Re: Why can't boys wear dresses or why are mens clothes so d
Posted: Wed Nov 28, 2012 18:48
Herewith something I happened across whilst doing a literature search for a student this afternoon, included as much for its references to indiepop and riot grrrrl as much as at having to do with the subject matter of this thread.
My Life as a Girl, by Stephen Burt
Virginia Quarterly Review, October 1st 2012, pp 202-211.
MAYBE I JUST WANT TO BE PRETTY.
Maybe I just want to feel pretty, or
to look pretty. Some of those goals seem impossible,
or incompatible, or prohibitively difficult;
not worth what I would have to sacrifice. I'm
a man, but I like dressing up as a woman, in
women's clothes, wearing lipstick and bracelets
and bright rings and women's shoes. Given my
tastes, at the moment, it might be better to say
that I like dressing up as a girl. I like to wear
costume jewelry, and pastel nail polish, and I do
that all the time. I like to wear skirts and tights,
or dresses, too, in private sometimes, in public
fewer times, and in company when I can find ein
appropriate occasion, which I rarely can.
That's been the case for a while. In my twenties
I found the perfect social circle, and the
perfect set of dance parties and rock clubs,
where I could dress up like a girl and my ftiends
didn't mind—or found it charming. Then my
favorite club closed. Then Jessie and I got married
and moved to Minnesota, and my space for
cross-dressing dried up. I minded, but not very
much, because I liked the rest of my life. I even
stopped wearing nail polish and sparkly rings
for a while, though the poetry I published made
its commitment to girlish identities, feminine
alternate selves, all but unmistakable.
And now I have started dressing up again,
every so often—I think all I want is every so
often—and I'm ready to write about it in disjunctive
and maybe all too self-conscious prose.
WHAT FOLLOWS ARE TENTATIVE ANSWERS TO PERSIS-
tent questions about how I look, how I want to
look, why I often think that I would rather have
been a woman, and why I'm sure I won't try to
become one. It has to do with sexual feeling,
but it says almost nothing about sexual acts.
It's no substitute for queer theory, nor for a cultural
history of cross-dressing and other trains
life-ways, nor for the book-length memoirs by
trans people and their loved ones (one of my
topics here is resistance to memoir, to narrative,
to identifying your true self with one story that
CEin be told), though all those forms of writing
have helped me, and I refer to them. I also refer
to poetry, since I care far more about poems—
and think more often about them—than about
how I look. I am a literary critic and a writer of
verse, a parent and husband and ftiend, before
and after I am a guy in a skirt, or a guy in blue
jeans, or a fictional girl. I have tried to have as
little concern for my own privacy cis I can—I'm
tired of keeping secrets and don't want more. I
have, on the other hand, tried to have as much
concern as I can for Jessie's privacy. I've chosen
to share these parts of my life with you, if you
stay with me; Jessie has chosen to share the
whole of our life, not necessarily with readers,
but with me.
PEOPLE WHO KNOW MY NAME BUT HAVEN'T MET ME
usually know I'm a poetry critic and a book
reviewer. In one important model of poetryin-
general, the poet constructs a persona
(Greek poiein = to make; Latin persona = actors'
mask), a stylized mask made of words that
replaces the poet's physical, litered body, and
provides a better fit for the soul. My own first
published poems spoke of wanting to be a girl,
or a woman, dramatically and tautologically:
"If I were a girl, I would be a girl," one said.
Later I published poems in girl personae, such
as "Self-Portrait as Kitty Pryde," about the teenage
genius from the X-Men who has the power
to walk through walls.
This essay is a substitute, not so much for a
memoir, but for an unwritten, overlong, awkward,
Recently I went shopping for a denim skirt
that I could wear to an open house for trans
people and cross-dressers, the venerable Tiffany
Club in suburban Boston. I've now gone to two
open houses, and I'll go to more, though I don't
know how offen, since we have a two-year-old
and a six-year-old, and the open house events
conflict with both of their bedtimes. It's astonishingly
helpful to find a space where trans
people can meet one another without being
expected to date, or to dance on stage, or to
seek medical attention. Also, it turns out, I like
being addressed as Stephanie. Some of the folks
I met there are learning to live full-time in their
preferred gender (with or sans surgeries). Others
are more like me; they enjoy dressing up.
