Journey To The Center is a project about finding what fits. Gender presentation is a complicated creature, one of personal and political importance. For some queers, traditional masculinity and femininity doesn’t hang quite right on our shoulders. So every month, Audrey is going to find a new way to smash up the extremes and explore the vast landscapes in between.
The second to last time I wore a maxi skirt, I was deeply aware of the way it flipped around my ankles on my way from the bus stop to the office, from my desk to the water cooler, from my house to the pulperia on the corner where they were out of laundry detergent anyway. When I took it off that night, I promised myself I would never wear it again.
And then a few weeks later I did, because I was tired and thought that feeling was a fluke and decided I was just taking the queer theory I had been reading too personally, because gender expression was something I played with on weekends, but in my day to day I was perfectly content to wear whatever.
My most modest, feminine clothes used to make me feel acceptable and appropriate at my conservative workplace, providing an easy cover for a personal life I never talked about. They made me safe and invisible on the bus ride to work and while I argued over fruit prices at the market. I get street harassed a few dozen times a day no matter what I wear, but in the long skirts, the cropped khaki pants, it was the idle shrieking of men and boys who saw nothing but the swoosh of fabric, the curve of my waist. Their endless grunts of “princesita linda” (pretty little princess) and “adios chelita, I love you!” had nothing to do with me as a person; they were just a tax I paid to walk down the street, like every woman I know everywhere in the world.
But the last time I wore that maxi skirt, I carried tightness behind my sternum all day long that made it ever so slightly harder to breathe. When I took the damn thing off, I knew I had to keep my promise.
I moved to Nicaragua in 2013 to help manage English communications and fundraising for a local rural development nonprofit. I was newly out as bi and clueless about queerness. I got on the plane to Managua and assumed I was flying back into the closet. Armed with decent Spanish, a suitcase full of knee-length skirts and t-shirts that ruffled at the neck, and my pixie cut already halfway grown out, I was ready to be a good gringa. I wanted to blend in, tell meaningful stories and contribute in my small way to the dismantling of U.S. imperialism’s brutal impact on this country. I thought I had to dress the part, and I didn’t see how queerness and gender fuckery could be part of that. Over time, I got more conscious of queer identities and histories and found spaces online and in Managua where others wanted to celebrate my queer self with me and deconstruct heteropatriarchy and machismo. The clothes I brought with me began to feel like a disguise, a futile attempt to buffer the outside judgment of me as a white foreigner, woman and queer human that came rushing down like los aguas de mayo, the May rains.
I recently moved into a bedroom with no closet. In two years here, this is my fourth room. The first two didn’t have closets either, but the last place, where I lived for 14 months, had an amazing closet that contributed heavily to my decision to live there. It had deep shelves and big doors, and I kept almost everything I owned in it. In my new house, I have a yard-wide hanging rack and five small plastic drawers.
When I faced my massive closet preparing to downsize, I breathed deeply and did the thing. I pulled out skirt after skirt, dress after frilly top, and piled them in a corner. It was more like breaking off a cast than ripping off a Band Aid. In a mound of gauze and drape, I buried the certain kind of girl I could no longer relate to. I took just a moment to grieve her and honor the choice of that moment to give up on the heteronormative, easily digested femininity I had tried to project for two years.
The day we moved, my friend’s family had a yard sale, and I offloaded the bulging trash bag of discarded clothes onto them. Managua is a sprawling city with more than a million residents, but a girl I dated calls it a pañuelo, a hankie, which makes no sense literally but means everyone knows everyone and there are few secrets. I’ll probably see my clothes on a stranger at the bus stop some day and hope she loves them.
After this purge, my makeshift closet makes a lot more sense to me. There is still a lot of femme there — I kept my favorite hot pink mini skirt, the black slip dress with the birds, the cheetah print cropped tank. A good 80 percent of my clothes were made for humans with bodies shaped like mine. But the waists, on average, are straighter; the necklines are higher. I wear more sports bras under more button downs and bring out my men’s shirts for the parties I care about most. And the thing is, almost nothing has changed about my external life. I still get catcalled regularly – I can see these men clocking my gender from half a block away, and they holler the second they spot the line of my ass under my unisex tee. No one at work ever questions my sartorial choices or my femininity. As a white foreigner, I have a lot of privilege that keeps me safe, because I’m already so strange that no one questions the details. When I ride the 119 to work, people stare because they don’t see many gringxs on the bus, not because my shirt is buttoned all the way up.
