Warning: Images below may be considered NSFW for some readers.
I want you to take a second and look at yourself in the mirror. You may be thinking: I do that everyday what's different about today? Well, today I want you to really look at yourself. Who do you see staring back at you? Is it the real you or the mask of you, which you hide behind? Are you brave enough to be who you really are?
I was standing on the platform of my subway stop in New York City waiting for the train to take me to work. I remember feeling fabulous that day -- to use an overused word.
I was wearing a pair of camel-colored, wide-legged corduroy pants with vertical stripes in black, charcoal, blue, and teal; frayed edges where there should have been hems. The pants were a throwback to the '70s the first time the '70s made a resurgence in fashion.
I was wearing a jewel-toned teal button up with a wide brown belt and brown Frye boots. It was a bit chilly that day so I was also wearing my I-Feel-Like-Olivia-Pope-From-Scandal-when-I-wear-it charcoal gray trench and carrying a brown distressed Marc by Marc Jacobs tote. I was boldly and happily expressing myself in my personal style. I felt pretty.
My mind was adrift as I waited. I was listening to my iPod -- lyrics running through my head, drum beats pounding in my ears, thoughts of "Where is the train" beginning to frustrate me. While my mind was wandering down its own path untethered, my subconscious had taken over. When mind and body reconnected I honed in on that word "pretty." I didn't feel handsome. I felt pretty. (I know there are men who are more pretty than handsome but societal gender rules tend to leave no room to call a man pretty.)
As I continue to find myself more introspective about who I am these days, I became very aware that I was thinking of myself presenting more female than male. Everything about my clothing was decidedly male, but I wasn't thinking of myself as male. Anyone looking at me on that subway platform would have seen a male form with no idea that he felt he was exuding feminine vibes. I felt pretty. It was a very strange moment to realize, connect with, and acknowledge that feeling. No one around me knew what was happening to me on the inside, but clarity was washing over me.
Growing up in a small town, I became aware very quickly that my appearance was very important to the adults around me. I remember a time specifically in the '80s when highlighted hair for men was very popular. I wanted highlights so badly I took the hydrogen peroxide bottle from the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, poured the clear liquid into my hands, slicked it through my hair, then waited for my brunette strands to lighten. They didn't lighten, of course. Wrong kind of peroxide. But hey, give me some credit for trying to be resourceful.
"The seeds of being ashamed of myself were planted so long ago in the garden of my youth, that no matter how much preening I've done there remain thorns sharper than ever in the landscape of my adulthood."
When I asked permission to get the highlights done by a professional, I was met with a response that still annoys me to this day: "What will the older ladies at church think when you get up to sing?" That question wasn't so much about what those ladies would think of me as about what those ladies would think about the person asking me that question -- my father. That question was the spark that ignited my flame of apprehension. It wasn't even my spark and yet it has consumed me for most of my life. For too long, I have feared what other people think about me -- what I'm wearing, what I'm doing, what I'm saying, how I'm walking or gesturing, how I live -- and their response if they object.
"In all our lives what we believe colors how we feel about ourselves..." -- Deepak Chopra.
I believed I had to act, dress and present myself in society's idea of a man because of the people around me. I struggled to do it, only presenting my authentic self behind closed doors because I was afraid and ashamed. All because I didn't fit the mold someone else wanted me to fit into.
My self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth were colored for years by the ideals of other people. As an adult, I have often stepped outside the expected boundaries but not without fear of rejection, retaliation, humiliation, and/or punishment. If I experienced none of those things from outsiders, then I've been known to heap one or more of them upon myself. The seeds of being ashamed of myself were planted so long ago in the garden of my youth, that no matter how much preening I've done there remain thorns sharper than ever in the landscape of my adulthood.
I had an epiphany that day on the subway platform. I don't know why it took so long. I know I've always been more feminine than masculine. It's in my mannerisms and style choices. Since the day I discovered fashion magazines I've been drawn more to the creativity and beauty of women's fashion. To this day, I read Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and W to be inspired by what's new in women's fashion. I then take that inspiration and apply it to my own male-based wardrobe: a color here, a ring there, a brooch on a lapel, a shoe with more of a heel; mixing masculine and feminine. This is not new information, but it was an aha moment -- a turning point if you will -- toward fully accepting who I am as a person and expressing who I am as a person with more courage and confidence than ever before.