I found almost exactly the skirt I envisioned
at the Gap: a thin blue-jean fabric, knee-length
and slightly flouncy, with double rose thread
near the hem. On my way to the cash register
I also saw a pair of shorts, for men, in a color
somewhere between bronze and mustard. I
picked them out and tried them on and liked
how they looked on me and bought them too.
Other prized girly possessions, recently acquired:
opaque white tights; opaque bright blue
tights; a micro-thin blue belt (it goes only with
shorts or skirts); a black Maidenform padded
bra, which converts a 36AA like me to a 36C; a
cotton white-and-magenta circle skirt, which I
have worn around Harvard Square; a sleeveless
black top with small ruffles and white polka
dots, which I have as yet had no occasion to
wear. Ten years ago I lost, among other girl
clothes, a pair of black and silver opaque tights.
I still miss them.
But if I had them, I would only rarely wear
them. I'm reasonably comfortable in T-shirts
and jeans, most days, especially if I can wear
something feminine as an accessory, because
these are butch or androgynous (as well as supposedly
youthful) ways to dress. Wearing a suit
and tie, on the other hand, can make me feel as
if I were a Disney World employee stuck wearing
a Goofy head.
ACCORDING TO CURRENT MEDICAL CRITERIA, TRANS
people have gender dysphoria: our gender
does not match our biological sex, and the mismatch
makes us unhappy. Several therapists
have now agreed that I have gender dysphoria,
but how badly do I have it? Not so badly, as
these things can go. The stories transsexuals
tell about life pre-transition, in which they
are discontented to the extent of becoming
suicidal, because they are biologically male
or female and feel they should not be, do not
describe my life at all.
If I were a historian or a journalist writing
a book about trans culture, I'd take a few years
and attend more Tiffany Club meetings, and
more than a few dance-club nights, before calling
this essay, or that manuscript, complete.
It's a bigger culture than you might think. And
I'd profile people I've met. I'd write at some
length about the life of M., a high-powered
software-company employee just back from
reassignment surgery, who looked fabulous
in a strapless blue summer dress that showed
off her brand-new breasts. I'd certainly write
about L., now in her eighties, who served in
the US military and then served, for decades,
as an officer of the club. L. shares military stories
with others her age, and defends her politically
conservative views on questions unrelated
to gender. L. also tried and failed to teach me
how someone like me—who has a five o'clock
shadow five minutes after a close shave—
should use beard cover and foundation. At least
two folks I met at Tiffany Club are undergoing
divorces. L., on the other hand, likes to say (and
why shouldn't she?) that she and her wife, who
prefers her in male garb, have been together
for decades, and remain close to their kids and
grandkids. L. used to organize annual outings
to Provincetown, where club members could
spend the weekend en femme; L.'s wife came
along, and when they went out as a couple, in
deference to her, L. dressed as a man.
But I'm not writing that book. I'm writing
this essay, half about me and half about other
books, and all about where I stand now, at
the margin of these grownups' gender-variant
world. I am, to quote Helen Vendler, a critic I
trust completely, "incorrigibly unhappy without
a text to dwell on," for reasons not entirely
unrelated to the distance I feel from my physical
body. Yet in order to think about that body,
about that distance, I keep going back to some
The single best book that I've read, not
about "who I am" (I am many things, and so are
you, by the way) but about my own experience
of sex and gender, has to be Jennifer Finney
Boylan's memoir. She's Not There. When I first
read it in 2011, this book lit up my sense of
myself both when I saw myself in her and when
I did not. Boylan writes that while she was still
James, she considered "being a man . . . the
second best life I can live," and so she tried to
"learn how to be happy with this second best
life . . . I don't think this is so crazy, even now.
If I could have pulled this off, I would have."
I put a check mark on that page.
Like almost every trans writer, Boylan remembers
feeling awkward, wrongly placed, in
the body with which she grew up. Me too, but
I'm not sure how much of that feeling comes
ftom having the body of a man, and how much
of it comes from having a body at all. For instance,
I used to love hosting college radio: on
the radio I was not a body, but an expression of
musical taste, words, and a voice.
LIKE MANY FOLKS ABOUT MY AGE, I FIRST LEARNED
about trans people from television, from the
episode of St. Elsewhere, first aired in 1983, in
which Dr. Craig's best friend from college pops
up as a candidate for sex reassignment surgery.
