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.
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.