This piece was inspired by Suited, the HBO documentary produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, premiering Monday, June 20. The film follows a range of clients of the custom suit shop Bindle & Keep, which looks beyond the gender binary.
There's the small possibility that I peed in my pants on purpose. I was five and playing across the street at my neighbor Robbie's house. I might've known that his mom would put me in his jeans and I'd get to wear them home. When I put on those classic blue Levi's boy jeans, they instantly became my favorite article of clothing. I refused to give them back and wore them as often as possible. That might've been an early sign that I was what you would call "genderqueer."
I'm not totally in love with that term, but people like me don't really have the best labels to explain us. Instead, we're usually defined by what we're not: non-binary, gender non-conforming, non-normative. While we live somewhere on the trans spectrum, telling mainstream people we're "trans" only confuses them even more. It's too exhausting to explain. I'm really a bunch of things: a masculine woman; a butch lesbian; a transmasculine, non-binary, gender non-conforming, queer-ass weirdo who's into cults and taxis. But even as the conventional world is finally starting to understand what "transgender" means, non-binary people are still hard for many to process. I'm not male, nor am I female, but I'm also both. Sometimes even I don't fucking understand it all.
I was 26 or 27 when I started wearing something called a Frog Bra. It was this super tight, compression sports bra that flattened everything down. I liked the way it made me look in shirts: less feminine, more boy-chested, even though there was always a little bit of a uni-boob left over. Without the Frog Bra, my breasts were just so... there. They were too much information, more than I wanted to share with the world.
This was in the mid-2000s and a lot of the butches I knew were starting to transition – getting top surgery, changing their names and pronouns, becoming guys. I was resentful and envious. The whole world was treating them like men, including the queer girls that I was usually attracted to. I wanted to get so many of the things they were getting from the world as guys once they passed – respect, jobs, equal treatment, permission to be angry – but I didn't want to transition. I wasn't as sure of my identity as all these trans guys seemed to be. That was the thing I was jealous of most of all – they knew exactly what they were.
That was the thing I was jealous of most of all – they knew exactly what they were.
Soon I started binding in earnest. I bought a stiff, black garment that looked like a short vest. It closed on the side with Velcro, so you could adjust the fit. It came from a company in Singapore that specialized in binders for trans guys. When it first arrived, I was amazed at how flat it made me look. The tradeoff was that it was extremely tight.
Most of the time, I could forget about it. But the summers were always hard. I was constantly sweating under – and through – the extra layer. And the sheer tightness of the binder always made me a little extra keyed up and stressed out. That's what wrapping a really constricting thing around your body will do to you – you can't relax. But the alternative wasn't any better. If I just wore a "normal" bra, like a "normal" female-bodied person, I was even more stressed out and uncomfortable. And the worst part was that I couldn't even fully understand why.
I kept binding for 12 years, but in my late 30s, something shifted. I started to realize that it was okay to be non-binary, that there might indeed be room for me somewhere on the trans spectrum, even if it was less defined than other identities. I also started to feel like I couldn't survive binding anymore. I couldn't go through another hot summer, couldn't handle another awkward hug where someone could feel this stiff tight thing under my shirt. My back was getting messed up from the binder and my chest was, by that point, seeing the effects of age. I mean, no one's breasts get nicer as they grow older, but while my breasts had once been normatively kind of nice looking… now? Not so much.
I spent a year trying to decide whether I could really go through with top surgery. I wanted to be 100 percent sure, though I don't know if that's ever a realistic goal. It didn't help that when I brought it up, the girl I was dating that summer asked, "But what if I don't like it?" It was a selfish response, and I recognized that, but it filled me with even more doubt. I hadn't considered how girlfriends and partners might react if I made this change. What if no one liked me as an in-between, genderqueer, non-female, non-male whatever thing?
What if no one liked me as an in-between, genderqueer, non-female, non-male whatever thing?
I talked it over a lot with my good friend, Macauley, who'd had the surgery without going on testosterone or fully transitioning to a male identity. She'd changed her name long before, but like me, she still used female pronouns and identified as somewhere on the trans spectrum. She was happily married, with a young kid, and it helped to see an example of how a person's gender didn't have to be strictly binary to make this kind of change – and that people would still love you.
Before I went through with anything, I had to figure out how to do the most terrifying thing of all: tell my mom. We met in Hell's Kitchen for lunch. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to really bring it up, but once the waiter took our empty plates away, I blurted it out. Sort of.
"So I'm thinking about getting a breast reduction." This wasn't true, but I didn't know if my mom was even aware that top surgery existed. I didn't know how else to talk about it.
She was surprised. "Oh? Your sister had that. But she was very big. You don't need surgery."
"Well, I think I want to go really small, like flat almost."