Another factor is that in Nicaragua there is practically no conception of a non-binary gender experience or presentation and very little public awareness of women’s same-sex attraction. The queer and otherwise radically non-heterosexual discourses happening in Spain, Mexico and Argentina haven’t permeated most of Central America. I have never met a Nicaraguan who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and I’ve never heard them used in any space here (though I did encounter and relish them in Costa Rica). The queer and lesbian circles here are vibrant and brilliant, but also small and a bit insular. I know a few self-identified maricas, marimachas, cochones and cochonas (basically fags and dykes, though context is harder to translate), and they too can typically traverse the streets under the invisibility cloak provided by other people’s ignorance.
In this way, Nicaragua is a lonely place to be unpacking my gender presentation and trying to figure out how my bones fit together. My shift away from traditional feminine presentation is happening in a context that has no framework to notice it, let alone critique it. But when my dyke friend pulls on the hem of my scissoring tank and winks knowingly, when I’m wearing a button down covered in drawings of naked surfing ladies at the salsa bar and my gay friend whispers that I look majestically queer, I know they see what the catcallers and coworkers miss, and suddenly I feel solid.
No one else had any reason to notice the dramatic change to my wardrobe, since what I was actually wearing shifted so gradually. But there is a lot of freedom in not having all those skirts lined up to remind me of the ways I have failed to experience a womanhood that makes sense to other people. I no longer have the option to talk myself into choosing a day full of self-consciousness and dysphoria because those clothing options simply aren’t there. Critics often write off those of us invested in gender performance as personal identity-obsessed navel gazers who are too busy fixing our hair to deconstruct violent systems of power. But listen: We can’t fight if we’re collapsing under our own weight. And listen: When I’m wearing my favorite tie and I see a little boy in a skirt and we give each other the nod, that’s the revolution.
Soon, startlingly soon, I will move back to Texas as a more radical, free and alive version of the gal that hopped on a plane right after graduation. It will be a struggle to learn how to thrive in the place that is most home, where rejection and homo-, queer-, and biphobia feels most personal. My LGBT work in Nicaragua has been in response to and in solidarity with what Nicas are already doing, because they must set the agenda for their own movements. But when I go home to post-marriage equality ruling Texas, I will be wading boots first into a culture war over whether I am as Texan as my straight neighbors.
I’m probably going to need a couple more bolo ties.
Thank you for this. I wear a lot of super feminine clothes, and I really am not sure at this point if I’m wearing them because I like them or because when I wear them I know other people aren’t questioning my gender or sexuality at all. Sometimes I want that-to blend it. But sometimes it’s exhausting to not be seen.
I moved back to the states from Managua a month ago. I was a minor and very much stuck in the evangelical Christian circles, missionary and other. The last few years have been a process of being able to admit my queerness to myself and figuring out how to explore that in the context of a culture and a country where i felt isolated and wrong. I’m glad that you found a different culture in Managua. And I wish I would have read this article a couple months ago.
I wish I had met you here so I could have taken you to drink Toñas at the monthly lesbian feminist poetry reading my friends host <3
“In this way, Nicaragua is a lonely place to be unpacking my gender presentation and trying to figure out how my bones fit together”
all of this, all of it (except not in nicaragua, but you know). thank you for writing this series. <3
Audrey, this made me tear up in the best way. Thank you.
This hit home. Thank you.
oops, i failed at html block quoting!
“But listen: We can’t fight if we’re collapsing under our own weight. And listen: When I’m wearing my favorite tie and I see a little boy in a skirt and we give each other the nod, that’s the revolution.”
