Rae Angelo Tutera is an LGBTQ clothier and advocate. Rae’s tailoring and advocacy are currently featured in a documentary titled Suited, which can be seen on HBO and was produced by A Casual Romance (the company Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner are behind).
I have to admit that, when I first started to glimpse the trans adult I was inevitably becoming, I was not optimistic. I was 25 and felt I had suffered through enough spells of self-reflection, alienation, and shame that came tethered to my sexuality. I realized I was on the threshold of doing the gender work I had avoided, and all I saw was the labor – a reality anyone with an identity has to navigate – and I couldn’t see the joy of self-possession or all the beauty on the other side of that labor.
My wife and my therapist will recall how I paraphrased Franz Kafka – back in my paraphrasing Franz Kafka days – while avoiding meditating on my queer identity. Kafka’s experience around his Jewish identity deserves its own essay, and needless to say, there’s already a body of work about it. Rather than contextualize Kafka’s logic, I’ll just skip to his reflection: “What do I have in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” How the hell did I get from there to writing an essay about pride?
Seven very full years have passed and in that time, I’ve learned not to be afraid of having things in common with myself or with my community. In order to dismantle that fear, I started with the relationships that felt most private and nurturing: those with my partner and my therapist, and perhaps unsurprisingly, with writers. I had a queer partner, a trans therapist, and an abundance of books and essays as new intellectual reference points instead of Kafka. They revealed to me that I could, and actually should, do more with my one wild and precious life (in the words of Mary Oliver) than stand very quietly in a corner, simply content that I could breathe.
Dismantling that fear and seeking out a new definition of contentment, as much as it was labor, was relief. Whenever I feel intimidated by labor, I remind myself that labor leads to relief, and relief leads to intimacy – with yourself, with others – among many other things that feel a hell of a lot better than fear.
Not looking at, and worse, muting the truths and nuances of my own identity, limited my capacity to look at and celebrate the truths and nuances in others. I had an almost visceral reaction to folks who lived their truths and nuances. Once I started to make tender moves toward myself and my community, I got momentum. Plus, practicing tenderness toward others made it easier to practice it with myself, and vice versa. I think most of us find it more palatable to celebrate and be gentle with others over ourselves. Having both a gender and a sexuality are not the burdens they once felt like; that’s something our heteronormative world does to isolate us from ourselves and ultimately from each other. My gender and my sexuality are what ground me in myself and in my relationships.
My relationships. This is where I always land. My relationships with folks of diverse genders and sexualities – relationships I once feared because of the mirrors they might (and indeed do) hold up – are what gave me the capacity to feel proud. When I was 25, I was convinced I had nothing in common with myself or my own people. Had I not learned to expand my narrative to actually include myself and my community in it, I can’t say that I would’ve ever been content. Recently, I brought up my paraphrasing Kafka days to my partner, and she reminded me of the isolation I was mired in then. I had no sense of self to call mine, and no people to call my own.
Thankfully, when I was 27, I recognized the urgency of my isolation and made two moves to extract myself: first, I volunteered with SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT+ Elders) as a friendly visitor, and second, after reflecting on my own deeply-positive-but-flawed experience with a custom suit, I asked Daniel Friedman, the founder of Bindle & Keep, to apprentice me so I could learn to measure queer folks for custom suits.
In both these realms, my fear was quickly replaced by relief and relief was even more quickly replaced by intimacy. SAGE led me to Lee and Dick, a pair of gay men in their 80s who reminded me that we have always been here. They balanced their glorious stories of sunbathing nude on various New York City waterfronts long before their commercialization or development with devastating, necessary stories about surviving the AIDS crisis while losing an unfathomable number of their friends and lovers. Just by letting me into their home and letting me glimpse their beautiful decades-long friendship, Lee and Dick soothed something that had been lurking in me for a long time: my anxiety about what old age looks like for queer people. Shamefully, old age isn’t something our culture likes to look at, but SAGE is the perfect gateway for those of us who are looking for ourselves in our elders. Whether they knew it or not, Lee and Dick showed me that not only do we have real, tangible histories, but that it’s our birthright to have real, tangible futures.
Meanwhile, Bindle & Keep led me to hundreds of clients with all kinds of genders and sexualities; my queer tailoring universe is like the actual universe: it keeps expanding. When I first started out, I knew my clients and I were collaborating on designing garments, but I realized we were also collaborating on something much greater than clothes: designing a spectrum, and ultimately a culture, that was nuanced enough to not only include but affirm us. In 2013, when The New York Times published “The Masculine Mystique: Custom Suits to Make Transgender and Female Clients Feel Handsome,” I felt proud of my clients for sharing their stories and themselves on a platform of that magnitude. But I also felt exposed: the article revealed that I had top surgery when it was not something I had mentioned in any public capacity or in my own social media, and there it was, in the paper of record. As I wrote, I think many of us find it more palatable to celebrate and be gentle with others over ourselves; similarly, I more readily felt pride on behalf of others before considering feeling it on behalf of myself.
What happened after that article was published, and after I was outed, transformed my relationship with pride. I got something like 100 emails from all kinds of LBGTQ+ folks thanking me for my work, and telling me they were proud of me. They were proud of me. That was when I really crossed over. One of those emails was from Chase Strangio, the ACLU lawyer who has advocated for all of us and fought alongside Gavin Grimm and Chelsea Manning. We hadn’t even met before, but we had intimacy as two subjects described in the New York Times article, and another layer of intimacy as transmasculine folks.
I know pride is a charged and complicated thing to navigate; after all, it began as a riot, and nearly half a century later, we still live in a world that stubbornly maintains cultures and systems of oppression. What we cultivate – community and families, self-knowledge and resilience, our own cultures and systems – in the face of that is what brought me out of isolation. More importantly, it’s what will lead to our collective liberation, and who wouldn’t feel pride about that?