Two hours after I came out to my mom over the phone last summer, she called me back with a follow-up question: “Are you still going to wear dresses?”
I thought this was funny, and sweet. It was funny because it was so mom, but even more so because I loved dresses. I laughed. “Yes!!” I assured her. Of course I would still wear them. I was exactly the same person as before. Right?
About a month later I flew back home to Minnesota for my 10-year high school reunion, and my mom and I went shopping. I bought an emerald green sundress — my favorite color. It was a little too daytime beachside barbecue for my reunion, but I texted a picture of me wearing it to my new girlfriend, and she texted back a series of heart-eye emojis, so I decided to buy it anyway. I packed it into my suitcase, flew back to Brooklyn, and hung it up in my closet, where it has remained, untouched, ever since.
I’ve worn a dress once or twice since then — to a fundraiser cocktail party in muggy early September; on some other ordinary day too hot to consider allowing fabric to touch my inner thighs — but somehow, at some point, without realizing that a shift was taking place until it was complete, something horrible happened: I proved my mother right. I don’t want to wear dresses. I am not exactly the same person as before.
I didn’t really notice anything was up until fall came, and suddenly one of my favorite easy workday looks — a sweater over a skirt with tights and boots — no longer appealed to me. Something just looked…off. All my skirts were too poofy, and the dresses hung lifelessly off my body; I looked too girly. As someone who, at least until recently, liked to look somewhat girly, at least some of the time — someone who regularly browsed Anthropologie’s sale section, who’d pictured Kevin Costner’s wife’s wedding dress as the platonic ideal of wedding dresses since 2004 — this was disorienting to me. I chalked it up to the normal ups and downs of dressing oneself, vowing to try the offending outfit again a few days later. But then that day came, and it still didn’t look, or feel, right.
It is a strange feeling to miss my dresses as they hang, unharmed and available, in my closet. The only thing stopping me from wearing them is me. I wish I still wanted to wear them, but I don’t. I don’t want new ones, either, and because of that, an entire window of shopping possibility has closed on me.
It isn’t just dresses and skirts, either; I am losing entire stores. My internet browser’s search bar still auto-fills the names of former favorites — Madewell, H&M, J.Crew, Ann Taylor Loft, all the places I’d almost always been able to find something I wanted. But after I stopped looking at their dresses, I noticed myself losing interest in their other clothes, too. Suddenly it all looked so…heterosexual.
Maybe it is silly to grieve my lost appreciation for mass-market retailers, but not knowing where to shop makes me sad, because I love to shop. I am not looking to adopt some sort of Marie Kondo–esque Zen state in which I accept simplicity and minimalism into my life. I would prefer to have a shit ton of clothes I love. I would prefer to be so overwhelmed by choice that I must plan my outfits in advance. In my senior year of high school, my best friend and I had a competition to see who could go longest into the year without repeating an outfit. She won, but I made it into early November.
I feel overwhelmed by opening my closet and seeing clothes I can’t even remember wanting.
I feel overwhelmed, for sure, but not because there’s too much to choose from. I feel overwhelmed by opening my closet and seeing clothes I can’t even remember wanting. I feel overwhelmed when I run my hand over the soft silk of my dresses and wonder whether I should donate them, or keep them just in case I one day change again. I am overwhelmed by the pervasive sense of in-betweenness I feel — not yet ready to let go, unsure how to move forward.
The truth is that, for me, coming out was easy. I sent texts to my friends, emailed my brothers, and called my parents. Nobody was mad, or even very alarmed; everyone was proud, and happy for me. Somewhat to my reality-show-loving disappointment, nobody cried. I didn’t — technically — lose anything. I was happy too, and relieved, and still am. But enough time has gone by that the post-revelatory euphoria has faded, and so (at least, I think) has most people’s curiosity and interest in talking about this identity shift of mine. I’d rather my sexuality be no big deal than a huge one, but I also don’t exactly want it to be no size of deal at all.