Ohhh I feel this. When I first came out I felt like I *had* to present in a particular way. Enter a lot of button-ups, less makeup, more masculine blazers. The more I’ve learnt about queer identities (mine, in particular), the more I’ve done away with most florals and skirts, while still keeping a dose of femininity in a way that feels pretty good. Sometimes I get down that I don’t have the body to facilitate the style I most desire, but what can ya do.
I’m going through this exact thing right now (though in the American South, not Nicaragua). Trying to unpack all of my internalized gender assumptions as my 30th birthday looms ever closer is really strange and difficult. I think that, the older we are, the harder it is to root out what is actually a part of us and what is societal expectation. I’ve been uncomfortable for so long that I’m not entirely sure that I could recognize comfort if I felt it. I find it ironic that, in all of our effort to not make assumptions about others, we often forget to do ourselves the same favor.
same same saaaame
Yes, this. I’m 33 and I feel like I’m finally starting to figure out what I want but it’s taken a long time.
This resonates with me so much.
MEG! This: “I’ve been uncomfortable for so long that I’m not entirely sure that I could recognize comfort if I felt it.” Is so important and I love the way you said it. I really did feel *fine* before, but the more I started playing, the more I realized that I could feel great, that my clothes could reflect how I wanted people to perceive me, and now every time I try to discount that my body reminds me. I hope you find ways to feel comfort, and I’m glad you’re here <3
I get that “acceptance mainly by ignorance” feel. I work in a warehouse-y, corporate environment staffed mostly by everyone’s edging-into-elderly means-well-but-misguided-on-social-issues parents. Nobody minds that I’m dressed like a boy as long as I’m dressed like all the other boys, when I get bored and grow my hair out, my lady co-workers approve mildly, the guy co-workers tell me it’s getting long like I’m one of their sons friends and maybe need a haircut. It’s fun, but also strange.
Thank you, Audrey. This hit home; thank you for raising the issue.
Thanks for this piece! It really fits with a lot of what I’ve been going through in my life, finding my place and where I’m comfortable in the gender presentation spectrum. I’ve basically stopped wearing skirts and dresses because I’ve never been comfortable in them, but I’ve only come to that conclusion after moving to the US from Brazil, where women are expected to wear make up and look feminine with very few a couple of exceptions. It’s interesting to read a different perspective on this, so thank you for sharing!
This was so good; you really are majestically queer. Thanks for sharing.
Yes yes yes to all of this. I need this. We need this. The world needs this.
I can relate so hard to so much of this, but for me it also comes down to how do I present the way I want to in a world as conservative as the legal profession, and how do I do that while also being the imminently practical human that I am who hates hates hates being either too cold or too hot, or too overdressed or too underdressed.
I don’t excpet your column to answer all the questions, but I have a feeling it just might help :)
“As a white foreigner, I have a lot of privilege that keeps me safe, because I’m already so strange that no one questions the details.”
That. I know exactly what you mean Audrey. I’m a white-presenting, sort-of-foreign-sort-of-not person in Trinidad and Tobago and I am so aware of how much I am permitted to be visibly queer is directly related to the fact that I’m already perceived as a stranger.
but what about the bucket hats, tho?
I really enjoyed read this piece, and I’m glad you’re finding your way (here’s hoping your move back to Texas goes well!).
But I also struggled with this line:
“heteronormative, easily digested femininity.”
What does that mean exactly? I get that a certain kind of femininity might not be for you, but it seems strange to cast that particular brand in these terms. I am a flowey, flirty dress loving girl with a pixie cut. Is my femininity heteronormative? Does it have to be? Does the fact that you still get read as a woman and catcalled mean your gender presentation is also heteronormative?
Perhaps it comes down to who’s gaze you’re looking at this from. From your point of view (the one where it’s you you’re dressing for and the world wayyy second) your clothes = your feelings and the external gaze does not intrude.
But from Audrey’s view, at least sometimes, the other’s gaze intrudes, and the moment becomes an instance of heteronormative easily digested femininity.
Maybe it’s a case of our more or less permeable intellectual membrane – sometimes we feel ‘othered’ and sometimes resist it.
