costume changes, closets, culture and the old country   mary salome


"People call me rude.
I wish we all were nude.
I wish there was no black or white
I wish there were no rules."

- (The Artist Formerly Known As) Prince, Controversy

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a train system called Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART. Musicians sometimes play outside the station gates, and my favorite is a man whose name, I believe, is Thor. I haven't seen him lately, but he's often there during commute hours. He wears a short skirt, high heels, long hair, plays violin and sings in a high falsetto while he clicks his heels on the tile station floor.

You can travel a full 95 miles on the BART system, and the cultural distance you'd cross on that trip is actually much further than the physical distance you'd traverse. Thor doesn't play in the Concord station, for example, where you're more likely to hear the word "queer" spat out as an epithet than spoken casually or as a term of pride. Traveling San Franciscans are often caught off guard by this. We don't read travel books about Concord -- the local culture, what to wear, how to speak, or what to expect. It's still the Bay Area, after all. But the differences between San Francisco and some of its eastern neighbors become obvious quickly, and when we're confronted with them it doesn't take long for either self-preservation or self-righteousness -- depending on your personality -- to kick in.

This is a big part of the reason many queer people choose to live in San Francisco, and not Concord. When I travel, even less than a hundred miles away, I'm often reminded of what I love about home. One of the things I often take for granted about San Francisco is the range of "normal" represented in the local wardrobe. True, San Francisco has become less funky in the past five years. The newly yuppified strut their stuff in identical Gap leather jackets outside trendy taquerias-turned-bistros on streets crowded with Beamers and SUVs. Fortunately, though, there's still room for Thor here, and others equally original, if less daring.

I don't push the envelope too far in my wardrobe, but often when I travel outside of BART's range, I feel oddly dressed. (New York, where Thor probably came from, is the exception). Visiting family in Florida, for example, I feel like I'm wearing too much of the wrong kind of leather, my boots are too big, pants too loose, hair too messy, shirts too frayed, and where's my make-up, anyway? I don't go out and buy a new wardrobe in anticipation of these trips, though. It's their problem, I tell myself, and vow not to give in to pressure to look like the magazines, the catalogs, the TV ads, or any of the other forces of consumerist culture pushing visions of emaciation and the perfect coiffure.

I took this attitude with me the first time I visited the Middle East in the late 1980s. In Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, I wore short hair, didn't pluck the little hairs that decided to sprout from my chin, and never wore a skirt. Where circumstance demanded that I cover my head, I put on a windbreaker with a hood.

A decade later, I was less brazen. I was also a little more in touch with the femme in me. This time I would be traveling back to the place my family came from, so there was more of an impression to make. I really struggled with the question of what to wear. I wanted my family to feel proud of me. I wanted them not to feel embarrassed by me. I wanted to respect the fact that I was visiting someone else's country, where they do things differently, for reasons I don't necessarily understand. I wanted not to offend. I wanted not to be harassed for what I was wearing. I was a little bit afraid. I was a little bit ashamed of myself for being a dyke. I wanted to feel comfortable and respectful and respected. I wanted to be invited to the 7afleh. Maybe I also wanted to hide. I had no plans to come out to these family/strangers.

I talked to other queer Arab American friends before the trip. What did they wear when they visited their families in the middle east? A few women had traveled "home" with very short hair, and had worn t-shirts and jeans the whole time. It was mid-summer when I traveled, and I opted for long skirts, shirts that covered my shoulders, and flat shoes that I often wear around town in San Francisco. I borrowed one outfit from a friend, but didn't buy anything new for the trip.

I was traveling with my father, brother, and aunt. I am out to my father and brother, but not to my aunt. My father, brother, and I didn't discuss how to handle questions from family members about marital status beforehand, but it was understood (don't ask me how) that I wouldn't come out to my extended family. Neither did we discuss clothing explicitly, but I remember telling my Dad I was worried about the fact that the tattoos on my ankles would show. He told me not to worry, as my great grandmother had had tattoos on her hands, and it wouldn't be a big deal. (If anyone noticed my tattoos and thought badly of them, they were too polite say anything). The only comment I got, second hand, was through my brother, who told me that one of our drivers had said I was respectful. Obsessed as I was with my clothing, I took that as a nod of approval toward the fact that I didn't show any thigh or shoulder. I congratulated myself on my successful efforts to fit in.

