Dreamgirl: Noun; One’s ideal vision of a female companion.
“My dream girl would be a girl who has a sense of humor, likes country music, and doesn’t mind being a model for my photography. She would have a great personality while not being one of those high class girls that needs a lot of maintenance.”
“My dream girl does not live on this planet.”
“My dream girl consist of a pretty girl of course, who loves to laugh a lot. Has a sense of humor and doesn’t take life so serious. She would be athletic (take care of herself). Being spontaneous is a plus too.”
“When I see my dream girl I envision sunshine. Opening my eyes in the morning and seeing a radiant smile. I see a supportive best friend and someone I can rely on and be present for as well. I see someone who is full of life and passion. Someone who doesn’t get discourage during trying times and finds the good in everything. I see a woman that I can lock eyes with across the room and we can share the same thought without sharing a word. A woman of great virtues to pass onto our children. And a woman that I can sit next to when we’re older and laugh at all the great moments we shared throughout our years.”
“My idea of my dream has changed all through the years. When I was in high school it was the “popular” girl with the hottest body, just purely physical (immature I know). The more mature I’ve become, you realize that there is much more to a woman and I stress the word WOMAN. A man wants a woman in their life, not a girl. A woman is someone who has morals, cares for other people, and someone you can count on no matter what the circumstance. My idea of the perfect woman is someone with a great sense of humor, has great family values, strong willed/minded, has the same lifestyle and career goals as I do. Be able to talk and communicate on a very open level without being criticized. Most importantly, a positive attitude and makes the best of every situation with poise and determination.”
“I always thought I’d meet and marry someone who no matter what would always have my back as I hers. A couple is a union that has ups and downs. It’s the downs, which everyone goes through, that really defines a couple. I look at my mom and dad and no matter what the argument or hick up is, at the end of the day their love for each other and their common goals to foster a loving environment for their kids prevailed. I may be gullible to think that these relationships are unicorns; that they don’t exist. But I won’t stop believing.”
“My dream girl is a girl that accepts me for who I am, we don’t necessarily have to have everything in common, I actually prefer for us to have our own hobbies but be supportive of one another. Most importantly a strong personality that our relationship would be complimenting each other’s lifestyles more than dependent.”
“A smart with a college education, very nice and loving. Puts my needs before hers and will do anything to make me happy. Has a good moral background and has family values. Wants to have kids and a family. A girl who will always appreciate what I do for her no matter how little or big. About 5’2 115 pounds. Goes to the gym and stays fit. Has a toned body. Nice breasts like a c cup. Perfect white teeth and amazing smile. Loves to dress up and wear heels.”
“My “dream girl” is not a girl at all. She is a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to approach a man that she finds attractive. Her confidence is clearly evident without being overly cocky. This woman needs to have ambition and motivation towards a goal she wants to achieve in her life. She is independent and can take care of herself but not shy about asking for help should she need it. She appreciates the little things that I do for her and is sensitive to that fact that a man needs her to lean on from time to time as well. Physical attraction is obviously important but certainly isn’t the deciding factor. Last but absolutely not least, LOYALTY and TRUST is a must. If I need to be concerned about what she’s doing while she says she’s out with her friends then that is a major turnoff. Likewise, I need to be able to have my time with my friends or even by myself without being interrogated about every detail in a hostile m anner. Respect, loyalty, trust and the ability to just simply enjoy each other’s company even if we are doing nothing but sitting at home alone is all I could ask for.”
“My dream girl is a woman that is devoted, loyal, understanding, caring, and not boring… I’m an easy guy to get along with. I want a women who is spontaneous and pretty much cool with doing things that I like, well, things we both like. I want a women that doesn’t mind staying in and cuddling watching a movie. Must like football!”
“My dream girl. I’m a brunette guy so let’s just get that out of the way. She has to be athletic as I’ve always been into athletics and never plan on stopping. She would be intelligent and be successful by herself because she’s worked hard to be. She would have an incredible sense of humor because let’s be honest, who wants to have to be serious all the time? I like a girl who doesn’t mind drinking a beer once in a while and can let loose with her friends or my friends as well without having to be the center of attention all the time. She’s gotta be happy to have my attention. Trust is a huge thing, and if something is wrong she would be able to communicate that. None of that silent treatment crap. I like someone who I can be adventurous with, someone who would want to experience the world with me. Lastly and fairly important, she has to look great without makeup. That may seem shallow, but no one wants to wake up next to a mons ter every morning!
