When I was in the second grade, Brian Mathers approached me with his right arm cocked back in perfect pitcher’s form, and stuffed sand down my shirt, yelling “girl lover.” Over a half century later, and I can still see Brian’s sneer as he approached, hear the disdain in his voice, and feel the sand trickling down my body. I stood there, with my hands behind my back, thinking “You are wrong, Brian Mathers, I am no girl lover. Because the person I really love is David Bailey.”
Brian’s words made no sense to me. He accused me of being a girl lover, which, four years later, he became when he claimed Colleen Harrison as his girlfriend. What Brian did make clear was that the biggest insult a male can be called is a girl.
Sissy, girly boy, snowflake, soft, gay, fairy, and worse. The insults are many, but the societal norm is pervasive: Boys are conditioned to go to any length to avoid being associated with femininity. Boys learn to navigate the world either by dominating or risking domination. The way boys dress, talk, move, groom themselves (or not), all convey a desire to blend in. If a boy, by choice or circumstance, needs to step out, he may need to prepare for battle as the stakes can be quite high. It does not have to be this way.
I used to make apologies for having the soft in my man.
A wave of woman in my masculinity…
~ Tapiwa Mugabe ~
Long before my encounter with Brian Mathers , I knew I was no typical boy. I never acquired the ability to throw a ball, whistle, or spit. Instead, I found my own way, conforming just enough to fit in and avoid harm. Throughout middle and high school, my classmates recognized the “wave of woman in my masculinity,” as the poet Tapiwa Mugabe wrote. Girls felt safe with me, and boys never saw me as a threat. In fact, I became popular among both girls and boys by brokering conversations between them. Since dating was not an option for me, I found my place as the asexual friend who literally held purses and coats as everyone slow-danced on the gym floor.
Such is the journey for gender fluid folks — not fully male nor female, but traveling a middle path between masculine and feminine. For those of us who are biologically male, we can sometimes express our feminine side through drag.
In recent years, drag has become mainstream with the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its many spin offs (my favorite is HBO’s We’re Here). This popularity has resulted in a political and social backlash, as over a hundred bills have been presented in statehouses across the country to prohibit drag show performances in the presence of children.
“When you take one of these little kids and put them in front of drag queens that are men dressed like women, do you think that helps them or confuses them in regard to their own gender?” said Arkansas state Senator Garry Stubblefield.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis said that “Gender ideology, today, is one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations (sic)…because it blurs differences and the value of men and women…making the world the same, all dull, all alike, and that is contrary to the human vocation.”
Such strong opinions these men hold, and in both cases, opinions held absent even a lick of experience or evidence! It may be just the right time to extend an invitation to Sen. Stubblefield and Pope Francis to attend my experiential workshop, Exploring your Yinner Self. I work with cis-gender men, both gay and straight, to explore the spectrum of gender identity and expression in a safe and respectful environment.
Today I wear my mother in my voice, I am clothed in her.
I wear my sisters in my thinking, my grandmother in my
bone, in my soul.
~ Tapiwa Mugabe ~
Exploring your Yinner Self plays on the relationship between yin (feminine) and yang (masculine). It is not a drag party. Those events can serve as venues where men put on a dress, take on misogynistic stereotypes (typically the crone, the harlot, the diva, or the ditz) and behave badly at the expense of women.
The type of drag I practice is about fierce authenticity. When I put on a dress, hair extensions, makeup and heels, I remain myself. from the inside out. And that is what I ask of all my participants.
Would this be much more threatening to men like Sen. Stubblefield and Pope Francis? Hard to know unless they were courageous enough to explore their own feminine side.
Before a Yinner Self gathering, I meet with each of the men individually and ask how their family viewed gender — boys and men always did this, and girls and women never did that. How comfortable did they feel within those rules? Was there any tolerance for those in their family who fell between genders, whether they were LGBT or not? Every family had that “tomboy aunt” or that “confirmed bachelor,” I like to know where participants stand as we begin the journey together.
These questions alone are sometimes enough to stir their pot.
One participant, a straight man in his 40’s, said that no one had ever broached the subject before. “Why did we ever have to talk about or question gender?” he said. “The rules were set, and there was no room for negotiation.”
We then discuss how far they want to go in their yinner journey. Some take on the journey in order to better relate to the women in their lives — wives, partners, and daughters. Others talk about how harmful and debilitating being a man has been for them, and they want to explore another side of themselves that might be more healing and life-affirming. And others are questioning their own gender identity and expression as cis-gender males.
