It was my good friend Danna James who really starting educating me about trans issues, and his feedback and support has been pivotal to dapperQ. When we talked earlier this week about dapperQ’s asking for advice on wedding attire, Danna agreed to share the experience he has gleaned over a couple of decades. While Danna (pictured right) doesn’t offer advice about where to get your wingtips, he does provide a strong framework for thinking about options that may be helpful no matter how you identify. His stories also further illustrate the cost of expectations inflicted upon us from the earliest ages by folks who are supposed to love us…
In the winter of 1991, my sister got married. A year or so before the wedding, she asked me if I would grow my hair shoulder length for the occasion. At the time, I was twenty years old and just beginning to come to terms with owning a transgender identity, but the dynamics of my gender difference had been playing out in family life since my earliest memories. Stuffed into dresses for Synagogue and fighting all the way (or hiding so as to avoid the usual fight). Every week, the same thing, every week losing the battle. Fighting with my mother about what to wear to school (sometimes I won that one). By my early teens, my mother following me around inside and out, mimicking the way that I walked, telling me I would never be loved, and trying to train me to walk in a more feminine fashion (she even tried to convince me the way I walked was causing me health problems). Life until college = my mother constantly at me about my gender presentation (among other things) and my sister, sorely neglected and a forced witness to the constant battle.
So by the time my sister’s wedding came around, the issue of my gender presentation was certainly not coming to light for the first time. When my sister asked me to grow my hair for the occasion, I felt that it was asking too much (growing my hair felt too personal, changing something that was literally part of me, and over a prolonged period of time). I told her I would not grow my hair, but that I would wear the green taffeta bridesmaid dress (I thought that was a pretty generous offering.) She told me she didn’t want people “pointing at you and laughing while I’m walking down the aisle.” It occurred to me at the time, that the people at her wedding would probably be too busy doting on her and her husband to notice me or care. But the issue, of course, was complicated, and was about much more than hair. B y that point in our lives, she wasn’t probably feeling very rational. I imagine, in the end, (though I’ve never been able to confirm this) my sister just wanted me to slide into the background for once so she could spend this very important occasion with me and my mother, without having to give up my mother’s attention.
I wound up foregoing the role of bridesmaid because my sister didn’t want me to attract attention to myself. When I was released from bridesmaidhood, I bought a grey silk suit in NY that I was super excited about. My mother did not want me to wear it, and in our final compromise, I wore a skirt and sweater of my mother’s and flat shoes. I made a drag queen about as convincing as Patrick Swayze (sorry P.S., wherever you are) in To Wong Foo. Or, to put it more succinctly, I looked like crap. But I wore lady clothes, and felt like I was doing my part to be accommodating, which felt good, except my mother still spent the entire day of my sister’s wedding chasing me around telling me what a horrible person I was and how uncomfortable I made everyone around me because of the way that I looked and acted. When she wasn’t chasing me around the hotel (where I was intermittently having very lovely visits with many cousins and family friends who didn’t seem to mind or question my appearance) she was hiding in the hotel room she’d rented and bemoaning her fate (me.) So basically, by not managing to be feminine enough, even though I made what I thought was a reasonable compromise, I ruined my sister’s wedding.
In 2007, a close friend of my sister’s named Mindy was getting married (I helped put together the invitations and stuff envelopes). A few weeks before the wedding, Mindy sent me an email saying I could come under the condition that I wore female clothing. Not a dress, but something that looked feminine. I sent her a nice note saying that I hoped the wedding was lovely, that I would be thinking about her, but I would not be able to attend under those conditions. Unfortunately I made the decision to visit during the wedding weekend so I could spend time with my nieces. It was the last time I would see them (though perhaps some day they will come into my life again).
On the morning of the wedding, my mother said she wanted me to go and begged me to wear one of her pants suits. I told her that I would look like a dude in her suit and feel uncomfortable to boot, and that in the end, it wasn’t going to work out. But after enough pleading on my mother’s part to at least try the suit on, I caved. As I was standing there in my mother’s pants suit, humiliated, being assessed by my mother to see if I reached “femininity quotient” and could be brought along to the wedding, my sister came into the room. My sister has barely spoken to me or looked at me since her wedding in 1991, except to make occasional cutting remarks. “Do you think it looks okay?” my mother asked her, it meaning me, or I suppose, my mother’s suit on me. “You don’t want to know what I think,” my sister said. But then she let loose and started telling me what she thought in no uncertain terms: that I was a mean and selfish person for looking the way I did. I lost my temper and began screaming at her. I won’t go into the gory details of the fight, but we haven’t been in contact since, and the one time I had the opportunity to see my nieces afterward – they were at my parents house and I was coming through town briefly – Mindy “rescued” them before I arrived.
