“Closets are for clothes, not people,” is a common battle cry of the queer rights movement. But many fail to appreciate the ways clothes can be used to trap us or free us.

Like it or not, humans make assumptions about other humans based on their bodies and the articles used to cover those bodies. As much as I genuinely believe clothes should not have gender attached to them, I also know I project a very different message to the world as a 28-year-old woman wearing jeans and flannel than I did when I was a 17-year-old kid wearing jeans and flannel.

Many people fail to realize (because they’ve never had to think about it) how much about our gender and sexuality we communicate through our clothing. And even fewer people realize how much others rely on our body and clothes to interpret clues about our gender and sexuality. This is why the same outfit on two different bodies can be interpreted in wildly different ways depending on their skin tone, haircut, fat distribution, size, height, and many other uncontrollable factors. And why even the same clothes worn at different points in our lives can communicate drastically different things.

I remember the first time I wore a dress. I borrowed it from my sister and snuck it into the bathroom, feeling happy as I slipped it on over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. My short hair looked awkward to me then, but for the first time in my life I saw a girl looking back at me.

I remember the only time I was “caught” in a dress before I came out as a girl. I was beaten so hard I limped the next day at school. When my teacher asked what was wrong I told them who had done it but could not bring myself to say why. I was already ashamed of myself for wanting to be pretty.

I remember coming home after stressful days from school and locking myself in my room just so I could change into a skirt and relax on my bed. Sometimes I would read, sometimes I would daydream, but I would always be slightly paranoid someone would walk in and discover my shameful secret.

I remember wearing nothing but baggy shirts and baggy jeans in my best attempts to be masculine all through high school. I tried to hide the curvy body I had been ashamed of since puberty, believing it to be a prominent reason I had been sexually harassed ruthlessly during middle school.

I remember needing to wear women’s clothes in order to have any kind of sexual relief, and how that came up all too frequently as a teenager. I felt like I was turning my own gender into a gross fetish but didn’t know what to do about it. I would look at myself and see how attractive I was capable of being without the hormones or other things I would read about online in secret, and then hate myself for being so cowardly.

I remember how much fun I had shopping for clothes with my women friends when I pretended to be a gay boy. I took special joy in breaking gender rules and being outlandish, wearing high heels and bold makeup. Strangers saw me riding the bus to work and often had no idea what gender I was, which I became surprisingly comfortable with.

I remember when I nearly had a mental breakdown because I needed to wear a tuxedo for a roommate’s wedding. I was changing in a bathroom stall rather than undress in the bridal suite or the groom’s suite because I didn’t feel like I should be allowed in either.

I remember trying to picture my own wedding as the gay boy persona I created and I couldn’t stop crying at the thought of getting married in a tux like the one strangling me right then. I didn’t know anything else about my future wedding, but I wanted to be able to wear a dress and not be seen as a joke.

I remember wearing a tight polo shirt and slacks to my first gender therapy session after coming out as a trans woman because I needed to be in “boy mode” for work after. My therapist complimented me on having such a successful transition already and my ability to present as an adorable butch lesbian. I corrected her and said I was trying to look like a boy and she laughed and said I couldn’t do that if I tried.

I remember relishing my new freedom to wear dresses, skirts, heels, purses, and jewelry when I came out as a woman. Every day was a magical opportunity to try new things I had always wanted to do. I was aggressively femme. I applied full makeup every day even if I was just hanging around my house.

I remember experimenting with my appearance the same way most girls do when they’re teenagers. But it began to feel foolish as an adult as the novelty wore off. Mostly it began to feel tedious and forced. Like I was on display and being silently judged by everyone on my ability to perform correctly.

I remember the day I tried on some old “boy clothes” just for kicks. After years of hormone therapy my wide hips were too big for any pants and my large breasts stretched out all the tops. I looked at myself and laughed at how ridiculous the thought of being misgendered because of my clothes was. I no longer felt like I needed to rely on clothes to convey my gender. I was free to wear whatever the hell I wanted.

I remember returning to my therapist in a polo shirt and jeans very similar to the one I wore on our first session. I told her I might be a lesbian, and a butch one at that. She helped me learn to be okay with that, despite the number of old clothes and identities I had to discard along the way.

Most of what applies to clothes could also be said about identities and labels. Sometimes we find clothes that work right away and sometimes it takes a while to get an outfit that works for our body type. Sometimes clothes are just a fad and sometimes they’re timeless. Sometimes we outgrow clothes that used to look great on us. Sometimes clothes get worn out and need to be replaced.

We’re all born naked, then adults fill our closets with clothes based on our genitals. As we get older we start to make choices with the clothes placed in our closets, until we’re finally able to place our own clothes in the closet. Once we have that freedom, many of us go crazy for a while and put everything in our closet that we weren’t allowed to have. But eventually, we all wind up with a closet filled with our own clothes we enjoy. And thank goddess, because the fact that everyone doesn’t wear the same clothes is what makes them so damn interesting in the first place.

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