My dream girl would have to be smart and have a job that she loves. Loves animals more of a country girl but when it was time to go out she looked amazing someone that both of us could just be our self’s around. A girl that likes hunting fishing boating and likes going away and relaxing. Wants a family and likes being with family on Sundays”
“Being a Dream Girl is never going to be about what you look like or how much you weigh. After all, our physical appearances are just reflections of our inner worlds. What makes you a Dream Girl is your emotional sensitivity, your self-awareness, and your ability to communicate who you are effectively and compassionately in the world.” ―Jennifer Elisabeth
I’m a man, but I like dressing up as a woman, in women’s clothes, wearing lipstick and bracelets and bright rings and women’s shoes.
Maybe I just want to be pretty.
Maybe I just want to feel pretty, or to look pretty. Some of those goals seem impossible, or incompatible, or prohibitively difficult; not worth what I would have to sacrifice. I’m a man, but I like dressing up as a woman, in women’s clothes, wearing lipstick and bracelets and bright rings and women’s shoes. Given my tastes, at the moment, it might be better to say that I like dressing up as a girl. I like to wear costume jewelry, and pastel nail polish, and I do that all the time. I like to wear skirts and tights, or dresses, too, in private sometimes, in public fewer times, and in company when I can find an appropriate occasion, which I rarely can.
That’s been the case for a while. In my twenties I found the perfect social circle, and the perfect set of dance parties and rock clubs, where I could dress up like a girl and my friends didn’t mind—or found it charming. Then my favorite club closed. Then Jessie and I got married and moved to Minnesota, and my space for cross-dressing dried up. I minded, but not very much, because I liked the rest of my life. I even stopped wearing nail polish and sparkly rings for a while, though the poetry I published made its commitment to girlish identities, feminine alternate selves, all but unmistakable.
And now I have started dressing up again, every so often—I think all I want is every so often—and I’m ready to write about it in disjunctive and maybe all too self-conscious prose.
What follows are tentative answers to persistent questions about how I look, how I want to look, why I often think that I would rather have been a woman, and why I’m sure I won’t try to become one. It has to do with sexual feeling, but it says almost nothing about sexual acts. It’s no substitute for queer theory, nor for a cultural history of cross-dressing and other trans life-ways, nor for the book-length memoirs by trans people and their loved ones (one of my topics here is resistance to memoir, to narrative, to identifying your true self with one story that can be told), though all those forms of writing have helped me, and I refer to them. I also refer to poetry, since I care far more about poems—and think more often about them—than about how I look. I am a literary critic and a writer of verse, a parent and husband and friend, before and after I am a guy in a skirt, or a guy in blue jeans, or a fictional girl. I have tried to have as little concern for my own privacy as I can—I’m tired of keeping secrets and don’t want more. I have, on the other hand, tried to have as much concern as I can for Jessie’s privacy. I’ve chosen to share these parts of my life with you, if you stay with me; Jessie has chosen to share the whole of our life, not necessarily with readers, but with me.
People who know my name but haven’t met me usually know I’m a poetry critic and a book reviewer. In one important model of poetry-in-general, the poet constructs a persona (Greek poiein = to make; Latin persona = actors’ mask), a stylized mask made of words that replaces the poet’s physical, literal body, and provides a better fit for the soul. My own first published poems spoke of wanting to be a girl, or a woman, dramatically and tautologically: “If I were a girl, I would be a girl,” one said. Later I published poems in girl personae, such as “Self-Portrait as Kitty Pryde,” about the teenage genius from the X-Men who has the power to walk through walls.
This essay is a substitute, not so much for a memoir, but for an unwritten, overlong, awkward, over-literal poem.