Looking at these experiences, I realized that often people who are caught up in the way we look have unrealistic expectations of what clothing will do for us, what kind of transformation can occur, and how our “normal” appearance will benefit them. In both situations, my sister’s wedding and Mindy’s, I moved toward compromise, and both ended in disaster.
I honestly believe, had I gone as myself to either of these weddings, no one outside of my mother and sister would have bothered about it. It’s kind of like when a kid falls and scrapes his knee. If everyone panics, the kid panics and cries. If you don’t make a big deal of it, often he just gets up, brushes himself off, and goes on his merry way. Scratches and scrapes are part of living. Had I gone to the wedding in something other than a gladiator outfit, would people have really paid much attention? Probably not. Maybe they would wonder about me for a moment and then move on. It was, after all, a wedding. People had plenty to celebrate, right? And had I found a way to conform to gender norms, would it really have brought my sister, my mother or Mindy true happiness? I somehow doubt it. Do we really have the power to ruin people’s lives with our gender? My guess is that if someone thinks we’re making them miserable, they were miserable to begin with.
So I think it makes sense if you are trying to make a decision about going to a wedding, to consider your capacity for flexibility and also get to the bottom of what someone wants – and really think about whether you can deliver before making yourself outrageously uncomfortable. Also, it’s good to consider the emotional cost of each of your options. Are you going to have a nervous break down after an hour in a dress (I would)? Or would it just kind of suck, but be worth it. If you wear what your relatives/friends want, will that be enough for them, or will it just highlight all of the ways you don’t meet their expectations of you (and therefore, cause greater strife)? Are they willing to compromise in any way, or do they insist you wear taffeta and pumps? If the latter, maybe the wedding, perhaps even the relationship, just isn’t worth it.
Which leads me to a breakdown of some of the things that might be going on when someone close you is getting married and asks you to dress and behave in a way that is antithetical to your gender identity:
- Someone wants to be the center of attention and worries your queerness is going to undermine that.
- Someone wants you, as a wedding gift to them, to be someone they wish you were.
- Someone thinks many problems (i.e. family issues) would be solved if you could change yourself and behave, look, and act “appropriately.”
- Someone thinks that if you dress a certain way, you will no longer appear queer, and therefore not draw attention to yourself.
- Someone thinks that it would be easy for you to change who and what you are and look like, that your queerness is an act of rebellion, perhaps even that you are queer to get revenge on them.
- Someone takes your queerness personally.
- Someone loves you, accepts you, but fears your visible queerness might unleash great drama in such a gathering and it is their wedding, and they want it to go off without a hitch.
- Someone has seen you in feminine clothing before, perhaps even passing, in their book, as acceptably female, and doesn’t understand why things can’t just go back to the way they were. (I think it might be impossible for some people to understand the pitch of suffering some of us experience when forced to conform to a gender identity that we don’t own.)
If someone loves you, and it’s super important to them that you come to their wedding, they might find ways to compromise:
- Have a wedding that is not intensely formal so you can wear something that takes a middle ground.
- Enlist other people at the wedding to dress similarly to you (i.e. if you are wearing a pants suit, perhaps a few women could wear pants) so that you do not stand out (got this “A Great DapperQ Mothers Day Story”!)
- Understand that being a bridesmaid might not be in the cards, that bachelorette party might be super uncomfortable, offer you alternative ways of being supportive.
- Be super appreciative if you wear something more lady like and understand in advance that just because you’re wearing the clothes doesn’t mean you’re gonna look the part.
To end on a positive note, in between these two disastrous weddings, my cousin Jon had a black tie wedding and his family told me I was welcome to wear a tux. On the night of the wedding my father and I were standing side by side in the mirror making sure we were well put together and I said to him, “my bow tie is ridiculous. Yours is so much better.” He took his off and gave it to me and for the rest of the night, I wore his and he wore mine. It was a beautiful wedding and I had wonderful visits with so many cousins who I hadn’t seen in ages.