When I Knew Who I Was—Clark Humphrey
I was 9, on a routine weekend visitation. My birth father had to leave the house. He said he had to deal with something “at work.” I later learned he’d gone to a bar, to deal with some friend of his who’d gotten into a fight, in the middle of the afternoon. That was why he left me alone in his house for more than an hour.
That’s when I found my birth father’s stack of magazines.
You shouldn’t be surprised that girls look at those too. Or rather, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I became so interested in them.
I know I don’t dare generalize about “all girls” or “all women,” especially with me being part of a subculture within a subculture. But I’m pretty sure that every girl scours all the available “images of women in the media,” to use that hoary old phrase. She looks for anything that could strike a chord within her, that could show her the kind of woman she would want to become. At last I did.
So: I found the Penthouses stuffed in a box under the bed. My birth father had probably hid them away down there any time I was coming over. (He might not have ever gotten along with my mother, but he did care about me in his own way.)
Mind you, the women in there weren’t the really ugly ones that came along a few years later. I call those “the porn clowns,” with that ridiculously teased hair, the grotesquely tall high heels, and all those deliberately fake looking implants.
No; these magazines were old and worn; he must have had them since he was a teenager. And these women were still *women.* They had soft hair and soft eyes, in soft focus images. They were confident in their femininity. They didn’t have to be tough to get what they wanted.
Even though these were still pictures, I imagined them smoothly gliding like swans through their world. In the pictures, theirs was a world of silks and satins, of muted colors, of grey London mornings and blue Malibu nights. Of horses and big fluffy dogs and vintage automobiles. Of brushed leather chairs and fine china and old hardcover books.
And it was a world of women. Exclusively.
Oh there were boy/girl scenes in some of the pictorials, but I didn’t stop to stare at those. That was my first hint that I was who I was, who I am. Or it should have been.
No; I lingered over the girl/girl scenarios.
Women with women. Kissing; caressing; fondling; rubbing; tasting. The full mystery and lure of the female aura, not just doubled but multiplied.
By the time I heard my birth father’s car pulling up into the driveway, I had learned who I wanted to be.
I wanted to be a beautiful woman, in love with a beautiful woman, surrounded by beautiful things.
I couldn’t tell this to anybody, of course.
Not in my family, and certainly not in my school or my town.
And I didn’t fully realize just how much hard work went into making these fantasies of softness.
But I’d learn that eventually, when I started taking art and apparel design in high school.
I poured my heart and soul into these classes, taking as much after-hours work as I could. It gave me a good work ethic, and more importantly it gave me an excuse not to go out on dates. As far as anybody knew, I wasn’t a girl who liked girls. I was simply a girl who was too busy to hang out with boys.
And getting seriously into design and fashion illustration appeased my family. My mother, stepfather, and birth father were all relieved that, if I had to do something “artistic,” at least I was doing something “artistic” that had a real career path connected to it.
As my fashion education got into the more practical stages, I spent all my extra-curricular hours among girls and women (and one or two more-or-less closeted gay boys). I never came on to any of the girls, no matter how stunning or spirited they looked. I didn’t dare.
We learned to design clothes that could be produced by amateur seamstresses such as ourselves. We learned to make our own photo shoots; that’s where I learned how much work and how many people (running lights, hair, makeup, wardrobe, props, and all) go into creating the perfect image.
I learned a few of the tricks of fashion illustration; how to exaggerate certain facial features and body proportions for a subtle emotional effect that complements the “mood” conveyed by the clothes.
I didn’t learn much of anything about how the apparel business really operated. If I’d known then about low-wage sweatshops abroad and underpaid labor at home; about the big retail chains stealing fads and smothering the indie stores; about the indie stores that refuse to buy from indie designers and manufacturers; about the modeling world’s cutthroat tactics and lecherous middlemen (and women); would I have kept trying to break into the ugly business of beauty? It’s a good question but it’s moot.
What I did do, and still do, is defend the ideas of beauty and of femininity.
I had to do that a lot in college. A lot.
Especially in the tiny sliver of a “lesbian community” at the college.
If I’d gone to a bigger or more prestigious college, things might have been different. But I was at one of those for-profit “arts” colleges, amassing loan debts faster than I was learning anything.
The “Lesbian Students Collective,” as their bulletin-board flyers named them, were a small group of angry, self-righteous young radicals making angry, self-righteous music and angry, self-righteous short movies. They hated me the moment I walked in on one of their meetings. For them, it wasn’t good enough to be a lesbian. You had to be the right kind of lesbian; their kind. I was a “passer,” an “assimilationist.” And even worse, I was on the enemy side in the war against the “beauty myth.”
So there I was. In a city. Out. But still without a real support group, or anyone I could potentially love. And, yes, still a “virgin,” both in the way society counted it and in the way I counted it.
But I kept learning my trade. I learned I’d never be a first-tier designer, at least not for the mainstream trade. My ideas, according to my teachers, just weren’t commercial enough. But I had a good sense of style, and I continued to develop my own tastes.
At a school where the middle-class girls wore jeans and tees, and the rich girls wore designer jeans and tees, I wore dresses on all but the coldest days. My hair and nails were always meticulous.
By the end of that school year, I finally learned there was a word for who I am. Besides my own name, of course. And I learned there were other femmes around. Especially in the fashion scene; just not at my little Kostly Kommercial Kollege, at least not openly.
But I did find other femme friends and, eventually, lovers.
There was one older woman who started out nice but soon made me feel very uncomfortable; like she was trying to suck all the youthful life-energy out of me.
There was another 30ish woman who freely shared her mature life-energy with me. Around her I got to feel like I was finally a part of a grownup world, a specific kind of grownup world in which I belonged. A world of “high teas” and hushed voices. A world in which nobody would even think of dressing casual to go to the ballet.
And there was this girl my age. We’d met at a GLBT Young Adults support group. She was the only other one there in a dress (the only other born-female, that is).
Sometimes we played dress-up. We’d act out little scenarios from our pasts. I got to vicariously have the out, honest, open adolescence I hadn’t gotten in real life.
Through my play times with her, I learned a lot about myself, and my relationship to my chosen career.
I learned, or rather I confirmed what I already sort-of knew deep down, that fashion isn’t about trying to impress anybody else (relatives, bosses, would-be bosses, dates, would-be dates, and so on).
It’s about being you. The best, most idealized, wish-fulfillment version of you.
And it’s about proclaiming, through your personal aesthetic, the kind of world you’d like to live in. Especially if you don’t currently live in it.
The fantasy worlds of most fashion photography, like the fantasy world of those old Penthouses, are places where everybody has money but nobody has to work for it. Not only that, but nobody who does have to work for a living, like the people who make the clothes and the furnishings, is ever seen in there.
The women who shop at my boutique these days: they work like dogs. Fifty, sixty hour weeks, just to pay their underwater mortgages. They have to be hard.
But they want to be soft.
And that’s what I’m selling them.
I’m selling them the reassurance that, beyond all the board meetings and office politics and networking, they’re really creatures of delicacy and refinement, who deserve better than all this.
As we all do.