And then the lady frog says, “I have to change.” And then the dude frog says, “No, don’t change.” But she changes anyway.
I used to wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup to work and I was garish and stylish at once. Construction workers would whistle from my office building’s rooftop as I approached, until I approached near enough for them to glance my stubble or my arm hair or my Adam’s apple. Their attraction, confronted with an object they could not possess – a body they could not penetrate with cheap words – an entity of unknown dimensions – a frightening specter of gods they forgot but could not kill – transformed into feigned revulsion. I don’t believe they didn’t want my body. I believe they couldn’t believe they wanted my body. I wore skirts and dresses and heels and makeup to work and on the bus to work and school children, office workers, students glanced and gawked until weeks passed and my divergence merged into the visual routine of their workweek. I wore skirts and dresses and heels and makeup to the grocery store where fish mongers and stock boys heckled me, pointed and whispered as I sorted through mangoes. “Fuck off,” I’d tell them. I’d tell them that if they didn’t stop, I’d dismember them. I got that ‘this bitch is batshit’ look in my eye, which came from my batshit mind, and they went back to their work.
Friends liked how I dressed for a Jelly Belly assortment of reasons. Some genuinely appreciated the fit of my slinky tunics juxtaposed with oversized jewelry and wide-brimmed hat, the exaggerated fictional shapes the fabrics lent to my silhouette. Their appreciation tasted like lime: intentional, careful, balanced and metered. Others felt tickled by my crass collision with the gender binary because the disaster of me hinted at their own drives. I was a possibility. Coconut: charming when fleeting, inhaleable like damp air, overwhelming if left to linger. Some gleefully looked on as my wide shoulders slammed the ever-present pillars of this shit society, but they were there to see the bruises left behind in my flesh, to laugh at the comedy of my existence with laughs I do not know. The joke is often lost on me. When I laugh at it, I laugh like Ursula as she rises out of the sea to drown Ariel and that dude. Eyes so wide they create empty space, a vacuum behind them that draws in. I laugh like I am Lilith leaving the garden, having proven God powerless against the will of a woman who doesn’t desire him. I laugh like my lungs move worlds, like my voice creates waves that mangle dimensions. Don’t worry. I’ve got my jokes.
You cannot blame one straw for breaking a camel’s back. There are fissures, stresses, points where bone is giving way long before a break is acknowledged. Every straw on the camel is responsible. Every straw contributes.
I broke over a few years. Eventually the dresses and skirts were given away, in spurts and piecemeal concessions. Heels were relegated to performances or moments hidden behind glass block. I felt my choices were simple: die or take off the dress. I rebelled at times. Tunics with shorts. Mascara and scarves. I growled back at the monster in someone else’s closet when it was safe to do so, under the auspices of a party or a drag show or faggoted excess.
A few years later, I began trying to repair the damage. I wore skirts and dresses and heels and makeup to class. My legs crossed in cold, molded plastic chairs as a 50-something man lectured about who knows what. When he looked at me, he looked amused. He was hearing that joke I don’t usually get. One lecturer – who will never be tenure stream – told the class that we could think of the binary language of computers like we think of gender. There are men, there are women. That’s it. He looked at me, my expensively cheap earring gleaming in fluorescent light as if to say, “You don’t deserve me, but I can’t help but be beautiful.” I wore skirts and dresses and heels and makeup to class and the people who gave me grief were all white, so go apply that to your idea of white, urban liberals in a university environment. A 60 year-old Nigerian instructor complimented my evergreen and gold jumpsuit and waist belt. My Jamaican advisor joked that she couldn’t keep up with my fashion selections and shared stories of earrings turned into broaches at last-minute engagements.
I want to wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup but I have trouble giving myself permission to be vulnerable in that way. Cotton candy, its cloying scent – which I understand to mean ‘clawing, pulling, ensnaring against my fury cries’ – fills each business and street and bike path in this city and rots away some internal bit, some courage-releasing gland. I want to wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup but there is a certain loneliness that comes with that garb. You might be in the room with me, but I’ve been taught that my skirt and dress and heels and makeup make me alone. When I’m taunted, I’m the singular target. When I’m harassed or followed, I’m the singular target. When I fear for my life – or even just my ability to smile – because I chose one open tube of fabric rather than two open tubes of fabric to clothe me, I am the singular target. No well-meaning friends are there. No champions of my difference. In a world replete with people standing up for trans rights and wrongs, I stand alone in a grocery store, mocked by mothers, frat boys, business men, some child with jelly beans stuck in their hair. I want to tell you that some cosmic presence, some ancestral aura is with me in that moment. I want to believe that for myself. But I’ve never felt such a companion. Only loneliness. I keep going out of stubbornness, not out of a belief that anyone has my back or is on my side. I am stubborn because stubbornness keeps poor people alive. If Clinton-era welfare cuts didn’t kill me as a child, then I won’t die of transphobia as an adult.
I’ve tried and given up in successive cycles and now I am ready to try again. I want to wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup, and so I will. Not because I feel safe now, or feel less alone, or feel that others will keep me safe. I will wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup because I am tired of wearing the desperate sadness of safety. I will wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup because onlooking “good people” still taunt me and gawk at me, even in pants and a t-shirt. I am no safer when I deny myself pleasure. I still feel alone when I deny myself pleasure. I still feel targeted, seen. There is no invisibility possible for me, as far as gender is concerned, because the people who hate me for my glory, for my splendor, for the breath that scrapes across the flesh sacs in my chest and then falls back out between my teeth, those people spend their lives seeking me out. They’re obsessed. They’ll find me in pants or a skirt, plain-faced or painted.
I’ve taken some time to think since I started writing this. I know now that I’ve got to settle into the loneliness, not because I am somehow factually or spiritually alone, but because solitude and loneliness can generate power. I used to go by the name “Lilith.” I loved the myths of Lilith, from the ancient to the reconstructed, because Lilith ignored God’s disgusting purpose for her and went her own way. Lilith knew that it’s better to be derided than to be bound by someone else’s vision of you. I want to wear skirts and dresses and heels and makeup and I will. And I will try to remember that power can come in those lonely moments. Just by stepping out of the house as me, and not as some broken carrier of sorrow, I generate a kind of power. Just by waking up and refusing to die I generate a kind of power. And even if I am alone while a retired New Jersey banker in cowboy boots strains his irony muscles to laugh at the incongruities of who I am in this world,
all I need in those moments is me.