hen I was 9 years old, I attended my neighbors’ wedding. This was a bittersweet moment for me because I was madly in love with the bride. She resembled Selena, but if Selena was a fiery Puerto Rican from the Bronx. A member of the wedding party was a butch lesbian. No one told me she was a lesbian — I simply knew this. She wore suits and button downs, and she had short buzzed hair. I quickly became obsessed with her. I had to keep it on the down-low as I assumed if anyone caught me staring at her, they’d know I was gay, too. I have thought of her often since childhood, and I recently saw her. She’s still gay and butch as ever.

Seeing butch women in my neighborhood growing up was my first introduction to gender bending.  I’d see them hangin’ with the guys outside of my building: smoking, sharing beers, and choppin’ it up. It was remarkable to me because I rarely saw women partaking in such activities, especially not publicly. My mother and many other women in my life made it a point to lay out for me the behavioral rules that came attached to my assigned gender. These rules always felt so limiting and wrong. Even before I had language like sexism and misogyny, I knew that was fucked. These butch women inspired me because they were breaking these gender rules that I was told were mandatory. They were fearless in their authenticity; and if you didn’t like it, you could step off. I wanted that kind of freedom. I didn’t want to wait for someone to tell me it was ok to be myself, I just wanted to do it and let the world deal with it.

Unfortunately, as a child your freedom is very limited. My mother did everything she could to enforce traditional femininity on me. She was my only full-time parent; and when she wasn’t working or taking English classes, we spent a lot of time together. I’d watch her while she meticulously applied her makeup. My classmates used to make fun of the way she wore it. They said she looked like a witch. This, to me, was fantastic. How special, I thought, my mother — a witch! Well I must be one, too. I started donning my own makeup look, 99-cent black eyeliner on both the bottoms and tops of my eyes. This application became my daily ritual inspired by my mother. Makeup and style were some of the few commonalities between her and I. She understood the role appearance played in communicating a message to the world.

Through the years, my conceptual futuristic-sometimes-gothy looks went unappreciated by my family and classmates alike. To say my Roman Catholic Dominican mother didn’t understand my unique style choices is an understatement.  Through clothes and makeup, though, I was able to give birth to my true self. I didn’t have to stick to one gender expression or style. Like a shapeshifter, I could tailor my appearance to match what my soul felt like that day. For the small kindness of allowing me the freedom to dress how I wanted, I am forever thankful. The more colors in my hair and the more holes I secretly pierced through my skin, the more at home I felt in my little meat suit.

Eventually I found my people. At first it was one-by-one, then we came together in hoards.  On the train or walking down the street, whenever I eyed another genderqueer weirdo, the ostracized child in me would rejoice. We had seen each other in flesh and blood; it was proof that others like me existed. Life feels different when you know you’re not alone, it’s less heavy. To choose to live your truth out loud and in public is brave. It is an act of resistance. The consequences for being visibly queer and trans and gender nonconforming have been fatal for far too many, but we will not be stopped. Every time I wear lipstick with a button down or fill in my mustache with eyeliner so it looks fuller, I think about the children who might see themselves in me. It’s hard to picture yourself in the future when you don’t see adults who look like you. I will continue to thrive as a fabulous gender-fuck in honor of my fallen siblings and for the children who will see my existence as permission to be who they truly are.