We talk about their outer expression of femininity. For some it might be just a slight alteration — a touch of eyeliner, blush, or lip gloss might be enough. Others may add makeup and hair. And others will want to go full on drag — tucking, padding, corseting, and heels.
For the latter group, I’ll take them shopping to find appropriate clothes and shoes. Then off to the wig store to figure out hair. And finally, the foundational pieces, which we build or buy. This option is a serious investment of time and money, but for those who are fully committed, it is well worth it.
On the day of the gathering, those who opt for full-on drag arrive early, as it takes up to three hours to accomplish. Others can show up an hour or two beforehand, so we can apply shadow, eyelashes, the proper hairpiece and jewelry. And once everyone is ready, we gather for a meal and a conversation.
My only request is that they do not hide behind a persona. They must remain fully and completely themselves, only from a more feminized perspective. And there is no judgment. This is not a beauty contest or a competition to see who is “passable.” This is a journey from the yinside out.
For she prayed for me. It was she who went before God,
red war paint on her face from fighting the men.
She pleaded for a son.
How then can I deny the woman in me,
when my coming to earth was because women prayed for me?
~ Tapiwa Mugabe ~
After our meal, I place a number on a wall where 1 is ultimate masculine and 10 is ultimate feminine — and ask each participant to stand at a place along the wall that reflects their day-to-day gender identity and expression. Most stand in the 1–3 range — feeling most comfortable navigating the world through a masculine lens.
Then I ask them to stand at a place along the wall that reflects their current experience in drag. There is a notable shift, as they move toward the 5–8 range.
“To think that I have only been living 20% of who I actually am,” said Mike, still clad in his jeans and t-shirt with some eyeliner, blush, lipstick and stilettos. “I’m seeing the world in a whole new way, and it is the most liberating thing I have done in a long time.
John, a burly man in full drag, said, “I sure have a deeper appreciation for my wife. To think that she goes through all of this every day just to walk out of their house and be accepted…we need to change those standards right now.”
Larry’s expression of drag did not involve makeup, wigs or dresses. Teased mercilessly as a young man, he expressed his yinner side by shaving the mustache that kept his full and feminine lips hidden for over forty years. “These lips are a gift,” he said, “and I will never hide them again.”
Our final activity of the gathering — for those who are willing — is for the men to step out into the world as their yinner selves. Some make it as far as the front stoop. Others try a walk down the street. And others even brave a trip to a store. (That yinner field trip to Trader Joe’s in Daly City was most memorable).
“If being a real man is about courage, then this is the most courageous thing any man can ever do,” said Steve.
If you have seen me in a public setting in these past five years, you have witnessed Kevin 7.8.
Last week, I gave a keynote for several hundred people at the Maryland Theater with a full face of makeup, a cropped jacket, a pair of slacks that featured a shimmer of gold and burgundy when it caught the light, and four-inch heels. The good people of Hagerstown met the real Kevin John Fong — who slayed a 45-minute talk about living one’s true and unapologetic self from the yinside out.
I didn’t put on the makeup, heels and a cropped jacket to make a political statement. I dressed that way because it brought out my best and beautiful self — which, in turn, invited all of the folks in the audience to bring out their best and beautiful selves.
Only father remarks at my petal nature,
the women come from say I am beautiful.
~ Tapiwa Mugabe ~
In the end, what those of us who are trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, drag kings and queens want is to be seen, honored, appreciated and embraced in our full humanity. Indeed, that is all that any human wants.
Fortunately for me, the men that I come from, including and most especially my 89-year old father, say I am beautiful and bring honor to the family name. These qualities of acceptance, inclusion, compassion and love epitomize the sacred feminine.
I imagine that this is what folks like Brian Mathers, Garry Stubblefield, and Pope Francis are most afraid of. People like me — who dare to express their petal nature — threaten them to the core of their very being.
To my friends who identify as cis-gender men, I invite you to take that courageous step towards your yinner self. I promise you, there is so much more power and possibility that awaits in knowing how you truly embody both masculinity and femininity, from the yinside out.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How did your family/community of origin define gender (e.g. boys and men always do this and never do that, or girls and women always do this and never do that). How did those rules shape your own sense of gender identity and expression? Was there any room in your family/community for those who were in-between genders?
- How do you view yourself on the gender spectrum today (1=masculine and 10=feminine)? How comfortable are you with that identity?
- What would it look like to have a conversation about exploring your yinner self with folks who identify as male in your life?