“Crazy Bitch” by Buckcherry is playing. It’s my ringtone, and my mom is calling.
Sid starts laughing after I hang up. “No way,” he says. “That was my friend’s song that he did at the drag show last year.” He pulls up a video and shows me someone I don’t know, gyrating and lip syncing across a makeshift runway.
I tell him the story of how my friend Kira blasted it in her mom’s SUV as we came back from strike, set pieces and costumes stacked in the backseat.
As we left the Gender & Sexuality club space, he asked me for my number. For one, it was so he’d eventually ask me out. And secondly, it was because he wanted me to be in his drag performance: a group dance to “I Want It That Way” by The Backstreet Boys.
I was nervous. But not for the obvious reasons.
My mother is a definite soft butch. She had a shaved head—partially or full—most of my life, wore combat boots to family parties, and had an eyebrow ring for more than a decade. She spent most of her childhood covered in dirt, snow, or paint. She was artsy, bold, and didn’t give a fuck what people thought of her.
When she was pregnant with me, everyone bought her tiny converse and made signs that said “Mommy’s Little Hellraiser.”
I was raised gender neutral. In my baby pictures, I’m in flannel shirts, overalls, and denim hats. I’m playing with oversized Legos, piles of stuffed animals, and cardboard houses my dad made out of refrigerator boxes.
As I got older, I asked for pink skirts. I asked for a Barbie, please. I traded my red and white tricycle for a floral bike with mylar streamers on the handlebars.
I was femme. And sure of it.
There was always part of me that was aware of our differences. I thought my mom was cool; others would whisper. Toddlers stared at her tattooed arms, gaping. Some asked if she was a boy or a girl. I remember once, on a day trip, when my mother went to take a picture of a statue or a cool sign, a woman pulled up to her in her car. They talked for a while, my mother laughing. She came back to the car and my dad asked what happened. My mom said, nonchalantly, “She thought I was a lesbian.”
I think part of me was always aware I was queer. Part of that is what made me feel ashamed of my body. Puberty came in like a mine field. I looked less and less like my mother— the image of womanhood I grew up with — and I was scared. Was she disappointed that I wasn’t like her? Did my femininity disappoint her? At the same time, I worried about being too masculine: people would know I wasn’t straight. I was angry: my mother taught me to be proud of who I was, but what if who I was becoming wasn’t good enough?
I hid away. I went into a major goth phase. I wore sweatshirts and leggings, flannel and tights, Tripp pants and old band tees. I grew out my bangs; my relatives would always complain that they couldn’t see me.
In my senior year of high school, I came across the pinup style. I wore polka dot dresses and leather jackets. I bought combat boots to wear with opaque tights and denim smocks. I perfected my makeup routine, learned different ways to braid my hair. I became known for only wearing dresses. In high femme, I started to feel like myself again.
We rehearsed. As we did box steps, I realized I couldn’t keep trying to fit myself in one. Humanity is more complicated than that.
I did research, watching burlesque performances and interviews with drag performers of varying fame. Like finding the word “queer,” I connected with their fluidity; reveled in their commentary on gender stereotypes; utilized their looks as inspiration.
I looked up how to bind my chest: I tried ace bandages and failed, unsurprisingly. I found a tutorial using two sports bras, facing in opposite directions. I came out in my PUNK CABARET IS FREEDOM t-shirt, body pressed into shape, and my then-roommate responded with a blush. “Why are you being so weird?” I asked her.
“You’re a hot guy!” she responded, laughing uncomfortably.
We joked, but when I went back to my room, my heart raced. What did she really think? Why had I walked out to my roommates dressed this way? I turned up my Dresden Dolls and tried to level my breathing.
Hair tucked in a backwards cap, I moved across the riser. We lip synced our solos, pointing at our friends, our hands over our hearts. My friends and I took photos with each other, back to back, making faces. The applause washed over me; I let myself go.
It didn’t matter if I was still figuring out my gender—and maybe I’d never quite know. What mattered was I could have fun trying everything.
As I prepared for the next drag show, I watched makeup tutorials. I watched one artist transform herself with a contour lines and a stippling brush. I went to four different drugstores to find the right palette. I learned how to turn my jaw line rigged, my nose more narrow. Finding my face was stressful: I had to look exactly how I imaged. I practiced slicking back my hair, pinning it under to appear shorter. I started to buzz the back of my neck. Hairspray in hand, I’d think: Who could I become? Could I get the perfect pompadour?
I went to thrift stores. When I couldn’t find my outfit, I invited my mother. Together, we found the perfect tweed blazer, grey joggers, circular sun glasses. We strolled down the aisles of dusty sweaters and shoes. Under the mustard lights, I found my drag name: Jack Hart.
That year, Jack dressed as Ducky from Pretty in Pink; the following, a Greaser. I sang in the mirror, duets and rap battles with my reflection. Jack harmonized; spat back at me. I was living a life of multiplicities: he was a part of me I couldn’t shake — the strength, the power, the perfectly shaped brows. I brought Jack into my acting class, exploring what aspects of my life would transcend gender: poetry, laughter, who I loved.
At the end of the day, I was still me: the queer writer, the loudmouth, the person who generally avoided pants. But I explored the parts of me that went unexplored. More than that, I allowed myself to have the journey in the first place.
When it comes to choices, I was always bad at picking just one. As a writer, I write everything, and am of the belief that it will make me better. I speak my mind because I hate to see others knocks down. I wear different styles to feel comfortable in my skin.
My mother raised me gender neutral: she believed I would choose my path. I once demanded tea parties and pink; now, she sits next to me as I tattoo my body, helps me buzz my hair. She would always support who I wanted to be: how could I not want to be like her?
This was beautifully written and you and your mother both sound very cool! Thank you for sharing this!
I love this!!!
Being a grown-up and interacting with one’s parents can be interesting. I remember working through thinking that my mother who is happily married to my father is more butch than I am. She is, and that’s okay. It’s nice to be able to enjoy one’s parents!
it’s so nice to hear that there are queer people who not only talk to their parents but their parents actively support their lives and choices
my dad taught me to pattern match ties with shirts, but my mom gets a pinchy look when i wear them to family gatherings. it’s a wild spectrum
You and your mom both sound awesome. I hope I do as well with my son!