Recently I went shopping for a denim skirt that I could wear to an open house for trans people and cross-dressers, the venerable Tiffany Club in suburban Boston. I’ve now gone to two open houses, and I’ll go to more, though I don’t know how often, since we have a two-year-old and a six-year-old, and the open house events conflict with both of their bedtimes. It’s astonishingly helpful to find a space where trans people can meet one another without being expected to date, or to dance on stage, or to seek medical attention. Also, it turns out, I like being addressed as Stephanie. Some of the folks I met there are learning to live full-time in their preferred gender (with or sans surgeries). Others are more like me; they enjoy dressing up.
I found almost exactly the skirt I envisioned at the Gap: a thin blue-jean fabric, knee-length and slightly flouncy, with double rose thread near the hem. On my way to the cash register I also saw a pair of shorts, for men, in a color somewhere between bronze and mustard. I picked them out and tried them on and liked how they looked on me and bought them too.
Other prized girly possessions, recently acquired: opaque white tights; opaque bright blue tights; a micro-thin blue belt (it goes only with shorts or skirts); a black Maidenform padded bra, which converts a 36AA like me to a 36C; a cotton white-and-magenta circle skirt, which I have worn around Harvard Square; a sleeveless black top with small ruffles and white polka dots, which I have as yet had no occasion to wear. Ten years ago I lost, among other girl clothes, a pair of black and silver opaque tights. I still miss them.
But if I had them, I would only rarely wear them. I’m reasonably comfortable in T-shirts and jeans, most days, especially if I can wear something feminine as an accessory, because these are butch or androgynous (as well as supposedly youthful) ways to dress. Wearing a suit and tie, on the other hand, can make me feel as if I were a Disney World employee stuck wearing a Goofy head.
According to current medical criteria, trans people have gender dysphoria: our gender does not match our biological sex, and the mismatch makes us unhappy. Several therapists have now agreed that I have gender dysphoria, but how badly do I have it? Not so badly, as these things can go. The stories transsexuals tell about life pre-transition, in which they are discontented to the extent of becoming suicidal, because they are biologically male or female and feel they should not be, do not describe my life at all.
If I were a historian or a journalist writing a book about trans culture, I’d take a few years and attend more Tiffany Club meetings, and more than a few dance-club nights, before calling this essay, or that manuscript, complete. It’s a bigger culture than you might think. And I’d profile people I’ve met. I’d write at some length about the life of M., a high-powered software-company employee just back from reassignment surgery, who looked fabulous in a strapless blue summer dress that showed off her brand-new breasts. I’d certainly write about L., now in her eighties, who served in the US military and then served, for decades, as an officer of the club. L. shares military stories with others her age, and defends her politically conservative views on questions unrelated to gender. L. also tried and failed to teach me how someone like me—who has a five o’clock shadow five minutes after a close shave—should use beard cover and foundation. At least two folks I met at Tiffany Club are undergoing divorces. L., on the other hand, likes to say (and why shouldn’t she?) that she and her wife, who prefers her in male garb, have been together for decades, and remain close to their kids and grandkids. L. used to organize annual outings to Provincetown, where club members could spend the weekend en femme; L.’s wife came along, and when they went out as a couple, in deference to her, L. dressed as a man.
But I’m not writing that book. I’m writing this essay, half about me and half about other books, and all about where I stand now, at the margin of these grownups’ gender-variant world. I am, to quote Helen Vendler, a critic I trust completely, “incorrigibly unhappy without a text to dwell on,” for reasons not entirely unrelated to the distance I feel from my physical body. Yet in order to think about that body, about that distance, I keep going back to some books.
The single best book that I’ve read, not about “who I am” (I am many things, and so are you, by the way) but about my own experience of sex and gender, has to be Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There. When I first read it in 2011, this book lit up my sense of myself both when I saw myself in her and when I did not. Boylan writes that while she was still James, she considered “being a man … the second best life I can live,” and so she tried to “learn how to be happy with this second best life … I don’t think this is so crazy, even now. If I could have pulled this off, I would have.” I put a check mark on that page.
Like almost every trans writer, Boylan remembers feeling awkward, wrongly placed, in the body with which she grew up. Me too, but I’m not sure how much of that feeling comes from having the body of a man, and how much of it comes from having a body at all. For instance, I used to love hosting college radio: on the radio I was not a body, but an expression of musical taste, words, and a voice.
