It was a Wednesday evening. Gathered in a circle with women from my church in the fourth floor room of a local retirement home. The meeting of the women’s spirituality group from my church.
We’d been meeting like this for over a year and built up a trust. Trust for the silences between us, as much as the words we shared. This evening, we were exploring. It all began with the artist reflecting on her other persona — the flashy lady with the rhinestone sunglassess. And then the other women followed suit.
My always gracious pastor spoke of “bitch” energy. The hospice chaplain talked about wearing red sequin devil horns on her head. And an 80 year old widowed pastor’s wife, our host for the evening, recited poetry which spoke of howling with the wolves, with a shout of, “I will sleep with whomsoever I please!”
They were being so transgressive, these heterosexual church women. And it was beautiful. They were exploring areas beyond the boundaries of their normal life. Crossing the boundaries of traditional acceptability and stepping into their shadow — to play and frolic and laugh a little with the “other” residing there, within themselves.
Many nights before, as I sat in this circle, I was conscious of being different. Wondering if my experiences really fit in. Would they really understand what my life is like, if I were to share the deeper details of my emotions?
I would be self-conscious with these friends. Self-conscious, like when I walk into a public women’s restroom. Wondering if I will startle some unsuspecting woman who assumes, as many do, that I am a man. The uncomfortable look on the face of a stranger that says, “What are you doing here?”
But, in this circle, I know that such feelings are my own residual discomfort. My own internalized fears about being fully accepted (or not). I know that it is my own apprehension, because I know these women love me for all of me — in my hiking boots and baseball cap sitting with them from week to week.
Yet, this evening, it was not me. This time, it was them. Examining their thoughts and experiences for acceptability. Tentatively offering up images and emotions. This time, it was they who felt unsure as they expressed the “other” within themselves.
I felt affirmed and more self-confident, as they examined the ways that their own actions and imaging made them feel self-conscious. I felt affirmed because this is how I feel every day. Taking risks just to be myself. Unsure of what the reactions will be as others apprehend my gender-identity.
Strangely, since these fantasy conversations were resonating most with my real life experiences, I struggled to join in. It felt hard to identify my own fantasy-persona — something other than my normal butch lesbian self. I found it hard to identify some other persona that I might need to live into within myself. A playful experiment in other-ness, which would release something in me to joy.
Eventually, I shared about dressing up for a lesbian and gay costume ball a few years prior. About wearing a blue dress with puffy sleeves and a bow in back. About the lipstick and hairspray. The pearl necklace and white hose. And about my blue satin heels.
But this only came to mind as I first reflected of the teachings of the queenes in my life.
I’d been listening to these heterosexual women talk about red sequins and flamboyant divahood. And I’ve spent years with women and worn dresses and carried purses. I tried. I’ve really tried. Tried not to feel stupid in make-up. Tried to dress feminine, even when it felt awkward and unnatural. I tried — with a box full of heels on an upper shelf in my closet to prove it.
This evening, I talked about my brothers in drag. Men in dresses and make-up and heels. I spoke of the gifts they bring as they challenge the boundaries of acceptable gender identity. About their joyful flamboyance and how this joy challenges me to examine my own self-consciousness and residual shame. They challenge me to be myself. Proudly. Joyfully. Shamelessly.
And somehow, in the process of sharing about my brothers, I started talking about myselfin that dress and those heels and the make-up. And I began to remember how fun it was at that costume ball. How I felt energized. And how there was a part of me that, when the night was long past, wanted to share the pictures with everyone. This part of me that was excited and wanted to show her off.
To show off the lady in the blue satin heels. This (usually closeted) alter ego of mine that is fun. And flirtatious. Playful and silly. Frivolous and publicly sexual. She loves to be on display. And gets scared when she isn’t the center of attention — instead of the other way around. She doesn’t need to make sense. And she loves to make people laugh.
But there was a part of me that was somehow ashamed to show the pictures of this lady in blue. This part that worried that people might go, “Huh?! You dressed up as a woman for Halloween?” This frightened part of me knew that for me to wear this dress as a “costume” was dangerous and transgressive.
And so I only showed a few trustworthy people. Showing the pictures tentatively with much explanation as to how it came to be. And we would laugh. But I wasn’t sure that they understood me — or if I just looked ridiculous. And so the pictures got put away, on some shelf, in a closet.
But late on this Wednesday evening, these church women laughed with me as I explained. And I knew they understood the joyous contradiction of what “shouldn’t” even be a contradiction. That this woman, dressed up like a woman — and it was hilarious.
Not like some might have — that I’m some lesbian feminist who really wants to be a man, and she finally discovered her natural womaness in a dress. No.
They understood that this is my shadow side. Strange as that may be. That somehow, it’s most comfortable for me to be in a baseball cap and hiking boots. Natural for me to be approached by men in gay bars. That this is me and I am content with the hair on my legs and I can’t figure out anymore how I could live any other way.
And because I have found my home in myself in this way. And because these women know and love and are comfortable with the Chris of the baseball cap who is a founding member of the women’s group (and don’t even think that’s so strange). And because they embraced that Chris with me and love me while I live into her in plain view in the center of a community which is at root a Reformed church. Because they do that so comfortably, they can see quite naturally, how strange and contradictory it is for me to prance around in a dress with a “man” on my arm.
And after years of women trying to show me how to wear a dress, it was my brothers who prepared the way and made sense of it. And of course it is different. Because I am not a man in drag. And I am told that I don’t act like a gay man in drag, but rather like a straight man acting like a gay man in drag. Which is indeed a few too many identities to keep track of at once! A lesbian woman who (in a dress) seems like a straight man acting like a gay man in drag. “I’m every woman…and every man.” Ok, you have to hear that with the music… Chris is strutting like Whitney Houston.
I am not a man and I do not want to be a man. That is not my identity. And I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body. But still when my therapist talks about “the little girl” growing up, I always have to think just a couple seconds too long — to remember that she is talking about me and not someone else. Because I only know (really know) the little tomboy who was me (and never went away) and the little person I was. And “the little girl” was only someone I occassionally tried to be for other people, but never for myself. So that against-her-will pretend “little girl” wasn’t even related the lady in blue who is my shadow.
Thank you my brothers. My sistahs. Flamboyant divas. Drag queens in feather boas. For daring to share with us, all of who you are. And, in the process, for helping me to touch the “other” inside of myself.
The lady in the blue satin heels, who is my shadow.
©1998 Chris Paige. All rights reserved.
With thanks to Noach for helping me remember Christina Sabrina these many years later.