I own a black circle skirt with rainbow buttons down the front. It’s one of my favourite things in my wardrobe. I bought it - and the matching crop top - after my friend sent me a photo saying they thought the outfit would suit me. I've worn both items a lot, styled both separately and together. The skirt in particular I wear year-round, often with stripy black-and-grey tights, and it makes me feel cute and queer and put together.
Over the last year, as I've grown more invested in presenting as a guy, I tend not to wear the skirt without my binder. The dysphoria around my chest is more or less manageable in jeans or dungarees, but wearing a skirt turns it up another notch. If I'm binding, I'm just a guy in a skirt. (Ok, that’s technically true whether I wear my binder or not, but oh boy, do I look good in a skirt with a flat chest.)
The problem is that, in our cisnormative society, skirts are something that women wear. While that’s not even slightly true - people of all genders can wear skirts! - there are definitely lots of people who think that. And as someone who has been on testosterone for exactly five days, who doesn’t remotely ‘pass’ as a man, the skirt is just another (incorrect) confirmation that I’m a cis woman.
I try not to resent the people who pass me on the street and assume I’m a woman. I do it too: as humans, we’re wired to sort things into categories to make sense of the world. It doesn’t take away the itching wrongness, though, or the fact that people thinking of me as a woman makes me want to throw up. It’s not their fault, of course, because it takes a lot of effort to unlearn the idea that someone with tits and hips who’s wearing a skirt is automatically a woman.
(When it’s someone who knows me - who I’m out to - that’s thinking of me as a woman, it’s different. That hurts far more and is harder to forgive.)
I am not less of a man because I wear skirts. I know that, but it doesn’t change the anxiety that I’m not dressing masculine ‘enough’. I worry that men don’t wear high-waisted jeans, don’t wear dungarees, don’t wear red, cropped knitted jumpers (sweaters, if you’re in the states). They do, of course. But we police gender roles so closely, and I already feel like I’m fighting to prove to the world that I’m really a man.
It doesn’t help when people tell me, to my face, that wearing a skirt invalidates my gender.
Towards the end of 2021, I was getting ready for an in-person appointment with my community psychiatric nurse (CPN). I had been wearing my skirt for most of the day, but I hesitated as I went to put a book into my bag and grabbed my phone instead. It’s really fucked up that I’m considering changing out of my skirt off before I go to my mental health appointment because I need my CPN to sign off on my GP prescribing me testosterone, I texted a friend. I don’t need to do that, right?
I was expecting them to agree that it was unnecessary. I wasn’t expecting them to tell me that they thought I should get changed. So I swapped out my skirt for jeans and my jumper for one of the tops that my girlfriend teases me for looking like a “basic tech bro” when I wear it. I thought I was probably overreacting. I thought that someone with trans patients would understand that gender presentation doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with gender identity.
“I can tell that you’re [really a guy] because you used to wear flowery skirts all the time, and now you dress like this.”
I’m paraphrasing my CPN slightly because I can’t remember exactly what he said. I can remember the feeling, though, the white-hot flash of anger and fear and shame. I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw up. I tried to breathe.
I know my options: push back against the person who is in charge of my mental health care and try to educate him on why what he said was wrong. But white, straight, cis men in positions of power don’t always react especially well to being told that they’re wrong, and this white, straight, cis man was not only someone I needed to sign off on me being “stable enough” to start testosterone, but someone who controlled my access to the antidepressants and antipsychotics I am dependent on.
So I could try to explain that whether or not I was wearing a skirt had nothing to do with me being a man, or I could nod and swallow down my anger and fear and that burning shame.
Trans people - queer people, disabled people, people of colour, etc., etc. - shouldn’t be put in this position. We shouldn’t be in positions where we have to educate health professionals in the first place (unless we’re being paid for it), but we definitely shouldn’t be in the position where we’re forced to choose between educating them and feeling safe. In that moment, I couldn’t trust that trying to explain that men can wear skirts wouldn’t have repercussions.
I haven’t worn my skirt since.
It’s still hanging in my wardrobe, where my things sometimes skim down the brightly coloured rainbow buttons. I know I’ll be able to wear it again, because I’ve started T. In a year, maybe even six months, my body will look different. My voice will be lower. My body fat will be redistributed. When binding, I will look a lot more like a cis man. And while I’m not interested in anyone thinking I’m cis, I don’t want anyone to be able to doubt my masculinity.
Is it weak, for me to let people take away the ‘fuck your gender roles’ power of being a guy in a skirt? I used to feel so powerful being a guy in a skirt. But something twisted inside me when my CPN told me that he sees me trying to dress more masc as confirmation that I am, in fact, trans. Maybe it proves that my masculinity is very fragile, but - as I’m fond of saying - cis men’s masculinity is just as fragile, and they don’t have dozens of very vocal columnists trying to tell them that they’re not really men because they have a vagina.
Maybe right now it’s enough for me to be a man in bright yellow leggings at yoga.