The Costume of the Privileged Man

I’ve been thinking about clothes a lot lately. And for anyone who knows me they know that clothes, fashion and the like are not things I spend much time thinking about. But recently I was motivated to start dressing more professionally and stylishly. I have to admit that the first season of the reboot of Queer Eye (formerly Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) definitely inspired some of this motivation. If you haven’t watched this show, do it immediately!

But I was also motivated (and conflicted) by the fact that at 37 years old I’ve started running a consulting business that educates companies about the gender binary. I am moving into a more professional stage in my life and wearing ill-fitting shirts and pants just isn’t giving off the right vibe. So I took some notes about what the Fab Five suggested to the men on their show who care even less about looking good than I do. And then I went shopping.

At this point you may be wondering why this is worth reading about at all. And maybe even after I tell you that I am a queer, transgender man who has resisted the idea of actually identifying as a man you may still wonder why this is interesting. If that’s the case then I encourage you to move on, but if not then keep reading.

For the past few weeks as I slowly transformed my image into someone who is perceived not only as male, but as a professional, straight, cisgender, white male I’ve wondered, why have I resisted presenting my gender in this specific way?

Patriarchy is the answer.

I learned the concept of patriarchy in my early twenties. I began to understand that the society around me, both near and far, was run by and benefited primarily men. There’s a lot of people who can relate to this kind of coming-of-age college experience. But as I was discovering how men, specifically white men, have destroyed so many things in their path I was simultaneously thinking about transforming myself into looking like one.

That went against a lot of what I and my genderqueer, dyke community stood for in the fight for gender equality, women’s rights, feminism, etc. But it all came to a point where I couldn’t live in the space between the gender boxes anymore. So, I started testosterone in 2007 and the gender binary system has continued to shackle my self-determination in ways I didn’t even understand.

As I began to grow facial hair and watch my jaw line become more square it occurred to me that people were actually going to think I was a cisgender man (by the way, the term cisgender was not a part of mainstream culture yet). Of course at first this was exciting because I had waited so long for people to stop staring at me or yell at me in the women’s bathroom. But a decade later as I step into the identity of being a professional adult I realize I can’t hide behind the twenty-something genderqueer persona and the clothes that went along with it anymore.

I now have to dress like a professional adult man (read as: professional, white, presumed cisgender and heterosexual man). And my first thought was, “NO!”.

I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be perceived as being included with the sector of our society who have phrases such as “mansplanning”, “bro-mance” and “sexual assault” directly associated with them. I was desperate to hang on to some shred of my past life that resisted the norms. I was desperate to make sure people knew I didn’t belong to a group of people who’ve been socialized to be afraid of their feelings, to show emotion through violence and to manage their insecurity through bullying and abusing those they perceive as weaker.

Obviously, not all cisgender men are like this. And I actually have a very good group of friends who are not like this, although there are still subtle male socialized moments that rear their ugly heads. But it’s not about individual people, it’s about a society that supports, benefits from and encourages these norms. So, now when I put on that new button down shirt, tie and blazer I see someone in the mirror who just blends in with all the other white dudes.

But as I stared back at my image in the mirror it occurred to me that in order to achieve the goals and dreams I have for myself and for a future family I have to play this part. I have to play the part not because it’s truly a part of my identity, but because currently it’s still the man (most often the white man) in the room who gets the attention. But I don’t have to fall into the pit of white, male privilege. I don’t have to take up too much physical and emotional space. I don’t have to make idiotic assumptions about women’s abilities, intellect or sexuality. I don’t have to make idiotic assumptions about someone’s race because I think they might steal my job or anything that I (falsely) believe is mine. I don’t have to feel threatened by vulnerability.

But there are cisgender, white, heterosexual men all over this country who can’t say the same for themselves because they don’t even realize that they too have been shackled by the gender binary. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not an excuse for poor behavior by such men, it’s simply stating a fact of how our society operates. And it is my goal to open men’s eyes to this fact as I wear the costume of the privileged man.

I am the founder and Executive Director of Portland Community Football Club and the founder of Breaking the Gender Binary Consulting. I am also an adjunct professor at Portland State University in the School of Social Work.