The Queer Reader

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Beyond Masculinity

Beyond Masculinity

I was not drawn at any one moment to try on my girlfriend’s clothes. Rather, it was an
accumulation of desire. Not desired all at once, but slowly. Without notice. It started to build
when I tried on my girlfriend’s top many months ago. We laughed when we saw how I looked in an off-the-shoulder-top. So I took the top off and put my shirt back on. For months, I did not even think about that moment. But all the time, the seed of that desire must have been there still, sitting stagnant. I didn’t consider it until I began writing an essay about gender. As I recounted my superficial first experience of wearing my girlfriend’s clothes, my thoughts returned to wearing feminine clothing. I would try on my girlfriend’s clothes one more time. For the sake of the story. When the time came to perform “research” for my essay, I was eager to wear her clothes, to understand what it was I was trying to say or learn about gender, even my own gender.

At the same time, I had never felt so unsure of myself, so unsure of who I was, unsure of
what kind of man I was. The only person that really knew I wasn’t a masculine person was my girlfriend. I was afraid of proving this fact to myself and wearing the clothes to prove it to other people.

I told my girlfriend that I wanted to try on her clothes, but also, that I did not want to. I
was afraid, terrified even. Afraid that I would open up a new part of myself, a part I had never fully allowed myself to see: a feminine side. I didn’t know if there was nothing more to that side than wanting to try on feminine clothes, or if there was a world of femininity waiting beyond the experience. I was afraid I would enjoy it, and I didn’t know what enjoying it would entail. I couldn’t commit myself to the possibility of not being masculine or being genderless, or even more frightening, feminine. I thought: What if this is just the beginning? What if I try on these clothes, and next, I want to try on makeup, and next, I’ll be cross-dressing every day, and who knows what else? What if I don’t want to be masculine anymore?

I had never consciously thought I was masculine. I only unconsciously believed it. I
believed myself to be masculine because of my beard or the fact that I liked women. I had never before considered that these things I had taken for granted did not necessarily restrict me to masculinity. The fact that they were taken for granted, if anything, confirmed the precariousness of my supposed masculinity. Its fragility lay in its unexamined presence.

Before I could try on my girlfriend’s clothes, my masculinity had to disintegrate to the
point of hopelessness. I cried, lamenting its departure. All my masculine strength, my masculine body, and my masculine perception of myself were quickly leaving me. Or maybe I was leaving them. At the time, it felt like I was the one being abandoned.

I walked over to my girlfriend’s closet, sobs still passing through me, guided along by her
hands. She showed me each of the tops she had in her closet. How she knew I wanted to try on a top, I don’t know. I think she knew I’d hate the way my hairy legs would look in a skirt.

“You don’t have to try on anything if it’s going to make you more upset,” she said.

“No. I want to,” I said.

We rifled through her closet.

No. Too feminine. No. Not feminine enough. No.

Maybe.

It was an off-the-shoulder top with spaghetti straps and a patterning of lemons against a
black background. I picked it out because I liked the way it looked on my girlfriend. Maybe I could allow myself to look equally beautiful, even if that meant feminine. I wiggled my arms through the unfamiliar and multiple straps of the top, and she tightened the straps when I finally got it on. She smiled at me, the way she does when she’s admiring me, and said I looked good. I didn’t believe her.

I walked over to the mirror. I didn’t believe I was looking at myself. I felt that I was
looking at a dream self, one that explored my deepest desires and fears. Perhaps there had ceased to be a difference between that and my waking self. I had never before envisioned myself in my girlfriend’s clothes. Perhaps I was becoming a new kind of waking self. I normally saw myself as the bearded guy with short hair from the Midwest who dresses like a bearded guy from the Midwest: plaids, dark colors, plenty of jeans and unassuming outfits. I couldn’t see myself as the bearded guy with short hair from the Midwest who dresses in his girlfriend’s expressive and feminine clothes.

The second item I tried on was a light purple low-cut top with straps. At this point, my
anxious crying had more or less stopped. I started to recognize myself again. This top felt a little less feminine, but I didn’t feel any more or less comfortable. I kind of liked the way my arms looked in the top. I liked the way it slimmed my torso. I analyzed my body for the first time in a long time. The top just barely covered my belly button. I wondered if my chest hair looked wrong in such a feminine top. I wondered if I looked good. I couldn’t say.

My girlfriend moved to take the top from me, but I decided to keep it on. It didn’t fit me
right; it was too small. But still, I wanted to keep it on me. It felt right to wear it. What had felt so unnerving moments ago now felt strangely comforting. I felt that maybe I could wear the top out eventually, with the right pants, the right accessories, the right kind of confidence.

I no longer see my own clothes as masculine, perhaps because I do not see the person
inside the clothes as masculine. Perhaps I am not so masculine because I am no longer so fragile.

Nick Rueth is a literature major at Northwestern University, where he likes to read almost as much as he likes to write. He is currently at work on a novella about male sexuality and homoeroticism. When not working, he spends his free time with friends, cooking, and playing guitar.

(Illustration by Henry Chen)

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