Lace and All: A Story from Bali

I was sick in Bali last week (tummy troubles), and though I picked up some antibiotics, my Airbnb host mom (who’s pretty much like a homestay mom to me by now) also took me to the temple to pray for “no sick.” She lent me clothes to wear so I could go with her–a lacy shirt, a sarong–special clothing that women wear to go to the temple.

The day before, at the end of a nice chat, her 20-something son had asked me, “So, do I call you ‘miss,’ or…?”

“Uh, either,” I said.

“But… I mean,” he fumbled, perhaps thinking I didn’t understand him. “Are you a girl or a boy?”

“Uh, well… I’m in between.”

He gave a perplexed look.

I smiled. At least I’d tried. “‘Miss.’ You can call me ‘miss.'”

When I put on the lace shirt and skirt in front of me, I tried to remember the last time I’d worn something so femme. (Hint: It’s been a long time.) Even the longyi I wore in Myanmar–which to American eyes looked like a “skirt”–was menswear.

I put the clothing on reluctantly. Though I felt uncomfortable and awkward, I was surprised that I wasn’t more so. I remembered when I wore skirts and tank tops and dangly earrings in my 20s and felt good about it. It reminded me how far I’ve come, and also how problematic it is that femininity is so often villainized and devalued. How, in terms of gender expression, masculinity offers a much more rigid box to play in than femininity. How in moving more toward a non-binary identity–and one largely rooted in masculinity–I feel compelled to disavow my femininity. How part of becoming butch or masculine-of-center or a trans man or transmasculine is sometimes (often?) haunted by the ghost of misogyny, and stepping into any section of the “man box” so often means putting off and putting down and deriding the feminine.

But no matter where my gender journey takes me, I wonder what it would mean if it were okay for a man to wear lace or for a transmasculine non-binary person to wear a sarong. If in taking on masculinity, we didn’t feel pressured to villainize (or objectify) femininity–even our own. (Note: Some folks in the non-binary, queer, trans and other communities do play a lot with and work within such gender expressions, but for those not clearly “androgynous” or falling to “one side” or the other of the gender binary, there’s often a lot of pushback and even violence.)

So as I walked up to the temple in my sarong and lace shirt, yeah, I felt awkward. I sort of felt like I was wearing a costume. Like I was getting looks not only because I’m a white American but also because I looked like a boy in girl’s clothing. But I also WAS wearing a kind of costume–clothes not from my culture, rituals that are not mine but were so generously shared with me. A precious opportunity to be part of a ceremony I never would have experienced on my own. I was so grateful to my Airbnb host, and I was also grateful to my former selves who wore more feminine clothes than I do now but still probably would’ve been uncomfortable with all this lace. And who paved the path for me to become who I am now, in all my bowtie-wearing glory.

So, here I am, lace and all, happy to be who I am, and be becoming who I am, even when others don’t quite get it yet.

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