Relearning How To Dress Myself From The Closet I Came Out Of

My closet contains a timeline of my adult life. There’s the old sports gear from back in college, rowing shirts with my university’s name embroidered on the collars. A red silk scarf I picked up on my post-college travels. The shirt I wore to interview at my first professional job. The pajamas I was wearing when my ex-husband proposed. The dresses I danced with him in, over the course of our ten-year relationship. The heels I tripped in after too many gin and tonics, again. The sweater I had on when I told my ex-husband, through tears, that I thought I might be gay. And the dress I had on when the email came through that our divorce was finalized.

It can be hard to put some of these things on. Some of them don’t feel like mine, anymore. A married, straight woman’s clothes. A hard-drinking, desperately sad person’s clothes. A stranger’s clothes.

My gym gear is comfortable, still. It’s just what I wear, what I’ve always worn, to move around — cotton to absorb my sweat as I run, or lift, or box. I love sweating. I love feeling strong. My body still feels like mine, at least. So that’s a place to start.

Just before my 33rd birthday, I worked up the courage to come out to my mother. On that same birthday, I got sober. Last year, just before turning 34, I divorced my ex-husband, moved to a new city, came out to friends and family, started dating my first girlfriend, and sold my first novel. Now I’m just about to turn 35, and I’m still shaken up by so much change in so little time. My life is almost unrecognizable from what it was two years ago.

With all these changes comes possibility. Here I am, in my mid-thirties, with the chance to reinvent myself. How often in life does one get such an opportunity? Such a fresh start?

I try to frame things that way — in the light of the possible — because, as with any big change, there’s also fear and uncertainty. It’s like staring at the first empty page of a new manuscript, knowing the book could go in any one of a million directions, and being stupefied by that openness, that lack of constraint.

One of the biggest ways this anxiety has manifested is with my physical presentation. I feel the need to do something to the outside of my body to mark the tremendous shift I’ve experienced inside — to somehow match my inner self to my outer self. But I’m not sure who my inner self is anymore. There’s a sense of total dislocation. I made some abrupt and large and lasting changes in my life, and now the questions — Who am I? What am I doing? What do I want? — seem impossible to answer. Maybe they were always impossible to answer, but I’d been in a long-term relationship long enough that I assumed they were settled.

I’ve figured out some new answers to these questions I’d forgotten about. I know what I want: to be part of the queer community, and be seen by others in that community. Not just in queer spaces, but out in the larger world. Maybe that’s why I’ve become so fixated on my appearance — it’s the simplest thing to change. And yet, there are so many options. I could be high femme! I could be hard femme! I could be a softball lesbian (a term I recently encountered that pretty accurately describes me)! I could be soft butch! I could cut off all my hair! Oh shit, what if I cut off all my hair?!

One of the things I love most about queer culture is how it challenges the idea that masculine and feminine identities are fixed opposites. My attraction to butch and masculine-of-center women is a large part of what woke me to my own queerness. And as I’ve started to get comfortable in that queerness, I’ve realized my desire for MoC women is partly a case of, do I want her, or do I want to be her? I’m fascinated and afraid in equal measure by my own capacity to inhabit masculine qualities. I wonder, if I were younger, would I also be braver — more willing to try a new haircut, a new wardrobe, a new way of being seen in the world. But maybe I’ve never been brave that way: I learned very early on that my face was something to be hidden.

I was born with a birthmark that covered almost half of my face. Despite several surgeries around age seven, I was left with a lot of scarring. I was also awkwardly tall and painfully shy, far happier with books than with other kids, who didn’t miss a chance to tease me. All I wanted was to be pretty. To be normal. I was an outsider, but I wanted to be accepted in. To make up for my scars, I learned to act as girlish as possible. To make up for the little jump people gave when they saw my face, I learned to raise and soften the pitch of my voice.

When I was a teenager, I grew even taller, and had broad shoulders and a flat chest; I was often playing sports and wearing gym clothes, and already getting called “sir” by people before they heard me speak. My efforts to perform femininity took on a new intensity. Around that time, my mother decided I was old enough to wear makeup and short dresses, which gave me some new tools in my “I’m a girl!” arsenal. I noticed how people — my peers and adults alike — treated me more nicely when I wore lipstick, when I slumped my shoulders to take up less space. I consumed far too many magazine articles about sex, cosmetics, and what men wanted in a woman. I didn’t particularly like boys, but I was encouraged to find a boyfriend. When I finally brought one home, late in high school, I was praised. And that made me happy: I just wanted to be a regular girl.

The older I got, the easier the performance of femininity became. My voice found higher registers on its own. I giggled a lot. I didn’t leave the house without makeup on. I also drank a lot, and often, because that’s what fun girls did.

