This is exactly how I did not look.
I was nine or ten the first time I put on a necktie; the details are muddled now, but I remember the way it made me feel with perfect clarity. It was all part of the roleplay for some pretend game—I think I was supposed to be a mafia don—but when I looked at myself in the mirror, tugging on the knot my dad had tied for me, I wasn’t playing anymore. The tie made me feel powerful, confident—and then, totally inseparable from that feeling, not even on its heels, just the flip side of the goodness, it made me feel like there was something very wrong with me. The very fact that it felt good felt bad.
Growing up, I always thought that I just wasn’t a clothes girl. No big deal, just not into clothes. I hated wearing skirts (what if I needed to hang upside down on the monkey bars?) or non-athletic shoes (what if I needed to win a race?) but the necktie corrected that impression. I was into clothes, just not the right ones. And as much as I liked being different—I loved that I was left-handed and I was palpably disappointed when I found out that I had the most common type of fingerprint— nine years was plenty old enough to know that this type of different was dangerous. Right from the start, the tie was bound up with my deepest fear, the one that I pummeled down every time it reared its head: that I Might Be Gay. So for a long time after that first time, I stayed away from overtly masculine clothes. I didn’t want to encourage whatever part of myself liked them.
Then, when I was fourteen, Avril Lavigne showed up in a necktie and a wife beater and changed my life.
I FORGIVE YOU FOR ALL OF YOUR SUBSEQUENT PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL DECISIONS.
Suddenly, it was okay to put on a tie if I wanted. It was punk (which I wasn’t) but it was straight (which I definitely, totally, for sure was). I asked my dad to borrow one of his ties again (“It’s The Look now, dad. Don’t make a big thing about it. God.”) and wore The Avril to high school for one day. I remember constantly checking under my armpits to monitor my panic-sweat like Mary Katherine Gallagher. I was paranoid as hell but I did it. I wore a tie to my school in the mountains of North Carolina, where life could be very scary for people who were different.
It took three semesters of college and one fateful bottle of tequila for me to finally realize, that I was, in fact, queer. Like a lot of people, I took a gradual hike up the Kinsey scale, possibly best illustrated by my twentieth birthday party. I started the evening in a flapper dress (it was a 1920s themed party; I was young), but at the stroke of midnight I changed into a vest, tie, and fedora (I WAS YOUNG). I remember one of my friends looking me in the eye and saying “you look so much more like yourself.” I blushed fiercely and felt so happy and brave. (The trousers were also more conducive to performing the first and last keg stand of my life that night)
Since college, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the fact that I prefer to dress a little masculine of center. I don’t feel the need to assign a name to that behavior, but I guess “soft butch” is as good a fit as any, since I don’t leave the house without eyeliner. Jeans and collared shirts are just what makes me happiest, and I can amp up or tone down the androgyny as suits my mood. And since I talk about being gay as part of my job as a writer, I was pretty sure I was as comfortable with my identity as I needed to be.
Then came this Mardi Gras.
For the uninitiated, Mardi Gras is put on by Krewes, clubs that represent the upper crust of New Orleans society, and to which members pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of riding on a parade float and attending a Mardi Gras ball. Since all my money is reserved for the privileges of eating and paying rent, I myself have not joined one. But my girlfriend is a proud member of the Mystic Krewe of Nyx, a relatively young-skewing, middle class organization. When said girlfriend asked if I wanted to go to the ball with her, my kneejerk answer was “yes” because it was a fucking BALL and I always strive to make my life more perfectly resemble a British novel. But then came the kicker: “you have to wear a tux or a ball gown.”
It was never a question for me which one I would choose, but I was unprepared for how hard it was. Firstly, just on a logistical level, it’s not an easy feat to get a nice suit on a budget if you have boobs and hips like mine. I was terrified to be stuck in a polyester monstrosity and be mistaken for a waitress.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few stores that cater to butch women, but I lacked the thousands of dollars necessary to avail myself of their services. Of course, I could always have gone to a formal wear place in town and asked the tailor to work with me, but every time I would even Google NOLA Promwear or whatever, that old high school panic sweat would strike again.
And that was the toughest part: feeling like I was trying to break into some bastion of masculinity from which I would inevitably be rejected as an imposter. And even worse, as someone who constantly writes about the importance of bravery and self-acceptance, I then felt guilty for not being a paragon of these virtues. After all, it was just a suit. Butch women are way more daring and brave than that every day. (I know, because I see them on Tumblr.) The person I try to be, the person I project on the Internet, would have just galloped into a formalwear store, charmed the tailors, and strolled out looking dapper. But this was one of those times when there was an unleapable gap between that person and the person I actually am.
So I got creative. I ordered a suit from TheBlackTux.com, which, while not specifically designed for women, is a fucking amazing service. I had my girlfriend take my measurements (“OH GOOD, I’LL JUST GET ALL MY BODY ISSUES TOGETHER IN ONE PLACE.”) and they shipped me a gorgeous wool tux just in time for the ball.
It wasn’t a perfect fit, but after blasting “Suit and Tie” on repeat about five times, I felt ready. So we donned our finery—I have to interject that my girlfriend looked sultry as all get-out in her black gown—and went to the ball. And it was terrible. Honestly, there wasn’t enough free booze in the world to make me feel like I belonged there. But it wasn’t because of the tux; there were at least five other women with bow ties in that room and I made eye contact with ALL of them. It was because it was so bourgeois, loud, crowded, and mainstream.
LOOK HOW MUCH FUN I’M NOT HAVING.
I can’t tie this story up in a neat oxford knot for you, except to say that the world I was so nervous to try and infiltrate, turned out to be neither as exciting nor as scary as I’d feared. But even though no one pointed and laughed at me, or called me a dyke, I would have been a lot happier in the company of people to whom I didn’t feel I had anything to prove. I guess it’s the tired old story of assimilation; you finally get in to the party and realize you were happier outside with the misfits. Or possibly, I just should have had more to drink beforehand.
For me, there hasn’t been one magic moment when I was so secure in myself that I could roll up to a ball like Cinderella, post-makeover. I don’t know when I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror and not see that little girl who was afraid of what she liked. But I do know that I would rather be myself, badly tied tie and panic sweat and all, than someone else in a dress.