Like many folks about my age, I first learned about trans people from television, from the episode of St. Elsewhere, first aired in 1983, in which Dr. Craig’s best friend from college pops up as a candidate for sex reassignment surgery. Dr. Craig remembers the fraternity-style drag show where both men performed: His friend, he learns, “never took off that dress.” I was like that. But not that. Not close.
In the first job that gave me any independence, I worked as a researcher for Let’s Go, the travel guides written and edited by Harvard students. I roamed the mid-Atlantic and the Upper South, from Kentucky’s horse country to the beaches of Delaware. My strangest and loneliest hours arrived in Charleston, West Virginia, where I knew no one and there were no tourist attractions (we ended up leaving it out of the book). Asking about entertainment in a coffee shop, I found alterna-teens who spirited me off to my first drag show: a bar shaped like a shoebox diorama, with dim lights, high heels, curly wigs, and what were likely the Mountain State’s most energetic lip-synchers. I was like that, but not that. Not close.
Most of my favorite music during the 1990s was called indie-pop, or “twee,” a mostly British genre derived from the do-it-yourself spirit of punk, the timbres of Phil Spector’s girl groups, and the attitudes in playground chants. Melody was esteemed; virtuosity was downplayed even for bands that possessed it. “Twee” is also an insult in British English, meaning childishly old-fashioned, over-fussy, comically “English,” and ultimately un-masculine.
When we were twee we were all of those things: The styles were girly-girl for the girls, with sparkly barrettes, Swiss dot, large prints from thrift-store expeditions, and Hello Kitty additions. For the cross-over boys, epicene or fade-out-of-sight wear was the way, along with striped T-shirts or T-shirts with names of bands. Not all the pop groups involved were overtly feminist, though the best were. But nobody wanted, or tried, to be a real man. Without twee pop and the social circles it built, I would certainly never have met Jessie. We were at the same shows, the same clubs.
One of my favorite indie-pop groups was Blueboy, named either for a song by the proto-twee group Orange Juice or for a gay porn mag. Most of their music came out on the leading twee label, Sarah Records, of Bristol, England. Blueboy specialized in melancholy, mostly acoustic songs, more than a few about being gay or queer, including a crisp ballad with this beautiful chorus: “A girl alone / is just the same as / a boy alone / sadness is unisex.”
I never dressed up as a girl, in public, when I was an undergraduate. Why the heck not, since I moved in queer-positive circles? Fear, or awkwardness, or just confusion, in those days when “transgender” was not a well-known word, but also my sense that I wasn’t a grand performer, in contrast to the handful of biological men I knew who came to class, and to parties, loudly and confidently wearing dresses. (At least one of those men dated women, though others were gay.) Nor did I belong anywhere near the old-school wigs-and-flounces drag of the Hasty Pudding Show, with its all-male company. Nor, certainly, could I pull off anything like the immaculate and masterful drag of Thomas Lauderdale, now the leader of the band Pink Martini, with his perfect black cocktail gown. What’s wrong, exactly, with being a man in a dress?
What’s wrong with being a man who looks bad or sloppy or underprepared or like a mannish, fake girl in a dress? Why are other people shocked, or distressed, when they see femininity poorly, or inexpertly, performed? And why do I care—since I do care—about what they see?
How much work does it take to look real, and—if I don’t want to pass full-time as a woman—where’s the point of diminishing returns? Are costume jewelry and nail polish, accessories and ornaments, a skirt and tights here and there on a weekday afternoon, a sustainable compromise, or a way station of some sort?
I don’t feel that I am a girl, or a woman, “inside,” much less that I have always been one. Sometimes I feel I should have been one—or wish that I were one. I fall somewhere between the consistent deep-rooted mismatch that transsexual adults and teens (like the wonderfully articulate Nicole Maines) describe, or something like Anglophilia: wanting to be what you aren’t. Either way, you don’t belong, because you’re attracted to the stereotype, but discontent with what you have.
How different is that wish from other escapist wishes, such as a trip to Japan, or a Karmann Ghia?
