Have I ever considered myself a fashion icon? No.
Has clothing been the armor that has shielded me throughout my life? Yes.
One of my earliest memories of clothing specifically was wanting to wear overalls. I remembered older cousins wearing them as they fixed cars and some field workers wearing them as they labored when we drove by, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to grow up and work hard, but at the same time, I liked the soft feel of my mom's dress. I wanted to walk around in her heels when she wasn't around, and I wondered why I didn't get to wear the pretty dresses that the girls got in school. I didn't by any means want to be a girl, but I didn't understand why in the hot summer, they got to wear the relaxed thin fabric sundresses while I had denim or khaki shorts and thick cotton t-shirts. I can remember walking around in a towel wrapped around my chest like a dress with one wrapped around my head pretending to be Diana Ross. I remember the look I got when I was discovered, that was the first time I felt “wrong” for wearing something, and it was the first time that I looked at myself as more than my wants but as a shell of a person to cover up adequately. From then on, I looked at clothing as less of a form of expression and more as the "armor" to shield me from the disdain that made me feel "wrong."
For most of my life, I had always been a heavier kid. The insecurities with my weight compounded with the insecurities of my sexuality. At the time, I didn't know that sexuality was the cause. Growing up in rural North Carolina to a southern baptist family, I had minimal experience or frame of reference with homosexuality. I knew from an early age that I didn't like girls the way the other boys did, but I didn't know what that meant. I assumed that if I just dressed like the other boys and spoke how they did, I'd eventually feel "normal," and everything would be ok. Baggy jeans and oversize shirts became the uniform that shielded me from ridicule, or so I thought. There wasn't anything wrong with the display as it was the trend at the time, but regardless of what window dressing I put on, it didn't feel right. I always felt like I was playing a character and never felt comfortable. In hindsight, I now realize it was because I didn't know who I was, so it would never have felt right.
Imagine coming to terms with your changing body, your raging teenage hormones, deciding where you want to go in life, the stress of indecision, and then adding the unknown of the weird feelings you have inside. Imagine having no frame of reference, no example of same-sex love, or no one to ask questions or confide in. Imagine being a young gay black male in the rural south when you don't even know what gay is. Imagine growing up seeing uncles on both sides of your family reliving careers in the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force. Imagine being teased your whole life for being "sensitive" or not being athletic. Imagine being the oldest child but seeing the look of pride on your father's face when your younger brother makes the football team. A look he has never given you. When I was eighteen, I still was in denial about my sexuality and made the giant leap to join the United States Marine Corps.
I tell people that the reason I joined was that it was a recourse to pay for college, and I wanted to serve my country, but if I am being sincere, I enlisted out of spite because I knew no one had faith that I would go through with it or complete the training. So right after high school, I enlisted. I was an overweight gay kid with few other prospects and no way to pay for college. I still had no idea what it meant to be gay, and I told myself that I just hadn't met the right girl yet. So camouflage became my new armor. It allowed me to blend in with the other young men and serve a purpose. Basic training was grueling; for one, I had never worked out anywhere near that much in my life. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best idea to take a sexually confused and frustrated gay teenager and throw him into a situation where he would only be surrounded by men. Ultimately it was just another way I was running from my truth and authentic self, but all that realization came with time. What the military gave me was a new body. I had a drastic weight loss and felt freer than I had ever felt before. I had more energy, my clothes fit better, I had higher self-esteem, but the problem with losing weight quickly is the potential for injury, which is precisely what happened to me. I went in at over 190 lbs and left at about 145 lbs with a pinched nerve and busted shoulder. When the military didn't work out for me, I finally went to college, and as cliche as it sounds, I had a sexual awakening.
So college changed my life. I can honestly say that I was not the same man by the end of my first year. I met people that continue to enrich my life to this day. It introduced me to the concept of chosen family. In the south, we were raised to say," Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir," and respect our elders, but I've come to realize that politeness is expected, but genuine respect is earned. Not only respect for your elder but self-respect. I had lived my whole life hiding who I really was to everyone. As I write this now, I wish that coming out wasn't necessary, but at the time, I NEEDED to. I needed to tell my family. I needed to live as my authentic self. So I came out on Christmas Day when I was home for a break from school. It was dramatic, and I ugly cried. By this time, my parents were divorced, so I had to tell them separately, and I couldn't breathe as I sat at the foot of my mom's bed and all the words caught in my throat. She was taken aback and sat up in bed, and all she said was, "I Love You."
Later I would come to realize there were conditions to that love, but at the moment, it was what I needed to hear. My younger brother scared me the most, I hadn't even told my father yet, but I knew it would crush me if he had an adverse reaction. Now, my "little" brother is built like a wall. He played defensive tackle on every football team he'd ever been on and was three inches taller than me, but he's a teddy bear. Still, his opinion of me was all that mattered. I think that even if my mom had thrown me out, if my brother was ok with me, then I would have been fine. Standing in front of him with this big secret, my heart raced, and I was on the verge of a panic attack.
Finally, I took a deep breath in the hallway of our house and said, "I have something to tell you. I hope you don't look at me differently. I'm gay." His response to me was, "And?" Then he hugged me and said, "You're my big brother, and that is all that matters. I love you, bro." I don't know what I was expecting, but that wasn't it. He has been my rock forever since then, and I can't put into words what he means to me. That is unconditional love. So I went back to school and began my out gay life. The problem with being an out gay man with no other reference point is that you don't know who you are, and then you make questionable choices. Looking back, they were horrible choices. I was an out gay man, but I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know "how" to be gay. The only gay people I had ever seen were the exaggerated flamboyant stereotypes from movies, so I tried to emulate them.
In came the belly ring, skinny jeans, tight t-shirts, and shoulder-length straightened hair. I wore mesh tops and bedazzled jackets or shirts. I have nothing against anyone that dresses that way, but I was just the worse caricature of myself possible. Again clothing was just a defense against a homophobic world, but now I wasn't hiding. It was less of a shield and more of a flag flown loud and bright for all to see. It would be years before I realized how ridiculous I looked, but it was a way to be out and proud at the time. This is who I am (for now) and if you don't like it, look away. I am here, I am queer, get used to it.
Entering my thirties, I think it was the first real-time that I had an unwavering clear idea of who I am as a person. It was a long journey of self-discovery fraught with horrible fashion choices. In my thirties, I had gained all the weight back that I had lost in my twenties, but I had a different outlook on my body and myself. I was unapologetic for who I am for the first time in my life, and I liked how I looked. My fashion choices reflected my personality and the childlike whimsy that I'd always carried. I was secure that I was an out gay man, a comic book nerd, and a fledgling writer. I dressed for comfort and function instead of achieving some fake unattainable status. I realized that I genuinely liked who I was, and the fashion choices that I made reflected that joy in life.
I have gone through fluctuations in weight, lifestyle, and financial stability in my forties. However, my choices are still authentic to who I am as an individual and not society's expectations. I still wear armor, but the reason has evolved, instead of using my clothing as a means to protect myself from what others think of me. I now wear armor to project the image I have come to love and accept. It shines with the pride of years earned learning to love all parts of myself. It gleams with the knowledge that I can survive anything as long as I live as I truly am. I can only live my truth and express myself as I see fit. My shield is my whimsy, and my sword is my heritage. I will continue to live life to the fullest and showcase my authentic self.