Gender Expression, Revisited

Torso clad in a blue shirt with a pink arrow pattern, pink front pocket, necklace, and black shorts.

Content note: this piece contains discussion of misogyny and transphobia.

I attended a queer zine fair in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal last weekend. There were so many people in attendance expressing gender in defiance of the binary, with beards and glitter and leg hair and lingerie and jewelry and shaved heads and colourful outfits. It was really affirming. Seeing so many gender variant people made me want to vary my gender expression more. I’ve been getting boxed in by the binary again, this time on the other side. I recently started “passing” as male and so have been leaning into that more, but I realized that I don’t want to move through the world looking like a straight, cis man. I’m uncomfortable with that. Sure, the targets that come with being read as female, as queer, as trans, and as gender non-conforming may be gone, but walking around looking like an average straight white guy isn’t for me—that isn’t who I am and it’s not how I want to take up space in the world.

My friend, after reading my first zine, suggested that my gender may be like a bent spoon. I have wanted to be read as male because I’ve been unbending the spoon. In order to “straighten” (no pun intended) the spoon out, I’ve needed to bend it in the other direction. I’ve needed to be misgendered as a man in order to compensate for being misgendered as a woman for so long, but even now “he” pronouns are starting to feel uncomfortable. They don’t upset me the way “she” pronouns do, but they also don’t fit perfectly. “They” fits best. It always has, ever since I first learned it was a viable option.

Seeing the rich array of gender nonconformity at the zine fair made me ask what my ideal expression of gender looks like. The answer is complicated. There is a part of me that loves presenting masculinely and being read as male, but even then I still like things that are colourful and cute, outside of what’s typically deemed masculine. I like blue-and-pink t-shirts, flower patterns, and quartz-stone necklaces. I like adding a touch of non-normative masculinity to what I wear, even when I want to be read as male.

Torso clad in a short black lace dress that goes in at the waist.

I also like dresses. I bought a black lace dress from Value Village the other week and it’s absolutely adorable. I haven’t worn it out anywhere, though. I feel nervous. The people who know and are used to the more masc version of me might not “get” it. I’m worried that some may assume my wearing a dress means I’m “not really trans” or that I’ve “de-transitioned”. I’m worried that people will use it as another reason to intentionally misgender me. It’s tough. I feel like I’ve given up the ability to wear dresses, which wasn’t the point of my transition at all—I wanted more options for expression, not less. It’s easier if I wear a dress as a “costume,” like at a themed party or drag event. That feels easier to justify, not that I should have to justify it, but somehow, I feel like I do.

I worked at a summer camp after I’d just come out in 2015 where I presented almost exclusively masculinely. Near the end of the season, I threw on a dress because I wanted to and missed wearing dresses. The people I’d worked with all summer were mostly polite about it, but it did draw a lot of attention. There were many smiles, surprised expressions, and compliments. One individual, however, became distressed and confronted me, saying, “I’m sorry, I want to be supportive, but I’m really confused right now because you’re dressed as only one gender”. I can’t remember what I said in response, only how I felt: disappointed and frustrated. The implication of their words was that clothing is inherently gendered, and also, that my wearing men’s clothing was me somehow “wearing two genders,” the one I was assigned at birth being one of them. I’m not cross-dressing when I’m wearing men’s clothing. Neither am I presenting as a “single” gender when I’m in a dress. I’m just me, Sage, not more or less of one or another gender. Dresses are dresses, pieces of fabric cut in a specific way. You don’t have to be a woman to wear them. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, that it shouldn’t be a radical statement these days, but I do and it is.

Torso clad in a pink shirt with colourful dinosaur graphics on it and black shorts.

I want to wear my black dress but I don’t want to deal with people’s reactions. Even if they’re not negative, I don’t want the attention: the surprise, the stares, the compliments, the questions, the opinions. Masculinity has afforded me the privilege of invisibility and I’ve grown attached to that. I remember what it was like to leave the house with long red hair and a summer dress. I remember I couldn’t do it without at least one catcall, stare, threat, or physical invasion of my space. That was before I grew facial hair and lowered my voice through testosterone. I know the added element of my genderqueerness will only make it worse.