In my late twenties something changed. I started to find confidence in my height, my strong body. And as I stood in the mirror getting more and more comfortable looking at myself, I also got more and more certain I was queer. I would look at myself and understand that truth and then wonder how a woman who’d only been with men and had met and married a wonderful man could be gay?

I started to find butch women in movies and books and queer erotica, and they captivated me. But in those precious few portrayals, butches were paired with femmes, and that dynamic left me hopeless. Based on what I watched and read, femmes were petite, curvy, pretty women. How could I be femme if I was too tall, too broad-shouldered, too strong-jawed? How could I be femme with my flat chest and scarred face? The butches I saw in fiction didn’t want a woman like that. The one dynamic that was presented to me led me to believe I couldn’t exist in queer spaces. So I stayed in the closet, in the dark of my own doubts and insecurities.

But the quiet certainty of queerness didn’t leave me. I thought, sometimes, I’d go crazy if I couldn’t touch another woman (I never had). I thought, sometimes, that hunger, that desperation, was what made me so sad — why I’d drink until I blacked out and woke up with my eyes swollen with crying. Sometimes, after showering, when I felt clean and new, I’d stand in front of the mirror with a bare face and slick my hair back. Put on a sports bra and undershirt and some jeans, hook my thumbs into the belt loops. Set my shoulders back, broad and strong. And I’d think, is this what I have to do to be gay? Is this how I have to look?

I felt so naked. So unprotected. It was frightening.

I could only look at myself like that for a minute or two before I had to turn away.

I hold onto an image of myself driving a rusty blue pickup truck, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and a cowboy hat, my hair cut short, with one arm balanced on the rolled-down window and country music on the radio. (Note: I don’t really know any country music.) I drive past a cute woman and wink at her and she thinks I’m cool, she thinks, “Wow, she’s so butch.”

Another part of me truly enjoys “girly” things: pink and glitter and painted nails and lipstick and heels and dresses. These things make me happy — just me, just for myself, not in service to a social performance. Sporting perfect cat-eye swoops of eyeliner gives me a diva’s confidence. Show me a piece of clothing covered in gold sequins and I will covet it.

Could I drive around as that suave cowboy-hatted person, but then also go out salsa dancing in a little red dress and sparkly heels? The answer, of course, is yes in the simplest sense: I could do both of those things. But is one of those people really me?

I want to get comfortable with the flow of my own energies: I want to accept that I some days I’ll wake up preferring a MoC presentation, and some days I’ll wake up wanting to stomp out into the world with flawless makeup and heeled boots. I especially want to accept that some days I might feel like inhabiting both energies — a men’s denim jacket and button-down shirt, and eye makeup for the gods — and be comfortable with blurring gender-presentation lines, even though I know people might double-take in confusion.

It’s a terrifying prospect. I learned early on that a double-take led to staring and staring led to being laughed at and pitied.

Two years into this journey, I finally cut my hair — not all off, but pretty short, and the experience wasn’t nearly as scary as I’d built it up to be. I’ve been phasing new clothes into my closet as my budget allows: Timberland boots, some men’s shirts, a nice leather belt. Next up is a shearling-lined jean jacket, an important piece of my imagined cowboy aesthetic. I’ve been less likely to reach for my dresses, lately, but I’m hesitant to give them away. It’s exciting, and new, but I want to allow myself time to equalize before shedding all my old things.

My closet contains a timeline of my adult life. Now, at last, my inner self and my outer self are allowed to match.

Katrina is queer, Latinx, and embracing her futch-ness in 2018. She lives in Seattle with her two dogs. Some of her favorite things are jellybeans, the beach, weightlifting, eyeliner, dad jokes, and impromptu dance parties. Her debut novel THE BEST BAD THINGS will be released this Fall. The book follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring. Come say hi and talk about books, sports, or your favorite jellybean flavor at Katrina's website or on Twitter!

Katrina has written 16 articles for us.

78 Comments

  1. Oh my goodness this just made my day. I’m 31 and recently told my beautiful sweet husband that I’m gay. The last couple of years have been quite a ride and I saw much of my experience in your piece. Thank you thank you thank you thank you.

  2. Beautiful piece, thank you so much for sharing! Coming from someone here who identifies as non-binary/genderfluid this really resonated with me. It has always been a struggle for me to reconcile the fact that sometimes I wake up hating the very idea of wearing anything but plaid and overalls and the next day wake up wanting to put on eyeliner and dangly earrings lol. And yes! Sometimes both simultaneously! It’s important for everyone to be reminded that there’s no “one way” to be anything <3

    • ‘It has always been a struggle for me to reconcile the fact that sometimes I wake up hating the very idea of wearing anything but plaid and overalls and the next day wake up wanting to put on eyeliner and dangly earrings lol’

      Yes, I feel this!

