Recently, I was working at the small Brooklyn diner where I sometimes pick up serving shifts.
I had just taken food and drink orders from a straight-looking couple when the man brought attention to my shoes. They’re old Aldo party sneakers, covered in silver sparkles with undertones of alien purple and green.
And I used to wear them out dancing, and they’re perfect for restaurant shifts because the grips and padding are still in pretty good shape; more importantly, the iridescence brightens up what can sometimes be tedious work. I smiled, and then he said something that I haven’t been able to get off my mind: “You’re so brave for wearing those.”
I didn’t use to have anything glittery in my wardrobe or makeup caboodle. Hell, for a long time I didn’t have a makeup caboodle! When I was a teenager in the 90’s, I totally drank the Kool-Aid of internalized femme-phobia. I stopped shaving my legs and started shaving my head. I hardly ever wore skirts and I scoffed at any color that evoked the dreaded Barbie. Some of this came from my life-long personal preference for comfortable clothes that can get torn and sweaty from biking, and some from wanting to sit with my arms out and knees apart.
However, I realize now that I was denying myself the loves of certain styles, colors, and expressions because I associated femininity with everything I didn’t want to be. I thought if I wanted to be recognized for my intelligence and strength, that I needed to appear as masculine as possible. The double bind of being socialized as a woman is that you’re expected to embody femininity while also being told girliness is weak and ditzy and has horrible taste in music.
As the queerness began to evolve from an adolescent gender identity into an adult sexuality, I defaulted to butch for pragmatic purposes. Luckily I was living in the Bay Area, where genderqueers and diesel femmes and leather daddies demonstrated all the prismatic ways gender could be expressed through personal style. But I still felt embarrassed and confused by my desires to be visibly fabulous. There was something about glitter that frightened me. I didn’t want anyone to think that I wanted to draw attention to myself.
I’m not a trans woman for whom being femme is a matter of near-constant violence. Or a tender gay man under pressure to suppress his flamboyance. But glitter spread on top of my butchness does make people uncomfortable. If there’s something that elicits more gender panic than inversion, it’s high contrast: a corset on someone with an androgynous face, high heels on someone with a beard, glitter on an unwashed punk. Glitter is inescapable. It’s never stealth, and it has no passing privilege.
In my thirties, as I started to give fewer fucks, I slowly found excuses to smear a little glitter over my eyes: during performances, while karaoking, on special nights out. The context of a stage gave me permission to shine, like the ambiguously gay Bash in the season finale of GLOW or Ewan McGregor as a pseudo Iggy Pop jerking off a container of gold glitter into a roaring crowd in Velvet Goldmine.
Emboldened by those theatrics, I began to slowly realize that I could wear glitter whenever the fuck I wanted to. I started purchasing vials of gooey metallic eyeliner, glitter hairspray and dry shampoo, iridescent highlighter tubes that roll up like an ice cream truck Push Pop, cocksucking glitter lip gloss, birthday cake scented glitter body lotion, bottles and bottles of clear nail polish with giant chunks of multicolored glitter suspended inside, false eyelashes with rhinestones on the tips. I have a sequin blazer, a bomber jacket covered in silver foil like the walls of Warhol’s factory, a black fishnet bodysuit woven with scratchy gold threads, glitter ankle socks for formal events, halter top leotards in magenta, silver, and jet black lamé. I have not tried the vaginal suppository that makes it possible for you to gush glitter, but I have used glitter lube.
The more I wear glitter, the more I’m reminded of the reasons I didn’t use to, the judgment I feared. Like men who say I’m brave, a compliment that carries a threat. “You’re so brave” is a reminder, in case you forgot for one single moment while you were trying to show up to work and make rent, that your queerness is something people fear, that calling attention to your queerness makes you a target.
People really hate how much glitter sticks around. I’ve rented event spaces where a coordinator had to walk us through a “glitter check” before set up, exactly like a rental car company attendant ensuring there are no dents or scratches on the vehicle before you drive it away. I’ve had to leave glitter deposits to insure against glitter “damage,” and I’ve had to get down on my hands and knees with a dustpan to collect every last shard of sparkling dust. I’ve been refused hugs by people who are concerned they will have to explain the shimmer on the tip of their nose to their boss on Monday.
When I consider the braveness of glitter, I think back to this June’s Pride in NYC. My partner and I were on the F train heading to the city for Sunday’s parade. Two younger men boarded the car, looking like perhaps they had not missed a single opportunity to be awake since at least Thursday. They were giddy and flirty and they were gaudily dipped in what appeared to be several jars of multicolored craft glitter.
When glittery people are on a train together, we give each other the queer nod. It’s a sign of cultural affiliation, like leather motorcycle boots used to be. I suddenly felt like a glitter expert, maybe even a glitter snob, with my Sephora-bought cosmetics and pots of vegan, cruelty-free, paraben-free glitter body paste infused with essential oils ordered online from a small company in Los Angeles. There is a world of glitter to be consumed, applied, and spread like, yes, a virus, all over your lives (glitter being, notoriously, the “herpes” of the craft/gay/sex work/theater world). For these boys, the chance to celebrate, to be out, to be joyous and impolite, meant pouring tiny pieces of abrasive metal from Michael’s all over themselves, metal that would not be kind to their skin or sheets in the days that followed. But that was the point: Pride is the time of year when queerness takes up as much space as possible, even when it hurts.
As they disembarked in the West Village and we continued uptown, I thought about the glitter being applied by people all over the city at that moment. I thought about all the light that was being seduced on our queer bodies, refracted in unusual ways. I thought about the light that dances in your peripheral vision when a queen spreads her sequined sleeves in the sun, a human disco ball, a human crystal casting queer energy out into the cosmos.
Glitter is not respectable. It never will be. Glitter is for stripper legs and drag eyelids and burlesque pasties; it is the material of the audaciously sexually deviant. Glitter says, “I know I deserve your attention, I deserve to take up space.” Fireflies circle around me, framing my beauty, drawing you to me.
The day after that male customer called me brave, I woke up next to my partner in bed still bothered by it. The morning sun illuminated stray flecks of glitter on her face and naked body. Some she had applied herself, and some had rubbed off from my body, from the bodies of friends. Sometimes you make out with someone and get your glitter on them, and then later they make out with someone else who gets that glitter on them, and then sometimes you make out with that third person and get your own glitter back onto you, and then you take it home. Some was from the night before, and there’s honestly no telling how long ago some of it had been sprayed, sprinkled, or appliqued. Glitter doesn’t go bad. I thought about living in a world in which so many people with powerful influences, from our families to our government, think that queerness is a stain. Watching the light bounce off the skin of the woman I love, I smiled and was comforted that our love is a stain that will never, ever come off.