When I was six, my mother left a box of small garbage bags lying around. I found one, cut the bottom off, and used the cinch-tie at the top to make a small, crude dress. I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror. As my reflection stared back at me, a wave of well-being surged over me, sweeping away any real specifics of that moment. All that remained was a feeling of correctness, like finding just the right word to describe something: a reflection of myself as I knew myself to be, but had yet to see. I turned away from the mirror with a new sensation of beauty and lightness buoying my step. I descended the stairs to show my parents, who sat in the enclosed porch.
Passing through the kitchen, I spotted a coffee cake on the counter. Brimming with satisfaction, I felt a sudden inspiration, a desire to be generous. I pulled the coffee cake off the counter and held it in my arms before me. In my garbage bag dress, I walked into the porch and carefully placed the cake on the coffee table. Hands on my hips, I announced to my parents, who stared at me with their coffee cups in hand: "I'm a waitress!"
There was a moment's pause, during which, but for the sparrows flitting past the windows, time appeared frozen. Then my mother shifted her glance to my father and the two of them burst out laughing. I held still, wearing only my underpants and the garbage bag, confused, because I felt beautiful, and why couldn't they see that? The notion that I should be embarrassed crept up on me—and then with the force of a physical blow, I was. I fled the room, tripping and sliding on the makeshift hem as I went, the plastic clinging to my suddenly hot skin. "Oh, come on!" my father yelled back at me. "There's nothing wrong with being a waiter."
My female side has always been with me, occasionally cropping up to confuse what would have otherwise been a fairly typical male childhood and adolescence, but I have only semi-identified as transgendered for the past few years. I appreciate the word transgender for all those qualities in it that other people find problematic: it is vague and confusing, hinting at a condition but avoiding specifics. The term can encompass anything from transsexuals, both pre- and post-operative, to crossdressers, to genderqueer, to intersex, to whatever gender variant you can think to invent for yourself. It's a political umbrella, created to give voice to all those people whose gender has split free from the standard male/female binary, a way to talk about gender variance without having to rehash one's specific instance and feelings over and over.
All of which is to say, sometimes I present myself as female. I don't think that I'm a woman. I just think that parts of my psyche are female, resulting in a deep-seated need to act that out. For me, crossdressing isn't something I do; it's something that I am. I shift the presentation of my body to match what seems to be a constantly shifting gender.
The desire to do so came naturally to me, before I was fully aware of sex or gender boundaries. Once, on a warm afternoon in the early autumn one year, my father and I waited hand-in-hand for a stoplight to change in downtown Chicago. I can't remember my age, but it was young enough that my hand hung in his at my eye-level. As we waited, a very pretty man wearing a beautiful green dress and dangly earrings crossed with the green light towards us. I smiled at him as he passed, and he smiled back. I felt very taken with this man and looked to see if my father had noticed him, but my father held his gaze fixed to our red light.
"How come he gets to wear that?" I asked my father.
"I think he's gay."
I looked at the dress. As the man walked away, the click of heels fading into the drone of traffic, the afternoon light shimmered off the satin so that the dress shone liquid. I imagined how it would feel to touch.
For much of my childhood, I knew nothing about what it meant to be gay, yet had observed that the word "gay" surfaced whenever I introduced the topic of pretty clothes. After we crossed the street I asked, "Can I be gay?"
My hand, clasped in my father's, was jerked slightly. He stopped walking but did not look down. His face was calm, but there was a disquieting quality to his body language, like the time he had taken me sailing and didn't want to let on that he had gotten seasick. "Your life," he said, finally, "will be much easier if you are not."
In many of my childhood dreams, my hair was long and I wore gorgeous dresses, soft fabric, and tresses so abundant they spread out from around me and melted into the scenery like the red water of a tributary flowing into the blue of a bay. The question of whether I was girl or boy did not figure into the logic of the dream. In the mornings, I awoke beneath Marimekko ‘cars and trucks' bedding and wondered if the dreams meant I was gay, wondered if being gay meant I might one day wear a satin dress of my own.