    • Thank you for reading! It’s definitely been a learning process for me in figuring out what I feel most comfortable wearing. There’s no one way, for sure, and though it was scary at first I’m really starting to appreciate how flexible I can be with my presentation and still feel awesome.

  3. I went through much of the same identity crisis as a teenager. Although I knew I was gay from a young age (about 12/13) I never changed the way I dressed. Until I got to college. Despite being at a liberal, women’s college in the Bay Area I had people tell me (other lesbians tell me) that I didn’t look gay therefore I couldn’t be gay. This was 2002, and representation in the media was pretty limited. So, second semester of my freshman year, I cut off all my hair, bought men’s clothes and tried to pull off the butch aesthetic. Problem was I never felt 100% comfortable. In the 15 years since then I have tried many different looks and styles in an attempt to find what feels right to me. It’s still an ongoing process! I’m not girly, but I’m not butch. I like dresses, but I don’t want to wear them. I like painting my nails but I don’t like makeup. I like watching sports but I’m not athletic. I’m about as in between everything as you can get!

    • I’m starting to find the fun in trying new styles and looks. At first it was intimidating, but I’m slowly collecting new clothes that feel comfortable. So it’s an ongoing process for me, too, but all the better if I can enjoy it!

  4. Thank you for this wonderful piece! I feel like this is a process I’m in the midst of as well–having come out over the past few years, I’m finding myself feeling dissatisfied with my wardrobe as I try to refine my presentation of my queer identity. (Compounded by being surrounded by very beautiful, fashionable friends whose wardrobes I admire but have no desire to emulate!)

    Just a note—your abbreviation of “masculine of center” as MOC confused me for a moment since I’m so used to seeing it to refer to “men of color”! 😉

  5. Thank you for this essay, it was beautiful. As someone who is coming into my gay identity after having only been with men and who is also exploring my own gender presentation (and feeling similarly that though I sometimes really enjoy and revel in traditional femininity, I have felt a yearning for a while now to present more androgynously at times) I can relate to this a lot.

  6. This speaks so much to me, especially the parts about performing femininity.

    I was the awkward child and the outcast teen, so when I, at age 19, suddenly discovered that I could be treated with kindness and respect I threw myself in at the deep end. When other people my age were experimenting with excessive drinking and party drugs, I was experimenting with being accepted. By the time I realised how much I was changing everything about myself to pass through life with fewer bumps in the road, I was miserable and could no longer recognise myself.

  7. Even as a MOC person, I really enjoyed this phrase: “some days I might feel like inhabiting both energies — a men’s denim jacket and button-down shirt, and eye makeup for the gods.”
    Get down with your bad self.

  8. This is lovely. You. An definitely be who you want to be and that can change from one day to another and/or over a longer period of time. I know that some identities or presentations are questioned more than others, but I think being who you want to be gives you the chance of happiness. And there are definitely butch women who date other butch women, should you decide that’s what you want.

  9. Hey Katrina,

    Thanks for your heartfelt exploration of this sensitive topic. I see I’m not alone with this struggle ! Having spent years in a school uniform, I desperately wanted to get away from any kind of traditional “beige” attire. For years my style was “retina-burn”, “distressed” femme, anti-fashion. Then I really loved wearing men’s clothes but was shamed out of it by other lesbians, would you believe. And then I was lost, for years and years I wandered in drab limbo.

    And, I also went through a divorce. That also entailed wandering in the desert.

    Cutting my hair was my first step to reclaiming my self too ! Going to the barber was a fantastic and liberating experience. Now I just have to figure out what to wear with my new doo. I’m still attracted to shiny and irreverent, and I love the dapper look but I’m just not sure I could pull it off. But at least I feel more hopeful.

    • Thank you, Adèle!

      “Wandering in the desert” is how I would describe the early parts of my own journey, too. I’m now in a better place and I hope you are, as well.

      I did cut my hair short and now I keep getting it shorter. I was afraid of it but I love my new style. I’ve been leaning more toward plaid & denim than dapper styles, but I still love gold sparkles … somehow I’ll find a way to work that in, and my look will be complete. 😀 Maybe dapper will fit you just right! I didn’t think I’d look good in men’s button-down shirts but I bought a couple at a thrift store and now I love them and want to wear them all the time. Have fun experimenting! 🙂

    • Thank you! And yes, I’m very excited about the book! I’ve always been interested in exploring gender presentation and performance with my characters, and I came to realize I was also interested in exploring those things for myself.

  10. From another awkwardly tall, painfully shy, flat-chested girl who repeatedly changed her posture to take up less space, thank you for writing this and sharing your experiences so openly. Happily enough, I’ve found that as I’ve grown more comfortable with my queerness, I too have learned to be more confident in my body. Glad you found harmony between your inner and outer selves!

