My graduate reading was supposed to be fifteen minutes, which is a hard number to hit. It’s too much time for a short piece and not enough time for a long one, so I spent the night before furiously editing my piece to fit. I took a chance and read something that, for a change, was not funny but dramatic. It was my last reading there, so why not leave them with something to talk about? Go out with a bang.
I did just that, and for a moment after I finished, no one clapped. After the event, a fellow student, a man, shook my hand and said, “I don’t know what I was expecting but, man, your work is so feminine and beautiful. That was amazing!”
That word, feminine. What did he mean by that? More importantly, why did it feel like such an insult? I felt like he’d pulled my pants down and laughed at me.
I was in second grade the last time someone called me feminine. A substitute teacher looked at me, wrinkled her brow in confusion, and said, “Caitlin? Well, what a feminine name for you.” At the time I thought I was pretty nondescript, always wearing T-shirts and jeans. It was the early 90s, so everyone wore neon pink, even my brother — the straightest man ever. Judging from all the pictures I’ve seen of myself from that time, my mom dressed me in gender appropriate clothes. My shoes were usually pink and my T-shirts were always bright girly colors — coral, purple, fuchsia. So what did she mean when she said that my name was feminine for me?
The message I received was that I was not feminine enough for such a dainty, pretty name like Caitlin. I resolved after that day to never be accused of being feminine again, since I never wanted to feel that ashamed again. When my fellow student called my work feminine, he might as well have said “hey, remember that time in second grade…?”
To be fair to my fellow student, I understand what he meant. It was the same confusion my second grade teacher had — masculine presenting queers are not named Caitlin. I’m six-feet tall. I have blonde hair that I slick back like Walter Cronkite. I even wear a hipster plastic version of his glasses because they’re fashionable and I’m blind.
I’d been obsessed with what I was going to wear to my graduate reading. Do I wear just my T-shirt and shorts? Do I wear a tuxedo? I thought it best to consult the Internet. There are many blogs for alternative fashion that discuss what it means to be a dapper queer — an identity that I can relate to. These online communities are alive with conversation about what it means to be a woman, to be queer, to be big, to be blonde, to be other.
To be considered a dapper queer, your gender doesn’t matter, but your aesthetic does. A dapper queer knows the difference between an American blazer and an English blazer. The American blazer’s back panel is split in the middle whereas the English has two splits at the sides, making a butt-allowance panel so the jacket hangs correctly in the front. A real dapper queer calls her suspenders “braces” because that’s the technical name for them. A dapper queer knows to wear a narrow collar with a single Windsor and a spread collar with a double Windsor to allow for the larger knot. A good dapper queer knows that floral prints were made just for them. A dapper queer, in essence, incorporates several aspects of masculine high fashion, mixes it with daring colors, and makes it their own. The Internet is full of beautiful, androgynous people rocking clashing floral patterns on their shirts and ties. They discuss when and where to wear double monk shoes. And, most importantly, they tell how to go out in the world loving what you wear.
This was my goal as I scoured second hand stores looking for my reading outfit. When I wear clothes that I love, I feel more confident and more at home in my skin. Since reading my work already makes me feel naked, I was going to need all the extra confidence I could get. The Goddess must have been looking out for me, because at the very first store I stopped in, I found my blazer. It was an old golf sport blazer in blue and black plaid, complete with a wee pocket in the front for tees. This blazer was amazing — it fit me perfectly in the shoulders, and since it was meant to be worn while golfing, there was ample room in the chest for my boobs, which are generously sized. I paired the blazer with a gold silk tie embossed with filigree. I looked beautiful. I had found my home; something I could set the hearth fires burning in.
When I write, so much of what I write about is bodies that don’t fit in this world. I have found that the pulse of my writing voice is in the grotesque. The idea of the grotesque centers in people and behaviors that make up the sideshow of life. Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk is an excellent example of grotesque ideals. It’s about a super model who, tired of being judged for her looks, blows her jaw off with a shotgun. She spends the rest of the novel turning her philandering boyfriend into a woman by slipping him hormone replacement pills that she steals from menopausal ladies. When you look underneath the self-inflicted horror, you see that the story is really about a woman who gives up everything so that someone will love her for who she is and not for what she looks like.
When I dare to really look underneath what I write about, I find what it means to love the other as well. When I embraced this idea rather than feared it, my writing really took off.
In the writing world, there is a huge debate about books considered canonical and those that are not. Think Moby Dick, Ulysses, War and Peace, Anna Karenina. There are female authors on the list, but they are the exception. If we look at our cannon, it would tell us that the white male experience is the valid experience. The cannon would also tell us that only narratives told in a white male style are worthy of canonization. I had no idea how much this idea affected me until that fellow (male) student told me that my work was feminine. I heard the history and implication and not the actual compliment he intended. Because, when I think about it, it really is a very powerful compliment.
Instead, I heard him say that my work wasn’t that good. That it would never be taken seriously because, no matter how I dress or how tall I am, I’m a woman. And my work would always be just that: a woman’s work. In essence, he had found me out. It was in that moment that all the careful planning and preparation I’d put into my outfit turned to nothing. In my reading, I’d betrayed myself to be the woman I am. I felt oppressed.
But in the next moment it hit me: The only person doing any sort of oppressing was myself. I was the one who thought it was a grave insult to be told how feminine my writing is. If I say that my writing style is grotesque, then that includes the feminine. I would never want to exclude it the way so much of mainstream writing does. So I was affirmed in doing what I’d set out to do. The guy had actually given me the best compliment possible. He actually helped me to embrace my feminine.
I am a woman.
Caitlin Bagwell holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She blogs for Free Lunch!, a part of Lunch Ticket, the online literary magazine. She is currently working simultaneously on a novel and her pool shot, because both are terrible right now. She has two cats, Freddie and Mercury, and she lives with them in Portland Oregon.