Bowties, Binders, and Binaries

Keyes and I were sitting on the top ledge on the South side of the State House, looking toward Main Street and USC’s campus and Immaculate Consumption, one of the my favorite coffeeshops. It was dark, but the lights from downtown shone all around us.

“But what about—” I stopped myself. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. “What about countries with strict gender binaries—you know, for dress and where you can go and stuff. I want to be culturally sensitive, but I’m not growing my hair out.”

Keyes paused and looked at me as if that were the most absurd concern ever. “Of course not,” they said. “You’ll pass as a man.”

Something in my heart fluttered. “I mean, you think—I mean, would that be okay?”

“Yeah, totally,” they said. “You’ll just look like a well-groomed European guy.”

I’d been toying with the idea of buying a chest binder ever since I had a long conversation on gender fluidity with a person I’d started dating that summer. I didn’t feel very dysphoric about my body, but I’d made a hard left turn into a gender non-conforming gender expression the year before. I’d left a non-profit job where they knew I dated women but where I was afraid to wear ties to work because I thought they might reprimand me to a 100% LGBTQ organization where I wore bowties to almost every presentation. I bought men’s shoes and shirts and friends gave me old and new ties and I started using men’s deodorant.

These were small things, but they felt like big steps. And I felt myself leap through them in this new workplace. No boss told me “we might alienate our base.” No teacher told me about trying to pray the gay away from her students–though I did get kicked out of a middle school in rural South Carolina because “you can’t talk about sex here” (when I was actually doing a presentation about LGBTQ rights in the US and how to be an ally to LGBTQ students).

It wasn’t like this shift was entirely new, though. Ever a country kid, when we played in the woods, I always complained that it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t pee standing up like my brother. I’d tried out for the boys’ basketball team in seventh grade because they didn’t offer a girls’ team. I dressed up like a “French painter” for our fourth grade Halloween party (replete with a goatee and beret) and had the girls in the girls’ bathroom convinced I was a boy. (As I often have to now, I told them “I’m a girl” and that I was, indeed, in the right bathroom.)

At a service trip in Jamaica while I was in grad school, high school students yelled to me, “Are you a boy or a girl?” because of my short hair, cargo pants, and penchant for shoveling cement. I was told by former college classmates that I was a “gateway lesbian” for them (long before I even came out to myself) because, even with the long hair and little self-awareness I had in college, “there was already something gender non-conforming about you.”

But I think it was more about space, about safety. In South Carolina (and federally), there are no laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in the workplace. Though there are some options on the federal level (thanks to the policies of the EEOC developed in 2012 for gender identity and 2015 for sexual orientation), for much of my professional career, I could still have gotten fired in South Carolina for being LGBTQ. And when I was doing presentations in schools when I worked at a rape crisis center, I was bound by the laws of the Comprehensive Health Education Act, which bars health teachers from teaching about “alternative lifestyles, including homosexuality” unless in the context of talking about HIV/AIDS and other STDs. In fact, I constantly felt this odd sensation of erasing myself in front of those classrooms, as if I myself were “she-who-must-not-be-named” and yet was standing there in some kind of disguise of straightness, even to the point that a teacher did, in fact, talk to me about praying the gay away from one of her students. So, needless to say, I didn’t feel entirely safe being myself.

So when I finally was in a place where my identity was both confirmed and valued, there was something magical about being able to wear the clothes that I wanted. And I became more comfortable with myself, and with the way I walked through the world.

After Keyes and my conversation on the State House steps, I bought my first binder last fall (from gc2b, which I totally recommend). It was surprisingly comfortable. The first time I wore it (to work, of all places), I thought, “Well, that was an interesting experiment.” But more and more, I’d rather pick it up over a bra. And I bought an extra one for this journey, which might come in particularly helpful as I travel through India (a country renowned for many wonderful things but also for street harassment against women).

I still don’t know exactly where I stand on the non-binary part of the gender spectrum. I went from erasing myself in front of young people all day to sharing stories with health providers about how I’ve come to understand my gender identity and sexual orientation. It was a kind of whiplash, but I embraced it wholeheartedly. And as I continue to explore my gender identity more, I wonder what will happen when I’m not sure I can call myself “woman” anymore. Or cisgender. Or trans, even. Would I tell the same, perhaps simpler stories in my presentations, or do I let in more nuance? Do you let an audience know you’re questioning—when many people already equate “non-binary” with “confused”?

All I know is that “binder” was (and is) on my packing list. And, though I haven’t had the chance yet, I hope I find the right opportunity to wear a bowtie along the way.

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