For the past month, I’ve wandered out into the world with a set of brightly painted fingernails. From the office to the gym, I’ve sported red nails, green nails, and even Halloween-inspired French tips to keep it seasonally relevant. Now it’s important to know that I never intended for my nails to be political or gendered. My reason for painting them stemmed from a need to curb nail biting, and not from a desire to embark on some exercise on internalized misogyny and homophobia. But as I have discovered over the past few weeks, operating outside of gender norms-intentionally or unintentionally ― is always political.
At first, I was nervous about what strangers would think of my nails. I’m incredibly self-conscious, and I’ve always refrained from doing anything that would garner negative attention. So in the beginning I hid my nails whenever I passed by someone whom I thought would judge them, but to my surprise, more people than not complimented them. Coworkers appreciated them and told me how much they looked forward to every new color. People on the street smiled at me upon seeing them, and friends didn’t bat an eye at my decision. Of course I received the odd stare or off-hand comment, but they didn’t affect me nearly as much as I had expected, and as time went by I actually found myself feeling more confident because I felt like I was taking ownership and pride in myself. Showing off my nails was like telling the world, “I don’t need you to like me to like myself.” It led to this realization that how you perceive yourself is more important than how others do, and that you have the power to ignore, reject, and rise above the negativity and self-loathing others throw at you. My nails helped me discover that I don’t want or need validation and acceptance from people who will only accept me on conditional terms. Any person who has problems with my nails is not a person I want in my life.
I have to be honest, however, and say that the experience hasn’t been entirely pleasant. There have been times when I have felt ashamed and embarrassed enough to want to wipe them clean. The first time was when I met my mentee, a 13-year-old boy from Chelsea. Before our first session, I considered removing my nail polish because I didn’t want to make him feel awkward or uncomfortable, but my friend reassured me to keep them. She told me that it could be a potential positive learning opportunity for him. When I showed up I discovered this wasn’t going to be the positive, eye-opening experience I was hoping for. The kids pointed and quietly snickered, and my heart sunk as I heard my mentee’s friend say “I thought you asked for a guy mentor.” In that moment, I wasn’t a confident guy who happened to have his nails painted — I was some sort of gender non-conforming “freak” to them. The experience reinforced the reality of what it’s like to do something outside of our toxic gender norms. It reminded me of just how painful it is to be completely rejected for something as insignificant as nail polish, and how deeply entrenched our notions of toxic masculinity and gender structures have become.
Surprisingly, the most negative responses have come from other gay men. The last two guys I went out with felt compelled enough to comment on them. The first gentleman attempted to score brownie points by reassuring me he was “cool with them,” as if him somehow accepting my shortcomings was enough for me to go home with him. The second gentleman, however, was a little more transparent with his feelings. Upon seeing them, he said “what’s the deal with your nails?” When I explained that I simply liked nail polish, he followed up with “oh, you just didn’t seem like that kind of guy.” Later on in the date he said something along the lines of, “I think it’ll just look so weird when I have to look at your nail polish as you’re jacking me off.”
I was disgusted by his crude comment and the implications behind it. I knew when he said “that kind of guy” what he was really saying was “flamboyant and effeminate gay guy.” He was spewing internalized homophobia, emasculating me, and effectively invalidating trans, gender nonconforming, and queer people. He was effectively saying that femininity was bad, and that I was less attractive because I didn’t adhere to his rigid expectations of gender. I was no longer being rejected and dehumanized by closed-minded, inexperienced straight people — I was being rejected by the very people who were supposed to accept me the most. And in that moment, I realized I had an obligation to make my nails into something political — if not for me then for all of the other feminine and gender queer people. Because it didn’t matter if the act of painting my nails was relatively unimportant to me — it was important and vital to others. And to apologize for my nails or wipe them clean would be to validate the hateful, ignorant things others had to say. Wiping them clean would be an announcement to the world that I was right to feel ashamed and embarrassed for doing something outside of toxic gender structures, and it would only further legitimize the hatred and bigotry hurled at transgender and non-binary people on a daily basis. It would be taking a step back for the fight for gender equality, and it would be letting bullies win. And as a competitive queer, I have a problem with letting bullies win.
Two nights ago I cut my nails and removed the polish — not because of what that douche-bag or anyone else said to me. I cut them simply because they got too long and the polish chipped to the ugliest of degrees, and to be honest, I’ve felt a little less colorful and confident. But I’ll be painting them again soon, and I’ll make sure when I step out into the world again I’ll hold my head up high.