Dr. Craig remembers the fraternity-style drag
show where both men performed: His friend,
he learns, "never took off that dress." I was like
that. But not that. Not close.
In the first job that gave me any independence,
I worked as a researcher for Let's Go,
the travel guides written and edited by Harvard
students. I roamed the mid-Atlantic and the
Upper South, ftom Kentucky's horse country
to the beaches of Delaware. My strangest and
loneliest hours arrived in Charleston, West Virginia,
where I knew no one and there were no
tourist attractions (we ended up leaving it out
of the book). Asking about entertainment in a
coffee shop, I found alterna-teens who spirited
me off to my first drag show: a bar shaped like
a shoebox diorama, with dim lights, high heels,
curly wigs, and what were likely the Mountain
State's most energetic lip-synchers. I was like
that, but not that. Not close.
Most of my favorite music during the 1990s
was called indie-pop, or "twee," a mostly British
genre derived from the do-it-yourself spirit of
punk, the timbres of Phil Spector's girl groups,
and the attitudes in playground chants. Melody
was esteemed; virtuosity was downplayed even
for bands that possessed it. "Twee" is also an
insult in British English, meaning childishly
old-fashioned, over-fussy, comically "English,"
and ultimately un-masculine.
When we were twee we were all of those
things: The styles were girly-girl for the girls,
with sparkly barrettes, Swiss dot, large prints
from thrift-store expeditions, and Hello Kitty
additions. Eor the cross-over boys, epicene
or fade-out-of-sight wear was the way, along
with striped T-shirts or T-shirts with names of
bands. Not all the pop groups involved were
overtly feminist, though the best were. But nobody
wanted, or tried, to be a real man.
Without twee pop and the social circles it
built, I would certainly never have met Jessie.
We were at the same shows, the same clubs.
One of my favorite indie-pop groups was
Blueboy, named either for a song by the prototwee
group Orange Juice or for a gay porn mag.
Most of their music came out on the leading
twee label, Sarah Records, of Bristol, England.
Blueboy specialized in melancholy, mostly
acoustic songs, more than a few about being
gay or queer, including a crisp ballad with this
beautiful chorus: "A girl alone / is just the same
as / a boy alone / sadness is unisex."
I never dressed up as a girl, in public, when I
was an undergraduate. Why the heck not, since
I moved in queer-positive circles? Fear, or awkwardness,
or just confusion, in those days when
"transgender" was not a well-known word, but
also my sense that I wasn't a grand performer,
in contrast to the handful of biological men I
knew who came to class, and to parties, loudly
and confidently wearing dresses. (At least one
of those men dated women, though others
were gay.) Nor did I belong anywhere near the
old-school wigs-and-flounces drag of the Hasty
Pudding Show, with its all-male company.
Nor, certainly, could I pull off anything like
the immaculate and masterful drag of Thomas
Lauderdale, now the leader of the band Pink
Martini, with his perfect black cocktail gown.
What's wrong, exactly, with being a man in
What's wrong with being a man who looks
bad or sloppy or underprepared or like a mannish,
fake girl in a dress? Why are other people
shocked, or distressed, when they see femininity
poorly, or inexpertly, performed? And why
do I care—since I do care—about what they
How much work does it take to look real,
and—if I don't want to pass full-time as a
woman—where's the point of diminishing returns?
Are costume jewelry and nail polish, accessories
and ornaments, a skirt and tights here
and there on a weekday eifternoon, a sustainable
compromise, or a way station of some sort?
I DON'T FEEL THAT I AM A GIRL, OR A WOMAN, "INSIDE,"
much less that I have always been one. Sometimes
I feel I should have been one—or wish
that I were one. I fall somewhere between the
consistent deep-rooted mismatch that transsexual
adults and teens (like the wonderfully
articulate Nicole Maines) describe, or something
like Anglophilia: wanting to be what you
aren't. Either way, you don't belong, because
you're attracted to the stereotype, but discontent
with what you have.
How different is that wish from other escapist
wishes, such as a trip to Japan, or a Karmann
Who wouldn't want to become someone
else, every so often, to take a break from the
self with its irrevocable responsibilities and its
body that won't improve again, "tied to me as
to a dog's tail," as W B. Yeats put it, or with
me (as Delmore Schwartz's poem says) like a
The trans writer and performer S. Bear
Bergman, who looks like a friendly, chubby
man and prefers the pronouns "ze" and "hir,"
asks "how much we would cheerfully pay to get
a few days off to go somewhere nobody knows
us and indulge in all our unsanctioned realness
without anyone there to drag us back to reality."
