Posted by Orlando
It's ten minutes before the taxi leaves. My guest room is a mess of unfamiliarity. A figure-hugging red dress with a plunging neckline. Leather high heels I've never worn before. Accessories I don't know how to use - gel inserts for my shoes, 'tit tape' to keep my dress straight. My face, tear-streaked and puffy in the mirror, bare of make-up with bushy eyebrows that haven't seen tweezers in years - and even less acceptable, the pelt of dark hair on my legs and under my arms. "I can't do this," I sob down the phone at a friend. "They'll know I'm a fake."
"So you're a fake? Be a drag queen. Femme fatale from a film noir. Femininity as artifice. Calculated masquerade. Ice queen." My friend rattles off the words she knows help make sense of this.
I am heading out to a very formal party, and I am learning - once again - that gendered dress codes are really fucking difficult.
By strange serendipity, I am somebody's +1 at a black tie affair where I am one of about five people under forty years old. It's a very grand affair, and I am paralysed with terror. When I was invited, my friend hoped that I'd bring a bit of queerness to the night - indeed, with the express hope that I'd bind my chest, wear a suit, and be a Teachable Moment for the strait-laced majority. After all, I'm a trans feminist activist, and it might just smooth the path of another person who is considering coming out as queer to this lot. I was, very briefly, enthusiastic about this plan. And then it hit me how very draining it would be - how stressful - how terrifying, to be brought in as a mouthpiece, with the expectation that I spend the evening fielding questions about my gender in a polite and respectful way. I don't "pass" as male - I barely pass as butch. And while my wardrobe contains several rough approximations of masculine formal wear, any sort of rigorous examination would show that it's grace à Oxfam rather than Savile Row. Right then, I decided: this time I'll play it safe and go formal femme. Take advantage of my 'feminine' figure and play at being Jessica Rabbit. Right? Right.
As my rather dramatic introduction shows, that wasn't such a safe option after all. When I saw my host's female relatives getting ready, I began to panic. These were 16- or 17-year-olds with expertly applied make-up, coiffured hair, fashionable silky dresses, little handbags (oh god I forgot to bring a handbag) that probably cost more than my entire ensemble... and here I was in a dress I bought on sale, heels I had no idea how to walk in, and a bone-deep aversion to makeup, perfume, and removing any of my body hair. “What on earth,” I railed at the mirror, “made me think I could pass as female!?”
I’m transgender. I was raised and socialised as female; my body and face tend to be “read” as female; I experience myself as male, female, neither, both, and in-between. I use words like “non-binary”, “genderqueer”, and “genderfluid” to describe myself. That last one has become an increasingly key term for me as I navigate the landscape of the trans community. A lot of genderqueer people have a stable gender identity - just one that isn’t adequately expressed by the terms “male” or “female”. For me... not so much. And it’s not just about sometimes wanting to wear dresses and sometimes wanting to wear suits - it’s about my entire sense of what my body is, what my body should be. Sometimes I feel perfect how I am, all waist and hips and undulating curves: and sometimes, this is exactly wrong. It’s one reason why I can’t imagine medically transitioning - I’d be moving from one body that is right some of the time, to a different body is that is right some of the time. You can move the hands on a stopped clock to a different position but it’s still only right twice a day.
If I’m going out into the world presenting as “male”, or as “female”, most of the time it feels like I’m putting on a show. Neither is ever going to be entirely right for me. And what’s worse is that I feel like I pass as neither - I don’t “do” femininity or masculinity correctly, and trying and failing is its own peculiar sort of anguish. I have long hair, an hourglass figure, and small features; I’ve been told that the only way I’ll pass as male is if I’m trying to look like a 13-year-old metalhead. One sunny afternoon in Oxford I think I managed it, with a binder, shirt, and tie - or more likely, the people I was talking to were just too polite to query the unquestionably male name I gave them as mine. But surely, then, I “pass” as female? How could I have thought there would be a problem at this black tie party with which I started this post?