After a lifetime of feeling left out of my friends’ dating conversations by my perpetual singleness, I’d looked forward to getting all caught up and included once I got into a relationship of my own. But I’ll never be caught up. I’ll never have experienced teenage love, and I’ll never have had the kind of sexy early-twenties hijinks so many of my friends have. I’m in my first relationship at 29, and I’m dating a woman, and almost all my friends are straight, and it’s not completely different, but it’s different enough. I’ve talked about guys with my friends all my life, but I just waived the extremely small amount of street cred I had. And the queer friends I’ve made have all been out much longer than I have, and around them, I don’t feel gay enough. I’m suddenly underqualified for everything.
So I feel adrift. Like everybody else, I am convinced I am singularly, hopelessly, particularly alone in my circumstances. There’s not a lot to do about it apart from, I guess, continuing to allow time to pass. I hope to eventually lose interest in my own queerness in favor of something else, like, I don’t know, artisanal bread baking. But for now, it is still fresh, and I am not yet comfortable.
As my identity has shifted, so, too, has the audience I have in mind when I get dressed. While I still want my straight friends to think I look great, I really, really want my queer female friends to think I look great. I also just want to look queer. At least more so. At least enough so that when I see a pair of lesbians on the street in Brooklyn, it is possible they will look at me and recognize me as a card-carrying member of the club.
While I know that queer women can wear any style they want and be no more or less queer because of it, there are some signifiers. But my tattoos are minimal, and my face is unpierced; I am pretty sure I lack the edge to pull off sweatpant joggers, and most hats just look stupid on me. If I want to look a little gayer at a formal event, I could wear a suit instead of a dress. But on ordinary days (which is most of them), I’m still trying to figure out how to look both a little gayer and like myself. (Mostly, so far, it is in the shoes.)
When I started dating my girlfriend, I used to watch over her shoulder while she browsed her favorite online store on her phone. (So soothing, like watching someone else play a video game you’ve never played and never will.) The first thing I noticed were the prices: They were suspiciously low.
“Is that in American dollars?!” I yelled.
“Yup,” she said. “Men’s clothing is where it’s at.”
I watched for another couple minutes in silence. Then:
“Wait! I like that shirt!!”
So, because it was only eight dollars, my girlfriend bought it for me. It’s a black, short-sleeved T-shirt, but the crew neck is high, and the sleeves are long enough to roll up, the way I like. I downloaded the store’s app to my own phone and have since begun cautiously injecting a bit of menswear into my closet. It’s not easy. For one thing, most men’s clothing is boring as hell. You just don’t see a male equivalent of, like, peplum. There is a way to look cool in simple combinations of pants and T-shirts and jackets — I’ve seen it done again and again on the various tomboy fashion Instagrams I’ve followed — but I haven’t quite figured it out for myself.
You have to let go of former selves to make space for new ones.
While it has been confusing to grow disconnected from so much of the clothing I once loved, it is also exciting to imagine what might take its place. It is a slow process (which is good for my bank account, at least), and often a frustrating one. Sometimes, rudely, the things that look cool on hot Instagram models do not look all that cool on me. Many of the things I’ve ordered online, warily and hopefully, I’ve returned. Successes are few, but invigorating: a hooded black spring jacket, men’s and therefore maybe the first I’ve owned with sleeves long enough for my arms; a pair of black sneakers that went on my feet like glass slippers. (If there’s one thing that has remained constant, it’s a heavy preference for black.)
It’s now early spring, which means it’s finally time to clean out my closet. This, really, is something I should have done months ago, regardless of seasonal appropriateness — it’s messy, full of things I haven’t worn in ages. I’m planning to get rid of most of them, which will be hard, but isn’t it almost always? When I went off to college, I nearly cried throwing out my JV tennis T-shirts, and they were sweat-stained and hideous. But you have to let go of former selves to make space for new ones.
I love that green dress I never wore, but I have a friend it’ll look great on, and I’d rather she have it now than I hang on to it just in case. As much as I hoped that I’d come out and feel at once fully realized, somehow done as a person, all the available evidence suggests I will only continue to change and grow in other, as yet unknown, ways. Maybe next year I’ll be into culottes.