Quite a lot, I'd say. But where would we go?
In August 2O12 the New York Times Magazine
ran a beautiful cover story on "pink boys," who
want to dress up in girls' clothes for preschool
or grade school.
"No, I don't want to be a girl," one of them
told the reporter, Ruth Padawer. "I just want to
wear girl stuff."
"Why do you want to be a boy and not a
girl?" she probed, and the eight-year-old answered:
"Because I want to be who I am!"
Some of these boys can wear girls' shoes
and accessories to school, but the dresses stay
home. Those boys are me, as I told several of
my friends, except that I'm not eight.
The same issue ran Lindsay Morris's photo
feature on a weekend camp for gender variant
kids, where pink boys can dress as they want,
and feel pretty, for forty-eight hours before they
go back to school: without therapists, without
teachers (but with supervision), without lessons
on how to pass or look more feminine
(but with a fashion show, and dress-up bins).
Are there such camps for adults? If there were,
would I go there?
I have no desire to write a straightforward
memoir about my gender and my wardrobe.
For one thing, there would not be enough to
report. I want instead to find a way to think
about gender and appearance that accounts for
my body, my emotions, and my images of my
body—as it is, as it can be, as I wish it could be.
My body feels unfinished, undeveloped,
more often than it feels like a real woman or
a real man. It feels, sometimes, as if it wanted
to become a woman, whether or not it will get
the chance. That feeling itself hasn't changed
since my teens.
What article of clothing demonstrates that
feeling best? I'm aftaid it's a training bra. I may
be wearing one now, as you read this.
W. H. Auden used to say that he always
imagined he was the youngest person in any
room. I have often felt the same way, and still
have dreams in which I fear that my colleagues
and friends will learn that I am really sixteen
. . . or twelve . . . or fourteen.
At fourteen I wanted to live in a world where
girls would like me, where I could take part in
girls' lives, become at least a confidante. Within
a few years, I had most of what I wanted. All I
had to do, I thought, was to pretend I did not
have a body, to leave my own body behind.
Most of my college-age romances, such as they
were, got stuck at a point where I asked to try
on a girl's bra. I wanted breasts, or the promise
"I'd discovered the nature of my desire," the
great trans writer Kate Bornstein recalls in her
autobiography: "Í wanted to be the kind of girl I
was attracted to."
The strictly erotic aspect of cross-dressing,
including my own—the turn-on aspect—can't
be disentangled ftom the rest of it. But it's very
hard to talk about directly unless you have a particular
talent for erotic writing in prose, which
I believe I don't possess. I can, though, repeat
the trans slogan that being transgender is about
who you want to go to bed as, not who you want
to go to bed with. I can say now that when I am
erotically excited, most of the time, I experience
my own body as a woman's, or a girl's.
I FIRST MET PEOPLE WHO HAD BEEN GENDERQUEER
(as we say now), the cross-dressers and postpunk
post-gender folks, when they were not
long out of their teens, and I was not long out of
mine, when I saw rock shows and read fanzines
and wrote, a bit, on the far ftinges of the Riot
Grrrl phenomenon, in 1991-94. Had I been a
few years younger back then, who would I be
now? Would I go by Stephanie regularly? Or
by ze? It seems unlikely, but who knows? I'm
pretty sure I'd be no happier than I am now. So
much has gone right with the rest of my life.
I remember discovering in grade school
that some boys "liked" some girls, and some
girls also "liked" some boys, and that "like" in
such constructions had a special meaning, different
from and more important than "I like
ice cream": I wanted a girl to like me, I liked a
girl, I liked girls, I wanted to be like a girl. Did
I want to be a girl, or just to be like one?
The trans writer Julia Serano remembers an
epiphany outside a high school baseball game:
"a group of neighborhood girls walked by and
some of my flirtier guy friends started teasing.
. . . Both groups struck up a conversation but
I just sort of sat there and stared. It seemed
so obvious to me that I should be one of those
girls rather than one of those boys. It was so
sad because nobody could see it but me. So I
decided to get a sex change operation." I love
that sequence, with its one-two logic: I have
felt exactly as she felt in the antecedent, though
the consequent never followed for me.
