Many men wear skirts, dresses, heels and the like only when they are home alone. They don’t even want their partners to know or see them. Much less take a walk in public dressed in this way. Here is how I see it, as the partner of a man who used to be like this.
Shame and Fear of Conflict
I know my husband fought shame for a long time before he actually dared put on a skirt outside the home. Heels were also an iffy area for him. While he possessed many pairs of feminine-looking shoes and wore them extensively around the house, he usually did not when we went somewhere. He tended to pick shoes with heels (because they also help his chronic foot pain) that looked more masculine, so more like cowboy boots or, at most, like typical men’s shoes but with a heel. I think this was because he was unsure about what people’s reactions would be, considering we live in a very conservative area. Maybe he was conscious of what questions he would raise in relation to his sexual identity, and afraid that these questions would lead to harassment. My husband isn’t somebody who enjoys conflict very much.
He has become braver since then. And so have I, actually. I now consciously encourage him to dress the way he likes, independent of where we are or go. One reason is that I just dislike that self-division into two personas that he submitted himself to: the at-home and the public persona, with the former oriented towards feminine attire and the latter towards social acceptability. To me, it seems unhealthy to have to pretend to others around you that you are someone you really do not identify with. Just for the sake of pleasing them, or at least not enter into conflict with them. It would be much better to be able to be only one version of yourself, especially in your private but also in your professional life – and for people around you to accept that version. If they don’t, then you probably do not need them anyway. Of course, I know that’s tricky when it comes to professional respectability. However, I think that there is more openness for this than ever before, and sometimes being true to your eccentric self can also be exactly the thing colleagues, bosses, or customers value. So if you want to come out, then I would say now is the time to experiment.
How It Feels to Have Fingers Pointed At You
The first few times I went out with my be-skirted and be-heeled husband, I have to admit that it felt funny. While I supported my husband and thought it was good for him to become “one self”, to get rid of that divider between home and public, I could see that most other people were not quite where we were yet. They stared at him and at us, some more openly than others. Especially (but not only) people of the older generations did not seem to be familiar with this view. Some people commented loudly about us and pointed us out to their friends; some laughed; some shook their heads; some blatantly stared at the ground, avoiding our gaze. Only a few seemed genuinely curious and open towards it. And even less men were dressed the same way back then.
So, needless to say, that was not very comfortable. I felt my husband judged by others, and myself judged because I was his partner. My husband on the other hand said that it was especially these looks or stares and these comments that he found exhilarating. Once he had mustered the courage to go out like this in public, it seemed like an increasing amount of energy propelled him forward. And maybe this energy was contagious because with every time we did it, I cared less and became happier for my husband.
Let Them See the New Normal
For one, I just figured that the people judging us just did not know better. They were maybe not familiar with gender discourse or discussions about gender-neutral clothing. So I ended up thinking that they needed us. They needed us to be there, to be the first point of contact to show them something was happening in relation to clothing styles that expressed gender fluidity and visible opposition to toxic masculinity. Even if they were laughing and pointing fingers, I was hoping that we would stay on their minds, that they would go home and think about us or even discuss what we were doing with friends and family. Maybe this experience could be a way “in” for these people in the long run, and maybe some of them would realize that they were interested in doing the same thing.
Also, I thought about why I cared about other people’s judgment. And once I realized I was also trying to live up to standard conceptions of “normal” heterosexual femininity, defined in relation to how great a man I could “catch”, I didn’t care so much anymore. Let them see a heterosexual couple, I thought, that does not quite conform to unwritten rules of dressing adequately. Let them see that we are happy, and maybe they will come to realize that relationships are a lot about really accepting your partner for who they are. At home and in public, dressed in a skirt or pants. And if people thought that we were not “normal” for being in this kind of relationship, then maybe it was time to change what “normal” couples look like.
However, the most important reason was that I realized that I was very proud of my husband. Proud of him for being a man who thinks about gender-related questions and who asks what kind of man in a world of men he wants to be. Proud of his courage to start from square one and open-mindedly experiment with all sorts of looks, garments and styles, regardless of what stereotypes are attached to them. Proud of his mental flexibility, of his sensitivity to negotiations of identities, and of his readiness to become a whole different version of himself. Or rather: to negotiate and finally free a version of himself that was forced to lead a closeted existence for a long time, to release the pressure of conformity, to give voice and image to his own understanding of himself. And, finally: proud of his courage to not only think and experiment, but to also show the world he was doing it. Ready to face all the possible positive and negative consequences, and to stand his own man.