When I was little, beneath the age of ten, I spent a lot of time with my cousins. Back then our numbers totalled at six; three boys and three girls, all of which sat in the same age category, give or a take a couple of years. The two I spent most of my time with were my both female – sisters – and I can say with absolute honesty that I never felt safer than I did when I was with them. We’d whittle away our summer days under the watchful eye of grandmother; trailing sand and damp, sea-stained towels in and out of her home intermittently. By the time she’d finished cleaning up after our first invasion, we’d return again demanding to be fed, her Labrador ‘Fred’ bounding behind us with half the contents of the beach in tow. Throughout the day I’d always look at my (girl) cousin, who was the same age as me, with a sort of longing. Not one born of sexual urges or anything sinister, but more in a jealous way. How long her dark brown hair was; how feminine she could be. I was hypnotised by her mannerisms and the way she moved. I spent what must have been hours, as a kid, looking at her, marvelling at her pony tail, petite figure and unapologetic femininity. Every time I saw her it always left me feeling less than content with my own being; she was secure inside her skin, and sometimes I felt I didn’t fit inside mine. The thing that got to me most though were her clothes: pastel coloured tops, girly-shorts; cute sandals and adorable skirts. It got to me because, on some level, I wanted to wear them; I wanted to dress like a girl too.
My cousin got to wear cute dungarees and dawned crop tops that showed off her midsection. She was allowed to be boisterous and embodied an energy that would commonly be found in little boys. Yet still she got to dress like a girl, she looked like a girl, she was a girl. I didn’t embody many of the traits a young boy should, especially by comparison to my male cousins. When I acted feminine, by letting them put make-up on me, or paint my nails in secret, I was admonished. I once asked if I could wear a crop top like my cousin and I was sternly told no, boys don’t act like that or dress like that – and like any thirst that goes unquenched, the longing stayed. As I gained some traction as to what my urges and mannerisms meant, I began to realise that I’d need to keep them to myself. Having already aroused suspicion by outright asking to wear girls’ clothing, I decided to bury the want deep down. I maintained the illusion of being a happy little boy, content with toy guns and action figures, until one day the urge resurfaced at age ten. My parents popped out to the shop and I was left babysitting my younger sister. Clandestine opportunities like this were seldom seen, so I leaped on this temporary freedom. I raided my sister’s wardrobe with the glee of a child that had been locked inside a toy store. Unsupervised I tore a red full length summer top off the hanger; it was too big for my sister, but met my requirements perfectly. She sat playing with her toys, oblivious, and I retreated into my bedroom, about to slate this urge that had been rattling around for a couple of years. I whipped the top over my head, and it sat perfectly above my midsection: A foreign sense of comfort clothed me; I had never felt more like myself. I walked out into the corridor, strutting back and forth passed the mirror. My stomach bare and reeling; I wasn’t sure if I had been ruined or awoken.
As a child, you’re not taught how androgynous fashion can be, especially where I grew up – a small town that mirrored attitudes that were a good few decades out of date. I knew that if I wanted to indulge this urge I’d need to do so with the utmost stealth. I was a boy gripped with fear and fascination at who he was, who he could be, and who he was expected to be. Sadly, I got no closer to enlightenment. There are three things that refuse to evolve: Blockbuster, the Church and my home town. I pretended to be a cool kid, a normal boy. And for the next few years I played a character, making sure I explicitly stated the message my role was trying to say. My summer activities shifted from beach trips with my cousins, to football games with the boys in my class. I fulfilled the role the town asked, whilst still protecting the sacred place inside me that knew I wanted more; I deserved to be me. Different. Better. But that’s not how it works, and this facade continued until high school when I came out. I’d like to say I wholeheartedly embraced my screaming homosexuality, but alas it is never that simple. I wanted so badly to unleash this girly need inside me. I tried to explain this to a guidance teacher who, after noticing how bad the bullying got, needed to intervene. I sat in his office and told him all my secrets. I told him I didn’t want a vagina, or breasts, or to wear dresses every day; I just liked the clothes girls wore more than the ones I was expected to wear. He spoke to me a way that suggested he had the wisdom of a thousand fortune cookies. I was young, insecure, naive, so I took his word as gospel. I felt weird, dirty almost, for having these urges. This meeting lead to me bottling up parts of personality that could cause disruption to my life. I was at the age where I should have been exploring my sexuality and my gender; instead my inner adventurer shrunk away, terrified of what this exploration could dig up. I spent the next decade subconsciously hating aspects of myself that were inherently feminine. I never denied my sexuality, but having to close myself off from it formed this deep-rooted self-hatred that I still battle with now.
