n the summer of 1992, my mother and two older sisters began a short-lived, unpaid, and likely unfulfilling career as my personal stylists for family gatherings, playdates, and any other public appearances I would make over nearly the first decade of my life.
Long before Instagram propelled people to stardom for presenting themselves in highly affected manners, my family crafted a public image for me. They dressed me to be indistinguishable from other boys. They restricted my wardrobe to three primary colors: red, green, and blue. In the darkest of hues, they covered my body with articles of clothing proclaiming, "I am a rough-and-tumble boy."
My family did their very best to use my clothing to project masculinity. As they carefully curated my wardrobe, my mother and sisters buried parts of me underneath layers of baggy clothes. They hid my otherness, quieted my queerness, and diverted questions about my sexuality for as long as they could.
From the early 1990s through the mid-aughts, my mother and sisters followed a strict set of guidelines whenever they dressed me. They wanted whatever I wore to adhere to a rigid and exacting dress code for men. They thought each shirt, each pair of pants, and every shoe I owned should emulate manliness. They brought me Adidas tracksuits, Nike basketball shorts, and other athletic apparel to satisfy the demands of a hypermasculine culture.
But what they might not have realized is how their deliberate styling protected me and allowed me to be an unassuming child. Thanks to them, my clothes did not draw attention to me — or what my classmates would soon describe as my feminine tendencies.
My family swaddled me in what I would liken to an invisibility cloak. Unwittingly, they afforded me a veil of protection. They had given me the disguise I needed to explore my identity and accept my attraction to men and women without being subjected to society's cruelty. They provided me with the camouflage I needed to quietly come to terms with my sexuality and gender identity.
But my clothes couldn't protect me forever. My body would eventually betray me and begin to signal my queerness to everyone around me.
By fifth grade, my classmates had pieced together the facts. I didn't play sports. My hands flailed when I spoke. And I pronounced words with a sibilant 's.' I couldn't hide it anymore. They knew — and they singled me out. I remember once, a boy told everyone in my class the uppercase letters across my navy-blue shirt from GAP stood for "Gay and Proud."
All of this coincided with a shift in how my family dressed me. Suddenly, my wardrobe included shades of every color of the rainbow from yellows to violets. To me, this signaled my family's acceptance. Over the next few years, my family gradually handed me the power to control my public image and choose how I presented myself to the world.
From that moment, I decided I wanted to confirm everyone's suspicions. I wanted to let everyone know: I'm queer. However, I encountered one problem. As a teenager, I had no idea how to use clothes to denounce gender norms, reject machismo, and embrace my queerness. I felt like I needed role models, but I didn't know any openly queer men in my family or community. And I didn't know how to connect with other queer people. After some time, I found Myspace and gained exposure to audacious displays of queerness and gender-bending fashion.
On Myspace, I saw queer men of color who dressed defiantly. Their high-heeled shoes, sparkly tank tops, rouged lips, and form-fitting pants resembled what my sisters wore — and clearly demonstrated a refusal to accept society's gender norms.
The queer men I found online taught me valuable lessons. They taught me how to use my clothes to declare my queerness. They taught me how to use my clothes to draw compliments from other queer men. They taught me how I could form a community with queer people of color through our shared love of fashion, nonconformity, and self-expression.
They taught me how to pair pieces of clothing together. They taught me how to carve out my own gender expression. They provided me with the foundation I needed to execute my own personal style.
By the time I entered college, I knew what I wanted to look like — and I knew what to wear to declare my queerness. I donned tight-fitted jeans, mesh tops, a septum ring, and other stylings of clothing adopted by queer people of color to announce my presence and form a community with others like me.