This has been a very thought provoking few weeks for me. I began to wonder if I was gender-fluid (is that preposterousness?). I don't feel I'm transgender. I'm not a transvestite. I don't want to be a drag queen. Some days I simply feel more female than male, but ultimately I believe my inner and outer genders are a match. This questioning, however, led to a deeply honest conversation with my dear friend, MJ, who considers herself gender-fluid.
MJ let me talk about what I was feeling and ask questions that she answered if she could. Then without fear of judgment she revealed details of her own life's journey to me. It was personal and eye opening. I'm proud of her and respect her. She is one of the brave ones, courageous enough to live her life in the light instead of just the shadows. I was searching for a label; a group to identify with, but I didn't need that at all. I just needed to be brave enough to be myself, show myself. MJ helped me see that.
I am a man -- a homosexual man. I present as a man. I'm attracted to men. I just happen to like to mix the masculine and feminine aesthetics in my everyday presentation. And what of it? It's simply about having the courage to express my personal style.
If I want to wear eyeliner, I wear eyeliner. It looks good on me. I'm more confidently embracing the fashionable embellishments with which I choose to adorn myself. I'm also more confidently embracing myself and living as a more authentic me than ever before.
"I am a man -- a homosexual man. I present as a man. I'm attracted to men. I just happen to like to mix the masculine and feminine aesthetics in my everyday presentation. And what of it? "
My courage grew three sizes that day on the subway platform when I turned the corner of acceptance and found my own arms open to welcome me. I'm now less worried about other people's reactions to my trying on women's shoes or testing nude lipsticks. What does any of it really matter? It's my life. I own it. Courage and confidence are key factors for any of us attempting to be a self that deviates from society's norm.
There's a newfound joy in my heart. It's a joy I've found because no matter how often I said I was being my authentic self, I realize I wasn't until now. My journey has taken a turn down a flower-lined path that I've honestly been afraid to walk down. Blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity (though not being androgynous) is something I think I've been searching for the courage to do since I became aware of fashion and style back in high school.
"Be brave. No one remembers a coward."
That quote came to my attention in a story about Marigay McKee in the November issue of Harper's Bazaar -- the Daring issue. Daring is an appropriate word to be swirling around in the mixed bag of descriptor words in my head right now. As an adjective it means "bold or courageous; fearless; adventurous." I've never quite seen myself as any of those things. I often sell myself short though. We are our own worst enemy; harder on ourselves than anyone else could possibly be.
Now back to the that request to look in the mirror that opened this piece. The reflection in my mirror has often been distorted by cloudy black spots of fear and self-loathing revealing a dysmorphic, shadowy, confused image. Is that my truth? I think not. But I'm only now beginning to fully accept my truth and have the courage to see the man -- his beard and his curled lashes -- staring back at me.
In one of her trademark voice overs, Meredith Grey of Grey's Anatomy spoke this kernel of wisdom: "They say shame controls every aspect of human behavior. It's about who we believe we are. But in the end you can't hide. The truth is right there for the world to see. Our shame can choke us, kill us... if we decide to let it. Don't let that happen to you."
I refuse to be ashamed of or scared to be myself any longer.
The time is now to find the courage to be who you truly are. I, for one, have wasted too much time worrying about the opinion of others. I refuse to waste another minute. There are heroes and role models and pioneers out there for you to glean courage from. Or you can be the pioneer and forge your own path. The world needs you.
I'm brave enough to be me, to show the world the real me! Are you? Embrace yourself. Accept yourself. Express yourself. Be yourself. If I can find the courage, you can find the courage. We've got to be who we are, people.
"Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit..." -- E. E. Cummings.
The journey (and the questioning) continues...
This piece originally appeared on I am Michael, Hear me Rohrer