When I was 5, my family moved to a new house off Aurora on 115th. My dad invented a game in which the house was a ship, I was a sailor, and he was the captain. The purpose of the game was to distract me from my fear of the house and to persuade me to follow rules. I preferred a version of the game I invented in which I was also a captain—the captain of a pirate ship. At first I was Captain Hook from Peter Pan, but through ongoing make-believe, my pirate persona developed. I wore an increasingly filthy felt tricorn hat and eye patch, and every morning drew a mustache on myself with a black-licorice-scented Magic Marker.
When a relative made me a plaid dress with a matching eye patch, my mom was thrilled, but when she put the dress on me so she could take a picture, I started crying. I remember her saying how pretty I was, which made it worse. I felt humiliated—pirate captains don't wear dresses, I thought. Fortunately, my mom realized something was seriously wrong and never made me wear that dress again, or any other. Within two years, I asked to cut my hair short. In any picture of me from childhood past the age of 5, my wardrobe isn't much different than it is now, except I am now less likely to a wear a poison-dart-frog-print baseball cap, and the substances my clothing is stained with have changed. There are few things I'm more thankful to my parents for than not forcing me to dress and behave "appropriately" for a person with my external sexual characteristics.
"Are you a boy or a girl?" is a question I first heard in elementary school, and fairly regularly since, though the wording has changed. To kids at school I said "girl," though my favorite game was one in which my tree house was a castle, I was king, and a girl who lived down the street was queen. My manner of dress was bizarre, and my family was so poor that we pawned stuff for groceries, but I always had friends and was never picked on. The other kids liked my make-believe games, but I honestly think my popularity had more to do with the confidence my parents cultivated in me—as long as I did well in school and was healthy, they didn't give a shit how I looked.
At 14, I tried wearing dresses and dating a delicate, beautiful boy who shared my interest in clothing design and Marilyn Manson. When he tipped his top hat to me in the hall at school, my legs shook. My first kiss was with him while watching a band called the Cunt Rags at an underage venue in Ballard. He had drunk about a pint of vodka. When he said, "Wanna make out?" I kissed him sloppily and enthusiastically. Seconds later, he fell out of his chair unconscious, as the band hurled a barrage of eggs and dog shit into the audience. That night I listened to "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" on my parents' duct-tape-patched record player late into the night, reveling in what I thought was love and probably the coolest moment of my life. I was confused when later, in his room, he touched my tits through my psychedelic vintage dress (gently and respectfully, though awkwardly, having asked permission) and all I felt was ticklish.
Not long afterward, I lost a staring contest with a friend because I noticed the halos of white around the pupils of her blue eyes. Something about how I felt in that moment made me run out of the room. I'd never had that feeling before, though I knew immediately what it was.
That girl came out as trans later that year, confusing me further—the first girl I had a crush on was a boy. Was I a gay girl? Was I a trans boy? Both? Neither?
All I knew is that I was afraid. So afraid. Part of the fear was a deep-down awareness that the culture assumed things about me because I have a cunt. But it was hard to know who assumed what, and what their assumptions had to do with me. I believe what I told my mom was: "I'm scared that I'm gay." My mom told me most people experience sexual confusion at some point, and that it would probably pass.
But that staring contest was like water leaking through cracks in a dam. Within about a year, girls were all I could think about. I'd never had any interest in shopping or bras or makeup or Hello Kitty phone cases or any of the other things girls talked about in the bathroom in high school. All that talk made me uncomfortable and bored. My friend Tim was the first person whose style I envied or even noticed. A talented painter, Tim was elegant and charming. I admired these qualities, his consistent sexual success, and his perfectly fitting Diesel jeans. I felt entirely comfortable doing things I considered feminine, like styling my hair, even wearing makeup, if I did them the way a man does them.
Tim and our friend Stella and I would get together in one of our bedrooms, dye each other's hair, listen to Gravy Train and Klaus Nomi, and watch John Waters movies. I was obsessed with John Waters—his films were full of bizarre, hilarious people of indeterminate gender unapologetically doing whatever they wanted. After watching Pink Flamingos or Mondo Trasho, I felt like absolutely anything could happen.
At a house show with Tim and Stella, I met Will and witnessed his Casio-based one-man musical act, Sexually Active Corpse. It sounded like a deranged cartoon clown singing along to '90s Nintendo games. Will appeared in the living room wearing a French maid's dress and a wig that looked like he had untangled it from a mass of Ace bandages and mole traps in the darkest corner of the Goodwill bins. "What would your gynecologist think if your penis began to shrink," he sang, circling the living room. The performance involved some Garfield comics whose captions and speech bubbles he had pornographically altered. At one point, Will and several audience members smoked his pubes out of a pipe made from a tin can. Something was happening to everyone in the room. It was like the masking ceremonies popular in many cultures in which costumes relieve participants of their human identities and responsibilities, rendering them briefly supernatural.
Four people who had been lazily grinding against each other throughout the evening slid onto the floor and started fucking. One of them, who I initially assumed was a drag queen, proved not to be when her period blood spread all over her three friends and the floor at my feet. I watched them, my eyes so wide I feared they'd never close again, moving only to look up when Will crowd-surfed over my head, his balls covered in clothespins.
