Yaaasss! October, we are finally in you! October is my jam! I love, love, love this month. The weather, football, ghost runs, haunts and spooky things to do. I love the festivals, events, parties and walking Hillcrest with my bestie and a #PSL. (Trans guys can be basic bitches too — don’t judge).
October holds space for my birthday and annual celebration by way of a murder mystery party. (It’s also LGBTQ History Month). This month holds space for Acting Against Cancer’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, something spooky from KY Shakespeare and the annual LPF Belle Cruise (tickets still available!) With a special event or party nearly every day this month, October also strings together my love of dress-up. If you plan it out correctly, there’s an excuse to wear a costume every day in October!
For as long as I can remember, I have been a costume connoisseur. My costumes live in two of their very own “costume” closets. A long cedar closet houses my costume tops, coats, jackets, and swords. The large enclosed closet under my stairs plays host to nine large rubbermaid bins of costume bottoms, shoes, hats, masks, gloves, weapons, shields and accessories. I have dedicated bins for “seasonal” costumes – like Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Mardi Gras, and St. Patty’s Day, too. If there was a holiday or a reason to dress-up, you bet your bottom dollar I’d be the first one to participate, even in “professional” settings… like when I attended YPAL’s Emerging Leaders Meet-N-Greet wearing my traditional Mardi Gras beads, jester hat and Santa belly (because the event fell upon Fat Tuesday).
A funny thing happened though. I didn’t realize it at first, but it’s clear to me now… the further along I get in my transition, the less I feel a need to play dress-up. All those costumes served as a cover-up and an escape from the costume I was made to wear every day. In this month’s article, I’m going to walk you through some of those costumes and the impact they had on me.
1. My First Costume
My first costume was assigned at birth. The doctors and nurses at Baptist East looked at me that Monday and made a decision about what I was going to be that year, and for all the years to follow. My first costume only came in shades of pink. Like any good costume, this one came with weapons as accessories. This pack of weapons included “she and her” along with an ultra-feminine character name, As I grew older, the costume morphed to include a wig of long brown hair, the occasional mandatory “perm”, dolls as gifts and a slew of heteronormative expectations and gender norms.
Much like Hester’s scarlet letter, my costume came with a large “F”. It was sewn to my chest, quite literally. The costume called for special chest gear around age 11, followed by an expectation to have smooth armpits and legs. The costume dictated the way people perceived me, spoke to me, the groups and clubs I had access to and even who I was allowed to be attracted to. It also dictated my pay, leaving me to make $.82 for every dollar that a white, non-Hispanic cisgender male makes. This disparity would have been even larger I was a POC. $.62 as a black woman, $.57 as a native American woman, and just $.54 as a Latina). (2019 Wage Pay Gap Fact Sheet)
The costume pretty convincing. The binary made everyone feel comfortable…everyone but me. Any time I tried to take it off, I was shamed and corrected. I hated that costume.
2. Green-Faced Teddy Bear
As I prepped for this article, I tried to remember what I decided to go as for Halloween as a child. It’s funny how I don’t recall as many costumes as you’d think I would. I remember being a Ninja Turtle a few years in a row, rocking an awesome shell my Mom sewed herself. I recall being a Vampire and an Alien in my teenage years. How very gender-neutral and ironic of me to choose things that hid in the night and thought of as monstrous and foreign.
I remember being Aladdin, Spider-Man, a soccer player with a giant soccer ball mask. There was a year I went as a ninja. I think I was once a pirate and Tommy the Green or White Ranger another year. I can explain the rationale behind most of these, and it’s very telling that my assigned character was an “F”, but all the characters I elected to be were “M”. The one costume I cannot explain, but I absolutely LOVE, was a green-faced teddy bear when I was 5 years old.
I recall seeing the picture in the photo album at my parent’s house. I’ve got these fuzzy little ears wrapped around my head. (I’m pretty sure my Mom sewed those too). I’m obviously a bear, but my face is painted green. I remember asking my Mom “why?”. Why the green face paint? She said something like “because you wanted to”.
