I tightly pull back my hair into a slick, low bun, parted far on the right side of my skull. With a several pumps of hairspray, I even out the edges and create a stiff look. I squeeze the top button through its hole and stand up straight as I clip the bow into its tie. Then I roll up my sheer tights and slip into my black leather, chunky heeled ankle boots. Lastly, I draw the outline of my lips with a bloody shade of red, and fill the rest with a matte liquid. Just a sprinkle of glitter on my cheeks and the corners of my eye, and suddenly I realise: how did I manage to make my supposed drag king look super femme? The only even slightly butch item of clothing I have is a button-up shirt dress that I tried to butchify with my clip-on bowtie, acquired in a second hand shop in Manchester 5 years ago. I gave it my best shot, I decide, and leave the house to meet my friends for pre-drinks at their halls of residence near Waterloo. As I arrive, women are donning moustaches and bandanas, and men have been waiting for me to apply liner to their eyelids. I stride in through the hallway, armed with two bottles of Cava, as my friends are smirking at my poor attempt at cross-dressing for the drag event at the Vaults. This was my first and, so far, last attempt at cross-dressing, and it came years after I first engaged with cross-dressing as a practice and a queer legacy.
4 years earlier, I was due to take an exam to justify my entry into academia, after I rather poorly graduated from secondary education. The evening before the exam, instead of studying, I decided to go out. I convinced a friend to join me in attending a student-organised, queer party at the local university. The vulgar marketing of the event was exciting, and the six foot five tall gender-ambivalent glittering figure at the door mesmerised me. As we walked through the door, the glittering person stuffed my hands with a plethora of stickers. The stickers read an anti-sexist slogan and I silently vowed to decorate my planner with it. I marvelled at their confidence and glittering glory as they showed me the gap between their front teeth with a wide smile. Determined to become friends, I kept staring at the door as my company and I spent the evening smoking in the designated area. My heart broke a tiny bit when I realised I had to leave the party to cram in some last minute preparation for the exam. I never saw the glittering queer again.
That is, until about a year later when I volunteered my muscle strength to set up the same, annual, party. When the evening turned night, I became acquainted with a colourful group of leftist queers who ran student politics at the university. The group around the glittering queer was made up of kind, funny, and smart individuals, I felt so young. Disguising my pounding heart and sticky palms with a cigarette in one hand and bottled beer in the other, I joined a discussion about the politicisation of the LGBT community and, finally, accepted an invite to attend the weekly Friday night meetings.
The old university building housed the union of students. Making my way up the marble stairs, I cautiously inspected each door sign. The intensifying odour of cigarette butts marinating in beer bottles crept up on me. I knew I was on the right track. Like stepping in honey, I entered the grimy room. The floor stuck to the soles of my boots with each step. The room procured a self-installed bar opposite a large white wall, illuminated with the projection of music videos. These walls would grow to feel cosy as a living room in the matter of weeks, and I grew to become part of its inventory. Lipstick stained teeth and Winehouse-esque winged eyeliner inhabited my new friend’s cross-dressing lookbook, and soon, I made glossy lips and sparkly cheekbones my own. Each Friday, we would sing along to Shea Diamond, gurgle sweet sparkling wine and blush each other’s cheeks while discussing the vastness of masculinities still dominating leftist communities. We delved into the multitudinous terminology defining sexual practices and the lack of gender neutral options in the German language, challenging each other and championing radical opinions.
One grey and wet Friday in November two-thousand-and-sixteen, a handsome and earnest boy sat next to me on the worn-out leather sofa. He wore blotchy purple leggings and rugged dusty-brown hair. We spoke about love and desire, our bodies, our genders. He shared with me the cinder smell of his fireplace that stuck to his garments since he moved in to a shared trailer with his partner. He made me feel safe and at ease. Then he asked if I was interested in cross-dressing. Defensively, I protected my femininity and wove a tutelary narrative around my body.
I was a chubby child, a teenager with disordered eating, and am now a recovered, fat, adult. I take no issue with my fat, but when I was younger, others saw an entry point to invalidate my femininity, and to discard my desirability. Women were supposed to be thin and beautiful; fat and beautiful seemed oxymoronic. As a young teen, I started rejecting femininity altogether: I didn’t want to choose between being undesirable and being fetishised. I hid my curves and cut my hair short; I wouldn’t touch dresses for many of my teenage years. When I began to recover my eating, it took all my strength to build up the confidence I have today, and it is grounded in my femininity. So no, I don’t think I would feel comfortable with cross-dressing.
His kindness validated my feelings, and his inquisition taught me that, if I preferred to dress femme, I was allowed, even welcomed, to exaggerate my performance. He invited me to question my understanding of cross-dressing and what I thought of gendered performance; we both knew I was always with the femmes lining their lips and sprinkling glitter, clueless about tying bowties and producing a stubble.
I passed the exam after that first night. Three years later and seven-hundred-seventy-six kilometers further away, I pick up my student ID and make my way to the department of gender studies. At parties, I confidently introduce myself as the official university queer and slowly begin to publicly prefer she/her and they/them pronouns. Now, finally, understanding my gender identity, I felt confident enough to try formal cross-dressing, that night at the Vaults. Wrapped up in the slightest bit of drag, my initial response was confirmed: I don’t know how nor do I want to step away from being femme. What the handsome, rugged boy had made me understand, it turns out, was that cross-dressing for me was never meant to dress me masculine, it was to allow me to feel at home in femme-ininity. He made me understand that for me, femme was always radical and deliberate, it always crossed a boundary. I love towering over the top in chunky heels, dried and often cracked raspberry lipstick and sharp, thick eyebrows, looking more like a drag-queen than a cis woman. My femininity felt so criminal, loving myself felt so wrong that dressing femme and celebrating it became a transgression. To blossom from where society had deposited my body to where I embraced and liberated it was my own way of cross-dressing. Cross-dressing was my daily routine.
Learning to love myself as non-binary and as fat, as femme, was my journey with cross-dressing. Living in a body like mine, rejecting the rejection of my embodiment, refuge came by being adopted into this family of queers and gender benders. Cross-dressing isn’t just to flip my gender, it is to step out into the world like I already do every day, all my vulnerability on display. I understand the privilege that comes with being invisible, with whiteness and passing as cis, a privilege I benefit from on most days, and a privilege I wish I did not need.
To the untrained eye, I still look like a woman, but I sure don’t feel like one, and that I owe to those shabby-chic cross-dressers that took me on, and as they sensed my gender anxiety, they gifted me the language to express who I am. So when I told the adorable boy “no, I am not interested in cross-dressing”, what I meant to say was: “yes, can’t you see, I already am”.
Clara Schwarz is a London based postgraduate gender and sexuality studies student and podcaster. Their research questions the boundaries between lesbian and trans. She has an affinity for walking up small hills to see the sun reflected in London’s sky scrapers. Clara can be found on Twitter and Instagram @clararosawelt and on their podcast @bullsh_tbinary.