Illustration by Ren Rader
A memory I talk about a lot is when I stuffed my long hair up into a DC snapback hat in third grade. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked stupid. However, it was also the first time I saw myself.
The door that hat opened has impacted the rest of my life as a transgender man. The only reason I even had the hat was because my friend was throwing it away. To him, it was just a hat. To me, it was an affirmation.
Wearing the clothes that we like and that make us feel confident isn’t something most transgender kids experience growing up. Often, it’s our fashion that makes us realize we’re trans. My clothing used to strangle me because it showed me a body I didn’t want and conformed to societal standards of “girly” fashion.
Even if I liked my clothes aesthetically before I came out, I didn’t like them on me. They didn’t give me the confidence that I saw my classmates carry when they got new clothes or when they put together outfits that expressed their personality. But I always remembered feeling weightless when I put on my friend’s old snapback hat. I kept that feeling with me for years — and now that I’m out as a proud, transgender, queer man, fashion is my best friend.
When I go to class, I usually wear pretty chill clothing like sweatpants and a black T-shirt. I do have nicer clothes that I’ve thrifted, and I love to put together outfits for special occasions, but since I’ve struggled to have the courage to wear things like men’s sweatpants, even the nondescript clothes mean everything to me. Now, if I put on a shirt and it doesn’t feel right, I take it off immediately and put on something that makes me happy, even if it is just a plain T-shirt. I’ve finally taught myself that trans people should be allowed to feel confident in what they wear, too. Even when they’re told not to.
A big concept in the transgender world is “passing.” To pass means to come across as your gender through your expression. Before I started taking testosterone and wearing men’s clothing, I didn’t pass as a guy. Even now if I wear form-fitting clothes or choose not to bind my chest, I don’t always pass. Fashion plays a huge role in whether or not someone passes, and although it can be empowering to come across as exactly who you are, the concept of passing is limiting.
For example, cisgender men can wear “women’s” clothing and still be read as men because of their build, facial hair, low voice, whatever it may be. Some trans men can also do this if they’ve been on hormone replacement therapy for a long time, but most, including myself, can’t wear what society deems as feminine clothing without being read as a masculine-looking woman. I used to let that control me. I had freed myself from conformity after I came out, but I really only switched which norms I was supposed to conform to. Yes, I typically wear men’s clothing, and yes, that’s what I feel most comfortable in, but sometimes I do want to wear leggings, or heels, or makeup. Femininity was the bane of my existence growing up, but now that I know who I am, I appreciate it. The thing is, I can’t be feminine without surrendering my identity to people who may perceive me as female through-and-through because of it.
That’s when I think back to the snapback hat.
When I saw myself in that hat when I was only nine years old, I wasn’t even thinking about gender. I saw myself, truly saw myself, and I felt free.
Fashion will always be a maze for transgender people. One moment, it’s a cage, and the next, it’s the key. I’m learning to care more about who I say I am than who I show I am. Although I’m always me no matter what I’m wearing, people will make assumptions. As long as I feel free and feel me, they can think I’m a man, a woman, a Who from Whoville, anything. I don’t care. After fashion confined me for so long — I was in the closet for God’s sake — I’m reclaiming it.