Even though I didn’t have the language to communicate what was going on in my internal world, I knew very young that I was different from other boys.
Fortunately, I grew up in an environment where I was free to play with girls and Barbie dolls. I could play dress up and house, and I could dress up as a Disney princess or a witch for Halloween.
I grew up in a house full of strong women. “Masculine” as some would say; direct, opinionated and independent. The men in my life, though masculine presenting, were quite delicate and nurturing. No one performed traditional gender roles and I never got the sense that I had to do so either.
Unfortunately, the outside world wasn’t as progressive.
Throughout my life, I overheard several strangers and family friends inquire about my gender expression and my predominantly female friend groups as if there was something inherently wrong with them.
By the time I discovered that I was a trans woman and not a gay man, I had already internalized a sea of messaging that made it difficult for me to embrace my true self.
I was open about my attraction to guys and everyone perceived me as gay, but I went out of my way to be seen as “masculine.”
Every day I put on my best performance of masculinity to avoid being side-eyed or ostracized. I was exhausted and deeply unhappy with the constant pretending.
I was dying to break free from the confines of gender roles. Nothing would have made me happier than to start my transition and live my truth.
When you’re a growing boy or girl of the modern era, you learn very quickly that certain things are off-limits. If you’re a boy, playing with girls or Barbie dolls, wanting to wear dresses and painting your nails is out of the question. And if you’re a girl, rough-housing, refusing to wear dresses, wanting to play with trucks or play soccer instead of netball is frowned upon.
Anyone who lives within and gleefully embraces the binary may fail to see the problem. Boys are supposed to wear pants and refrain from crying. Girls are supposed to like pink and be polite.
Those of us who don’t subscribe to these black-and-white ideals – both trans and cis – recognize how stifling and arbitrary they are.
In fact, fashion and make-up trends have always been fluid.
In the 16th century, men donned wigs and make-up. In the 17th, men wore heels, which were even originally designed for them. At the time, these flamboyant accessories were the epitome of masculinity.
In many indigenous cultures—both past and present—men have embraced make-up and dresses irrespective of their gender identity or sexuality.
The Wodaabe people of Western Africa, for example, often hosted male beauty pageants where men would wear make-up, plait their hair and wear embroidered clothing with the intention of courting women.
Certain cultures even go as far as to embrace a third gender, like Hijras of South Asia and two-spirit Native Americans.
Cisgender heterosexual men in Western societies also donned wigs, tights, skirts, jewelry, dresses, heels and make-up throughout the 15th and 17th centuries. Even Jesus himself wore what we would today call a dress.
In some eras, we see things we would code as masculine or feminine today being coded as the complete opposite. Pants, for example, were coded as feminine attire around the 1930s, with the color blue belonging to girls and the color pink belonging to boys throughout the early 20th century.
Despite all of this, we still find ourselves in a society that views any deviation from the current “norms” as, well, abnormal.
Our need as humans to classify things has always existed. According to Vandette, “classification and taxonomy begin with Aristotle.” (Earth.com 2018) Classifying things not only helps us understand them, but it gives us a sense of safety and control. It allows us to create and follow appropriate guidelines. While this need to classify may be innocuous and helpful in some cases, it can also be incredibly harmful.
Kevin grew up in a conservative household where any deviation from the norm was not only discouraged but condemned. But nothing made them happier as a baby queer than putting on a pair of heels, a blonde wig, booty shorts, and make-up and doing Beyoncé’s Coachella routine in front of the mirror when no one was home. They also enjoyed dressing up as artists like Prince and Michael Jackson.
“I was six years old when I learned that little boys weren’t allowed to wear dresses,” Kevin told LGBTQ Nation. “When I would demand to wear a dress I would get a whooping.”
Zuleika has an equally heartbreaking story. She enjoyed contact sports soccer and hockey. She found her joy in edgy, “masculine” articles of clothing, which her inner circle always applauded. Her father never had a problem with it, she told LGBTQ Nation, but her mother never missed an opportunity to “express her disappointment.”
“She would always say, ‘Why can’t you be like other girls?’ Til this day I feel insufficient within my womanhood.”
But as I’ve stated, gender expression doesn’t always equate to gender identity or sexuality. Manuel is a prime example of this.
Manuel was raised by two feisty, intelligent moms. Despite being a raging heterosexual, he always had an affinity for dresses, skirts, and any and all pieces of clothing that had all kinds of patterns and vibrant colors.
Manuel was fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t care how he expressed himself and didn’t speculate about his sexuality. That freedom and acceptance allowed him to grow up to be the fashion enthusiast he is, who still wears skirts, paints his nails, and exclusively dates women.
To many cisgender heterosexuals, fashion is just…fashion. A way to express their unique personality. And for many queer kids, fashion is a way for us to experience joy while we’re still figuring things out.
My source of joy as a closeted trans teen existed within the confines of my bedroom. Every day, after school, I would rush home, lock myself in my room and play dress up while my parents were at work.
Even though I had no shame around my gender expression, it was still much easier to be an effeminate gay boy around my family and friends than to admit to being trans. For a while, my room was the only space I had to be Kelley—trans girl—and not Keletso.
My collection of wigs, crop tops, jewelry and make-up wasn’t very big, but it was enough for me at the time. All I cared about was being able to express myself authentically.
I’m so grateful to have had parents that allowed me to express myself how I saw fit; parents who never flinched when I said I wanted the girl’s Mac Donald’s toy or got upset when I wanted to wear dresses; parents who never made me feel anything other than normal.
Tradition, much like beauty standards, is moribund, ever-evolving into whatever the collective deems appropriate. But what if we allowed gender expression to be what it’s supposed to be? Subjective. Personal. Unique.
A video of a little boy marveling at the sight of the art splashed across his face by his older cousin recently went viral. Despite his very obvious excitement, the comments were filled with claims that the boy was being groomed against his will, claims that wearing make-up would “turn” him gay.
What if we all reached the consensus that labels and gendered clothing are antiquated?
What if we allowed boys to paint their nails and wear skirts and allowed girls to play contact sports and wear sneakers without making unnecessary conjectures?
What sense does it make to have people repressed and unhappy simply because the current trends don’t align with their desired way of dressing?