Lips stained red, I showed up to the IvyQ drag ball in a new suit with a fitted blazer and skinny trousers. Wearing the suit, I felt sexy—I felt like myself.
Other people threw themselves at my confidence with an intensity I’ve never seen before. A cute girl sidled up to me and made small talk, and I asked her where she goes to school.
“UPenn. It’s only two hours away!” she said, desperately.
Freaked out by the sudden offer of a long-distance relationship, I turned towards the stage, where the interview portion of the drag pageant was underway. Toying with the flower in his hair, a shy-looking contestant wearing a pink dress said, “To me, drag is about self-expression. This is my first time wearing drag, and it feels awesome!”
The audience applauded wildly. By the end, a Beyonce-inspired diva won the pageant, busting out some “Single Ladies” moves in victory.
My friend Theo* was a finalist in the pageant. Theo, in black lace lingerie, stockings, and garter belt, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. With tight abs, sleek legs, piercings, and a full, smirking mouth, he reminded me of a punk Victoria’s Secret model.
Theo tells me about dressing up: “On a night when I want to feel really gorgeous—when I want everyone to be looking at me—then I’m going to put on some slim, short, black number and heels and maybe my garter belt and the lace stockings and some bright red lipstick, and look just divine, but very strange. People are aware that I’m not your everyday woman, although I don’t look any the worse for it.”
And he doesn’t. Theo is extraordinarily self-possessed. Both on and off stage, he carries himself with the kind of poise I’d ordinarily associate with a kick-ass woman twice his age.
Cross-dressing isn’t just for fabulous queens. Queer or straight, everyday fashion breaks gender binaries all the time—take this winter’s obsession with oxford shoes for women, or Levi’s new line of “Ex-Girlfriend” jeans for men. Trendy or not, cross-dressing is about putting on whatever makes the wearer feel sexy, no matter the gender from which it was stolen.
And “whatever makes the wearer feel sexy” can change everyday. To Theo, cross-dressing is a moody matter—on any given day, clothing is a way of controlling other people’s reactions to him, how others see and interact with him. He identifies as genderqueer, and to him that means he is always in costume, whether he’s dressed in a feminine or masculine style. “When I dress up, and I always dress up, it’s always one way or another—this is how I’m feeling today, this is what I want to give voice to today,” Theo said.
To me, cross-dressing opens up an entire wardrobe of personality options. Masculine versus feminine strengths? Bullshit, I’ll take them all. On days when I feel weak, I’ll throw on a blazer and feel the breadth of my shoulders as I walk. And when I feel mechanical and colorless, I have a collection of vivid lipsticks for the occasion.
My everyday look is androgynous and basic, though I’ve begun to enjoy dressing up as a dandy and as a femme fatale. To femme up is something I continue to study and practice. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, despite the fact that I own a vagina. From time to time I find myself wishing that others, particularly lovers, were more aware and appreciative that I am putting on a performance. After all, isn’t everyone?
An actor and a straight man, my boyfriend has performed as a woman onstage, in a dress, pearls, and Spanx. “Before I wore a dress, I didn’t understand what it felt like for a woman,” he told me in the lilt of the German transvestite he portrayed on stage. He continued, “I understand women’s clothing better now, how it’s put together.”
“As all men should,” I replied.
One evening, the two of us dressed up and went out to a nice dinner together. I wore a red strapless dress and heels, and when we got home, he dismantled me. As he took apart my outfit, he commented on its engineering, as though he were taking apart a complicated machine. He knew my femininity wasn’t magic, and he thanked me for putting in the effort. I felt sexy—I felt like myself. So I let him continue to undress me.
*All names changed.
Lucy Sun is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics. Queerbot runs alternate Fridays.