Illustration by Maddie Edgar
I never wanted to be a princess in white. I wasn’t one of those little girls who dreams of her wedding day – I wasn’t a girl at all. I saw myself as grubby, an animal. I was happiest in overalls and didn’t mind when other people asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I liked being difficult to nail down.
When I was young, there was no word for what I was – or what I was not. Even now, the words we have are incomplete. I struggle to describe myself. “Not a girl” is usually as far as I get. The closest our language has so far for a person like me is “nonbinary,” meaning I exist outside the “masculine” and “feminine” gender norms. It means that, walking down the block, I will get called both “sir” and “ma’am” before I even cross the street – and neither will be right.
When I met my first husband, I was in boys’ clothes. He said I looked like Ramona Quimby, the scruffy, mischievous girl from Beverly Cleary’s iconic children’s books. We rode our bikes everywhere through Portland, as though every day was summer vacation. But as the relationship progressed, I could tell that he needed me to be feminine. He craved it. If I ever looked or acted like a girl, it owned him, totally.
Once, I put on a thrift store denim tube dress and went to visit him at the coffee shop where he worked. I was the only one there. He came around the counter and stood over me, too close. The look on his face – shock, total possession – frightened me. He crowded me into a corner and put his hands on the wall on either side of my head. I could smell his cigarette breath. The rough bricks were sandpaper against my naked back. He was a tall man, almost six and a half feet, with 40 pounds on me. In that skimpy shred of fabric, I felt very small. Like I couldn’t possibly get away.
“You’re supposed to be working,” I said.
“When you come in here, looking like that?” he growled. “What did you think was going to happen?”
Our wedding was tiny – just us, our witnesses and the priest. His eyes followed me, taking in every detail. My milk-colored silk gown was heavy, but I still shivered, as though I was wearing nothing at all.
I held his fingers while we promised to love and cherish one another forever, but I sensed it was not me he loved. It was the dress. And because I was not a woman, I could not fulfill the promises I made him. They weren’t my promises; this wasn’t my part to play. I could only be the thing that I was. I was deeply closeted at the time, and it hurt to be seen as a bride. A woman. A wife. I held my husband’s hand and I ached. When I tried to repeat the vows, my eyes leaked. I wasn’t crying because I was moved. I cried because I was a fool, and I knew it, and because it hurt to pretend to be something I was not.
The marriage lasted three crummy years, and then I left.
I kept my wedding dress. It was gorgeous, a gift from my uncle Brian, not something to be parted with lightly. He made the bespoke Grace Kelly number with a full tea length, godet skirt with hand embroidered panels. For the first fitting, I stood in Brian’s sewing room in my underwear, fidgeting, while he measured me for the design.
“You’ve got a bubble butt,” he teased, taking two extra hip measurements to accommodate it.
He pinned the muslin pattern pieces around me, adjusting for fit. I tried to relax. I’d need space in this dress; to bend, eat, breathe. Brian pinned the panels closer, adding pins where the muslin needed to follow the curves of my body. He knelt to check the pins around my hips. He marked a place over each knee, pinched the fabric, and tested its draping. The skirt would flare from here.
He looked up at me and smiled. I remember his warning: “Don’t gain or lose too much weight, or I’ll have to redo everything,” he said. “The corset already has fourteen bones in it.”
If I changed too much, he’d have to add or take away. One alteration would change the proportions of the entire dress, a month of minor, careful adjustments to preserve the integrity of the pattern and the durability of the garment. The entire process was thousands of hours of hand work. I nodded, promising.
Do I need to say that I failed to stay the same? The small ways I changed, from my pronouns to my self-expression, transformed my life in colossal, unpredictable ways. Every tiny adjustment altered the pattern.
As I got older, I learned more. The words we used to talk about queerness changed; the people I dated were more accepting and open-minded. I liked dating men because I could borrow their clothes. As I settled into what I am, I changed my terms: I identified as a dyke, a tomboy. Underneath those secondhand plaids and Carhartt overalls, though, was somebody who was still wearing the wrong body.
I started seeing Charlie five years after my first marriage ended. Our first coffee date, I was charmed by his intelligence, humor, and athletic good looks. He was traditional, yet deviant; a lawyer with a wild streak, a community-minded, policy-loving geek. He wore thick glasses and, when he took them off, his eyes were a shade of hazel that made my knees wobble. I didn’t know if he’d see me again, but then there was another date, and another one, and then we were in a relationship and every day, it seemed, I fell more in love with him. We talked about everything: I knew he was progressive, liked queer women, and was attracted to my fluid self-expression. He was, he said, secure enough in his masculinity to enjoy whatever I was putting out there.
When I told him I was trans, I could feel him absorbing each syllable as it left my mouth. He took my news, and my feelings about it, seriously.
“I’m in a body that isn’t saying the right things. It’s not me,” I explained. “I feel like I’m wearing a rubber suit all the time and nobody can see me inside it.”
“I see you,” he said. I knew he did. I felt it.
He asked me if I was going to change my name, or my body, and I said I wasn’t ready to decide yet. I was going to take my time, and not try to sharpen the undefined parts of myself. I wanted to ease into myself – as though I had all the time in the world.
Although I took my time with myself, I also took steps to own my queerness. I started coming out in public, writing about my identity, and making an effort to be more visible. In one viral video, I shared that I was nonbinary trans. One of the commenters said that I may as well just tell people I am a seahorse.
Seahorses: a species of role reversal. The males carry the fry, and the females drift through the plankton layer of the ocean, spawning when the mood takes them. The comment stung; it meant that I was somehow unnatural. My gender was nonsense.
