Em Perper outside smiling with arms outstretched

By: Em Perper

Last night, I called my mom.

“Do you have any memories of me and clothes when I was little?”

She did. “I remember you went through a phase where you would only wear dresses, then only leggings, then only dresses with leggings.”

We laughed. I, too, remember my flamboyant, tulle-lined party dress obsession. As I got older, I took careful note of which brands, shoes, and backpacks were deemed cool — fashion was social currency. My family was frugal and refused to shell out for Aeropostale or Abercrombie. Instead, my mom and my grandmother guided me through the racks of every Goodwill and Salvation Army within driving distance, devoting entire days to thrift shopping.

Discovering fashion magazines was a revelation. When I was 12, my grandparents moved houses, and we unearthed my mom’s stash of Seventeen from the 1970s and 80s. I subscribed, too, amassing a collection of hundreds of issues. Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, ElleGirl (R.I.P.), Nylon and Vogue took up residence in the deep drawers underneath my daybed. Each new issue brought a jolt of euphoria. I dreamed of working for one of these magazines as a fashion journalist or editorial assistant.

I studied the women featured in the pages of these magazines. I noticed their slim hips, their small waists, their midriffs bronzed and gleaming with subtly sculpted abs and their body hair (or lack thereof). Logically, I understood these women were photoshopped rigorously. Now, I realize I was looking for myself on these pages. I wanted to hack womanhood the way these celebrities and models had. If my breasts were in perfect proportion to my belly button, to my legs, to the curve of my neck, then I would convince everyone that I was worthy, beautiful, secure.

In my mid-20s, I began to identify publicly as transgender, specifically non-binary. “Transgender” and “non-binary” are both umbrella terms I feel comfortable standing underneath. When I present at LGBTQ+ sensitivity trainings, I tell the audience my personal understanding of non-binary means I don’t identify as a man or a woman. I fall somewhere outside of that. That definition may not work for every non-binary person, but right now, it works for me.

Likewise, every transgender person’s experience is different. The stories about transgender people we see in the media are sensationalized and simplified for a mass audience and do little to communicate the nuances of lived experience. Coming into ourselves isn’t always linear or straightforward. Our identities and presentations may shift over the course of our lives. The labels I use to understand my experience have shifted over time and may continue to.

After coming out, for a long time, I eschewed anything I deemed “too feminine.” This was, of course, a ridiculous and futile pursuit. But I wanted to downplay the possibility of anyone perceiving me as a woman. It didn’t work.

One, I’m still regularly misgendered. People call me “ma’am,” “miss,” “lady” and “girl” with alarming regularity. Two, I’d inadvertently bought into a misogynist binary. I started to realize I missed some of the things I associate with femininity, like jewelry and nail polish and makeup. These things aren’t inherently “masculine” or “feminine.” They’re just things we’ve assigned these associations to, in the same way there’s no purpose to “men” or “women” clothing sections. Clothes are just pieces of fabric. Literally anyone can wear whatever feels good.

Getting dressed as a non-binary person, too, is different for everyone. Some mornings, I’m wracked with anxiety that whatever I wear will fail to communicate my gender. It can be hard to leave the house. Luckily, like many other trans folks, I have developed tools to cope with my dysphoria, the distressing disconnect between the gender I was assigned at birth and my current understanding of my gender identity.

Giving myself plenty of time and space to get ready in the morning and planning my outfit the night before is crucial. I’ve had my partner bring me a shirt to change into at work when the shirt I was wearing made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t focus. I stored or donated clothes that caused me consistent dysphoria so I didn’t reach for them when I was in a rush.

As I learn more about myself, I’ve had an opportunity to assess what makes me feel the most confident. Here are some of the personal style accouterment that bring me gender euphoria: My thick, dark leg hair. Denim jackets that make me feel like comic Rhea Butcher. My yellow t-shirt from Flavnt Streetwear with my pronouns emblazoned. Sneakers. Backwards baseball caps. Beanies. Loose-fitting dresses. Bandanas. The occasional red lip. A good hair day. My mustard-colored briefcase. My blue short-sleeved button down from Select Seconds. Collared shirts layered under sweatshirts. Messy ponytails. Visible tattoos. Pedicures. My Riverdale-inspired leather jacket, a gift from my younger sister. My combat boots from the thrift store near a military base in North Carolina.

Instead of fashion magazines, I take inspiration from my queer and trans friends, writers, designers and advocates. I look up to Alok Vaid-Menon, A.C. Dumlao, Jacob Tobia and Arabelle Sicardi as fashion icons and activists. They’re not afraid to try new things, to break absurd fashion rules, to rock bright colors and to disturb the comforted. I want to move through the world that way, too.

I encourage everyone reading this — cisgender, transgender, however you identify — to think critically about what brings you gender euphoria. What makes you feel the most you?

I ask you to be slower to judge folks identifying or expressing themselves in ways that feel unfamiliar to you. Interrogate your impulse to stifle others’ joy. Mocking transgender folks contributes to a society that seeks to eliminate our right to live free from discrimination and cruelty.

Em Perper (they/them) is a bookseller and writer. They serve on the board of The Frederick Center (www.thefrederickcenter.org) and were chosen as one of the participants in 2019’s inaugural Trans Youth Advocates DMV cohort.