Who wouldn’t want to become someone else, every so often, to take a break from the self with its irrevocable responsibilities and its body that won’t improve again, “tied to me as to a dog’s tail,” as W. B. Yeats put it, or with me (as Delmore Schwartz’s poem says) like a heavy bear?
The trans writer and performer S. Bear Bergman, who looks like a friendly, chubby man and prefers the pronouns “ze” and “hir,” asks “how much we would cheerfully pay to get a few days off to go somewhere nobody knows us and indulge in all our unsanctioned realness without anyone there to drag us back to reality.” Quite a lot, I’d say. But where would we go?
In August 2012 the New York Times Magazine ran a beautiful cover story on “pink boys,” who want to dress up in girls’ clothes for preschool or grade school.
”No, I don’t want to be a girl,” one of them told the reporter, Ruth Padawer. “I just want to wear girl stuff.”
”Why do you want to be a boy and not a girl?” she probed, and the eight-year-old answered: “Because I want to be who I am!”
Some of these boys can wear girls’ shoes and accessories to school, but the dresses stay home. Those boys are me, as I told several of my friends, except that I’m not eight.
The same issue ran Lindsay Morris’s photo feature on a weekend camp for gender variant kids, where pink boys can dress as they want, and feel pretty, for forty-eight hours before they go back to school: without therapists, without teachers (but with supervision), without lessons on how to pass or look more feminine (but with a fashion show, and dress-up bins). Are there such camps for adults? If there were, would I go there?
I have no desire to write a straightforward memoir about my gender and my wardrobe. For one thing, there would not be enough to report. I want instead to find a way to think about gender and appearance that accounts for my body, my emotions, and my images of my body—as it is, as it can be, as I wish it could be.
My body feels unfinished, undeveloped, more often than it feels like a real woman or a real man. It feels, sometimes, as if it wanted to become a woman, whether or not it will get the chance. That feeling itself hasn’t changed since my teens.
What article of clothing demonstrates that feeling best? I’m afraid it’s a training bra. I may be wearing one now, as you read this.
W. H. Auden used to say that he always imagined he was the youngest person in any room. I have often felt the same way, and still have dreams in which I fear that my colleagues and friends will learn that I am really sixteen … or twelve … or fourteen.
At fourteen I wanted to live in a world where girls would like me, where I could take part in girls’ lives, become at least a confidante. Within a few years, I had most of what I wanted. All I had to do, I thought, was to pretend I did not have a body, to leave my own body behind. Most of my college-age romances, such as they were, got stuck at a point where I asked to try on a girl’s bra. I wanted breasts, or the promise of breasts.
”I’d discovered the nature of my desire,” the great trans writer Kate Bornstein recalls in her autobiography: ”I wanted to be the kind of girl I was attracted to.”
The strictly erotic aspect of cross-dressing, including my own—the turn-on aspect—can’t be disentangled from the rest of it. But it’s very hard to talk about directly unless you have a particular talent for erotic writing in prose, which I believe I don’t possess. I can, though, repeat the trans slogan that being transgender is about who you want to go to bed as, not who you want to go to bed with. I can say now that when I am erotically excited, most of the time, I experience my own body as a woman’s, or a girl’s.
I first met people who had been genderqueer (as we say now), the cross-dressers and postpunk post-gender folks, when they were not long out of their teens, and I was not long out of mine, when I saw rock shows and read fanzines and wrote, a bit, on the far fringes of the Riot Grrrl phenomenon, in 1991–94. Had I been a few years younger back then, who would I be now? Would I go by Stephanie regularly? Or by ze? It seems unlikely, but who knows? I’m pretty sure I’d be no happier than I am now. So much has gone right with the rest of my life.
I remember discovering in grade school that some boys “liked” some girls, and some girls also “liked” some boys, and that “like” in such constructions had a special meaning, different from and more important than “I like ice cream”: I wanted a girl to like me, I liked a girl, I liked girls, I wanted to be like a girl. Did I want to be a girl, or just to be like one?
The trans writer Julia Serano remembers an epiphany outside a high school baseball game: “a group of neighborhood girls walked by and some of my flirtier guy friends started teasing… . Both groups struck up a conversation but I just sort of sat there and stared. It seemed so obvious to me that I should be one of those girls rather than one of those boys. It was so sad because nobody could see it but me. So I decided to get a sex change operation.” I love that sequence, with its one-two logic: I have felt exactly as she felt in the antecedent, though the consequent never followed for me.