I love that photograph and that story. It’s a weird, silly and shining example of my being myself despite what was “normal” or expected. But I also love this story because it showcases a moment in my life when I told my Mother who I wanted to be and she supported me, without question or judgment. She painted my little face and held my hand as we walked door-to-door with my pillowcase asking strangers for candy.
3. Guntown Mountain
This memory. Oh my gosh. This was one of the most terrible moments in my childhood.
My aunt and uncle had an RV, so my younger brother and I had tagged along with them and our two cis gender male cousins for summer vacation. We stay at Camp Jellystone’s Mammoth Cave camp and were pumped to finally be going to Guntown Mountain, a place I’d always dreamed of visiting!
If you were born in the 80’s and are from Kentucky, chances are you visited Guntown Mountain in the 90s. As a child, this place was magical. It was a roadside attraction off I-65’s Cave City exit. This amusement park was themed like the wild, wild, west. After riding a skylift to the top of the mountain, you were greeted by character actors and a long row wooden porches and old-timey shops.
I’ll never forget watching a showdown in the street, followed by a hanging (of a white cowboy robber.. not a hate lynching of a POC). It was the first time I got to witness Hollywood-like fight-scene special effects in real life. I thought it was so cool that the actor showed me the special chest/neck device he wore under his shirt to keep him safe during the action. *mind. blown.*
After the street fight, I remember checking out a magic shop and an ole-timey theatre before heading to the ole-timey photography studio. I always thought these photos were cool. Keep in mind that in 1994, we didn’t have cell phone cameras or digital cameras. There were no filters and when you took a photo, it was typically on 35mm film.. and it had to be developed..after your roll was full with 23 other pictures… The idea that we could take a picture and within 15-30 minutes be handed a picture, in-print, that looked like it was from the 1800’s was just unreal.
There was a large cedar chest full of costumes and props.It was a treasure chest of imagination. Toy guns, canes, bow ties, hats and more that could have provided hours of entertainment. This is where my memory starts getting blurry. I repressed the exact details of what happens next, as it brought me years and years of shame. I vaguely recall deciding upon a cowboy costume and gun, but one of the adults, I can’t recall who, told me I was to wear a dress for the photo.
I was pissed. Carrie, burn down the gym pissed. The scowl on my face stayed there well beyond the photograph. I was angry. I was angry that I had to wear the girl costume. I was pissed and jealous that my brother didn’t. I was also angry that I didn’t feel like I could express to anyone why I was so upset. I was a boy but everyone was treating me like a girl. Costumes were an escape from the costume I had to wear every day and expression of self, but this one was humiliating and turned my favorite day into a moment of shame and feeling othered.
The photograph still hangs in my parent’s hallway to this day (I’m assuming.. I haven’t been there in 2 years). Scars remind that the past is real and super-gendered photographs like that are absolute nightmares to trans kids like me. They are big scars, sometimes made bigger by being constantly picked at. Scars like that take a long time to heal.
Because I understand the pain of looking back at these seemingly harmless moments our society loves to celebrate and capture on film, I’m a big advocate of gender-neutral baby clothing and baby-showers, gender-neutral family photos and very anti-gender-reveal party… You never really know if that thing you’re celebrating is going to bring shame, hurt and harm to that very child you’re celebrating. Also, you’re celebrating your child’s genitals, not their gender.
**I want to point out that my Aunt and Uncle have both apologized for the photograph incident. My Aunt even said, “I wish you’d told me!”. As a kid, I didn’t know that it was safe to speak up, but as an adult, my Aunt is among the handful of family members that respect my name and pronouns. I don’t know if either of them read my articles, but if you do, please know how much for your unconditional love and acceptance means to me, especially being small-town folks, raised in the pentecostal church. Thank you for seeing me. It’s SO nice to not have to wear a costume or put on layers of armor to prepare to see you.
4. I Was Promised Soccer. We Didn’t Play Soccer Once.
Well, I didn’t plan it this way. Serendipity just flows sometimes and now it’s time for a story about church camp, my Mammaw’s church camp.. Pentecostal church camp.