The only way I can adequately specify what "gender" I am is with a full description of that event. Will was clearly a man, even when his cock and balls were inside a magenta children's glove (an "outfit" he wore to multiple parties), yet he implicitly resisted the gender binary as much as he resisted the idea of reality as we know it. Will was a man, and a woman, and an octopus, and a gasoline-soaked bra, and your dead grandmother. He was legitimately frightening and piss-your-pants funny. One criticism I have heard of comedy, particularly comedy relying on irony, is that it deflates what exists without offering anything in its place; Sexually Active Corpse seemed to offer endless pansexual orgasms, among other things. He was like a cross-faded Walt Whitman in drag with his dick hanging out.
My parents' first explanation of sex, wisely, focused on emotion, but the description of the physical act was limited to heterosexual penetration. For some reason, I thought penetration only happened once, and then the two people involved lay motionless. I remember lying awake when I was very young thinking how awkward that must be. Mostly gay, and far from vanilla, I didn't realize until I was a teenager that the things that turned me on had anything to do with sex. I believed sexual thoughts and feelings were actually dreams leaking into reality. John Waters and Sexually Active Corpse gave me my first glimpse of what I now believe is true—sex is anything and everything. It is less an act than a force that can manifest itself any way.
It seems odd to me now that until my mid 20s, I never noticed the fact that 90 percent of the people I considered role models were male. This may be because I don't consider the qualities I admire most—integrity, kindness, courage, creativity—gendered at all. Sometimes, to me, "gender" seems like an aesthetic response to chemical and neurological features.
I became Captain Hook as a child because Captain Hook was powerful—he could do things I had no evidence little girls could. I think the amount of time and energy my relative invested in putting me back in my little-girl costume frightened me. Captain Hook was also violent. This is where things get complicated—one popular theory about why little boys are more aggressive than girls is hormonal differences. I was just as aggressive as any little boy, and I liked games and movies that involved fighting. Did I envy the culturally specific power of a male character (the captain of a ship!) or was I born with actual physical differences—like in my brain and the chemistry of my body—that made me behave more male than female?
The beginning of my passion for clothing and personal style coincided with the realization that I love women. In high school, I made a conscious effort to dress and behave like the guys I knew who dated the women I was attracted to. I hadn't consciously thought, "I'm a man," but I didn't feel like a lesbian. I realized at some point that no matter what I wore, I didn't look like the other guys, and became terrified no one would go out with me. I also felt so different from the girls, I was convinced I couldn't possibly look like them, either. This left me in a bizarre state of having no idea how I physically looked. I felt this way for a couple of years. Paralyzed by self-consciousness, I worried I would never get laid.
When I finally did get laid, it happened in the most glorious way possible. Some alumni on vacation from Sarah Lawrence threw a party at a cabin built by one of their dads, who was an architect. It looked like an object from Tron. There was a lot of vodka and very grown-up Truth or Dare, which eventually inspired everyone in attendance to take their clothes off. The party was women only. I couldn't believe how beautiful everyone was. I hadn't seen a naked woman in person since the pool locker room when I was a kid. I was prepared to wince at my reflection in the house's many mirrors, and shocked to see I looked like everyone else in the room. Oddly, the realization I had the body of a teenage girl didn't make me feel any less masculine. Women's bathing suits did, and still do—they make me feel like I'm a poorly made spandex Betty Boop doll.
Things happened that night I had longed for for years, though oddly, until I touched another person in a sexual way, I was unable to see people as sexual objects. Eventually, dating women, especially very feminine women, felt as natural to me as wearing exclusively men's clothing—I didn't really think about why I loved either. I just did. I was absorbed in figuring out what sorts of personalities are attractive to me and how to have a healthy relationship.
Until I was about 24, I assumed I was just a 100 percent gay woman who happened to like men's clothing. I had several friends who identified as FTM or MTF, people who had known their entire lives the gender they had been assigned at birth based on the type of junk they have was incorrect. But that wasn't my situation. Even though I'm perfectly happy being masculine, I also love having a woman's body. More than anything, I wanted to be David Bowie, but I felt that if David Bowie woke up with the body of a 24-year-old woman, he would rock it.
I mentioned that as a kid, people used to ask if I was a boy or a girl, and that these days the wording has changed. Usually today the question is more often "Are you trans?" Even though my attitude has changed about this, now if someone asks me that I say yes—as a female-bodied person far on the masculine end of the gender spectrum, the term completely fits me; after all, trans refers to a whole complicated spectrum rather than a binary. But this is often a tricky conversation—the moment I say "trans" to someone, they assume I'm planning for hormones and surgery. Actually, I'm happy just the way I am. I usually enjoy these exchanges. I suspect it's impossible to understand any individual's gender identity without a real conversation, so I try to encourage respectful conversation as much as possible.
