Complicating your wardrobe by getting confused about your gender identity

[Image description: A leg wearing a skirt and seafoam Converse All-Stars stands against a leg wearing trousers and black Converse All-Stars]

In my capsule wardrobes post written a couple of weeks ago, I noted how funny it was that my wardrobe is divided between masculine-of-center casual clothing and femme business clothing. I said that I'm not interested in business menswear, but I think I knew after I wrote it that it wasn't strictly true. It's more like, I'm insecure about looking good or professional in men's clothing, and I'm conflicted about my gender identity and how I would like to be perceived, and the collision of work dress codes and gender presentation brings up a big can of worms that I don't know how to deal with.

So let's try to untangle that, shall we?

My history of gender weirdness
Around when I hit puberty, I began to want badly to be a boy. I cut my hair short, wore only baggy black T-shirts and carpenter jeans, and did a sort of half-assed job of chest binding with sport bras. I diagnosed myself with gender dysphoria from my brother's DSM-III (I mean, I also diagnosed myself with ADD, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder, mainly due to normal teenager behavior, so I'm not sure how much stock to put in that.) I got a few friends to use a male name and pronouns for me, but I didn't tell my parents or teachers. I was shy and found it difficult to ask for what I saw as special attention from adults.

All signs pointed to me growing up trans, but the weird thing is that around when I was about 16, the feelings ebbed. I never strongly identified with being a girl, but I no longer had that intense yearning or body hatred. I was dating and I wanted my girlfriends and boyfriends to be attracted to me, and I believed (and still do) that I looked more attractive to people in clothes that accentuated my curves, rather than hiding them. I wouldn't say that a girly gender presentation ever felt "right," but it didn't feel especially "wrong." It was so much easier to go with the flow of being seen and treated as a girl.

Since then I've cycled back and forth pretty regularly when it comes to my fashion sense and general Look, though I have never identified as male as clearly as I did at 14.

Sidebar 1: Internal identity vs. external perception
Your internal sense of your gender is generally only noticeable when it's at odds with the way other people see you. That's why trans people are able to articulate it clearly, but cis people sometimes claim they don't care what gender they are. The fact that it's "right" allows it to be invisible to them, kind of like how white people think it would be easy to be black because they don't notice race in their everyday lives.

In Whipping Girl, Julia Serano poses a thought experiment:

I do believe that it is possible for cissexuals to catch a glimpse of their subconscious sex. When I do presentations on trans issues, I try to accomplish this by asking the audience a question: “If I offered you ten million dollars under the condition that you live as the other sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?” While there is often some wiseass in the audience who will say “Yes,” the vast majority of people shake their heads to indicate “No.”

Personally, I would be the person saying "yes" and it's not me being a wiseass. I'd do it for free - but, crucially, I wouldn't pay to do it, or at least I haven't so far.

Occam's razor would suggest that if I don't notice my gender identity most of the time, it is probably because it is aligned with my birth sex. But maybe I am that weird person who has a weak gender identity.  

Sidebar 2: Male vs. butch
Certainly, there are women who dress in a masculine-of-center way and still identify internally as women. Butch women aren't men. There are also men who dress feminine-of-center identify as men. There are men who were assigned female at birth and wear women's clothes and like it and are still men. Life, as Mallory Ortberg says, is a rich tapestry. You can't tell someone's gender identity by the clothes they wear, and clothes are not the end-all be-all of gender expression.

But, when it comes to analyzing myself, I use clothes as a crutch. I look at what I wore at any given time, and I use that as a reflection of how I was feeling at that time. I typically translate men's/androgynous clothes = male-ish gender identity because that is the way it feels to me. Even though I dress like a butch woman, look like a butch woman, quack like a butch woman, I've never truly felt like a butch woman; I mean, I'm definitely not femme, but I don't really feel like any kind of a woman.

Some unsorted facts about my wardrobe and why I dress the way I do
  • I feel more "me" in casual, androgynous clothes like T-shirts and jeans.
  • If the Job Fairy told me that I never needed to work in an office again (I could work from home or retire early or whatever), I would immediately give away all my feminine clothes.
  • I don't hate wearing feminine clothes. It doesn't make me feel agonized or dysphoric. I do occasionally look in the mirror and feel like I am looking at someone else, but it's not a bad feeling. More continual surprise: "oh, that's me?"
  • It's not necessary for me to wear skirts/dresses in the office. There are women who do not.
  • I'm curvy and look more clean and put together in clothes that are tailored in a way that accounts for boobs and hips. I can look schlumpy in men's clothes. I worry that that makes me look unprofessional.
  • I associate the way I look in business masculine clothes (khakis, belts, button downs, ties, etc.) with an unattractive, unsatisfying, sexless, internalized gender-nonbinary-phobic stereotype: more "It's Pat!" than David Bowie.
  • Skirts are more practical than pants for hot weather.
  • I continue to feel embarrassed about asking for "special treatment," like being referred to by male or gender-neutral name and pronouns, when gender isn't a huge problem for me in my daily life, and especially when I continue to "confuse people" / "not earn it" / "not uphold my side of the bargain" by failing to dress/present/behave consistently masculine. (For the record, I would not apply the same "you must be this manly to earn a 'he'" standards to anyone else that I do to myself.)
  • I worry that I will be seen as childish if I publicly experiment with gender presentation and fail to provide consistent, confident messaging around who I am and what I want.
  • The times when I have had the highest self-esteem in my life correspond with times I have dressed more masculine more consistently.

Figs 1 and 2: 1999 and 2010. I am the coolest.

The reality that sometimes it's too complicated to explain to other people
Okay, so what if my identity is "pansexual androgynous male who crossdresses frequently and has a biologically female body and doesn't usually mind"? That doesn't mean anything to people. That's silly. I can't ask people to honor that. This is the kind of special snowflake, can't-possibly-be-true assertion that makes people laugh you back to Smith College where you belong. I mean, really.

Just say "female." At least, that's what I've done so far in my life.

I'm in a weird position that very few people have the luxury of being in, of making an extremely pragmatic decision of whether to go ahead with any kind of transition. Of course, it's easier not to. There's also the concern that if I elevate all the junk I mentioned above, if I round it up to "trans enough!", if I make any demands or ask for any kind of acknowledgement of my Special Gender Issues from other people, I am hurting the cause of people who feel genuine, intense dysphoria on a daily basis. They need medical treatment and social support; I don't. I'm going to be fine. This is minor optimization for me, so what right do I have to inconvenience other people?

My spouse, the Frugal Croissant, is exasperated with me. "What pronouns do you want, though? It's not an inconvenience for me, and you don't have to worry about 'earning it', whatever that means. Just, what do you want?"

I don't know. Because the default "she" has never felt ideal, but isn't so non-ideal that it really bothers me. "He" seems like a real big ask from someone who's worn dresses 4 times in the last week. "They" is probably the most logical option, but it feels so awkward in my mouth, how can I really champion and defend it to other people?

But maybe I'm making too much of what I think other people want or would be bothered by. Maybe I need to get over myself and learn to be okay with making unreasonable demands on people. Like a man.

Reality check: gender fluidity is neither frugal nor minimalist
Every time my internal guy-feeling bubbles up, I donate my dresses and get more Wranglers and lumberjack shirts, and every time it ebbs I toss those and get skirt suits and fashion scarves because it's "time to grow up" and "dress like an adult" and that apparently means dressing in line with what looks good/normal/professional on my body. Really, I should keep everything, because the cycle is going to come around again, and I should know that by now. I KonMari completely different things depending on where I am in my gender butterfly lifecycle.

All this is to explain why I spent so much on pants just now.


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