This comment makes some sense to me. Thanks <3
Hi Ashley, I hear you! What Marianne said below resonates with me. With that description I was referring to what I was trying to project, and the ways that it stopped working for me, but absolutely meant no shade to any femmes and their amazing styles.
Thanks for replying :) I think my reaction was a lot about some internalized sexism that I’m struggling with right now.
Thank you for the excellent piece. It’s nice to hear about what things are like outside of the Euro/Anglo spheres we always acknowledge.
I’ve been similarly going through my closet recently— not getting rid of the femme, but just challenging what I wear because I have it vs what I wear because I enjoy how it makes me feel about myself. It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one who does that
Thanks for sharing this, Audrey. I have been battling with gender presentation and my own journey to the center, so this was really nice to read.
It’s good that you’re taking care of your self, that you’re being true to who you are. It really does have so much to do with the clothes we wear. And speaking of different cultures: I have a loved one in Uganda, one of the staunchest anti-LGBT countries in the world; I shudder to think what happens to people who MUST conform to their community’s expectations. It always begins with assuring one’s outward appearance is acceptable, thereby smothering a LGBT person’s identity.
I’ve only recently identified as lesbian, but never in my life has anyone dictated what I wear. To me if it ain’t comfortable, forget it. I don’t fix my hair; it’s long and I brush it and go. No make up except blush, unless it’s maybe some lipstick on special occasions. T-shirts, jeans, ball cap. I’m set. Funerals & weddings, I’ll wear a dress, but no heals! Torturing my feet is extremely far down on my list of desires. The woman I’m pining for is somewhat more feminine style-wise, but she looks just as sexy in jeans. My Ugandan friend, btw, is unaware of my sexual preference. I’m married to a man, so he just assumes.
Thank you so much for this post. And for the entire Journey to the Center thing.
I am really struggling to accept and love that I am a lesbian, and I have been out for over two years. I’ve managed to not really deal with my internalized homophobia by hiding behind an aesthetic that no one questions, as you so eloquently stated, my very femme clothes “made me safe and invisible on the bus ride to work and while I argued over fruit prices at the market”. I am trying to make myself feel less invisible by wrestling the fear and doubt that has kept my queerness being the barely readable fine print of my life.
As I neared the end of the article I was already in shock because I had no idea that anyone else in the world felt this disconnect, but I teared up when I read, “But there is a lot of freedom in not having all those skirts lined up to remind me of the ways I have failed to experience a womanhood that makes sense to other people.”
And I realized that what I was looking for was freedom from my skirts, and I can give that to myself. Which is a start.
I really appreciate this and also basically everything you write.
“But listen: We can’t fight if we’re collapsing under our own weight.”
AUDREY THIS IS INCREDIBLE (like–“Oppression is a loud room, sometimes we can’t hear our own pulse” incredible). I am so incredibly proud of you and this column and I love reading it and learning to question my own definitions of “femininity,” “masculinity,” and everything in-between or nowhere near either of those words. Thank you thank you thank you–sending you so much love and light <3
I literally feel every good feeling right now, thank you, I love you.
You quoted my favorite poem! I love everything about this!
The feeling you expressed about all those skirts around to remind you the way you failed to experience a womanhood that makes sense to other people is rather how I feel when I put clothes on, lots of kinds of clothes, after being clothes-less for a given period of time. I feel fine about my body alone. I don’t look at it as a failure anymore, but when I get dressed some days those feelings of failure really creep up on me and get mixed with some sort of paranoia that other people will notice I’m actually a failure bring it up and I’ll lash out in a way that is not acceptable or appropriate for an adult.
If that’s not screwy enough some of the outfits that make me feel the baddest most invulnerable power human garner fear in people whom I have no interest or delight in causing fear. I don’t care if fundies or old white middle to upper class people look at me like I’m the devil incarnate or like I’m gunna rob them, but other queer people and kids close to my age and arts interest/backround.
I loved this piece, lots of feels and beautifully written. You also seem like someone I would love to be friends with. I’m looking forward to more of this column; I’ve really been enjoying it so far!