Gender, we hear from various intellectuals (Judith Butler, for example), must be a performance: Some performances announce themselves as such, while others disappear.
If gender in all its permutations is an acknowledged or unacknowledged—consciously or unconsciously learned—performance, no wonder that some of the most insightful people on trans experience have been actors, directors, performers: Bornstein, Bergman, Daphne, Gottlieb—or the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, surely the most famous male-to-female cross-dresser. Izzard explains in his show Dress to Kill: “If you’re a transvestite, you’re actually a male tomboy, that’s where the sexuality is… . ‘Cause most transvestites fancy girls, fancy women. So that’s where it is. So it’s ‘running, jumping, climbing trees, putting on makeup when you’re up there.’”
Treehouses seem important to trans self-conception; they are fake houses, pretend and private houses, where children can be themselves, but almost nobody sees them. “When I was growing up on the Jersey Shore,” Bornstein recalls, “there were small forests on every block … A lone tall birch stood high above the woods, and I taught myself to climb it. Springtime and summer I’d spend hours in the top branches and I’d be a princess locked away in a tower waiting for another princess to come rescue me. But all the time up in that tree, I never looked down.”
Why am I so, so much more comfortable—and frankly more fluent—writing about the lives and the art and the words of other people than writing about myself? Have I just had more practice? Or does my attraction to other lives, to relatively self-contained works of art, have something to do with my sense that I don’t quite live in my own body, in my own physical life?
As much as I want to be pretty, I want more often—and more often get—to live in a world of sounds and words. No wonder, then, that I can say more about what I want, who I am when I am a fake girl, by looking at a book of poems that embodies that self surprisingly, completely, a book that embarrasses me because it records, at times, just what I want.
That book is The Haunted House, by Marisa Crawford, in whose poems I see an almost scary reflection of the girl that I would be, or would have been. Even more than other recent poetry about appearance and feminine style, about girlhood or youth (some of it technically superior, and of broader aesthetic interest, as I’ve explained in less personal lit-crit elsewhere), The Haunted House seems addressed to me, about me. It’s even dedicated to “all the girls, real and make-believe,” a rubric that presumably includes the poet and some of her friends, and Maggie Tulliver, and me, and Kitty Pryde.
Crawford sees some poems as ghost stories, tales of buried selves, which Crawford imagines that she can resurrect. These plural alternate selves are eyelashes, are birds, are
you tugging at my eyeliner,
all the black birds lined up
on a telephone wire. Hello?
I’d like to thank the seeds,
all the seeds that turned into trees
after everyone said they’d never grow.
Crawford allows the inchoate energy of her sentences to spill over into the energetic bodies of the girls and the young women who float through the poems, and it makes them disturbing and pretty and frankly sexy, as in “What Happened in the Pool”:
I could see everything through your bathing suit, everything. Guilt as solitary, a kickboard, a mishap, a sky. I laid my body on top of the water, floating. The sky is made of Lycra. Chocolate-syrup solar eclipse, maraschino cherry, hole in the ozone. I could touch the bottom. I could lick the spoon.
There’s something hard to defend about the poems. It’s something that’s attractive because it is awkward; something for which I feel compelled to apologize. (I feel the same way about dressing up as a girl.)
Crawford’s poems say no to aesthetic distance. They ask you—and me—to jump into the pool with them, to join them up in the attic, and not to climb out. Their performance of girlhood seems, to them and to me, an amazed alternative to the compromises and the logical consequence of any well-ordered, decorous, appropriately attired adult world. The poems are like temporary, miniature, wilder alternatives to that world, “like an entire town underneath the Christmas tree, if you think about it” (which also works as a figure for poetry in general). The poems are like Christmas-tree miniatures, but they are also like erotic fantasies, envisioning impossible transformations, such as Emily Dickinson as a high school swimmer, or myself as a woman, a girl. “She rammed her head into my mouth, in the pool. I hid her letters in my bra. There’s a part of my brain that’s like the zipper on a sleeping bag, a cluster of pine trees, a telephone cord,” she writes.
