On Being Genderqueer and Comfortably Existing In Liminal Space
Leigh Brown grew up in Northern California and now lives in Brooklyn with their partner, Lena. Leigh is currently a B Corps Fellow; this entails helping businesses to measure their social and environmental impact. Leigh is a graduate of the Environmental Studies program at The New School in NYC. We spoke with Leigh, formerly Hannah, about being Genderqueer, as well as gender identity and expression more broadly and the influence of both on Leigh’s personal style.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EVOLUTION OF YOUR GENDER IDENTITY?
At 17, I moved across the country from California to New York for art school. At that time, I was still wearing dresses and using the name Hannah. At school, I was surrounded by people presenting themselves in ways alternative to norms, so it was easy to take steps towards becoming a more authentic version of myself. With that came a movement towards wearing more masculine clothing and cutting my hair.
By the end of my sophomore year, I was wearing leggings under my pants (because I didn’t yet have briefs). Wearing leggings was an intermediary step between exclusively traditional women's undergarments and almost exclusively traditional men's undergarments (where I am now). Leggings allowed me to experiment without feeling like I was straying too far from "normal". It worked okay, but it was not ideal. One day, I bought briefs. My mother, who had a significant role in my upbringing, is very conventional, so it hadn’t occurred to me that I could do such a thing. It took physically leaving home to feel that way. She wasn’t reining me in at all stages, but I wasn’t in the company of anyone who expressed themselves outside of the gender binary in identity and expression.
As I continued my undergraduate studies at The New School, I continually picked up new garments in line with the look I envisioned for myself. I also started using my middle name, Leigh. Lena always says I didn’t seem like a Hannah, which is why she wouldn’t address me as such. She could tell I was uncomfortable with it; she sensed it before I even made the decision. My mother, on the other hand, still calls me Hannah. It is definitely odd, because I now respond to Leigh and am known at work as Leigh. I am still straddling two identities—the person my mother wants me to be, and the person I want to be.
HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY?
I think Genderqueer suits me. Neither she/her nor he/him really feel right. Out of convenience, I don’t ask people to use they/them pronouns. Changing my name was hard enough. I don’t have the energy to remind people each time I have a conversation with them. Maybe that doesn’t make me courageous, maybe people would be more receptive to alternative pronouns if it were more commonly asked of them, but it is hard. I don’t identify as a woman but I do anticipate identifying as female (sex) for my whole life. My gender identity is between the two extremes, but I express my gender as more masculine of center. I honestly didn’t know the difference until fairly recently and it was a revelation. In trying to explain it to my coworkers, I ask them to think about the way they present: “Do you wear dresses 100% of the time?” When they provide an answer there is a moment of realization that they also fall outside of society's expectations of women.
HOW DOES CLOTHING IMPACT YOUR SELF-IDENTITY?
The last stage of my transformation is about finding the right clothing, because I don’t think top surgery is in the cards for me. My health insurance likely won’t cover it and I am too hesitant to go through with the procedure, and the pain and recovery that come along with it. In the interim, shirts like a Patagonia shirt I own help because they don’t make me feel I need to bind my breasts or get rid of them entirely. Sometimes, I get so frustrated with my shirts I don’t want to go out at all. I would really like to be able to go out and get shirts I know will last, are produced sustainably, actually fit, and can be worn with and without layers.
I am less cautious about presenting myself authentically than in the past. That said, it is certainly a lot harder to pass as a woman with my short hair and style of dress. I present authentically when I am around people I trust, and end up attempting to ‘pass’ more in other contexts. It is not necessarily the garment itself that allows me to pass or not; it might just involve adding a scarf or not buttoning the shirt up all the way. If the buttons are open, my neck is exposed. Tucking my shirt in feels more feminine, because my shape is emphasized more.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE? WHAT KINDS OF CLOTHES DO YOU WEAR?
Well, what I wear to work is very different from what I wear outside of work. At work, I’d say I’m in “safe” dapper. When I am dressed up and feeling good, I am wearing suspenders, bowties, ties, saggy pants, patterned button-downs, and blazers. I enjoy solid, dark/muted colors mixed with bright patterns. When I am not working, nor dressed up, I tend to be in grungy stuff.
No matter the occasion, chances are I’m wearing men’s or men’s-inspired garments. I know women’s clothes are made for my body, but they are further from what I want. When I’m out shopping, I visit the men’s section first, and then the women’s. Generally, men’s clothes are too big all around or too long in the arms or torso, and women’s clothes are too tight all around or too frilly. I love when I find shirts in which I am comfortable and don’t require suffocating myself. I have a binder, but I don’t particularly like to wear it. So shirts that make me feel I don’t need one are nice.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE FINDING CLOTHES THAT FIT YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
It is never not a struggle. I don’t often purchase anything new, because I don’t have faith in anything fitting me. If it is not one problem, it is another. I have a female body and I am always fighting that. It is much easier for me to find pants despite the fact that I am small. The chest is more problematic for me; it is a real struggle to find shirts. I go to the men’s section of a store and everything is too big and then I go to the women’s section and everything fits weird. I will buy something and bring it home, only to realize it doesn’t feel right – either too tight or too thin, and you can clearly see the shape of my chest. On some days, I don’t like the way it looks because my body is different that day or something has changed since the last time I wore it. I like the Patagonia shirt every time I put it on, which I guess is the mark of a good shirt. Though, it does have to do with my physical appearance and frame of mind.
Sometimes wearing bowties or ties with a women’s shirt seems oxymoronic in the sense that it looks like you are putting something made for men on something made for women. The differences between men’s and women’s clothing are often very dramatic, so you get juxtapositions. That sort of thing can be tasteful on someone who doesn’t veer one way often, but for someone who wants menswear-inspired clothing, not so much.
WHAT TYPES OF CLOTHES WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY OR WEAR MORE OF?
Ideally, I would like a more gender bending wardrobe, reflecting my identity. I’m talking about androgynous wear—not necessarily what you see on the runway, but definitely garments that obscure the body underneath. Button-downs are my go to, but they are not all that exciting. Monday through Friday, I am in slacks and button-downs—pretty simple. I would love to be a little more creative. This would, however, require the professional world being more receptive.
I used to wear the craziest stuff—neon, animal prints, wacky stuff. I was known for having hot pink boots, my hair was half black and blonde. I lost all that when I rid my wardrobe of color. I’m now regaining it in a deliberate way. I was much younger when I was doing all of that and it just wouldn’t fly now. But I would like to push the boundaries more, make it harder for people to put me in a box.
I went from super feminine to super masculine really fast. I’m now edging my way back. Interestingly, I don’t feel like I could have ended up anywhere in between without first going to the extremes. The first real step of my transition was cutting my hair. The second was the name change from Hannah to Leigh. I don’t think the transition is complete, nor would I necessarily want it to be, but I feel more like my authentic self than ever.
Thank you Leigh. Kelly and I are inspired by your story and impressed by your ability to self-reflect, despite and perhaps even for still being in this, as you call it, liminal space (an intermediate state, phase, or condition). We both had to look up this word! It is so fitting coming from Leigh, definitely a social change agent using intellectual prowess to do good in the world. Leigh’s story exemplifies that those assigned female gender at birth may define themselves in an infinite number of ways, ranging from tomboy, genderqueer to trans. Despite the differing identities, they often share one experience: trouble finding clothes that match their self-identity. Kirrin Finch strives to understand each person's individual needs, because at the end of the day we want people to be free to express themselves in whatever way makes them feel like their true selves.