I love this post! My GF and I both went through a very similar wardrobe purge recently because we were moving countries.
“…the ways I have failed to experience a womanhood that makes sense to other people,” was definitely how I felt about most of my feminine clothing. Like you, I kept some dresses and skirts that I really liked because they made me feel good but I ditched the rest.
I think in this age of fast fashion where you can easily buy loads of cheap, mass-produced clothing all year round it’s easy to experiment with your wardrobe. However, I also get immense amounts of guilt because it’s bad for the people in sweatshops who make the clothes, the effect it has on the environment is terrible and the amount of waste clothing people in developed countries produce when there are others who can’t afford to clothe themselves or their kids is really bad. Going shopping makes me heavily aware of my privilege.
Over the years I’ve learned to be really strict with myself about the new clothes I buy or the clothes I keep. I aim for a capsule wardrobe so that I have lots of outfit options. I have learned to trust my gut on how I feel about clothing so I only buy clothes that I really like and that I can see myself wearing regularly. I stick with colours that suit me and I make sure each item has a functional purpose as well as being aesthetically pleasing. As a result I hardly ever buy clothes, but when I do buy them I feel like it’s worth it.
I feel like I’m having a similar moment, but coming at it from an opposing perspective. I’m usually 100% femme til the end. Until recently, nothing made me feel better, or more like myself, than head to toe pastels, florals, and lace.
And yet, recently, when I look at the girly rainbow hanging up in my closet, I just feel kind of… negative. Like a combination of bored and frustrated. I don’t know if it’s because I’m recently graduated from the liberal bubble of a tiny, largely queer school, but I want to wear less of what the rest of the world sees as normal (straight) female fashion.
At school no one saw my dresses and assumed I was straight, so I could wear them and still feel like my unquestionably queer self. Now, though, when people take my pink skirts and dresses as a sign that I’m into dudes, I feel less like myself wearing them. I don’t know what to do.
I completely understand where you are coming from, and have been struggling with an issue along the same vein.
I hate feeling invisible, like when I’m at a party filled with straight people and all they see is someone who fits in with them. It’s hard not to fear ostracism, but that fear is also weirdly compounded with deep desire to shout my queerness from the mountain tops, which for me is a feeling similar to when I was closeted and my tipping point was ‘the only thing worse than everyone knowing that I’m gay, is them not knowing’.
I’ve tried to find little ways to help at least myself feel more queer while I am wearing very femme clothes, without overhauling my entire wardrobe, and there have been a couple really great articles written on here that have helped me feel a little bit better as I start to reshape how I present myself to the world. You might want to check out: Top Five Tools in my BabyDyke Survival Kit, You Need Help: Battling Heteronormativity with Style, How I Get Femme Visibility on the Streets, 5 Fashionable Ways to Signal Your Queer Girl Status.
Aaah thank you! Those articles are indeed helpful, but mostly it’s nice to know that someone else is having this problem. I especially feel you on simultaneously feeling frightened of being obviously out, and feeling horrified that anyone might think I’m straight.
I think part of my problem is that I don’t really like most of the clothes recommended for those who want to lean more towards the sartorial center. I’m not into plaid (I know, I’m sorry), unfitted button-down shirts tend to look ridiculous on me, and wearing dark colors makes me feel sad. It will likely take a lot of time and experimentation to find a style that works for who I am, post-graduation. Thanks for your help and input!
Audrey. AUDREY. I really love reading your wise words, and I am enjoying this series immensely. After unpacking my queerness after years of being in the closet, I’ve had to reconfigure other elements of being. My gender presentation was something I always felt was set in stone; a body shape that is perceived as very feminine meant clothes that were hyper femme. Now that I have relaxed, I’m confronting so many emotions about the clothes I used to wear. Your pieces are helping me navigate through that, and it’s affirming to know that I’m not the only one. Thank you, thank you. You are wonderful.
Omg, this: “My gender presentation was something I always felt was set in stone; a body shape that is perceived as very feminine meant clothes that were hyper femme. ”
In one sentence you eloquently summed up what I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate for months.