It was summer. I was maybe 14 years old. My Mammaw asked me to come to her church camp. I grew up in the youth group. I was a youth leader. I was in all the church plays, I helped lead Sunday school and even preached to the entire congregation on youth Sunday one year. I attended youth group meetings every Sunday, went on all the outings and loved heading to winter retreat and summer camp. With my church peeps, I got to attend SuperWow on the east coast and a camp at Daytona Beach. Needless to say, I was invested. Youth group was my jam, well, until I was outed to my Dad by my Youth Pastor and told I couldn’t come back, but this story isn’t about that..
But.. in the year 2000, I loved youth group and anything “camp”. I was out for the summer, so after asking my Mammaw questions about what to expect, like if there would be sports and if I could play soccer, I agreed to go. I packed all my best Adidas clothes and toiletries (Sun-In was popular then.. Remember Sun-In?). I will never forget arriving at the camp in Podunk, KY to find my Mammaw waiting with a week’s worth of brand new girl costumes from JCPenny. As you can imagine, this week was one of the worst weeks of my childhood.
Any given day of my life, I was made to wear my girl costume. It reflected in my long hair that my Dad wouldn’t let me cut and the name/pronouns people assigned me. Fortunately, I was athletic and my parents didn’t care too awful much that my day-to-day clothes were shorts, sweatshirts, and t-shirts from the boys/men’s department. I think I used the rationale that they were more comfortable and less form-fitting on my chubby little body. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for that!
My preferred “M” clothes helped me hide my assigned costume and sometimes gave way to doubt about who and what I was. They served as armor and gave me safety. I loved when people “accidentally” called me a boy. It was never an accident to me, it was glorious. But, my Mammaw’s assigned costumes took away the chance that I’d been seen as anything but female, and it was absolutely embarrassing.
I was a teenage boy, being made to dress like a girl while also sharing segregated space and housing with a dorm full of teenage girls.. It was a blessing and a curse, but mostly a curse, since I was misgendered and invisible.
The girls thought I was weird. They thought it was weird that I wanted to play basketball with the boys, and the boys did too, so they wouldn’t play with me. Every morning we’d leave the dorm and line-up outside, facing the boys for morning prayer before breakfast. Mine was a row of floor-length skirts and church-attire while the row across from us was more casual and comfortable jeans and t-shirts. Costumes are supposed to be fun. This costume wasn’t fun. It was more like a straight-jacket and I was the weird little outsider being gawked at and judged.
5. I Hope You Had The Time of Your Life
I knew who and what I was my entire life. I didn’t have words for it until my senior year when I discovered the DSM-IV in psychology class. We’ve discussed this in previous articles.
Senior year in high school was around the time I started feeling more comfortable with telling others my sexual preference. I’d always been attracted to girls. I slowly starting started letting other people know I liked girls too. When prom came around I wanted to take my best friend, who I also had a crush on. (I’m pretty sure she knew that.. and if she didn’t, well, she knows now. I’m pretty sure she reads my articles…lol.)
I wanted my prom to be like what you see on TV. I wanted to be the cute guy in the tux who showed up in the red sports car with a corsage. I wanted to be that cute couple that danced, giggled, and maybe made out at the end of the night. But, as fate would have it, not only was I single, and not only was I forbid to take another girl to prom, but I was also told I could not wear a tux. Not by my school, but by my parents.
My dad insisted that I would wear a prom dress, so I decided to make a game of it. I decided I was going to dress up like a high school girl for my prom. I did everything in my power to make a mockery of the situation as a character actor to the “T”!
For my junior prom, I went and got my nails done. That’s right. Fake, glued on, painted purple or some super girly color. My friends thought it was hilarious. They understood who I was without knowing the words or labels. I even asked a guy in our friend group to be my date. He said yes, but dinner and the quiet drive to prom was a little awkward. I’m pretty sure we ended up hanging out with our friend group and I spent the night chasing after the girls I liked.
