members to take their side. They set me up in a way that I couldn’t defend myself without seeming like the aggressor myself. And while there were many people who showed private support during that time, public opinion was so soured that I couldn’t see myself ever trusting that space again. And so I lost more friends and another important community space.

I’m still working on rebuilding from all those losses. And I haven’t given up. But it is hard to trust people when you have been betrayed and abandoned so many times. The thing about trying to live authentically is that you make a lot of enemies along the way. When your sexuality and gender are so politicized that living openly is guaranteed to piss some people off, you lose people. And that constant tension breeds emotional vulnerability that also plays out in inter-community trauma.

I’m still working through my fear and trust issues related to all of this so I can’t say that I have reached the other side yet. But I am extremely grateful for my spouse and the chosen family I have built that have stuck by me and supported me through all of this. I mourn the lack of community but yet I still have a deep desire to build a space where trans people can support each other without the fear of attack from within or without. I don’t know how to do that yet but I dream and I take the steps forward whenever I find them.

The path to coming out can be long and winding

It’s been 7 years since I finished college but I’ve been thinking recently about why I was so closeted there, even to myself. And I think a lot of it is because my sexuality is so tied up in gender and I didn’t have the words even then to see or describe myself. There were also some major barriers that got in my way.

When I first came to University, I was probably one of the most conservative people there, even at my conservative evangelical college. I was just coming out of my fundamentalist homeschooling experience and starting to actually see parts of the world on my own for the first time. And while I was starting to be a little more open to HEARING new ideas, I definitely wasn’t very open to the prospect of changing what I believed. My parents didn’t want me to attend because it was clearly a “liberal” school where they taught evolution. So I came armed with an entire box of books on how to refute evolutionist teachers and “prove” 7 day creationism.

At that point in my life I had never knowingly met an out gay person and I had never even heard of trans people, much less the concept of nonbinary identity. But I was admittedly a very sensitive and naive kid who in part because I wasn’t exposed to a traditional schooling system, hadn’t had much of my gender nonconformity questioned.

My first year I had many hilarious mishaps because I desperately wanted to be friends with the women around me but every time I tried to get close in what I considered to be platonic ways, people always mistook that for attempts to date. Admittedly asking someone to go sing love songs from musicals in a practice room probably would be a date for most people. And when they found out that I wasn’t interested in dating, most people put that together with my sensitive nature and assumed I was gay. There were apparently bets going on about how long it would be before I came out.

And in some ways they were right. I was very gay but they were assuming I was gay for guys and it turns out I was just very gay for women because I mostly am one. But I sadly didn’t figure that out there.

My second year, I screwed up the courage to attend a couple events at the campus’ controversial LGBT discussion club, mostly because I am insatiably curious. And one of those events was a panel with trans people which is where I met my first out trans person who I am still friends with to this day. My mind was blown by the idea that you could reject the gender you were assigned at birth but still my only exposure at that point was to AFAB transmasculine people and binary trans women. And I didn’t think I could ever get to the point where people would believe I was a woman so I dismissed the idea pretty quickly.

When I joined the club the next year as a regular member I started identifying myself as a gender nonconforming ally since I didn’t know where else I fit. I knew I wasn’t gay for guys and I didn’t really know much about bisexuality so I assumed me being interested in women settled the matter. I also made the very terrible choice to get married┬áto a cis woman the summer before my Junior year, mostly so I could pay for school since my dad was trying to use money as a leverage to keep me from becoming too liberal. And at that point I assumed that your sexuality was defined by who you dated and that marriage made me straight. Being in a marriage that I thought put the questions about my sexuality to bed also helped my confidence in being part of such a controversial group.

The next couple years where very chaotic for me, both as a member of the queer club and for my marriage. This was a campus that banned all “homosexual activity” so the group was constantly at risk of being shut down. My junior year they tried to kick us off campus but we eventually rebelled and kept meeting anyway. My senior year I joined the leadership team and it ended up being a pretty crucial year. They tried to shut us down completely by telling us that we didn’t exist anymore and that we absolutely could not reserve rooms. So of course we met in the common areas which made the group less safe but definitely made our point. We weren’t going away. A 6 week intense struggle with the administration ensued where I became the de facto spokesperson for the group, even as a “ally”, and was on the front page of the school paper 4 weeks in a row and interviewed by several news outlets. Eventually the alumni organized a successful letter writing campaign and once the administration realized there was donor money on both sides they backed off and offered a private apology with the permission to not only meet on campus but advertise for the first time. The focus on our mere existence as a group definitely effected how much we could think about our own identities though.