When puberty hit, I found myself seriously attracted to girls and not at all to boys. In my case, the standard pulse of attraction upon reaching the object of my desire, twisted back upon itself to form a two-way conduit—each new allure I discovered in girls was one I found lacking in myself. The agony of a typical crush deepened under a paradox: the more I wanted a certain girl, the more desperately I wanted to be like her, but the more I let myself emulate her, the less attractive she found me.
I remember Ashley Wenz flirtatiously propping her fragile and carefully shaven ankles up on my desk. The sight of her bare legs no more than a foot from my face triggered a bout of internal schizophrenia. The white dot of consciousness attempted to split itself, to simultaneously focus on both the aching desire to touch her legs and on the sad longing to have my own legs admired with equal ardor. Short-circuited, I sat in silence. After a minute, she shrugged and put her feet back on the floor.
Many theorists agree that gender is mostly performance—with Ashley, I'm sure there was some correct performance of masculinity that she was looking for, but I found myself at a loss. As always, my teenage performance of masculinity amounted to a decree of manhood by omission—by leaving my masculinity unaddressed, it was assumed to be as inevitable as a heartbeat. For after all, isn't it a little unmanly to discuss manliness?
Still, with nondisclosure and assumption as my modus operandi over the years, I found myself included in a group of guys who, as far as the generic high-school markers of popularity are concerned, considered themselves pretty cool. By sophomore year, I played varsity baseball and led the team in stolen bases. I had a string of girlfriends and lost my virginity at age fifteen. I said dude a lot. I tried not to back down from fights.
I shrugged in agreement when the few effeminate boys in my school were declared gay, and laughed along with my friends when they were ostracized.
That laughter came without guilt or even a sense of hypocrisy. Sex researchers often complain about the frustrating nature of interviewing certain closeted crossdressers, because when asked a question, they give two different answers—one for each gender. What's your favorite color? Blue and pink.
By the time I reached senior year of high school, I had so compartmentalized my female and male performances that I began to see one as having nothing to do with the other. I could laugh at an effeminate boy because I had grown to see my boy presentation as a fully formed identity independent of my girl presentation. In fact, for a long time, while presenting as a boy, I had trouble recalling places I had been or things I had seen while presenting as female.
I'd like to air a contention. For transgendered people born after, say, the late 1970s, the process of coming out consists of two steps:
- 1) You come out on the internet.
- 2) You come out in real life.
The younger transpeople I've met, those with access to online communities, have found the process of coming to terms with their gender much less traumatic than the generation just before mine, who instead slunk around "alternative" bars scanning for signs of gender variations hidden beneath the drab exterior of their fellow patrons.
By contrast, at age 17, I had a Yahoo profile, a few pictures of myself in drag, and the beginnings of a female persona. I named myself Tori, a respelling of my middle name.
Online, I found crossdressers had carved out their own Internet space where they could practice interacting with each other in their chosen gender. A lot of the interactions were somewhat transparent caricatures of femininity: they called each other "hun" and typed in emoticons for giggling. But behind the caricatures lurked more nuanced discoveries: slightly different sentence constructions, more emotive expressions, and carefully phrased teasing and flirtation. I won't argue that inhabiting a female persona online taught me to be female, but the exercise did delineate between femininity as viewed by people socialized as men, and what most women think it means to be female.
By the time I got to college and had my own room with a lock, I was ready to take a step further. I withdrew $500 from my savings, and went to a salon that employed a drag performer who lived part-time as a woman. After a few shy attempts to explain why I stood before her counter, I blurted out, "I want, well... everything I need to look like you."
Her face hardened like she thought I was making fun of her. But she must have seen the blush spreading up from my chest, because she dropped her shoulders and eased her face into a smile. "Oh, Honey," she said, in a tone that sounded amused but kind, "It takes work to look like this."