In my ideal world, the world I hope we are slowly working towards, I could leave the house in a dress and not be met with shock, accusations of de-transitioning or being a “fake” trans person, invasive questions, misgendering, confusion, anger, or catcalls. I could leave the house in a dress and be met with not much more than a smile or, “Hey, nice dress”. In my ideal world, I could leave the house in a dress with a beard and not be met with violence. In my ideal world, I could play around with masculinity and femininity in whatever way pleases me and still be called “they”. I could be read as male, female, or ambiguously and be “they” regardless.

One day, one day.

Published by Sage Pantony

Sage Pantony is a writer, poet, and zinester. They write about gender, sexuality, mental health, trauma, creativity, and the best ways to cook eggs. They are the author of several zines, including a trilogy about transitioning as a non-binary person. Sage’s work has appeared in publications such as Coven Poetry, Idle Ink, and The Varsity. They currently reside in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal with their pet dinosaur, Peter.

8 thoughts on “Gender Expression, Revisited

  1. I remember wearing a corset and jeans to a party of intimate friends.
    We walked in and they turned to see Us (my spouse and I). And a couple of them were surprised.
    More recently we had to do the emotional work for someone and it took up like three hours of our time. The. My spouse found out what that was and we have both stopped explaining. If you can’t get it go look it up.
    It took me a long hard time to get where I am and still be alive. I’m grateful I’ve lived long enough to see all the beautiful diverse friends I know expressing themselves.
    Zine Fests have become my haven, my safe space, my home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “If you can’t get it go look it up,” – Exactly! It’s not on you to invest time/emotional energy like that, especially not for three hours! Phew.
      Yay! It’s wonderful such spaces exist. I will definitely keep going to and supporting them in whatever ways I can.


  2. So in my exploration of the blogverse I ran into a couple of born male trans poets with clearly feminine photos, lots of dress-up photos, but nowhere did they mention they were trans. Based on the comments, they enjoyed heterosexual men expressing lust and sexual interest in them as women. But I saw in their sad eyes, and in their manner of speaking, that they had been born as males and had gender reassignment surgery. And this is no criticism, just something that I noticed, and they seemed so sad and depressed, and I wonder if it is worth it? Now for perspective, I am a 65 year old well-adjusted happy-to-be male heterosexual, though brahmacarya for spiritual reasons. My thing at the moment is trying to imagine being somebody else.


    1. First off, we didn’t choose this. Our lives are miserable not because we are trans, but because society treats us like trash for being trans. Employers fire us, family abandon us (parents kicking out their children or a spouse walking out of a marriage), banks deny us loans, stores refuse us service.

      There are a lot of über-femme men, crossdressing men who dress up for the male gaze. Don’t confuse them for trans women. It’s like the baseball and cricket; we share a similar heritage, but at day’s end still different. Men who crossdress do it for a fetish or presentation; trans women are women and do what they do because they’re women.

      You mention “brahmacarya”, so I assume you know something about Hindu practices. I am sure you know about the three prakitri? There’s the male, the female, and then the “third”; trans people (highly debatable if not divisive) as well as the larger LGBT+ community are members of that group. The website can give you far more information on this take than I can in a small comment box.

      Best way I can try to illustrate: you know you’re a man, no question. Imagine the next morning, though, your body is that of a woman, and the world around you doesn’t recall you ever being a man. You still know you’re a man, but what the world sees is the body of a woman. You insist you’re male, but people insist you’re a woman. They say you’re mentally ill, maybe you fancy being male, maybe you’re possessed by a malevolent spirit. You dismiss all this, because even though you have the body of a woman, you pretty sure know you’re a man.

      That’s the reality for many of us. I was born with a female body, but I live now as a man. Since I could first remember I wanted to know why I couldn’t play with boys, when they made me play with other girls. I fancied as a kid being the knight rescuing the princess, rather than being that princess. I was the prince being sent off to search and conquer new lands, not the princess getting read to court for marriage. In secondary school I focused on career, not dreaming to be someone’s wife. I mowed the lawn and fixed up around the house for chores, not help make dinner and dust the furniture.

      Hope this helps you out.

      Liked by 1 person

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