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.