I can’t make an argument for the aesthetic merits of that writing. But I love it.
Whether or not your own art depicts adolescence, whether or not it depicts (as Ovid, the great trans poet of antiquity, put it) bodies taking new shapes, artistic development is always like adolescent development. We discover, awkwardly, the powers we have and the powers we cannot have, the shapes that our bodies of work will eventually take.
For an artist like Crawford, neither development has an “endpoint”; the point is what you do now, while you’re not fully formed. (Why would I want to be fully formed?) You get power from who you are, not from who you will be, and power comes when you decide not to go all the way. “Hurricane Gloria tore out the lilacs with her fingers, snapped my bra strap. She was a phantom, a direct descendent. I spent Christmas upstairs, painting candy cane stripes on my nails.” I would have done that too.
When I’m dressed informally, as I often am, with girly accessories (nail polish, candy-bright rings) and a T-shirt and jeans, and I’m walking around outdoors, I sometimes feel that I look wrong, I should go home and change. When I’m fully dressed up as a girl I can feel the same way. It’s a voice in my head, a critical friend or frenemy; sometimes it gives me helpful tips (that green doesn’t work with this blue; you should shave again first) and sometimes it says I should give up and look like a man.
But when I look entirely gender-appropriate, with nothing sparkly, lacy, or violet, I hear or feel a grinding basso continuo of inward sadness, saying, “This doesn’t quite work, and it doesn’t represent you.” I can put up with that, ignore it, for days, but it gets to me. It sets my teeth on edge.
The truth is that I’m going to feel slightly wrong, slightly out of alignment with my own body, no matter what I wear or what I do. So why not feel pretty? Why not try to like how I look?
Drag queens and other cross-dressers who make dressing up and acting as a girl or a woman central to their lives take hours and hours before they go out. They are like classical musicians, practicing and perfecting their craft in order to perform. I play the piano, too, but I’m an amateur: I can play Debussy’s pieces for children, Scarlatti’s sonatas, W. C. Handy’s blues hits, and other easy pieces, at home or for friends. I dress up like that too. I could use some practice, some technique, to expand my repertoire. I’d like to become more expressive, and more versatile, but I can’t let either dressing up or playing the piano become the center of my life.
But I do want more sheet music. And one or two more pretty skirts, and maybe a gown.
I used to wonder whether I had the right, or the obligation, to call myself trans, given how much I am not like Boylan or Bergman. Now I do say I am trans, when it comes up, and yet I don’t like the way that the word so often implies transport or transition, implies that I am moving from one gender or one life to another. I’ll take instead the “trans” in D. W. Winnicott’s term “transitional objects,” by which the psychoanalyst meant the not-quite-animate, not-quite-inanimate things (such as stuffed animals) with which children mediate between themselves and everything else. Transitional objects, Winnicott often wrote, are neither assigned exclusively to the self, nor relegated to the outside world; it’s important that adults not ask.
Is it even possible to be who you really are, to show your inward self? John Ashbery’s great long poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” considers our desire to look at a face or a body and see the soul “inside”; its trigger, or subject, is the distorted self-portrait that the painter Parmigianino created by looking at his own face in a mirrored ball, where
The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look.
Do we have inner cores, selves that cannot be seen? So Ashbery’s poem suggests. On the other hand, “your eyes proclaim / That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there.” If I am a girl or a woman only when I am by myself, unseen, then I was never a girl.
”You want something; that’s the pretext,” begins Rae Armantrout’s poem “Birthmark: The Pretext,” which explores the idea—associated with Jacques Lacan—that your sense of who you are grows from your sense of what you want, what you lack, so that in order to keep being the person you recognize as yourself, you have to keep wanting something you cannot have.
I am revising this essay in my green cotton dress with its grey hip-hugging sash and its odd elastic gathering at the knees—it’s a dress designed to emphasize, or to build, hips. I think Kitty would wear it, and I think it goes with white tights. I’m sure that it works well with my enhanced Maidenform bra. When I’m done, at the end of my writing day, I will change back into my mustard-colored shorts and my button-down short-sleeved shirt and go home, and enjoy the evening with my family, far more than I would enjoy it if I spent the whole day, or the evening, in a dress.