Finding men's clothing that fits my five-foot-four-inch, 105-pound body is hard enough, but finding clothing that communicates exactly the kind of man I am is a real challenge. It delights me when people call me dapper, or a dandy. When I first began to think about personal style, I understood it no more than I understood why it felt good to dress as Captain Hook when I was five.
For instance, I can't stand women's blouses (on me). When I was 20, I felt nothing more than a vague aversion to them. For some reason, it took years to realize it's the cut of the fabric—the seams on the back and front designed to accentuate the curves of a woman's body—that I dislike. If I had a man's body, I would probably buy some shirts with this cut. A '70s women's blouse might give me sort of a glam look. Many of my physically male friends wear shirts like this, and they look like Bowie or Johnny Thunders. Because I actually have tits, wearing such a shirt would tip the gender-presentation scale and make me look more feminine than I feel is accurate (though I like my tits as much as anyone does). Having good personal style means understanding one's own body as part of a composition.
I've never had the urge to alter my body with surgery or hormones to appear more masculine, and I think this is partly because the slender, angular body I was born with is no obstacle to me as a compositional element. My shoulders are broader than my hips, and my tits are a nice shape when I'm naked, but not very noticeable with clothes on, especially if I'm wearing a distractingly well-designed tie.
I have heard the argument that no trans people would want hormone treatment or surgery if societal views of gender were healthier—if, for instance, people were more willing to accept someone's correct gender just because that person fucking tells them that is how they identify. While I absolutely think practicing this kind of acceptance is the right way for people to conduct themselves, I would no more tell someone they don't need surgery to express their true gender than I would tell a child they should wear a dress because they have a vagina. I believe every person has a deep need to manifest their identity in a way perceptible to others, and I would not question their means of doing so unless they were harming someone.
I was having a conversation about gender and trans issues with a straight, cisgender male friend recently, and he said something along the lines of "Thinking about this stuff makes my head hurt." He said it in a way that implied he felt a certain kind of conversation is exclusively the territory of queer people. It made me wonder how many straight people feel this way—like there is "queer" and "straight," and queer people are the only ones whose gender and sexuality are on a spectrum. My reply to my friend was that no one on earth is a man in exactly the same way he is a man, and we eventually agreed that what "man" entails for him is unique and worth thinking about.
It's worthwhile for everyone to consider where they fall on the spectrum. You may not be where you assume you are, and while that discovery can be frightening, it is always enriching. One night when I was 24, I was having drinks with my best friend when I noticed his blue eyes were deep purple in the dim light of the bar. It was the high-school staring contest all over again, complete with my sudden departure from the room, except this time my fear came from the realization of a gradually deepening love I had been oblivious to for almost eight years because I had assumed I was 100 percent lesbian. I fled the room even more abruptly this time.
I had no idea what to do. Since we met, he and I had a rapport unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was afraid of damaging our friendship, but I was equally afraid of missing out on possibly the most significant romantic relationship of my life. I was also worried I was so gay that the sex might be the physical equivalent of a sad slide whistle. I spent two years imagining the most romantic and meaningful way I could express my affection, then naturally mauled him one night when we were both fucked up to a Hunter Thompson degree on whiskey and pills.
The sex was actually great, though since the only cock I had touched prior to that was airborne and covered in clothespins, it was kind of like a benevolent encounter with a deep-sea fish. There is a facet of every person that is fully visible only during sex, and his sexual side was the closest thing I had ever encountered to a force of pure good.
"You fuck like a boy," he said the next morning (he had slept with a few). And it had felt like the gayest experience I'd ever had. I am sure we are the same gender. That was when, finally, I knew—I'm far closer to "man" on the gender spectrum than "woman."
It wasn't too horrible when it ended, after only a few months, since I knew we would be friends forever. There was just one crushing moment—I noticed an electrical meter against the lace of cracked gray paint on a cement wall, and realized I would see it totally differently if I hadn't met him. Over a decade, our visions of beauty had grown together.
I had wondered if when I slept with a man, a veil would be lifted as it had after that party at the cabin with all those women when I was 18. Would I now be checking out guys' asses on the street? No. That didn't happen. I did feel a new warmth toward cis male people, because my experience of male sexuality had been so positive, and because I felt like I finally knew what I was. I was someone who was unafraid to explore. I wasn't a pirate, I was an explorer. I am an explorer. That is my true nature. I'm a mostly straight guy who's also a woman. As a teenager, I had been tortured by an inability to relate to either gender (not yet familiar with the idea of a gender continuum), but after that romance, I could clearly see that I'm basically female outside and male inside.
And in a very glam-rock way, I enjoy being both simultaneously.
Thankfully these days, because of the company I keep, I'm asked whether I'm a man or a woman much less frequently than which pronouns I prefer, or whether I've ever thought about choosing a man's name. You can use whatever pronoun you like. I respond to both. My favorite Johnny Cash song is "A Boy Named Sue." I, personally, like being a man named Sarah. I also like being a woman strangers think is a guy. In the supernatural spirit of John Waters and Sexually Active Corpse, it thrills me to embody what most would consider a state of flux, and hopefully to remind people that we all exist on continuums and that absolutely anything can happen.