Last week I gave three back-to-back shows at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I was their “Diversity Speaker” for orientation, a product of some of the orientation leaders seeing me speak at a conference. I’ve said this a bunch: I loved doing those shows, and I heart FIT. What I haven’t said enough is why.
I want to get into that, but to do it I need to address the difference between gender expression and gender cueing.
First, let’s do some show and tell.
Below (and above) are a few photos of me on stage over the past year. Something that most people would never realize is how intentional I am about how I dress, depending on the audience, the content of the talk, and where in the country I am. These three photos are helpful in demonstrating the full range of decisions I’ll make in this regard, so let me talk about them for a moment each.
(Sidenote: the nice thing about these photos is my hair/grooming is about identical in all three, so we can just focus on the threads)
The first photo is me during my keynote at the National Sex Ed Conference.
What I’m wearing: this is a fairly masculine expression for me (super important distinction). I’m wearing a dark blue blazer, lavender v-neck, solid dark-plum pants, and cap-toe brown shoes (not pictured).
Why: I dressed more conservatively/traditionally because I wasn’t sure what to expect at this event, and I didn’t want my clothing to conflict with my message (which was fairly serious, direct, and provocative). Further, I wasn’t going to be spending much time addressing my own gender, or perceptions of my gender/sexuality (something that’s a part of my show), so I didn’t want people to be pondering that while I was talking about other things.
The second photo is me performing S.E.X. (yeah I was…) in my hometown Austin, TX
What I’m wearing: I’d consider this outfit to be a bit more androgynous. I’ve got the typical mainstays of man-fashion on — the jacket, the button down shirt, the pants — but with a twist. The jacket is glittery silver. The pants are a muted leopard print. My shoes (not pictured) are the same black step-in moccasins as in the third picture, and my socks vibrantly striped in cool colors.
Why: this was a show I put together with a friend (Karen Rayne), and people were coming to see us. Like, on purpose. This, combined with the material I was performing (all super personal & anecdotal), made me feel comfortable pushing things a little bit more out of Handsometown toward Prettyville.
The third photo is me last week doing one of my shows at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC
What I’m wearing: This is one of the most feminine outfits I’ve ever gotten onstage wearing (and by onstage I of course mean “on-mean-girls-esque-gym-floor”). Same shoes and pants as the S.E.X. outfit, but sockless and rolled a bit. And combined with a dark-plum scoop-neck shirt and a warm-color medley summer scarf.
Why: because I could. This is the Fashion Institute of Technology, folks, and I assumed (correctly) that I couldn’t go too far in any direction with how I wanted to dress. The audience members presented a wonderful array of gender expressions and styles, so I was just one of the bunch in this instance.
Why any of this matters: Gender Expression vs. Gender Cueing
For a brief understanding of gender expression and gender cueing, the way I use and distinguish between the two terms is in these ways: gender expression is the various ways you intentionally and unintentionally display gender, through your dress, actions, and demeanor (based on the traditional expectations of what those displays mean); gender cueing is the various ways you demonstrate your gender, through your dress, actions, and demeanor (with the intention of helping other people gauge or understand you as a gendered person).
Gender expression is sometimes gender cueing, but gender cueing is always gender expression. Or, in non-words, like this:
Both can be thought of as performances
For some folks, they aren’t aware of the fact that they’re constantly playing a [series of] role[s] in the play called Gender! They don’t hear the director’s calls, realize they’re reading a script, or pay attention to the stage they’re sharing with other actors.
But if you’re as aware of gender as I am, it’s hard to not be cognizant of the idea that you’re constantly performing gender. I am aware of this on some level constantly, particularly when I’m literally on a stage.
Neither can be truly avoided
If you live in a society that relies on gender as a social construct, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re constantly expressing and cueing gender. Even by choosing to try not to express gender, for example by wearing more neutral clothing or behaving in ways that you might think of as non-gendered, you’re marking your gender by unmarking it.
Now, to be sure, in our society’s Play feminine-presenting people, and women in general, are much more often “onstage” for their gender. If this is an idea that you don’t immediately grasp, read this amazing article by Deborah Tannen: Marked Women, Unmarked Men.
Why I loved FIT so much is encapsulated in that third picture
Whenever I get on stage I’m putting on a gender costume. I’m not a snowflake in this regard — we all do it. As I commented above, I’m hyper-intentional about that costume, what it might mean, and try to control, as much as possible, the ways I express gender and the cues the audience receives.
But what most folks don’t realize is that this costume I’m wearing is 99-times-out-of-100 a more masculine representation of gender than I would prefer to express, and is generally not cueing how I feel as a gendered person. That is, the costume I wear is toning it down, not dressing it up. And this is a weight I bear when I’m performing, because I’m aware of how I’m doing several performances at once (a performance in a performance — the Inception of stand-up comedy).
A lot of folks asked me if I felt the pressure to dress more fashionably at FIT after they saw that photo on Facebook or Instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I did spend [an embarrassing amount of] time thinking about what I’d wear, but that question is working from patently-wrong assumption about why.
The why that led to me dressing how I did that day was a special feeling, and one that I had, until last week, never experienced leading up to a show or talk. It was something I rarely experience at all, despite my wants for it.
In truth, I didn’t feel pressured to dress in any way for that show at FIT: I felt liberated to be myself.