"I can work," I said, fixing my gaze to a blemish on the counter to avoid the interested stares the few other women in the salon cast my way. I could feel their eyes probing at my back. "I want that work."
She pushed her long hair back with perfectly manicured nails and appraised me with an expert squint, like an art dealer mentally pricing a painting. Finally she gave a little nod and asked, "How much do we have to work with?" I gave her everything in my wallet plus whatever I could put on my credit card. In the long run, it was cheaper than a gender therapist.
In my second year of college, I began to sporadically present myself as female. Not around anyone I knew; even at my notoriously liberal college, I couldn't bear to let my identities overlap.
An interesting dynamic prevailed in those early social forays. The sort of people who wanted to associate with a 19-year-old boy dressed up like a girl were a demographically varied but uniformly repressed group. It was as though the people I met, especially the men, felt nothing could possibly be more shameful, less dignified, than my position. Perhaps the secrets they harbored struck them as miniscule compared to the vulnerability of this feminized boy who looked to them for validation.
"I'm a businessman."
"Yes, you said as much. What kind of business?"
He smiled and sipped at a tumbler of whiskey. "We deal with money markets. Kind of technical and boring really."
"What do you mean? Do you work for a company or a bank?"
"Yeah, you could think of me as a banker—banker is fine. Basically, I spend all day on the phone, consulting, you know? I make money, sure, but I've hardly got the time to spend it." He took a breath and said, "You're lucky to be a student, that's the good life."
He didn't look like a businessman. He looked like a blue-collar guy in a suit. His hands were rough and his face sun-cured. He slid in and out of a heavy western Massachusetts accent.
"It's not so easy being a student," I said.
"Oh, sure it isn't." He paused and gave me a once-over, "but it looks to me like you've still got plenty of time to keep yourself dolled up." A wink followed.
I thought about leaving. If I thought he had actually been a businessman, I would have left; but the businessman act struck me as so transparent, so clichéd, that I felt a sudden kinship with him. A week prior, he had contacted me online. He said that he had questioned his gender when he was younger, but as he grew older, those feelings morphed into an admiration for people courageous enough to openly dress and present as female. He said he just wanted to meet me and talk.
Instead of leaving after his wink, I tilted my head and tried out a coy look that I had practiced in the mirror. "Have you ever met a girl like me before? A crossdresser or whatever?"
He adjusted the cuff of his shirt, then looked up at me with a shy smile, one devoid of the bravado plastered over his previous smiles. For a brief moment his somewhat amorphous features slid into place with a silent click. In that instant, he could have been a different person. "No," he said, "You're the first."
In the interactions I've had with other transpeople, there reigns one unspoken rule: you don't call me out, and I won't call you out. At times, the distance between how someone looks and the outward expression of how they feel can appear ridiculous, even obscene—a ruffled pink miniskirt on someone built like a Clydesdale—but with a modicum of empathy, one sees past the ridiculous to glimpse the intrinsically human process of fantasy and imagination made exterior.
I didn't ask that man if he was only pretending to be a businessman; I didn't probe for cracks in the illusion, even though I felt sure I would find them. In fact, I'll even grant the possibility that he was a businessman and that only his inability to articulate the specifics of his work and my class biases murmured otherwise. Still, I prefer to think of him more romantically, as I did that evening. I saw him as someone inspired to re-invent himself, maybe for my benefit, maybe for his own, maybe only for a night. I let him get me a drink, and I let him put his hand on my thigh, and I sat and I thought how lovely it was that two people, transvestites both, one gendered, the other classed, could shrug off the identities foisted upon them by circumstance and slip into selves sewn from the bright cloth of their imagination.I saw him as someone inspired to re-invent himself, maybe for my benefit, maybe for his own, maybe only for a night.
My nascent attempts at presenting as female publically came to an abrupt halt when my college awarded me a research grant. I moved to Cameroon, where I fell in love.