My sons, who are now two and six, see that I like to wear nail polish, sparkly rings and bracelets, and pink or violet sneakers. I wear such things in and out of the house on most days. They haven’t, so far as I know, seen me in a dress; at some point they will, if only in pictures, and I intend to let them know what’s coming so they won’t be too surprised. I hope and expect that they’ll see it as continuous with other forms of dress-up, kinds of acting and pretending, by kids and by adults: it’s self-expression, it’s a craft, it can be amateur or professional, it should be fun.
An earlier draft of this essay provoked some trustworthy readers to ask for more about Jessie: her life, her psychology, her attitudes toward my gender and my wardrobe. She knows about all of it, we’re happy together, and it’s important to me that my wardrobe not become the center of our lives. It’s also important to me that as I write about my intimate or hard-to-acknowledge emotions, I respect Jessie’s privacy too.
I possess tenure now. So why don’t I teach in a dress? That’s what the law professor Kenji Yoshino (whose book Covering stands behind a slice of this essay) would call a demand for reverse-covering: asking that I make my gender identity visible and unmistakable, like it or not. (“Covering” plain and simple involves a demand that members of a minority avoid expressing their minority status, their distinctive identities: “Just don’t flaunt it.” Yoshino wants us to recognize, and to reject, both kinds of demand.)
The truth is that I don’t want to teach in a dress, because at this point in my life, and perhaps at all points, I’d be too distracted, and so would my students. I’d be making it harder for them to learn. I would be distracted by wondering what my students were thinking, distracted by thinking about how I look, and who I am rather than thinking about the text I’m teaching; distracted by wondering whether I’m doing it right. On the other hand, I wear nail polish to class, and I would resent a demand that I stop.
And yet I’m unsatisfied. But who is entirely satisfied? Who gets to be seen by others just as she wants to see herself, as ze or he wants to see himself or herself? And how often? And how much work does being seen that way take, where it’s even possible? How many people want to be seen, or wonder if they can be seen, as thinner, taller, stronger, more delicate, more confident, more sophisticated, more Southern, less Southern, less exotic, more exotic, more grownup?
I want a social space in which I can wear a skirt and tights and be seen as a woman, if not as a girl. I want a space where I might be addressed as “Stephanie.” I don’t want that space to take over the rest of my life. I think I have several such spaces, intermittent and Brigadoon-like as they are.
I also want—and now I have—a life where the people I see and know intimately see something in me that’s girly, that’s not quite a man, that aspires to femininity.
When I next teach a text, or give a reading, where gender variation, or fabulous gender nonconformity, are relevant to the text (so it’s not a distraction), I probably will wear a dress, or a skirt and tights. On the other hand, I might chicken out; I might wait for a suitable party, that night, or next month.
I am all too aware that this essay can come across as precious, evasive, dependent, and inconclusive: That’s how I experience my body, too. If I cannot tell the truth about myself, about these parts of my self, in this precious and inconclusive and quotation-dependent way, then I cannot tell it at all.
This week I got new glasses. Jessie helped me pick them out. Their rims are translucent, off-white, and go with anything. Their transition lenses turn a violet-grey in sunlight. Their end-piece, when it casts a shadow, makes lavender shade. A bit of silver glitter runs in one thin go-faster stripe from earpiece to temple.
The new specs can go with girl clothes, or guy clothes, with formality (a blazer, a little black dress) or extreme informality (T-shirt, jeans), or something midway (a white button-down shirt, a striped blouse). They do not, I think, look especially youthful, but neither do they exert any formal authority. They suggest patience, a good mood, a cat’s glad reserve; they might read as queer. They are the most expensive thing I own, a step up from the thin black frames I had last year, and from the ultramarine rectangles that came before that. I do not know, and do not want to know, whether a stylish, well-informed observer, seeing my new glasses without their owner, would think that they were made for women, or for men.
Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. His books include The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics (Harvard, 2010), Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf, 2009), Parallel Play: Poems (Graywolf, 2006), and Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia, 2002).