All that time I was also going through a crisis in my marriage that forced me to put any exploration of my gender and sexuality on the back burner. Since I had come out of fundamentalism I had never dated or even kissed anyone before my ex wife. And while we had experimented with some sexual acts before marriage, that all went away about the time I got engaged. It turns out she was likely somewhere on the asexuality spectrum but didn’t have the self awareness or even willingness to confront that to figure it out. So me, a very allosexual (opposite of asexual) person at the time, was very confused when once we were married we never had sex. (The first time I had “traditional” PIV sex wasn’t until 5 years later).

She also was treating me very poorly during this time and increasingly being emotionally and verbally abusive and controlling. So I focused all my emotional energy onto trying to find the solution to fixing my marriage instead of figuring out who I actually was. After college that kept up for far too long until I eventually had the courage to leave her after 6 years of marriage. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I did finally start to figure myself out and wanted to come out as genderqueer and pansexual and she didn’t want me to tell anyone because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about what that meant for her. She had some very deep set biphobia and it turns out her mom had been whispering in her ear the whole time that I was gay and was eventually going to leave her for a man.

The way I finally figured out my identity was through dating once I became polyamorous as a last ditch attempt to figure out how to make a sexless marriage work. I knew by that point I was not only attracted to women but also to nonbinary people and it was a fellow enby who pushed me to think about how to broaden the definitions of androgyny and think about myself in that context. And by realizing I was attracted to transmasculine people, it helped me unlock my queerness and realize that I was also attracted to a variety of body parts.

Anyway, the point of that story is that there are lots of barriers in life that can prevent you from discovering who you really are. And sometimes it requires addressing those barriers or figuring out the complex intertwining of gender and sex that unlocks that door. I really wish I had figured out who I was sooner but in the end it worked out for me.

Religious but not Spiritual

As open as I am about most things, one of the most challenging things for me to admit both to myself and to those close to me is that I am really struggling with how I engage with religion and spirituality lately. This isn’t necessarily a post about gender but I think it is important to show how everything in your life can be interrelated and this is (or was?) a significant part of my life so I want to take a moment to talk about it honestly here.

In the past I was skeptical of people who said they were spiritual but not religious because that seemed like an artificial divide to me. But more and more I am coming to see how that distinction is meaningful and how I have been essentially practicing the reverse for the past decade. I’ve been religious but not spiritual.

I honestly don’t know what I believe. I guess that makes me an agnostic. I don’t think you can ever rule out or disprove a god or deity or metaphysical property because by their very nature they are outside of science and tangibly observable facts. But the way I’ve been justifying my continued involvement in Christianity and the Episcopal Church is because humanity has been searching for the divine and building religious structures as ways of doing that communally since before the dawn of agriculture and civilization as we know it. And I figured that if so much of human history has been devoted to that, it is pretty foolish of me to think I am outside of that pursuit. I use Christianity as my lens mainly because that is my culture and the context in which I grew up and I don’t want to appropriate someone else’s religion and culture, especially when I am not ready to lean into it as a whole but approach any religion as a skeptic.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian community. And built into that culture is a lot of spiritual abuse, patriarchy, and denial of the real world in many forms such as rejection of scientific discoveries, gender variance, and sexualities. I am sad to say that their techniques worked on me and for a long time I was a good Fundamentalist bible-thumper who had successfully pushed my questions and doubts to my subconscious and at least ostensibly bought into the propaganda hook, line, and sinker. So part of the reason I stayed in the church is because I thought it was important to heal from that past by reclaiming “good” Christianity or at least fully understanding how it didn’t need to be practiced that way. If I had just run away I don’t think I would be the same person I am today.

But my doubts have never gone away and the harder I try to lean into the discomfort, the more resistant I grow. It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in miracles, divine intervention, the heaven/hell divide, or “the power of prayer” to do anything other than change (or more often confirm) how the person praying thinks. Does the afterlife exist? Maybe. But I don’t know how it has any relevance to my life if I don’t believe in a god who would send people to hell and wouldn’t want to spend eternity with one who does.

