What Is It to Be a Man?
The first time I cross dressed, it was Halloween. I wasn’t an especially attractive man. The clothes I had were not what I would have chosen: a pair of jeans that were too big and a baggy t-shirt. I spent a lot of time applying my beard. It looked scraggly, but real.
Dried spirit gum pulled and cracked under the pube-like crepe hair it secured to my face as I smiled at myself in the mirror. I looked like a dork, my long hair back in a ponytail with a ball cap over it. I was short and I had no style.
There was something thrilling about it anyway. I didn’t look how I wanted to look, and yet, there was a part of myself I could see that had never been seen before. My heart beat a little faster under the elastic bandages that dug into my flesh, binding my breasts. I could see the excitement in my own eyes as I turned my face, checking it out from a different angle.
I was meeting my boyfriend at the mall. He was open about being bisexual and in the context of this relationship, one that was ultimately unhealthy in so many ways, I found the freedom to express something it might have taken me even longer to do with someone else. There was a chain restaurant there he liked, and I was meeting him there for lunch.
I rarely go to the mall. It reminds me of a hospital with its beige, gleaming floors. Each store is a generic, mildly interesting museum of things I wouldn’t buy, even if I could, and they all have their own way of blaring their existence outward so you have to fight to look away, even if you’re deliberately hating it. But my boyfriend was a big fan and we would spend hours there so he could shop. I would stand by, embarrassed by his weird “friendships” with the employees, people who were payed on commission to put up with his detestable blandness and need for attention. I was even like that with him because when we first got together, he got our finances entwined quickly. It was uncomfortable for me the whole time, the cultivated dependence, but that might be a story for another time.
As much as I hated the mall, I misjudged the distance from the entrance I chose to the restaurant. I was way further away than I’d thought and once I got a load of the map, I dreaded the trek.
I felt exposed, an imposter who would be found out. I forced slow, long breaths into my bound chest, walking as fast as I could, feeling a little slippage as the binding shifted, hoping I’d secured it well enough. And then I noticed that no one was looking at me.
This was a completely foreign reality. No one spared me a glance. It wasn’t that they were embarrassed for my pathetic facsimile of manhood, it was that I was passing. Gone were the ogling stares of older men. Gone were the curious looks from other women. I had lived eight years of legal adulthood and several years before as a curiosity. Was it my style? Was it my face? My breasts? I never knew and still don’t but suspect it’s simply womanhood on display — a safe place for the general public to rest their eyes, a curve, the undulating hem of a skirt, an invitation to stare.
All this was gone. I felt free. Within 100 yards, I even felt strong, an elation building inside me so that I had to suppress a smile. Men don’t walk around smiling, do they? No, I reasoned. They usually do not.
When I got to the restaurant, I used the deep voice I had practiced on the hostess. “I’m meeting someone,” then, “Oh, I see him,” and hustled over to the booth by the windows.
I sat across from him and he grinned at me. We didn’t say anything because the waitress was fast approaching. “What would you like, sir?” she asked me, without a hint of irony.
“Uh, an iced tea, unsweetened,” I said. I could not believe it. She called me “sir.” I made big eyes at David and when she walked away, I couldn’t keep it to myself.
“Did you hear that?” I said. It was Halloween. I had a plausible excuse to be in disguise. If she hadn’t perceived me as a man, as so many people seemed to have — albeit in passing — in the mall, she would have shown it somehow. Right?
“You look good, uh, let’s think about what we’ll call you. You need a name.”
“It’s Frank,” I said.
“Naw, naw, now hang on a second,” he said. “I think it’s Basil.” He pronounced the “a” like “anvil.”
“No! Come on. Not that. That name sucks,” I said.
I don’t remember a lot more about that day, but the way it felt to pass as a man is something I don’t see how I could forget.
*Photo, Man!, by JD Hancock, click to go.