    • Thank you, Addie! I have also found that more comfort with my queerness = more comfort in my body, which in turn makes me more confident. It’s been a wonderful side effect of coming out. 🙂

  11. this was so great! i totally relate to the freedom in the moment when you realize that you actually don’t have to pick one side of the “center” or another, you can switch it up or do all the things at once. excited for your book!

  12. I’ve been through a reverse.

    The performance of femininity was too scary for much too young me, it felt like putting a “kick me” sign on my back but instead it would say “use me, abuse me” so fairly unconsciously I dressed and swaggered in a masculine of center way before I knew any of the words or heard of Leslie Feinberg.

    So exploring femininity (my way not my mom’s way, not mainstream society’s way) is something I had to do for myself before trying to invent a self rather than a shell.

    I’ve never really been an insider(not that I can remember anyway) but having been an outsider I’ve seen how hard it can for insider people is to go their own way and stay the course.
    But when that weight squishin y’all down into a shape that just doesn’t fit is shoved off it’s glorious.
    Y’all are glorious okay.

    • “But when that weight squishin y’all down into a shape that just doesn’t fit is shoved off it’s glorious.”

      This is perfect. <3 I did get the men's denim jacket of my dreams, recently, and when I wore it and stood in front of a mirror (my current profile photo) I felt SO GOOD. It was that weight, shoved off and gone and I felt so comfortable at last.

  13. This is gorgeous and you are gorgeous!!!

    Being closer to forty than thirty now, I’m much more comfortable to dress as I like, in general or on a certain day. I’m not so sure any longer that my most preferred look (short hair and kind of androgynous clothing, rarely a dress and high heels) is essentially a part of me being gay, just another important part of me being me. But being gay gives me the freedom to live that part enthusiastically! I more and more feel that a lot of society’s norms and expectations just don’t apply to me. Objectively, that’s probably nonsense, every straight person could do the same – but I often feel more free than I experience my straight peers.

  14. I loved this, thank you for writing it! Though I went through this process in my mid 20’s, I related to a lot of your story.
    Especially loved this part:
    “I hold onto an image of myself driving a rusty blue pickup truck, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and a cowboy hat, my hair cut short, with one arm balanced on the rolled-down window and country music on the radio. (Note: I don’t really know any country music.) I drive past a cute woman and wink at her and she thinks I’m cool, she thinks, “Wow, she’s so butch.””
    So freaking cute ?

  15. You know how they tell you to save time in the morning by laying out tomorrow’s work clothes in the evening? And you can’t do it because it’s imppossible to know beforehand how you’ll feel genderwise in the morning?

    I’m woman-identified but have found gay male femininity much more relatable than most representations of queer womanhood. It’s been a revelation: There’s a subculture of people who are tall and look like me, wear nailpolish and high heels with men’s clothing during the week and may put on high femme drag in the weekends.

    • I love that you’ve found your style! I’m experimenting with what combination of masculine & feminine clothes/hair/etc. feels best, and taking a lot of inspiration/style cues from the presentation you describe. At first it felt like I didn’t have permission to wear men’s clothes with makeup, for instance, but I’m getting to the place where I know what makes me feel good and caring less about what “rules” I’m breaking. <3

  16. This is great, and I can relate to it as a 6 foot tall broad shouldered person who used to identify as a woman

    I’m glad you seem to be finding your way, navigating gender presentation. If there is a trans and especially a non binary community near you, I’d encourage you to find them and see how those people live in the world. You don’t have to identify that way (although you can!), but it can be very empowering to see other people presenting gender on their terms, regardless of how the world thinks they should present

    Enjoy the journey, it’s at least half of the fun ❤️

  17. I really appreciate reading about this perspective. As someone who does not spend much time thinking about clothing, aside from considerations about the weather, it’s helpful to read about how much of an impact clothing can have on presentation, as I know it’s quite relevant to many people in my life.

  18. I missed this last week. Thanks, Autostraddle Instagram for catching my attention.
    I relate to so much in this! Thank you for writing it!

    I think being tall adds a whole other element. I would love to know what it feels like to be in a room of queer ladies and be at eye level with everyone. It feels so awkward to have to hunch down to hear people sometimes, and it just feels like I’m a giraffe in a room of humans. That, added onto all the “oh you’re not a gold star?” dismissal I felt in my 20s made it tough. Hooray for late 30s, I guess? 😛

    Anyway, thanks again! I will have to check out your book. 🙂

  19. I want to thank you for writing. It’s encouraging to know that while you were married to a wonderful man that you were able to face the challenges you saw ahead and make the changes that we’re best for you. I’m struggling with a similar situation now and the fact that you got through it gives me hope. I want to thank you for sharing your story.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.