"I really don't like the idea of you having surgery." She paused for a second. "But the guy who did my eyes, his specialty is actually breasts." She was, above all, a Jewish mother.
"Yeah, but see, I think what I wanna do is get them fully flat, and there are only a few surgeons who do it like that."
She was confused. "Why would you want to do that?"
I was so scared. This was the moment. "I guess I just don't want to have anything there. You know I've been binding – like wrapping them up – for years."
She did not know.
"And I can't do it anymore."
There was a moment of silence, and I panicked. "I mean, it's not like I'm trying to be trans or anything, I'm not turning into a boy or changing my name or whatever." Did I think this would make it easier for her to understand? And besides, why was I so scared of her thinking I might be trans anyway?
There was a moment of silence, and I panicked.
"You mean like how you told everyone to call you Michael when you were three and four years old?" She laughed at the memory.
"I did? I don't remember that. Ok, so maybe I'm a little trans. But I'm not transitioning."
"You know, your niece has a friend at school, Zachary, who only wants to wear dresses. His parents told the school and all the other parents and everyone was nice about it, except of course one stupid mother. But your sister takes them to get manicures and pedicures all the time. He seems very happy."
I burst into tears. I was relieved and filled with love and gratitude, not only because she was being so cool, but also for the fact that this world has come such a long way since I was a kid.
My mom took my hand across the table just as the waiter came over to ask how things were. In the history of deeply personal, emotional moments, waiters are always coming over. They're like a Swiss watch: is that table having a long overdue conversation about something intense or difficult? I think I'll see if they want dessert.
When he left, she said, "I still don't like you having surgery. But I want you to do whatever makes you happy."
Knowing I had her support was huge. I started looking into surgeons more seriously. I scoured the before and after pictures on Transbucket.com, a website where people share photos of their top (and bottom) surgery results. I wanted to find other in-between people like me who'd had it done, and to see how it looked on their bodies. There weren't that many people that weren't on hormones, but I did find out about a surgeon in Florida who specialized in the procedure. His whole practice was devoted to it, and his results looked really good.
I called and scheduled my date: January 7th. My friend Josh flew down with me and we stayed with my dad and stepmom, an hour from the surgery center. The waiting room was full of trans guys and their parents, and everyone there just assumed I was also a guy. They referred to me as "he" even after I corrected them. They even corrected poor Josh when he used female pronouns for me, thinking he was just being an intolerant asshole. They didn't have a policy against doing the surgery on a genderqueer person – I'd made sure of that – but they clearly weren't used to it. At one point the doctor was measuring me and said, "You're a pretty thin guy."
"Oh," I said, "I'm not actually a guy. I still go by 'she.'"
This was like a bizarro version of coming out, having to assert my non-maleness. It was the opposite of what I'd been doing my whole life. It's not like I was in love with female pronouns either, but they were the devil I knew, and besides, I didn't totally hate my femaleness either. Despite that, after the surgery, the receptionist gave me an official letter stating that I'd had sex reassignment surgery, and that this entitled me to a legal gender change. I still have that tucked away in a drawer somewhere.
It was the opposite of what I'd been doing my whole life.
The surgery itself was uneventful, but it took a while to heal. I couldn't lift my arms for three weeks and had to stay wrapped in a tight ACE bandage to keep from swelling. But eventually, as the incisions healed up, I was able to put on a t-shirt again. I picked out an old, threadbare Anthrax shirt that I'd managed to hang onto from my childhood. I was still fragile and sore, but it was already clear how different I looked. It started to sink in: they were really gone. My chest was flat. My body made a little bit more sense to me. At the end of February, with my new and improved body on the mend, I decided to buy my very first tailored suit. It was my first suit of any kind, actually, but I figured now that I was finally closer to a shape I liked, I might as well spring for something that was made specifically for me.
Who would've ever thought that top surgery and a tailored suit would bring my identity and appearance more into alignment? No longer was I an imposter in ill-fitting "men's clothes." No longer was I merely imitating how I wanted to look. I was in my suit, made for my body, with all its flaws and quirks and inconsistencies. Not for "men," not for "women," but for my somewhere-in-between self.
By spring, I was mostly healed. I was finally able to throw on a t-shirt with ease and go outside. There was no more complicated and laborious wrapping of a binder around my torso, no more insane sweating and stress from being bound up so tight. One evening, as the temperature reached peak springtime perfection, I jumped on my bike to go meet a friend. As I rode through the streets of Brooklyn, I felt the warm breeze against my skin through my shirt. I felt my back and shoulders relax after years of compression. I felt years of insecurity and stress begin to finally fade away. I knew I'd made the right decision. And it felt good.
Melissa (Mel) Plaut is an urban planner and the author of Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab.