Plaid Skirts and Ruby Shoes

At seven, I dressed in my sister’s plaid skirt. It was red and black and clashed terribly with the multi-colored bangles that jangled on my arms and the faux-straw hat I donned in imitation of the English children who populated my literary imagination. It was not the first nor the last time I would wear my sisters’ clothes.

It was the first—and only—time that I would be captured, even celebrated, transgressing gender. My father took a perverse delight in his dressed-up son and soon I was modeling for him, if only for a brief half hour. If, on the one hand, those pictures imagined a nascent queer sensibility, they also became occasions for training in masculinity. Less than two years after, I had learned to be ashamed of the photographs, to forget my delight in the occasion, to cringe when my father mentioned them.

I burned those early photographs.

I still tried on my mother’s wedding dress. My sister’s asymmetrical mini-skirt. Used my mother’s astringent. Borrowed her wigs to act in school plays. Practiced walking in heels. Shaped my nails to drag-queen perfection.

Perhaps even at this early period I was attuned to the difference between performing and fixing identity. I felt that certain forms of history could be used to shame and discipline gender. What began as an adventure in gender turned, all too quickly, into a lesson about gender.

I have yet to identify the moment when excitement turned into shame. In truth, there is probably no single moment, more an accumulation of language and acts, the loud “sissy,” the ongoing description of gender performance all ending with “like a girl.” At the time, of course, I had no real way to talk about how simile (or performance) undoes claims to authentic identity.

What strikes me about this story now is the shame that still accompanies its telling. I have narrated multiple versions of growing up queer, but this one strikes a little too close to home, accompanying the shame that I take to be constitutive of queer identity, one created by heterosexual and homosexual communities.

Of course, to my mind, the claim that queers should “get over shame” and “embrace pride” loses the ambivalent and often painful richness on which we can continually draw.

* * *

I hated black Bata lace-up shoes. I hated their shape, the hard, wooden heel. I hated that they were required school wear. Most of all, I hated that most everyone I knew owned a similar pair. I also resented them because I never learned how to lace up shoes properly. I invented a system of loops and knots that passes but lacks the elaborate choreography that seems to come so naturally to others.

In that tribute to bourgeois attainment and postcolonial history, the family portrait, my Vaseline-bright face stares blandly into the camera, my right thumb casually tucked into my blue jeans, the plaid shirt completing my faux-American look. And, of course, my maroon moccasins.

I adored those shoes.

They clashed with everything I wore. And they were the first pair of shoes I remember loving. As with all passions, it was irrational, glorious, and all-too short, victim to an inevitable growth spurt. Later, when I discovered that women used to tint their feet red to indicate their sexual availability, the shoes took on yet another layer of meaning.

I remember my love for those shoes, not simply because the family portrait will not let me forget, but also because they taught me how to love shoes. I spent my childhood running around barefoot, convinced that shoes were evil, strange torture devices unsuited to my life and activities. My distaste for shoes competed with my dislike of long pants. I wanted to live a barefoot life in shorts. (I lost my love for shorts in yet another wave of shame.)

By the time I came to love shoes, I had outgrown my sister’s plaid skirt. In a moment of pseudo-repression, I could dismiss their shared color palette as coincidence. At the time, I had no way of describing coincidence as queer.

We might read these stories in bastardized psycho-sexual terms: gender differentiation perverted by a pseudo-fetish. Moments of normative development arrested and hyper-stimulated. How material objects come to embody antinomian desire. I am more interested in reading them alongside other queer (my term) bloggers engaged in similar projects of narrating their pasts and presents. Larry, Gay Prof, and Oso Raro, for instance, remind me that queers not only inhabit but (re)create their worlds.

Many of my gendered performance exist in shadowy memories, as titles on indifferent certificates naming me “best woman” or “best actress,” in the laughter of cruel children, in gay attempts to masculinize me, but mostly in the words I have learned to write, erase, and re-write.

To coincidence I would add revision as a queer strategy, not just for writing, but, more importantly, for living. Understanding the need to burn old images only to return to them. Accepting the messiness of ashes, the broken knots of memory, the fragile alliances of virtual spaces.