Featured on ArLiJo for Gay Pride Month
Personal essay by John M. Trumbo
I recently recovered a black-and-white photograph of me and my brother that my mother took in July of 1970, according to the date on the print. I am five, or about to turn five, and he is almost eight. We are sitting in a two-seater cart, beneath a red-and-white striped canopy top, that we dubbed the “surrey.” I’m sitting up front enjoying the ride while my brother steers and peddles from the back.
Here’s the thing: I’m wearing one of my mother’s dresses and the two of us look to be as happy as we can be. I have a broad smile across my face, not just some pose-for-camera grin, and I’m showing some leg, pulling up the hem of the dress to just above my left knee. And heels! Yes, they are hers, too, and while the photo is black-and-white so I can’t be positive, they look awfully red to me.
I checked the picture twice for gloves; the way the sun catches my right hand just above the wrist resting demurely on my lap, I wasn’t sure at first glance. But no, my left hand is unsheathed, the arm draped casually across the seat of the surrey. My brother is peddling me around our circular driveway as if we were on our way to some important place, or enjoying a spring drive through the countryside à la “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Maybe we are pretending that my brother has just “rescued” me from my own car having run off the road into a ditch, or pond, according to our favorite movie. The particulars of our game escape me now but I clearly remember sitting there wearing that dress as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
In fact, when I look closer, I can almost smell that dress. We had a laundry room hamper where old clothes were tossed, waiting to be worn for yard work, and my brother, friends and I would root through the pile looking for something adult to wear. The dress had some kind of floral pattern and it was made of a durable cotton, not silk; it was meant to last. It stayed crumpled at the bottom of the hamper, gathering a musty, basement-y smell until I dug it out. When I scanned the picture into my computer and zoomed in on it, the smell of our basement and even my mother came rushing back. I remembered slithering into it in the cool, damp darkness, the fabric enveloping me like skin as I reached my arms toward the sky in delight.
I had forgotten about the shoes.
More recently, as an adult, I was getting rid of some old clothes of my own when I discovered some packed-away leather items at the bottom of an old trunk: black chaps, a worn Sam Browne belt, various arm bands and a vintage 1970s biker cap made by Muir Cap & Regalia Ltd. in Toronto. According to their website, the company has been manufacturing uniform caps since 1875.
Mine was the kind made famous by the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando or Freddie Mercury. It rested neatly on the crown of my head and, with the bill pulled down to cover the top of my eyes, it created an air of mystery when I walked through a smoky leather bar or down a back alley. I’ll tell you, I always thought the look was too sinister for me. I could never take myself seriously wearing it and was always fearful that no one else did either.
I stacked the items in a pile, intending to sell them online. I had already sold a tall, almost knee-high pair of black Wesco Boss engineer boots. I loved those boots, but they weren’t the type you just wear around the house or to the grocery store, and over time they began gathering layers of dust in the back of my closet. When I was spending a good portion of my income on things like chaps and leather boots, they seemed like a good investment in the identity I was trying on for size, so I was happy when an eager young man in New York discovered my Craigslist ad and purchased them–happy that someone would wear them places I had never gone.
Having moved from apartment to apartment the past few years, unable or unwilling to find a suitable resting place, I kept the boots, cap and accoutrements packed away thinking that I would use them again someday. But as I age, I find other things more appealing or more urgent, to spend my money on: a supportive new mattress, a warm vacation, health insurance.
Even so, I remain reluctant to let go of my Muir cap even though originals can fetch hundreds of dollars. I touch it, turn it around in my hands, run my fingers across the smooth, glossy bill, and feel the rigid shape it has formed over the years – not just from my head but from others before me. I remember wearing it as a younger man, charged by an extended glance or nod when someone did take me seriously in it.
The cap was given to me by a couple in Vancouver who, as it turned out, had outgrown their leather at about the same age that I am now. After I had broken up with my first real boyfriend in 1990, they encouraged me to wear it out to bars with them. I had remained comfortable orbiting my outgoing partner, watching from afar as other celestial bodies grazed his atmosphere, igniting briefly. Encased in leather, I discovered the confidence I needed to venture out on my own into this still-new constellation of men.
Now, I often catch myself thinking and talking about “the old days” as if I was my father’s age. When does that happen to a man? Is it simply a natural shift in perspective as the days behind start balancing out the perceived days ahead, comparing what was to what is or what will be, remembering the past as something better or more exciting than the present, or more hopeful than the future?
If I part with my Muir cap, I wonder whether I will be selling off the curiosity and bravado – the fun! – of my youth. Am I settling for a more comfortable, practical sense of happiness? That’s fine, of course. Most of us are used to putting away the things of youth, adjusting to a new course, making room for what has become more important and discarding the stuff we no longer have the room for or strength to carry.
My father, on the other hand, who is almost 90 and still lives on his own, never throws away anything. He’s not a hoarder, he doesn’t save junk simply for the sake of saving it, but he refuses to part with anything that might be useful someday. I understand his habit of preservation; he was raised in a large family in the mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression when everything was reused and recycled.
Recently, he and I were discussing my brother’s new baby when we got onto the subject of family history. He mentioned that he and his siblings used to share whatever hand-me-downs were available – the boys sometimes wore dresses and, equally, the girls wore trousers. It was utilitarian, not a question of identity, until one day when his grandfather remarked, “Boy, when are you going to start wearing trousers?”
It’s funny what sparks a memory. I cannot be sure what triggered that recollection within my father but the one of my own childhood cross-dressing resurfaced not long after that. I was sure that what I was remembering was real and true but I wanted proof so I dug out the incriminating photograph. Indeed, it was exactly as I had pictured it, as if that day, that mid-laugh, that delightful sensation of wearing something forbidden, of literally kicking up my heels, that snap of the camera all happened just as it was meant to.
Sometimes a picture is simply a reminder that we were some place or somebody else once and try as we might to uncover the truth, each affirmation we’re granted only releases other questions: Why was I wearing my mother’s dress and clearly enjoying the role? And why did she take the picture in the first place? Was she secretly enjoying this as much as I was? Certainly not every boy who puts on a dress or every girl who hates to wear one grows up questioning their identity, their orientation, where they fit in. Some people just know without having to pretend or play dress-up. I could never be sure.
Listen to me because I have one more indelible memory that might help make sense of all of this. It is of my first Gay Pride festival in San Francisco. I had attended the marches in Washington but the City by the Bay is, as everybody knows, Mecca. Exiting the metro at Castro Street the evening before the parade, I looked down the hill towards 18th and all I could see were rainbow people. I wore my Muir cap and black leather jacket proudly but to be honest, nobody batted an eye. That, of course, is the point: with the magical evening fog tumbling down off of Twin Peaks and swirling around me and my newfound brothers and sisters with weight and significance, I then felt accepted, a part of, wanted, home, no matter what I wore.
So now, as I touch and turn my Muir cap around in my hands, run my fingers across the smooth, glossy bill, feeling its rigid, well-earned shape, how could I ever part with such a thing? Would you?
Copyright © 2011 by John M. Trumbo
John Trumbo is a career communications copywriter who has also published works of fiction and nonfiction. Currently, he is a candidate in the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, with a concentration in nonfiction. Read more of John's words at http://johnsmurmur.blogspot.com.
Visit this author's homepage at http://johnsmurmur.blogspot.com/