Gender, we hear from various intellectuals
(Judith Butler, for example), must be a performance:
Some performances announce themselves
as such, while others disappear.
If gender in all its permutations is an acknowledged
or unconsciously learned—performance, no
wonder that some of the most insightful people
on trans experience have been actors, directors,
performers: Bornstein, Bergman, Daphne,
Gottlieb—or the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard,
surely the most famous male-to-female
cross-dresser. Izzard explains in his show Dress
to Kill: "If you're a transvestite, you're actually
a male tomboy, that's where the sexuality is.
. . . 'Cause most transvestites fancy girls, fancy
women. So that's where it is. So it's 'running,
jumping, climbing trees, putting on makeup
when you're up there.' "
TREEHOUSES SEEM IMPORTANT TO TRANS SELF
conception; they are fake houses, pretend and
private houses, where children can be themselves,
but almost nobody sees them. "When
I was growing up on the Jersey Shore," Bornstein
recalls, "there were small forests on every
block... A lone tall birch stood high above the
woods, and I taught myself to climb it. Springtime
and summer I'd spend hours in the top
branches and I'd be a princess locked away in
a tower waiting for another princess to come
rescue me. But all the time up in that tree, I
never looked down."
Why am I so, so much more comfortable—
and frankly more fluent—writing about the
lives and the art and the words of other people
than writing about myself? Have I just had
more practice? Or does my attraction to other
lives, to relatively self-contained works of art.
have something to do with my sense that I
don't quite live in my own body, in my own
AS MUCH AS I WANT TO BE PRETTY, I WANT MORE
often—and more often get—to live in a world
of sounds and words. No wonder, then, that
I can say more about what I want, who I am
when I am a fake girl, by looking at a book of
poems that embodies that self surprisingly,
completely, a book that embarrasses me because
it records, at times, just what I want.
That book is The Haunted House, by Marisa
Crawford, in whose poems I see an almost scary
reflection of the girl that I would be, or would
have been. Even more than other recent poetry
about appearance and feminine style, about
girlhood or youth (some of it technically superior,
and of broader aesthetic interest, as I've
explained in less personal lit-crit elsewhere).
The Haunted House seems addressed to me,
about me. It's even dedicated to "all the girls,
real and make-believe," a rubric that presumably
includes the poet and some of her ftiends,
and Maggie TuUiver, and me, and Kitty Pryde.
Crawford sees some poems as ghost stories,
tales of buried selves, which Crawford imagines
that she can resurrect. These plural alternate
selves are eyelashes, are birds, are
you tugging at my eyeliner,
all the black birds lined up
on a telephone wire. Hello?
I'd like to thank the seeds,
all the seeds that turned into trees
after everyone said they'd never grow.
Crawford allows the inchoate energy of her
sentences to spill over into the energetic bodies
of the girls and the young women who float
through the poems, and it makes them disturbing
and pretty and frankly sexy, as in "What
Happened in the Pool":
I could see everything through your bathing
suit, everything. Guilt as solitary, a kickboard,
a mishap, a sky. I laid my body on
top of the water, floating. The sky is made of
Lycra. Chocolate-syrup solar eclipse, maraschino
cherry, hole in the ozone. I could
touch the bottom. I could lick the spoon.
There's something hard to defend about the
poems. It's something that's attractive because
it is awkward; something for which I feel compelled
to apologize. (I feel the same way about
dressing up as a girl.)
Crawford's poems say no to aesthetic distance.
They ask you—and me—to jump into
the pool with them, to join them up in the attic,
and not to climb out. Their performance of
girlhood seems, to them and to me, an amazed
alternative to the compromises and the logical
consequence of any well-ordered, decorous,
appropriately attired adult world. The poems
are like temporary, miniature, wilder alternatives
to that world, "like an entire tov«i underneath
the Christmas tree, if you think about
it" (which also works as a figure for poetry in
general). The poems are like Christmas-tree
miniatures, but they are also like erotic fantasies,
envisioning impossible transformations,
such as Emily Dickinson as a high school
swimmer, or myself as a woman, a girl. "She
rammed her head into my mouth, in the pool.