For senior prom, I once again made a mockery of the situation. I got my hair done and I picked out a long, flowing lavender dress with spaghetti straps. I did everything in my power to make my dad uncomfortable at JCPenney. My entire life he had wished and hoped to be seen as a guy, but my Dad forced female-gendered clothes and expectations upon me. He spent what must’ve accumulated to 100s of hours schooling me on what was and wasn’t popular with “the other young ladies”. So when I was told I had to wear a dress, I decided I would play into it. I mean, it’s weird to be prom dress shopping with your Dad, not you Mom, right? I tested limits and tried my best to make him uncomfortable. Remember the Sisqo song? Yep. I insisted that I HAD to have a thong to go with my dress. After all, if you’re going to dress like a girl, you better freaking dress like a girl. My Dad didn’t fight me on it. I think he seriously thought I was changing my ways and embracing my assigned costume. *cringe*
You might think that I hated this moment in my history. You might wonder, why did I even go to prom? Was this embarrassing? Was I uncomfortable? And the answer is yes. But the answer is also no. I never thought of it this way, but that was probably the first time I ever felt comfortable enough with who I was as a person to go somewhere in drag. And oh honey, what a show it was. The dress, the hair, the nails, the shoes, right down to the underwear. I made a mockery of it all. It was a joke, and my friends were all in on it. I had a great time at prom and guess what? Spoiler alert: I told my parents I was going stag, but I went and picked up my best friend, the girl. So yeah. I took a girl and dressed in drag for my “Time of Your Life” themed Senior Prom. *mic drop*
6. Taking Off The Costumes
As you and I look back through the costumes of my life, take notice of a few things.
1. If given the choice, I dressed like my male heroes. I never felt comfortable in or wanted to be wearing female-assigned clothes or costumes.
2. Before transition, many of my costumes were big and baggy. I was still hiding and hoping that no one would notice the body underneath the costume.
3. When in these costumes, I got to be a more authentic version of myself. Just look at the photos of me in a tie and male-assigned clothing. That’s the most authentic my smile ever was prior to August of 2017.
4. The times I was forced into a female-assigned garment, I hated myself. I hated the way I was being treated and the way I was being viewed. These moments were full of trauma and pain. Even reliving these memories with you has brought on a bit of anxiety. Showing you some of these photos is really scary, but over the past 6 months you, my loyal readers, have shown me love, support, acceptance, and gratitude. I’ve grown to trust you and am willing to open up these parts of my journey. If you’re a cis-ally, I hope you come away with a better understanding of how harmful forcing someone to be something they are not is.
The Trevor Project reports that over 40% of the calls to their national suicide hotline are from transgender and GNC people. 40%! NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that “48% of all transgender adults report that they have considered suicide in the past 12 months, compared to 4% of the overall US population”! That’s outrageous!
Forcing a child into clothes and norms that they don’t identify with is harmful. It’s emotional abuse and those moments get packed up into that person’s baggage for life. You can’t decide who someone is for them. Things like conversion therapy are harmful. This practice is ineffective and dangerous. Together, we can help change this and protect KY’s LGBTQ youth. Here’s how: ACT NOW.
If you happen to notice a child in your life is always fighting against society’s gender norm, pay attention. Make sure you are creating a space where they know they are safe. Reiterate that you love them no matter what. Talk to them about your pronouns and why you chose them, let them know that they are free and safe to use a pronoun that they identify with. Let them choose clothes and a name that they feel good about. Ask any accepting parent of a trans or GNC person about their child. I guarantee you they will tell you that when their child was allowed to use a different pronoun and dress how they pleased their personality and self-worth lit up in a way that parent never saw imagined.
Ask anyone that knew me “before” how different I am and how much happier I am. I can tell you from personal experience that being who you authentically are makes all the difference in regard to your self-esteem, self-worth and mental health.
I am so pleased with who I am, that I almost don’t want to wear a costume anymore… but since I’ve got hundreds of dollars invested in 2 closets of things and I love being playful, I still will. Happy Halloween.
As always, thanks for taking an interest in my trans life and better equipping yourself to be an ally. Next month we’ll jump dive into Thanksgiving and how hard the holidays can be then you’re trans. Stay tuned.
Want more but can’t wait? Follow my transition on Instagram @trans.parent_kasen!