feature image via shutterstock
When Penny* and I decided that we were going to get married, I really only had one super-traditional thing that I absolutely insisted on: I was going to wear a beautiful white dress. There were lots of things on my “these things would be really awesome if you’re okay with them” list, but the dress was 100% non-negotiable. I’d honestly have taken a courthouse ceremony and no reception, so long as I got my moment in that fucking dress.
From a feminist standpoint, I totally get all the really terrible, oppressive buillshit that the white dress represents, and I absolutely respect my partner’s (and anyone else’s) decision to not engage in the whole white-dress phenomenon. But for me, the dress isn’t about my purity or virginity, especially since I’m thoroughly debauched and don’t believe in the concept of virginity. It’s me clinging to one tiny ritual, one single tradition as a stand-in for the all the rites of passage that I missed out on because I was assigned the wrong gender at birth. I didn’t get to shop for homecoming or prom dresses (well, at least not for me) or to spend the day with my girlfriends getting hair and nails done on the big day. I skipped our formals in college because it felt depressing to wear a suit to them. I didn’t get to wear a terrible dress with four other girls when one of my close college friends got married. Part of me will always feel a little robbed because I can’t go back and re-experience those things as the real me. I can’t change the past, but dammit, I can walk down the aisle, out and proud and every bit the person I want to be, in a fucking white dress while everyone oohs and ahhs about how gorgeous I look.
The funny part is that I’m really not that feminine, for the most part. Sure, I have a weird obsession with vintage-y clothing, pin-up makeup, and retro hair. But, most of the time I find it all to be way too much work, and opt for comfy clothes, the bare minimum makeup, and my hair in ponytail. I’m thoroughly comfortable with my non-butch/non-femme alt-librarian-dyke look. And yet, shortly after we set our wedding date, and before we had even announced it to anyone, I found myself obsessively poring over wedding websites, trying to piece together what I wanted in my wedding dress, and sheepishly watching episodes of Say Yes To The Dress.
Planning a queer wedding in Michigan is no small thing. Since marriage equality still hasn’t made it to Michigan (we’re having our ceremony in Canada), we’re the first queer/lesbian wedding that many of our vendors have ever done. And, since I’m the person who’s actually local to where our wedding is happening, I’ve had to handle a lot of the vendor interactions. Having the double anxiety of both having to worry if they’re going to get weird because we’re queer AND wondering if they’re going to clock me as trans and get weird about that has made the entire process pretty effing stressful. In the midst of all that, I knew I still needed to find a dress, but kept putting off the actual going-in-and-trying-on of dresses, because, to be perfectly honest, I was absolutely terrified. Even though I’ve been out for years now and haven’t really had any bad experiences, trying on clothes in stores is still something that makes me pretty nervous. I’m convinced someone is going to suspect I’m trans and freak the fuck out that I dare use the dressing room. The idea of walking into a bridal shop and being measured and all the other super up-close interactions that come with looking for a wedding dress… well, let’s just say I had visions of assaults, arrests, and my face splashed all over the local news.
So, during my last visit to New York to see Penny, we stood just 92 days out from wedding, and I still didn’t have a dress, still hadn’t even tried on a dress. One Friday evening, while we were discussing what items we still had to take care of on our wedding to-do list, we happened across what we had started to call “the dress conundrum.” Since we had decided to eschew a wedding party, neither of us had someone who was contractually obligated to endure something as tortuous as wedding dress shopping with us, and were therefore quietly kicking the can down road. Penny is cisgender, but finds the rigamarole of shopping (especially dress shopping) exhausting and annoying. Still, she had at least mustered enough patience for one trip into a bridal shop — a far sight better than me. In midst of our discussion, we realized that Burlington, VT (just a short drive away) was probably going to be the place most convenience to either of us where a cis/trans queer couple could shop for wedding dresses without raising a ruckus. We also realized that we had zero attachment to the whole “you shouldn’t see your intended in their wedding dress before the wedding” thing, and decided that the best way for us to tackle dress-finding was as a team. Being the women of action that we are, we opted to tackle the problem the next day, but gave ourselves a firm four-hour time limit to save our sanity from the onslaught of foofery and heteronormativity that would be coming our way.
Our first stop on Mission: Wedding Dresses was a national chain, mostly because we literally had no idea where else to start. We walked to a scene that I can only describe as total chaos. There were easily 50 people in the already fairly-cramped store, and the whole thing was frankly, totally overwhelming. I distinctly remember grabbing Penny’s hand firmly as if to keep from getting swept away by the sea of white satin, ivory organza, and the snapping jaws of potential bridezillas. The middle aged woman manning what appeared to be a check-in desk eyed us with what we assumed to be suspicion or confusion and asked if we had an appointment. Being total wedding rookies, we were absolutely appointment-less. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that trying on wedding dresses was the sort of thing one actually scheduled purposefully, instead of deciding on a last minute whim when the both of you were feeling particularly bold. The check-in woman snipped that they were “full for the day” and couldn’t possibly squeeze us in. I wasn’t super inclined to press the issue, but I had worked up the nerve to walk into the effing place, so I was going to at least LOOK at dresses, and I wandered off to do just that. Penny, on the other hand, had decided that trying on wedding dresses was our agenda that day and, come hell or high water, we were going to fucking try on wedding dresses. What cajoling and insistence she applied to the women working there, I’ll never know, but a few minutes later she found me and informed that they had found a spot for us.