I hid her letters in my bra. There's a part of my
brain that's like the zipper on a sleeping bag,
a cluster of pine trees, a telephone cord," she
I can't make an argument for the aesthetic
merits of that writing. But I love it.
Whether or not your own art depicts adolescence,
whether or not it depicts (as Ovid, the
great trans poet of antiquity, put it) bodies taking
new shapes, artistic development is always
like adolescent development. We discover,
awkwardly, the powers we have and the powers
we cannot have, the shapes that our bodies
of work will eventually take.
For an artist like Crawford, neither development
has an "endpoint"; the point is what
you do now, while you're not fully formed.
(Why would I want to be fully formed?) You
get power from who you are, not from who
you will be, and power comes when you decide
not to go all the way. "Hurricane Gloria
tore out the lilacs with her fingers, snapped
my bra strap. She was a phantom, a direct descendent.
I spent Christmas upstairs, painting
candy cane stripes on my nails." I would have
done that too.
When I'm dressed informally, as I often am,
vwth girly accessories (nail polish, candy-bright
rings) and a T-shirt and jeans, and I'm walking
around outdoors, I sometimes feel that I look
wrong, I should go home and change. When
I'm fully dressed up as a girl I can feel the same
way. It's a voice in my head, a critical friend
or frenemy; sometimes it gives me helpful tips
(that green doesn't work with this blue; you
should shave again first) and sometimes it says
I should give up and look like a man.
But when I look entirely gender-appropriate,
with nothing sparkly, lacy, or violet, I hear or
feel a grinding basso continuo of inward sadness,
saying, "This doesn't quite work, and it
doesn't represent you." I can put up with that,
ignore it, for days, but it gets to me. It sets my
teeth on edge.
The truth is that I'm going to feel slightly
wrong, slightly out of alignment with my own
body, no matter what I wear or what I do. So
why not feel pretty? Why not try to like how
Drag queens and other cross-dressers who
make dressing up and acting as a girl or a woman
central to their lives take hours and hours before
they go out. They are like classical musicians,
practicing and perfecting their craff in order to
perform. I play the piano, too, but I'm an amateur:
I can play Debussy's pieces for children,
Scarlatti's sonatas, W. C. Handy's blues hits, and
other easy pieces, at home or for friends. I dress
up like that too. I could use some practice, some
technique, to expand my repertoire. I'd like to
become more expressive, and more versatile, but
I can't let either dressing up or playing the piano
become the center of my life.
But I do want more sheet music. And one
or two more pretty skirts, and maybe a gown.
I used to wonder whether I had the right, or
the obligation, to call myself trans, given how
much I am not like Boylan or Bergman. Now I
do say I am trans, when it comes up, and yet I
don't like the way that the word so often implies
transport or transition, implies that I am moving
from one gender or one life to another. I'll take
instead the "trans" in D. W. Winnicott's term
"transitional objects," by which the psychoanalyst
meant the not-quite-animate, not-quiteinanimate
things (such as stuffed animals) with
which children mediate between themselves
and everything else. Transitional objects, Winnicott
often wrote, are neither assigned exclusively
to the self, nor relegated to the outside
world; it's important that adults not ask.
Is it even possible to be who you really are,
to show your inward self? John Ashbery's great
long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"
considers our desire to look at a face or a body
and see the soul "inside"; its trigger, or subject,
is the distorted self-portrait that the painter
Parmigianino created by looking at his own
face in a mirrored ball, where
The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance
Significantly; that is, enough to make the
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely,
In suspension, unable to advance much
Than your look.
Do we have inner cores, selves that cannot
be seen? So Ashbery's poem suggests. On the
other hand, "your eyes proclaim / That everything
is surface. The surface is what's there /
And nothing can exist except what's there." If I
am a girl or a woman only when I am by myself,
unseen, then I was never a girl.
"You want something; that's the pretext," begins
Rae Armantrout's poem "Birthmark: The
Pretext," which explores the idea—associated
with Jacques Lacan—that your sense of who you
are grows from your sense of what you want,
what you lack, so that in order to keep being
the person you recognize as yourself, you have
to keep wanting something you cannot have.