Don’t get me wrong - I‘m gendered female by people 99.9999% of the time. But that’s only an accident of physiology. Most of the time, I wear clothing I consider to be gender-neutral (plus bras, because damn it, I am seriously endowed and I refuse to deal regularly with the amount of back pain that a binder causes). I have never cultivated “feminine” skills or mannerisms (doing my nails/hair/makeup, wearing heels, using handbags instead of clothes with big pockets, walking with a wiggle...). And that’s fine, because I’m living within my comfort zone. As soon as I put on the costume of femininity - and it really does feel like a costume - things that were previously “comfortably Orlando-ish” become “inadequately feminine”. My armpit hair goes from being friendly useful fluff to something that ruins a sleeveless outfit. My lack of makeup is no longer freedom from feeling like my face is covered in paint, but a shameful failure to present myself properly. And so on, and so on, and so on...
I’m not going to deny it, there was also a class element to my anxiety about this particular party. I’m the first to admit I have class privilege: I’m a grammar-school kid with an accent that (while it isn’t cut-glass vowels all the way) definitely wouldn’t damage my chances in an interview. But I was terrified of this lot, with their money, and their private schools, and their horses... I was afraid they’d see my dress was bought on sale, my shoes were borrowed, my scarf was a cheap little thing from Tesco, my fascinator came from a market stall, my necklace bought off the internet. I was afraid, in short, of being seen through - of my fakeness being exposed.
And that’s how I feel about gender. That’s how I feel when I go out there in a ballgown, or a suit - when I’m taking on a stable, binary gender and trying to make like it’s been mine all along. (And that’s why I really fucking wish that formal wear had a gender-neutral option).
Of course, if this anxiety about appearing as gendered were confined purely to black tie soirées, I’d be one lucky individual. But it’s becoming increasingly relevant to my life, as I cease to be a research-grant-funded student and embark upon the choppy waters of the job market beyond my queer academic bubble.
So. I’m read as a cis woman, and I’m read as middle class, because of things which I can’t entirely control - my body shape, my accent. If I want a ‘professional’ job, these are both things which I feel like I’ll need to play up. Fitted white shirts, pencil skirts, heels - all the uniform of the modern day businesswoman. And every day when I try to head off to work, it’ll be exactly like before that damn party - freaking out because I can’t do that drag well enough. (I actually ended up enjoying said party a lot, and even managed to wreak some minor ideological havoc just by being gently feminist in conversation. But god, it was a relief to take that dress off..)
I currently have a stopgap job without a dress code and where the people know me already. I can wear my standard casual clothes and don’t need to worry about presenting myself as another gender. But if I want to get another job, one that’s actually interesting, or relevant to a future career? I need to insert myself into a gender somehow. Working as male seems pretty out of the question: no legal change, no testosterone, and no ability to “pass” as a gender I’ve never lived as. At least I already have the outfits if I want to work as female. But I don’t know if I can face the dysphoria-inducing office dress-codes, the social gender divide, the constant barrage of female-pronouns, the blank incomprehension if I try to explain how I actually experience my gender. And I sure as hell don’t think I can face being out as a non-binary by default and being an enforced Teachable Moment at an office, any more than I could have faced it at a party full of rich conservatives.
When I send out applications, should I do it as “Mx Orlando” or “Ms Angelica?”* Do I put my trans activism on my CV? Hell, do I put Lashings on my CV? As someone who endeavours to be out as trans in their personal life (and requests correct pronouns from everyone), how can I negotiate this in the world of work? I’m afraid these questions aren’t rhetorical - I have no idea how to negotiate this, and the only answers I can come up with are short term (stay in your stopgap job!), very long term (build a better society that I can comfortably live and work in!), or woefully inadequate (stay in the gender-closet forever!). I’m currently working with the first two; I’d love to know what other genderqueer people out there are doing.
*Not my actual name.