The day I arrived, I met Melissa, who worked with an NGO that taught pre-teen mothers the skills they needed to eke out a living. Three weeks later, in an over-air-conditioned hotel room, I pulled her warm body across the bed and pressed her to me, establishing a pattern that lasted for the entirety of our time in the country. I initiated, she acquiesced. I protected her, she cared for me.
In my memories of Cameroon, a sense of deprivation pervades. I needed Melissa's care and at times she asked for my protection. Destabilized by the culture around us, I played strong man to her soft woman; me Tarzan, you Jane—a year-long drama in which neither of us knew the other was an actor. In deploying an ultra-masculine role as a bulwark against the unfamiliarity of our surroundings, I began to forget that I was acting. The theater became the world, the character my identity.
I often had an evening beer on a balcony overlooking the dusty streets below my apartment. Occasionally, I would see a woman throw back her head to laugh and the sudden recollection of Tori would shimmer before me. It struck me as implausible that I had been her, only months before. Yet, even as the beer washed down my throat, I was building an identity that would eventually join Tori in the realm of the disembodied. When Melissa and I returned to the United States, we were surprised to find that the hard man that I had been in Cameroon had refused to make the trip—he abandoned my body at the airport and took up residence in Yaoundé, where, presumably, I would find him were I ever to return.
A year after we moved in together, Melisa borrowed my laptop to check her e-mail and noticed an online transgendered support group cached in my web browser. She rotated the laptop towards me and asked with a raised brow, "Um…what is this?" I could have laughed it off, or explained it away, but years of compartmentalizing my life had drained me of the energy. At the sight of the screen, an incredibly fast-moving exhaustion travelled across my body like the shadow of a plane flying above.
She stared, expectant.
She cocked her head and waited for the punch line. An hour and a half of explanation later, the punch line still undelivered, she fell into a chair, her lips taut.
"It'll be okay," I said. "I'm the same person. Nothing has changed."
"Okay. I believe you."
I wanted to say that it wasn't a question of belief, but instead I cooked dinner for her and we didn't talk about it, continued not talking about it, until two days later, when Melissa abruptly crumpled into tears during her lunch break.
"You're not the same person!" Her words slurred into a low wail. "How can you even pretend to say I know you? I mean... a transvestite? What else are you hiding from me?" Her voice came out thick and wet, her hair spilling across her arms so that all I could see was the shaking of her back.
We were sitting on a park bench, eating Taco Bell. My arms hung limp at my sides. "Nothing," I said, "I'm not hiding anything. If you loved me before, you should love me still, because I wouldn't be who I am without that." I paused, knowing I shouldn't go on but unable stop myself. "And, I don't think transvestite is really the right word. It's not, like, just some sexual fetish for me."
She looked up from her tear-speckled lap, incredulous, "Oh, I'm so sorry! Am I not being fair to you?" Her voice rose. "I guess I was being selfish, huh? I shouldn't be upset about how you've hidden everything from me, right? Maybe, I should have done my research, so that I would know all the PC terms... so that I could be cool and sensitive for when my boyfriend told me—" her voice continued its harsh crescendo, "—he was a fucking transvestite!"
"Please." My eyes stung. "Please, it will be okay."
She inhaled, gathering breath to go on, but saw me tremble and exhaled, her shoulders lowering as if by deflation. Quietly, she said, "Tell me again."
"It will be okay." I reached my arm out to rest my hand on her shoulder and she flinched. I felt a rush of terror that she would shrug me away, that physical rejection would communicate what could not be spoken: that I should walk away, that it was over.
But she let my hand settle onto her shoulder. We sat like that for what felt like a long time, my arm stretched out to reach her. The old-world clang of a church bell sounded and Melissa stirred. "My lunch break is over," she murmured.
"Tell me again."
I tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear. "It'll be okay."
For months it wasn't. But then, after a year had passed, it was, and we saw that it had been for a while.