I AM REVISING THIS ESSAY IN MY GREEN COTTON
dress with its grey hip-hugging sash and its
odd elastic gathering at the knees—it's a dress
designed to emphasize, or to build, hips. I think
Kitty would wear it, and I think it goes with
white tights. I'm sure that it works well with my
enhanced Maidenform bra. When I'm done,
at the end of my writing day, I will change
back into my mustard-colored shorts and my
button-down short-sleeved shirt and go home,
and enjoy the evening with my family, far more
than I would enjoy it if I spent the whole day,
or the evening, in a dress.
My sons, who are now two and six, see that
I like to wear nail polish, sparkly rings and
bracelets, and pink or violet sneakers. I wear
such things in and out of the house on most
days. They haven't, so far as I know, seen me
in a dress; at some point they will, if only in
pictures, and I intend to let them know what's
coming so they won't be too surprised. I hope
and expect that they'll see it as continuous
with other forms of dress-up, kinds of acting
and pretending, by kids and by adults: it's selfexpression,
it's a craft, it can be amateur or
professional, it should be fun.
An earlier draft of this essay provoked some
trustworthy readers to ask for more about
Jessie: her life, her psychology, her attitudes toward
my gender and my wardrobe. She knows
about all of it, we're happy together, and it's
important to me that my wardrobe not become
the center of our lives. It's also important to
me that as I write about my intimate or hardto-
acknowledge emotions, I respect Jessie's
I possess tenure now. So why don't I teach
in a dress? That's what the law professor Kenji
Yoshino (whose book Covering stands behind
a slice of this essay) would call a demand for
reverse-covering: asking that I make my gender
identity visible and unmistakable, like it or not.
("Covering" plain and simple involves a demand
that members of a minority avoid expressing
their minority status, their distinctive identities:
"Just don't flaunt it." Yoshino wants us to
recognize, and to reject, both kinds of demand.)
The truth is that I don't want to teach in
a dress, because at this point in my life, and
perhaps at all points, I'd be too distracted, and
so would my students. I'd be making it harder
for them to learn. I would be distracted by wondering
what my students were thinking, distracted
by thinking about how I look, and who
I am rather than thinking about the text I'm
teaching; distracted by wondering whether I'm
doing it right. On the other hand, I wear nail
polish to class, and I would resent a demand
that I stop.
And yet I'm unsatisfied. But who is entirely
satisfied? Who gets to be seen by others just as
she wants to see herself, as ze or he wants to
see himself or herself? And how often? And
how much work does being seen that way take,
where it's even possible? How many people
want to be seen, or wonder if they can be seen,
as thinner, taller, stronger, more delicate, more
confident, more sophisticated, more Southern,
less Southern, less exotic, more exotic, more
I want a social space in which I can wear a
skirt and tights and be seen as a woman, if not as
a girl. I want a space where I might be addressed
as "Stephanie." I don't want that space to take
over the rest of my life. I think I have several
such spaces, intermittent and Brigadoon-like as
I also want—and now I have—a life where
the people I see and know intimately see something
in me that's girly, that's not quite a man,
that aspires to femininity.
When I next teach a text, or give a reading.
where gender variation, or fabulous gender
nonconformity, are relevant to the text (so it's
not a distraction), I probably will wear a dress,
or a skirt and tights. On the other hand, I might
chicken out; I might wait for a suitable party,
that night, or next month.
I am all too aware that this essay can come
across as precious, evasive, dependent, and inconclusive:
That's how I experience my body,
too. If I cannot tell the truth about myself,
about these parts of my self, in this precious
and inconclusive and quotation-dependent
way, then I cannot tell it at all.
THIS WEEK I GOT NEW GLASSES. JESSIE HELPED ME
pick them out. Their rims are translucent, offwhite,
and go with anything. Their transition
lenses turn a violet-grey in sunlight. Their endpiece,
when it casts a shadow, makes lavender
shade. A bit of silver glitter runs in one thin
go-faster stripe from earpiece to temple.
The new specs can go with girl clothes, or
guy clothes, with formality (a blazer, a little
black dress) or extreme informality (T-shirt,
jeans), or something midway (a white buttondown
shirt, a striped blouse). They do not, I
think, look especially youthful, but neither do
they exert any formal authority. They suggest
patience, a good mood, a cat's glad reserve;
they might read as queer. They are the most
expensive thing I own, a step up from the thin
black frames I had last year, and from the ultramarine
rectangles that came before that. I do
not know, and do not want to know, whether a
stylish, well-informed observer, seeing my new
glasses without their owner, would think that
they were made for women, or for men.