So today a little social experiment of mine fell flat on its face.
Alright, it was more an accidental vignette that only came about because I’m terribly lazy on Sundays. I didn’t leave myself enough time to get ready for Mass, so as the seconds ticked away until the start of the liturgy, I just threw all care to the wind and went to church in guy clothes.
My way of getting myself off the couch was to see it as a social experiment. Since I moved back to my hometown, I’ve been crippled with anxiety about going to church. My family, and I by extension, know ALLLLL the local Catholic families. I’m always nervous about seeing people who probably don’t know I’m transgender, but I’m also afraid of not being welcome in my own faith community. So I figured: why not see if going to church looking boyish solves the anxiety.
As I left the house, I looked at my unshaved face in the mirror (which is looking more masculine daily because I ran out of my androgen blockers) and told myself: “It’ll be fine. Consider this your last hurrah in boy mode. You’ll survive.”
I barely survived.
You need to understand, I haven’t been in “boy mode” in nearly six months. I don’t really have a “boy mode” anymore, but if I don’t shave or put on makeup I can pass as a soft guy. So really my dilemma came down to going to Mass with a beard shadow in a dress or in khakis. I chose khakis.
The thing is wearing guy clothes doesn’t make me feel particularly like a guy, but everyone sees me as one. It’s strange how much this affects me.
I’m currently writing a blog post for my What is Gender? series where I talk about different kinds of gender behavior. Gender expression is the natural, spontaneous feminine or masculine behavior that comes from our inner self. Gender performance is the lengths we go to fit into stereotypical of masculinity and femininity. Gender presentation is what gender we present to the world through cues like clothing and body language.
As I walked to Mass, I had a visceral first-hand experience of these distinctions. Normally everything lines up – my gender expression is feminine, my gender performance is feminine, and my gender presentation is female. Going to Mass in boy clothes with no makeup, my gender expression was still feminine, but my gender presentation was masculine. This made me feel a weird tension. I’d be strolling along like the nerdy dreamer girl I am, and then someone would look at me and I’d immediately posture myself in a more masculine way. I felt the need to perform for them since they saw me as a man. It was a very strange experience. My gender performance felt torn between relaxing into feminine expression, and rising to meet masculine expectations.
I really thought I was in the perfect mood to go to Mass in guy clothes. I’ve had enough of being scared in church, and I don’t feel a need to “prove” myself by fitting into feminine stereotypes. After all, I’m still me no matter what clothes I wear.
I spent the entire liturgy obsessing about myself. I was far more anxious, paranoid, self-conscious, and afraid of being “found out” in “guy mode” then I ever am when I go to church in a dress. I felt like a secret agent in a very tenuous situation, like a communist during McCarthyism.
What struck me is how weird I felt. I’ve spent most of my life living in a masculine role, and yet it was a struggle (that I quickly gave up) to not cross my legs. I felt like Albert in The Birdcage.
Not to mention this persistent emotion:
Of course, I don’t need to act in any particular way just because people perceive me as a guy, and at some point soon after the opening hymn I stopped trying to hold the hymnal like a bacon cheeseburger. The real problem was sitting there and feeling so invisible. And by that I don’t mean not attracting attention – because for once I wasn’t. I mean I felt like I was only half there, half alive, half present, and half engaged.
But then the consecration came, and something calmed in me. Everyone in the pews disappeared and it was just me and God, Anna and Jesus. Never in my life have I felt so strongly gendered, so completely a woman, in God’s presence. I felt suddenly okay with being there “in disguise,” and yet I felt such a desire, not from fear but joy, to return to the Lord’s house unashamed to be with Him and bring all of me.
When I walked up to communion, it was like I was wearing a heavy veil. And then Christ peered through it and tore that temple covering in two.
It was beautiful.
Even if I felt like this when I took communion:
So when I scurried out of the church during the last verse of the closing hymn, I looked over my shoulder, narrowed my steely eyes (they’re actually brown), and whispered…
So maybe this “failed social experiment” wasn’t such a failure after all.