Charlie proposed to me on a night in July, with a ring he’d designed himself. We were eating ice cream on a park bench, and he pulled out the small, navy box.
The ring was a thick band of beaten platinum, set with dozens of diamonds in a pinprick design of a mountain range. I took it from him and slipped it on. Charlie smiled at me.
“It’s perfect,” I said.
“I wanted something that you didn’t have to take off to punch someone,” he joked. “Something tough and beautiful at the same time.”
I leaned forward and kissed the vanilla ice cream off his lips. “It’s perfect,” I said again, because it was. Both delicate and weighty, it hugged my finger when I reached to touch Charlie’s face.
I was excited to be married, but there were difficult steps to take first. Here was another wedding to plan, and another wedding dress. What does a seahorse wear to their wedding? I couldn’t even pick a pronoun. How was I supposed to decide what costume to wear on one of the most important days of my life?
Was I going to be a wife again? Do you take this woman? If I came out, or changed my gender legally, could we even get a license?
Eleven years after my first wedding, I’m getting ready for my second, and I still do not feel like a bride.
When I searched for “queer wedding,” I found images of happy, nontraditional ceremonies: husbands hugging, wives kissing. Many of them were masculine-feminine couples. I also found femme couples in matching gowns, butch women in tuxedos. They looked happy. I saw photos of binary trans brides and grooms, beaming at the camera. After a while, these pictures blurred together. It is beautiful, sure, but it was more of the same: male/female, masculine/feminine, and suit/gown. I couldn’t envision myself in those roles. My sense of being the odd one out intensified.
I asked Charlie if he was going to wear a suit to our wedding.
“Maybe we should both wear suits,” I suggested. “Since, you know. Me.” I imagined us side by side, two tall, athletic blondes in matching tuxedos. Shook my head. We’d look like a pair of grooms, and I wasn’t eligible for that role, either.
“Suits would be fine.”
“When you close your eyes, and imagine your wedding, what do you see?” I asked.
He closed his eyes. He was quiet.
“I see a beautiful bubble of pure light,” he finally said.
“You don’t see a white dress and a veil and stuff?”
Photo courtesy: Classic Film Flickr
“I just see you,” he said, and kissed me. I stopped looking up “genderfluid wedding” and “transgender wedding” after that. I found an image of Grace Kelly, this time in a blue gown so tailored that she looked like an aerofoil. The gown in the picture was silk, with a chiffon skirt, one Kelly wore in “To Catch a Thief.” The sheath had two nearly invisible straps, and was swathed in transparent, sky blue gauze. A goddess, emerging from a cloud. The bodice was sculpted in folds and layers, making the gown look like a classical Grecian statue. That’s how I wanted to feel on my wedding day: powerful, calm, self-possessed, strong. I didn’t feel that way in a suit – or in a frilly, ultra femme dress. Maybe the answer was something architectural, for me. Something that wasn’t really human at all.
My uncle generously offered to make this second wedding dress, too. He assured me that, the second time around, there are no rules. Wear red, he said. Wear a muumuu. Do whatever you want. He wouldn’t have time to sew a suit jacket, but we could discuss another couture design.
“Your measurements haven’t changed since college,” my uncle said. “You’ve still got that butt.”
He liked the photo of Grace, and immediately started explaining how many tucks he’d have to put across each shoulder seam to get the toga effect we wanted. The gauze would need to drape from the shoulder, and follow the line of the bodice. I hadn’t told him that I fantasized about top surgery and hormones that would make my upper body thicken. I didn’t share the worries I’d felt building since my engagement: my fear that I would be a bad wife again, that I was forcing myself into a role that simply didn’t fit, that I would disappoint my new husband like I had my last one.
The sewing room, piled high with bolts of fabric, half-finished projects, and trim, was quiet. My uncle’s husband was singing in the kitchen, loading a pod into the coffee maker. I swallowed hard, my own voice suddenly stuck in my throat.
“The design I showed you was very…feminine,” I finally said.
He nodded. He’d found the perfect blue silk already, the color of a September afternoon.
“We’ll need to make sure the bustier is in good shape before we put in the plastic boning or do anything else,” he said. “All those pin tucks. It’s like origami.”
I could feel my hands starting to sweat. “The thing is,” I said.
He looked at me.
“The thing is, I’ve changed a lot since my first wedding. I think I’d be happier in an even simpler design,” I finally blurted out. I looked at his face carefully. What if I offended him? What if I came out and he didn’t understand?
“Simpler,” he repeated. “In what way? I can’t make the construction simpler, or it won’t hang together.”
“I mean, less girly. No frills. I want to look completely sleek. Elegant.”
He nodded again, made a couple of notes beside the column of my measurements. “It will be obviously simple.”
“Aerodynamic,” I said, and he looked at me and I could tell that he knew. I may as well have told him I wanted to dress up like a seahorse.
“We can do that,” he said. And then he said the thing he always says to me, when he understands but loves me anyway: “The heart wants what the heart wants, right?”
When I walk down the aisle this time, in front of every person who knows me, it will be as someone who lives in their body. Not a bride on a cake, but as myself, a person who is too complicated for the simple rituals that are the pattern of our lives.
Claire Rudy Foster is the author of Shine of the Ever (Interlude Press, 2019), one of Oprah’s top picks for LGBTQ books that will change the literary landscape. Foster’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s and many other journals. They are currently at work on a memoir about raising a boy during their transition. Foster lives in Portland, Oregon.