It is that time of year again when all of the queer blogs are being inundated with comments and questions about how to negotiate your family’s insensitivity and deal with the resulting holiday stress when you’re a dapperQ. A few of our contributors and readers shared their own personal stories about how they’ve overcome challenges and how things have changed (or not changed) in their families over the years with respect to how their families view/broach issues around sexual orientation, gender presentation, and gender identity. Whether you’ve been dealing with the stress for a long time, or are thinking of wearing masculine clothing this holiday season for the first time, these stories are empowering and real indeed.
Susan Herr, dapperQ Founder
“Fifty two years old and I still worry about my mom. I worry about being called “sir” when I’m with her. Do I back off of my dapperest duds when I’m with her? Definitely. That said, when I go to visit, I make sure to dress very intentionally. It’s obviously menswear but it’s equally obvious that I have “put together” my outfit. She might be ashamed because of how I dress but she and anyone who sees me can be clear that I have invested time in how I look.
One thing that is important for me to remember is that that type of shame can attach to anything. It also drives her crazy when my brother comes to her housing complex with his tats showing. He may be picking her up for a doctor’s appointment or taking her for a drive, but that is what she notices. So even in the heat of Texas, when he can, he tries to wear sleeves.
I used to think that I had comport myself in a certain way because she was old and getting older. Only recently I’ve realized that I am too! I have to live the life I want to live now. In Brooklyn, I can strut my dapperQ stuff. In Texas, around my mom, not so much. We’ve argued about sexual orientation and gender presentation for decades. I know how to do estrangement, but I don’t want to any more. I want to be as close as possible in the time we have. These days I speak freely about my “wife” (a term I wouldn’t have ventured even three years ago.) I live a life beyond my wildest dreams. She knows, I know it and God knows it. Happy holidays, my dapperQ brethren…”
Joelle Zigman, Music Journalist, Nuts & Bolts Founder
“A few years ago I was preparing myself to have a talk with my mother. My family was coming into town for a big concert of mine and I, for the first time, was going to wear all men’s clothes: white dress shirt with cufflinks, black and white striped suspenders, men’s dark jeans, and loafers. The last concert my family had come into town for my mom took me shopping and pretty much picked out an outfit for me involving some kind of blouse, flats, and slim dress pants. At the time that was what I wanted — to not have to think about clothes — but this time around I had been making some very conscious decisions about how I wanted to present and what clothes made me happy. I was expecting comments about how my jeans were baggy, my shirt didn’t fit right, that kind of thing. But much to my surprise my mom didn’t say anything bad. In fact, she didn’t say anything, even though I knew she wanted to. And as it turns out, that was exactly what I needed — if she couldn’t give me support then at least she could give me space. Over time since I’ve gotten better at dressing myself in men’s clothes (those jeans really were too baggy, honestly, and that shirt really didn’t fit right) and since women wearing men’s fashion has become more and more prevalent in the media (my dad religiously reads the NYTimes and was super excited by the article featuring The Handsome Butch) my parents have started becoming more participatory when it comes to my presentation. My dad recently called me “sartorial” and my mom once said I looked “fashion-forward.” But if they can’t meet you there yet, the conversation I would recommend is asking them to adopt this policy: ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ Or the holiday gift guide version: ‘If you are not sure whether or not I will like the clothes you want to buy for me, please get me a gift card.'”
“This past Thanksgivikah was the most difficult for me in terms of navigating my queerness. I spent it with my parents and family friends whom I’d known since birth. These friends were always incredibly gay friendly. But on this visit, there was a noticeable difference in my gender presentation. I was making a clear shift from a dykey/tomboy presentation to a trans*/genderqueer one. I was binding, had a very masculine haircut, and had changed my name.
All of this brought up questions for my family friends, who are all academics and love to intellectualize anything they are processing. I don’t believe they meant any harm, but I think their curiosity got the best of them. As soon as they found the opportunity, the questions began pouring out. Why do I feel the need to dress like a man? Isn’t gender just a social construct? If we lived in a society where men wore dresses, would I wear one too?
These are all very complicated questions, and they weren’t ones that I was necessarily prepared to answer in a way that would satisfy them. I felt as though I was being asked to defend my gender identity, when all I wanted was to enjoy the holiday and be loved and accepted for who I was.
As queers, there are times when we might enjoy discussing queer theory, and times when we just want to relax. And this Thanksgivikah was not the time for me to attempt to educate a table full of cisgender academics with very limited experience around trans and genderqueer identity.
It was inappropriate for these friends to ask these questions, and I think it was more from a place of selfishnesses than from an interest in learning how to best support me. When people are faced with someone contradicting the gender binary for the first time, it can feel so off-putting that they scramble to find some sort of explanation for that person’s experience. It is not my job to educate them, and far too much pressure for one queer in the room to settle all their curiosity. After all, if I do succeed in answering one question, more will follow.
If this happens to you over the holidays, remind yourself that you don’t have to answer any questions that make you feel uncomfortable. It’s not your job. Your family might never entirely understand your identity, and that’s OKAY. You aren’t asking your aunt why she dresses the way she does and questioning her female identity, so she should pay you the same respect. If anyone bothers you, try, ‘That’s a very complicated question, and I don’t feel like getting into right now. Can I tell you about the new skateboarding trick I learned?'”