Coming Out: My second skin

By Jane Hale

Purified of old ideas,

Contemplating on a fall

I’m wearing a second skin. –Hugo Largo

In a previous column, I said that you’re never going to see me wearing a dress.

That’s one of those half-truths. You’re never going to see it.

Back in grad school in the 1980s, my classmate Sarah T. and I became best friends while walking along New Jersey’s Raritan River talking about Chaucer or Henry Fielding or George Eliot or sometimes just gossiping about our professors and classmates.

Some of those talks led to real discoveries. My understanding of “King Lear” — some of which I shared in a previous column — emerged during one of those conversations. I remember it vividly: a brilliant autumn afternoon, Sarah and I sat in a park across the river from the leafy academic bowers of Rutgers University. We were trying to understand how Shakespeare depicts Lear’s madness, and suddenly I saw how all the different elements of the play coalesce into one magnificent conception. I love it when that happens.

And there were other, equally memorable times hanging out at Sarah’s apartment drinking Jameson’s, smoking cigarettes, and arguing about Norman Mailer’s weltanschauung. Sarah would occasionally lounge around in a colorful silk caftan, a long flowing chemise in which she always brought to mind lines by Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson:

“Give me a look, give me a face

“That makes simplicity a grace.

“Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:

“Such sweet neglect more taketh me

“Than all the adulteries of art

“That strike mine eyes but not my heart.”

I never mentioned it, but I lusted after that caftan for myself, imagining how it would feel next to my skin.

Not long ago, Sarah and I found each other on Facebook and began corresponding again, after not having been in touch for more than 30 years. Then, a few months ago, she was one of the first of my friends I came out to. And I confessed my sartorial interest in that old caftan, which still hung in her closet.

Dear heart that she is, Sarah sent me that caftan as a coming-out gift. Sometimes my cup runs over.

And yes, occasionally I wear our caftan while I’m lounging around at home. It feels good next to my heart. It’s like a second skin.

I’ve never been a cross dresser. Well, there was that one Halloween, but that was somebody else’s idea, and I’m sure I was the scariest thing trick-or-treating on Behrends Avenue that year. And yes, all right, there was that one time in college, but I’m not even. My prurient interests lie elsewhere.

And I’m not interested in fashion. My idea of the soignée modern woman is Patti Smith.

But women’s clothes are simply more playful. While I don’t plan on wearing dresses, I may indulge in some rather ambiguous touches — because I can, now that I’m out.

Like jewelry, for instance: I love earrings and necklaces and bracelets.

And hats: I love how they cover up my bald spot.

And scarves. What’s not to love?

And I’ve taken to slinging a large leather bag over my shoulder when I go out. I like being able to carry around my notebook, pens and pencils, iPhone, wallet, mascara, whatever book I’m currently reading, all hanging conveniently from my shoulder. And yeah, I could just as well use a backpack, but you know damn well it’s not as chic.

(You knew I was kidding about the mascara, right?)

I’m going to accessorize like nobody’s business. Jewelry, hats, scarves, bag. All pretty androgynous stuff, I guess, but I’m pushing the envelope.

For me, this transition is not about passing as a woman. Even if I wanted to, I’ve got the aforementioned bald spot. (I feel like that Shakespearean gender-bender Lady Macbeth: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”)

But I like the androgynous look. They say that the hood doesn’t make the monk. True enough, but some people just like hoods.

The world is a troubled place and demands that we take it seriously. But I’m going to be grateful for the freedom to relish whatever playfulness can be mustered in the way I’m dressing. To be frank, I feel like the younger generations have been enjoying all the gender-fluidity fun. I’m just trying to catch up.

Clothes don’t give you the full picture of someone, of course, but they give you hints, and as I get beyond my self-consciousness, the hints are getting bolder. I’m stepping over that androgynous line. Look for dangly earrings, scoop-neck sweaters, ankle boots. I need to find some nice bracelets.

And I’m wearing my pronoun button — she, her, hers — even though I don’t really give a damn which pronouns you use for me. (If you’re speaking of me in the third person, I’m probably not there to be offended anyway.)

I’m decking myself out playfully — so people know that I’m done with all the misogynist myths about gender. I’m sloughing off those old pernicious ideas and wearing a second skin.

• Jane Hale spent her first 69 years writing as Jim. She is a longtime Juneau resident. “Coming Out” is a biweekly column. It appears on the Empire’s Neighbors page.

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