By the mid-2000s my online Tori presentation had graduated from Yahoo, to Myspace, to Facebook. Crossdressers still hung around MySpace for some time after it had been largely abandoned. While there, I found this message in my inbox:
Hey, I didn't think you were into guys, but it comes as a pleasant surprise. Why didn't you just tell me? You know I would have been cool with it, I understand how these things go.
It came from a person I knew. He was another young crossdresser from Chicago I had once met for coffee.
My reply: "What are you talking about?"
His response came a day later, no words, just a link to a website. On a site targeted specifically to crossdressers, Tori had placed a personal ad for herself—or rather, someone else had placed an ad using her identity.
The profile showed a photo, taken by Melissa in her old apartment, of my body clad in a pink dress, stockings marred by a vertical run, and a pair of heels. My eyes had been made-up smoky with copper shimmer in the crease. I stared into the camera, neither smiling nor frowning, an expression of blankness.
The personal ad recreated the Tori identity exactly as she had shaped herself into being throughout my life, expressing her tastes and hopes just as I had felt them. In fact, the page might have belonged to the Tori I felt myself to be, but for one key detail: the Tori of the personal ad wanted phone sex with dominant men.
For a while I mentally composed mean letters to send to the e-mail address on the personal ad; letters in which I would accuse my imagined recipient of stealing my photos and besmirching the identity I so painstakingly created. But as I wrote these letters I began to picture my recipient, and in that imagining, I saw a teenager; too young, or poor, or repressed to build his own identity, and having clutched at mine, lying alone and ashamed, in a body he hates and wishes he could change, holding a cell-phone to his face while he whispers dirty words to an anonymous man and confuses heavy breathing with love.
How is it right that I try to take Tori from that person? Who is Tori? Is she an entity that I own, that is mine to bestow upon those I choose? Or in making an ad for her, hadn't this imagined teenager (that's the version I like; you can choose your own) taken a share of responsibility for the construction of her identity? Maybe Tori's history is not merely what I have experienced with her, but also what others have experienced and will experience with her. Perhaps she has a life apart from me, and I must accept her phone-sex habits with a shrug.
I grew up surrounded by the notion that bodies and identities come in 1:1 ratios: we get a body and an identity. But from as early as I remember, I had a body that did not line up flush with any single identity but instead slipped this way and that so that it lined up with Tori at one point, or the hard man of Cameroon at another, or any one of the many selves I've deployed throughout my life.
The discovery of the personal ad flipped a switch in the dark: the slippage I had experienced occurred not only on the side of body, but on the side of identity as well, so that Tori might slip from one body to another just as I slipped in and out of various presentations of identity. Once recognized, the logic struck me as obvious, a happy and symmetrical discovery.
I don't mean to pretend that somehow, body and identity have been cleaved free from one another, or that we live in a world where body has no relevant bearing on identity and vice versa. After all, those pictures of Tori showed my arms, my face, my ears, that mole on the cheek next to my nose. Yet, somewhere in the hinterland of the internet, some other person had claimed one of my identities, an identity borne of my body, but one that transcended skin, muscle, hair, fat and bones, as she moved through online space, until she settled upon the imagined teenager, his body becoming hers, her voice speaking through his throat to the anonymous man on the other end of the phone.
And I love that, for Tori's escape is mine as well. When others can link their bodies to mine through the bonds of a shared identity, they loosen another knot in the constraints of the flesh. We are not separated from the body, but we are granted an opportunity to breathe more easily having found a little play in the rope that tethers body and identity together. There are a thousand of ways to read that personal ad, but I choose to see it as an illustration that none of us are constrained quite so much as we imagine. I see it as an affirmation that all of us, whenever we discover an inch of slippage here, a centimeter of slack there, can, by dint of will and imagination, raise miniature empires in the little bit of space we've managed to acquire.
David Torrey Peters lives in Chicago, where he fixes sailboats, occasionally helps crossdressers do their makeup, and is putting the finishing touches on a novel. His writing has been published in Best Travel Writing (2009, 2010), Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and Indiana Review, among other places. This essay first appeared, in different form, in Fourth Genre Magazine.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.