About 15 minutes later, our names were called (well, butchered, but ya know), and we were introduced to our “bridal consultant,” a woman so bubbly I honestly feared she might float away. Penny and I later hypothesized that she was the person in the store whose duty it was to handle “weird people.” When she began to ask us what we were looking for in our dresses, it became readily apparent just how bad both Penny and I are at girl stuff. Our responses were slightly more eloquent than “They should be dresses,” but only just. I was waiting for this woman to throw up her hands in exasperation, mumble something about lesbians, and just storm off. Lucky for us, it appears that bridal consultants (or at least this particular bridal consultant) have the patience of Buddhist monks and the interrogation skills of an FBI agent, because she slowly managed to coax quasi-useful words out of us before whisking off to our shared dressing room.
Oh man, the shared dressing room. We were definitely the only girls sharing a dressing room. And, we were very obviously “together.” While the woman working with us never batted an eyelash, everyone else around kept eyeing us as if we were going to suddenly start having loud lesbian sex once the door was closed.
In any case, it turns out that the first step of wedding dress shopping is find a strapless bra that fits. This was yet another case in which Penny and I thoroughly demonstrated our utter failure at girl stuff. Both of us wear bras every day, and were relatively confident in our bra sizes. It still took us both three tries to get one that even marginally fit us, and the hilariously fumbling as we assisted each other with the FIFTEEN hooks on the back of these monstrous long-line bras. Again, we were expecting frustration or impatience from the woman working with us as we repeatedly failed at something as basic as KNOWING WHAT SIZE BRA WE WEAR, but her cheery, helpful disposition never wavered.
By this point, we were both already pretty overwhelmed by the entire process and wondering what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. But we had a mission, and we had come this far, so we pushed on. With the bra situation finally handled, our first round of dresses arrived. This is when things really started to get silly. As it turns out, not-petite girls both trying to putting on fancy dresses in a small dressing room at the same time is both hilarious and complicated, and we bumped into each other, knocked each other over, and I caught an elbow in square in the boob. Not shockingly, both our first dresses were a no, and so quickly another pair of dresses arrived. And then another. And then another. At one point, there were eight dresses, plus two girls and crammed into a 6×6 cubicle. It look (and felt) like we were wrestling with a giant albino squid made of satin, organza, chiffon, and tulle. All the while, our bubbly consultant patiently endured us, noting what we liked and hated, and slowly narrowing down the pool of dresses.
Then, it happened. After heaven-only-knows how many dresses, I stepped out the dressing room for the umpteenth time and looked in the mirror, and didn’t just shout “NOPE” and stomp back in. I just stared for a minute, speechless. It was THE dress. It wasn’t quite the tear-filled Say Yes To The Dress moment, but it was definitely a little emotional. Penny, who had been switching to another dress, actually asked me if I was okay because it was the first time I had stopped making cranky noises in the last 45 minutes. I walked around, I twirled, I admired myself from all sides. But, mostly I just stared at the beautiful woman in the white dress in the mirror, awestruck.
Despite all the planning, and all the talking, and all the money we had spent, it was THAT moment that suddenly made the wedding feel very real. This was the dress I was going to get married in, that I would be wearing when I affirmed my desire to spend the rest of my life with my amazing partner. But, it also touched something deeper, more complex, more fundamental to my transition and my womanhood. I had avoided transition for so many years because I feared I would be ugly, that I would be undesirable, that I would be unloveable. Even once I moved passed those fears, something like this seemed like little more than a pipe dream. If you had told me that I’d be shopping for wedding dresses exactly two years to the day after starting medical transition, I’d have yelled at you for being cruel. And yet, there I was. It wasn’t going to entirely make up for 28 years lost to confusion and dysphoria and all the moments, big and small, lost with those years. But, I think in some ways, it was the first time that I really knew, really understood in the depths of my heart how far I had come, and that I had really, truly reclaimed my life as my own. It’s not that my wedding is a validation of my identity as a woman, because I get that from looking in the mirror every day. Rather, it’s an affirmation of how much more is possible in a life lived authentically, a potent reminder of the amazing possibilities that have opened to me. It’s beautiful realization of how much I’ve gained because of that decision — happiness, contentment, and love.
So, after my big personal moment, I knew that I had found the dress, but I had to convince the rational parts of my brain that I had exhausted all possibilities. So, I tried a few more dresses. I think I actually tried on just about every dress in the store that was anywhere near my size. Penny found her dress that day, too. Not white, as she had decided early on that a white dress wasn’t for her. Our dresses are quite different, much like we are. But, I had a moment with both of us in our dresses, standing next to each other, looking at the huge wall of mirror, where I could actually visualize the wedding, could finally construct an image of this thing we had been talking about for six months, and I couldn’t help smile all over and wrap my arm around her waist. We waded through the last bit of paperwork, paid for the dresses, and walked by the to car, hand-in-hand, just as we’ll walk down the aisle in a few short months. We decided that, while somewhat unconventional, shopping for our dresses together felt right for us, and that we would have missed out in an intangible something if it hadn’t been an experience we had shared with one another. It was a powerful reminder of the incredible partnership we share that this wedding is meant to celebrate. We glanced at our phones as we pulled away. Just about two hours had passed since we had walked in, putting us well under our 4-hour time-limit. We’re nothing if not efficient.
*Name changed for privacy.