And my doubt isn’t exclusive to Christianity either. In queer community there is an abundant amount of “woo” in the form of astrology, tarot cards, reiki, meditation, pagan rituals, witchcraft, etc. And while I’m slowly learning to just accept that other people find meaning in it I don’t think I could ever dive into that with an open mind myself.

For years I’ve been going through the motions of going to church partly for the reasons above about reclaiming and retraining myself, partly because I want to change the church and make it a more welcoming place for people who want it, and partly because I think intergenerational community focused on doing social justice work together is valuable. But recently I’ve realized that the only thing that keeps me coming back is the people. I am lucky enough to have spent the last few years in a very affirming and supportive small community where I have made many friends. And because of that I’m tied into various commitments like childcare, hospitality, and policy changes.

Lately I’ve noticed an increase in my anxiety every time I try to engage in anything related to church. It started out slowly with more and more resistance to attending on days I didn’t have commitments, but lately I have started having near anxiety attacks just sitting through services and last week when I tried to go, I couldn’t even get up the courage to walk through the doors. Part of it is that I feel like an impostor but there is definitely something deeper going on. And I suspect the reason it is really surfacing now is because the estrogen is really shaking out any emotions I haven’t dealt with yet.

I spoke to my very wise, queer femme priest who said this about what might be going on: “I think Christianity (all Christianity, not just bad Christianity) is wired into you entangled with the kinds of ways you were taught to shove yourself down and hate yourself. I think this is true biologically, even, that the neural pathways that are marked “Jesus” are also marked with the awful things you were told about how to be and how to behave, and that any encounter with Christianity, whether in line with your values and politics or not, sends an alert down that pathway. That’s a lot. It may or may not be reclaimable. But to repeat a pattern of forcing (the way you forced yourself to conform, and forced yourself within your marriage) with Christianity will likely only do you harm.”

I think she’s really onto something there. Christianity may not be something I can reclaim, at least not right now, and I need to listen to the wisdom of my body instead of fighting it. Christianity was integrally tied to painful and abusive parts of my past both through my upbringing and with my ex wife who wanted to be a priest and felt threatened anytime I had doubts. So as much as it hurts me to say, I need to step back from church for the time being. I need to find the things in life that give me hope and meaning and right now that isn’t religion or spirituality. But hopefully I can learn to open myself up to what is next.

What’s in a name?

For a lot of trans people, changing their name is a really big and meaningful step. But for me, I have a hard time figuring out exactly how I feel about the idea of changing my name. Some days I feel apathetic about it and others I feel conflicted. Never once have I felt strongly that I should either keep my name or change it. So for now I take the easiest path which is keeping my first name, although I did change my middle and last names when I got married which was a much bigger paperwork ordeal than I thought. I changed my middle name to something gender neutral so that if I decide to change, I can just go by that name.

The part of me that wants to change it is driven by the idea that people would make less assumptions about me if I didn’t have a male-gendered name. But realistically I know that people make those assumptions regardless based on my voice and appearance. The other reason to change is because of the religious baggage associated with my name. The cult I grew up in treated your name like it was your destiny and when you met the leader, he would tell you the meaning in a very creepy way. All the children in our family had biblical names because of that background. And this month I had a difficult conversation with my dad where he made it clear he would never use a different name for me because this one was “god ordained” and that’s always who I’ll be. And while I had no plans to change my name before that, my first instinct is to say “well if you’re going to shove your “gift” down my throat, then I will reject it.”

The reason I haven’t done that yet is because I have seen how difficult it is for my trans friends to have their new name respected outside our own community. Trying to get coworkers and old acquaintances to switch sounds overwhelming to me and I know it would just increase tensions with my parents when I am still just trying to get them to use my pronouns. I wish I had the courage to be more assertive about these things but right now I am so tired of fighting.

As much as I want to start using my gender neutral middle name with my chosen family and friends, I am also afraid of getting used to it. And more importantly, I don’t feel any stronger a connection with my new name than my old one. To some degree, the name isn’t important to me, at least relative to my pronouns. Is it normal to never feel an emotional connection to your name?