I just wanted to thank you for this comment. Through it I found your blog, and the way your style is changing is how I hope to see mine change, but previously couldn’t envision. It’s really helpful to see someone start off with a style similar to my current, very femme one, and then shift towards the sartorial center. (I may have spent a ridiculous amount of time screencapping outfits from your instagram to take with me on any future shopping excursions.)
I remember a few years back when I skipped out on my graduation and flew to Managua to start a 3 month volunteer cycle. I was very wary, firstly I was volunteering with a heavily Christian charity whom I didn’t dare tell I was gay. Secondly, I was the only gay out of all the Brits, probably the only gay in the tiny little village we were living in in Nueva Segovia, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it would be taken.
Some people we were living and working with had never experienced anything but life in their region (I still feel sad I’ve seen more of Nicaragua than they may ever), so I wasn’t sure what their reactions would be. Like Audrey they didn’t seem to notice me kicking back in my boardies and an AC DC shirt, but a group of 15 gringos taking up residence in Mozonte isn’t a usual experience. Myself and all the girls definitely had our share of encounters with the male species, but part of why we were there was to tackle machismo culture (which, little by little I like to think we were successful with. At least in the small groups we were working with – ripple turns to a wave and all that…) but eventually I felt quite content in talking with our Nicaraguan volunteers about my personal life.
They did at first just assume I was confusing my masculine and feminine up whenever I talked about my “novia” but after a lot of broken English/broken Spanish conversation they got the picture and it was mostly all good.
Nicaragua surprised me in a lot of ways, I thought I’d have to scurry back in the closet for a few months while I was there but in the end I made a lot of Nicaraguan mates who listened to me whine on in Spanish about how much I missed my girlfriend. And then over a year after I got home those same amigas listened to me whine over Facebook about how we broke up hahaha.
That was a fair amount of rambling on about my Nica experience but very glad you’re finding your feet when it comes to your gender representation, at times I’ve tried to be a bit more femme because it’s what was expected of me (weddings, family functions etc.) but it’s really not me. Being stuck in a dress for me is almost as bad as being stuck back in the closet.
This is so beautiful. Clothes are so often framed as something shallow and trivial, and of course there are always more important things going on in the world than whether you can find clothes you like, but. You can feel so alone when you’re looking around you and nobody looks like you, or when you’re walking through the section of the store designated for your body and see nothing you would feel like yourself in.
I love this piece. My friend once commented on how I am equal parts “boyish and girly” and at the time it hurt my feelings. It’s so frustrating how important clothes became in my life after I came out.
Thank you for this series, Audrey. It has been so helpful and comforting to read such well-articulated and thoughtful words about things I’ve been thinking of a lot lately but have trouble expressing myself.
I can really relate to this article. Thank you for writing this! Good luck to you and your journey!
I wasn’t abroad, but I was in grad school in a new giant city and I felt invisible, even within the walls of academia. I didn’t have to go to lab because my work is on my laptop, so I could spend whole days in masculine clothing without anyone noticing.
Now that I’m engaging more with other people professionally, I’m swinging more towards feminine; I want to be masculine in private but feminine in public, to draw less attention. But mostly because my dysphoria has passed. I found that it was really nice to explore oneself without feeling scrutinized; in fact those are the only times I feel I am able to truly explore myself. Now when I am feminine, I do so with full awareness of how that affects my life, and with full awareness of the fact that I could choose at any time to pick my men’s jeans and buttondowns. They’re there if I need them.
Thank you for this! I’m feeling very similarly about my gender presentation right now and you have encapsulated those feelings more eloquently than I ever could. Living farther north helps since you tend to just look like you’re dressed for the weather, but explaining to the people I care about that my clothes and feelings are so linked has been hard. I feel you so deeply here.
“Suddenly my closet feels like a safe space.”
Yes. I love this series, chica.
Que viva la revolución…la liberación! You’re awesome. And super guapx. And your bow ties and buttoned up shirts make me <3 even more…especially given el calor del infierno ;)