I have lived in New York City — you know, the place known for its fashion and bold attitude, the 525,600 minutes song, taxis — my entire life, but it wasn’t until I graduated from high school that I began to experiment with my own personal style. That was when I decided that I was finally brave enough to live freely and authentically, just like the city that raised me.
Growing up, I always knew there was something different about me. For much of my childhood, I attended Catholic School and was taught to conform to ideals of what's considered to be socially acceptable. Since I never fit neatly into the gender boxes, I was put through the ringer — see: emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse from peers, strangers, and, unfortunately, even my family. My twin brother would often call me a “faggot,” and my father has written incredibly homophobic and transphobic messages to me via email and on social media.
When my family found out that I was transgender, they weren’t emotionally supportive. I didn’t feel comfortable enough telling them outright, so they found out by seeing pictures of the way I like to dress via social media. At the time, I remember my mom asking me — in the most sarcastic tone of voice — “What do you want me to buy you? Dresses?” My home didn’t feel safe; I lived in fear and was unable to express who I am. If I wore women’s clothing at home, I would subject myself to more abuse and ridicule by the very people who are supposed to love me unconditionally.
Despite this, I started wearing my mother’s shoes at home when I was alone around the age of 12. I was close friends with girls and would go shopping with them to look at clothes, but I was never gutsy enough to try anything on. I didn’t want people to think I was gay.
It wasn’t until after my 18th birthday that I first wore a “woman’s shirt” in public. I spent a few months thinking a lot about my identity and how I wanted to be seen in the world, and I knew that I no longer wanted to identify as a cisgender man and attempt to conform to male gender expectations. After much reflection, I realized that although I am biologically male, I feel happier and more like myself when I present as a woman. I recently posted on my social media accounts that my new pronouns are she/her/hers. And this summer, I will be starting hormone replacement therapy.
Experimenting with fashion has made me realize a lot about gender norms and how people feel about a biological male exuding feminine energy and liking feminine things. It also reminds me of a time when fashion, which is supposed to be my armor, worked against me: In August of 2017, I was assaulted on the subway in New York City for wearing makeup and short black shorts. I’ve since written about the experience and what people should do when they see violence in public (spoiler alert: if you see something, say something). It’s not just sad to think about the fact that people think they can hurt others because of their taste in fashion — it’s dangerous.
I want to remain hopeful that, in my lifetime, we will be able to get rid of gender discrimination and violence in America. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 28 transgender people were murdered in 2017 in the United States alone, most of which are trans women of color — and that number is only growing. One of the stories from last year that resonated with me was the killing of Kedarie Johnson, a gender-fluid 16 year old in Iowa. Johnson was killed by two men because he was wearing a pink headband with leggings. The men who killed him thought he was a biological woman, murdering him once they found out otherwise. As someone who has been a victim of LGBTQ+-related violence and has survived a hate crime, this story makes me think about the night I was attacked, and if I had been killed. My story, as well as the stories of others who were murdered for expressing their gender the way they wanted to, makes me only want to continue fighting for LGBTQ+ rights — domestically and globally. But I, along with my clothes, am not enough.
The fashion industry plays an important role in this fight. Think about it: mainstream society pays attention to brands — especially high-fashion ones, whether they can afford it or not, and the imagery we consume holds power. If there is more representation of us on billboards and campaigns across the world, less people would be taken aback by the rare sighting of someone who is gender-fluid or gender nonconforming in their daily lives. The solution may seem far flung, but it’s not complicated — especially considering how some designers have pushed progress along. Take John Galliano, who, despite his anti-semitic remarks, has long championed diversity of gender expression: As recent as the spring 2016 show for Maison Martin Margiela, he sent four male models down the runway in dresses, skirts, and more. For spring 2018, Andreas Kronthaler and Vivienne Westwood put male models in full-blown ball gowns. Brands like Eckhaus Latta, Vaquera, Sies Marjan, and more continue to push the needle. But we need more designers to see gender-fluidity not as a trend, but as an increasingly visible population of people who need clothing just like everyone else.
Fashion lends a way to choose how we want to showcase ourselves every day. And, for those of us who consider the world their catwalk, owning every moment along the way is part of the journey. My style says that I like to have fun with my appearance by trying on different cuts and silhouettes in a world where people are afraid to stand out from the rest of the crowd in public. It’s my creative expression; a means to break from gender norms — one of the only ways I can challenge how others perceive me. So if fashion is the avenue through which I can change and reinvent myself — on my own terms — then why can’t it change the world too?
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the inside — and the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.