Age 16 and I am at a friend’s party. Parental supervision is null and because of this anything goes. A few bad choices and broken ornaments later, some of us retreat to the host’s bedroom. I wasn’t very popular in school; I had friends but none of them really attended these parties. I knew the people I was with in the room, enough to merit a degree of trust, but in hindsight the events that followed could have been avoided if it wasn’t for my naivety (and tequila; it’s always somehow tequila’s fault.) A game of truth or dare broke out. Before I knew it, I was spilling my drink and sexuality across the floor, baring all to a bunch of gossip thieves who were biding their time and collecting ammunition. My turn came about and I wound up being dared to dress entirely in my friend’s clothes – I did so without hesitation. I stripped off and put on a pair of ripped tights, torn denim short-shorts, a black Nirvana cropped top and a pair of her flat bubble gum pink Converse: I was living my feminine fantasy; midsection out flaunting my skinny-pack and sharp hip bones. I was unashamed, unabolished but also unaware that I was being filmed and mocked. Tales of my cross-dressing antics raged like a forest fire through the school. Luckily for me camera phones were still fairly shit quality at this stage, half the time the pictures were a cross between a blurry smudge and a game of Tetris, so implications that it was me in the video and photos were subject to a debate, right down the very last large pixel. That didn’t really extinguish the mocking though; I was as close to a mess as my small town would allow, so the taunting continued for a year or so. I hung up my crop top and buried deep in the closet.
Growing into myself involved a lot more than simply accepting my sexuality and the quirky urges that came with it. The mocking chants of “Topher is girl” severely blinded me to the fact that I wasn’t doing anything wrong by indulging my feminine side. Events like Pride unnerved me; feminine guys irked me. A dude in girls’ clothing was just, like, totally not needed, man. Unbeknown to me at the time I had unwittingly adopted the mentality of my oppressors; it’s funny how the hate of others can make you hate yourself. You can be the strongest person but still carry the aftermath of bullying around with you, even years after it subsides. That’s what I did; I let it worm its way into my subconscious, planting little seeds that grew and made me hate everything I wanted to be. I projected this upon others, I said mean things, I wrote meaner things still; and every time I was given a judgemental glance for being ‘too gay’ I felt like a kid in trouble being lead back to his room.
Finally, after a couple failed attempts at leaving, I got out of that town. I began to grow into someone that resembles who I’m meant to be. I sit with my friend, I tell him all the above; I tell him I like having my eyebrows done, I like wearing makeup on nights out and I sometimes really want to wear clothes that make me look feminine. He barely bats an eyelid. I begin to shrink down into my hoodie thinking I am about to be victim to the same judgement and hate I inflicted upon others, after years of others inflicting it upon me. I pick away at my sandwich, waiting, but the judgement never comes. Instead he tells me there’s nothing wrong with that, and only remarks that it’s perhaps a little bit too cold outside to wear those denim shorts I was showing him five minutes ago. I want to wear this newfound approval publicly, but to avoid contradicting myself I decide against it. I know, as much as I’ve ever known anything, that doing something so bold is still out of my comfort zone. Even though I go to gay clubs and (now) have gay friends, I know there is still judgement. Part of my problem is I am obnoxiously self-aware, irritatingly perceptive and ridiculously self-conscious. Because of this I’m all too mindful that people still make assumptions about someone based on their appearance. The amount of times I’ve been ‘told’ I’m a bottom purely because I have feminine mannerisms, or because I wear tight clothing is ridiculous. There’s a shame culture hidden within our society, within the LGBT one too. It’s one that does belittle and look down on ‘overly’ feminine guys. It’s a sad affair, and it’s one that leaves my masculinity in question every time I indulge my girly side. I feel that I need to over compensate. If I let anything feminine shine through, I need to butch up in other ways – it’s as though I am trying to balance my gender in the middle of wobbling seesaw. I know I am a guy. I like being a guy (as much as anyone likes being a guy.) I don’t want to be a girl and I don’t feel that I am transgender. I am simply very intrigued by femininity, mine in particular.
I’m home visiting for a funeral. I sit across the table from my dad and his partner. I tell him that I am a very different person now. I talk about my gaggle of gay friends; I try to tell him that I no longer have too ‘tone’ myself down, that I can be as effeminate as I like. His face turns stormy. He says to me very matter-of-factly, “That’s not you though, that’s an act.” I look at him blankly, with discomfort or confusion or both. I’m speechless. He’s not being mean, or homophobic I conclude; he just doesn’t know who I really am. And how could he? I hid it from him, from myself, from everyone, for years. The next day I leave at 10am. As the bus snakes its way through the narrow, winding streets, I see my memories clearly. The bus drives by the memory of that curious little boy playing on the beach, dipping his toes in the water and looking at his cousins in wonderment; I wave as I pass the ghost of the scared teenager who hid away his urges, his needs and his hurt. And I smile to myself, whilst I leave the town, as the gay man I am now able to be. The truth is I am still not bold enough to go out wearing girl’s clothes. I’d never walk into a club in full drag – well, maybe I might one day, who knows – but I’d like to reach the stage where during this upcoming Pride I can wear what I want to wear. One day I’ll stop asking permission, or worry about being ridiculed . And that horrible feeling of panic and insecurity will be gone, like being grounded for two weeks during the summer holidays or some other thing that seemed like it would last forever.