Until I visited the pool area at our hotel. On the streets, the range of "normal" represented in the wardrobes of local women included everything from jeans and t-shirts to the full veil. Men wore pants and short sleeved shirts, or long sleeved tobes, (sometimes with baseball caps), and there were more than a fair share of military uniforms. But in the pool area at the hotel, the range of normal involved a closely shaved bikini line. The only local people joining the tourists at the hotel pool were the wealthy. There were less than twenty stories between the pool area and the more modest streets outside, and I marveled at the universal power of money to modify cultural norms, and the way cultural (or in this case, class) distance warps physical space. I felt so old-fashioned, sitting in the shade of an umbrella in my long skirt, while men and women in tiny bikinis frolicked around me. It was surreal. (Not as surreal as watching "The Nanny" and "When Night Falls" on television in the hotel room, but that's another story). To think I had worried about my tattoos.

In general, though, I felt that both men and women dressed with more dignity than people do in the United States. Even in cases when it was clear that people didn't have much money, I felt like I was around people who had put care into what they put on before they left the house. When I came back to the US, one of the first people I saw in the San Francisco airport was a man wearing bramuda shorts that exposed the top of his butt, and a t-shirt that didn't quite cover his gut. You just wouldn't see that in the Middle East. I told this to a friend of mine, another Arab American dyke, who raised an important point: In the middle east, she wouldn't feel able to slouch on the bus in jeans and a t-shirt, scowling at other passengers because she'd had a bad day. I came off my high horse and acknowledged the benefits of being casual.

As much as would have felt out of sorts if I had worn my normal San Francisco wardrobe back to "baladna," I felt out of sorts wearing my travel clothes back in the Bay Area. For example, a friend had a small birthday party, and I decided to wear one of the outfits I had worn on my trip: a long flower print skirt, and a white shirt with short sleeves and a high scoop neck. Emily, who never wears anything that doesn't go with Converse canvass high tops, didn't say anything, but kind of looked at me funny. I felt wrong. I'm still not sure why. I'm also not sure why I decided to wear that in to her party in the first place. Nostalgia for my trip? Desire to rebel against the dyke dress code? To test out the feeling I'd have wearing those clothes, and wearing a kind of modest, conservative identity, among friends who are more accustomed to seeing me in sweats or jeans?

I did slip into my more customary clothing a couple of times on my trip. The most remarkable instance, I think, was when I consciously wore pants to meet an email "pen pal," also a lesbian. We had never met in person before, we had only conversed online. I told myself I would be easier to "spot" in the airport if I were wearing pants. But I think I also feel like most "lesbians" expect other "lesbians" to look a certain way, and that way is on the butch end of the scale. Or, as butch as you can get away with. Pants if you can, and if you have to wear a skirt, it shouldn't have any frills. I'm not sure where this comes from, why I have so much trouble owning and expressing a femme identity among dykes, but there it is.

I guess part of my struggle with clothing is about trying to figure out who I am, and how to express that to the world. I still feel some shame about who I am. Shame about being a dyke, shame about being female, shame about sometimes wanting to dress femme, shame about sometimes wanting to dress butch. I still feel a need to dress to accommodate my environment, rather than my own desires. I still dress to accommodate the fact that I don't have enough money to buy the clothes I really want. I still dress to accommodate the critics in my head, telling me what I'm supposed to look like and how I have or haven't succeeded.

In my awareness of the limitations that I impose upon myself and that are imposed upon me, I can't help but admire someone like Thor -- not because I want to emulate what he wears, (I don't look good in chain mail halter tops), but because he doesn't seem to be afraid to express himself, to explore or challenge the notions most of us have about who we are supposed to be. (True, he's a performer, but aren't we all, to some degree?) Perhaps in a way that extends beyond sexuality, I'm still coming out of the closet, into an understanding of who I am and how I want to present myself to the world. That's a process of both inner and outer journey and transformation, and apparently, one that may require a few costume changes.

haadis: discuss this issue with other bintelnas readers on the message board

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