Photography by Lia Clay for Express.
As a little Black queer kid in the South, I was dizzy trying to figure out how I’d ever express myself. Everything from the way the words danced off my tongue because I didn’t sound like other kids called boys when I spoke to my father’s constant urging for me to walk with confidence only attributed to masculinity—made me feel out of place. How I dressed became just another means of policing me. I spent most of my childhood having my clothes chosen for me by my parents, particularly my dad, which gave me little room to discover what I actually enjoyed to wear, how I wanted to be seen, how I wanted to see myself. Most days I was forced to wear the customary grade school uniform of a white polo shirt and khaki or navy pants. And when I wasn’t? I lived in hand-me-down, oversized, earth-toned wool sweaters and stone-washed straight-leg jeans. In a way, this different kind of uniform served as a mask.
My first major act of aesthetic defiance came at 10 years old when I told my dad I wanted to stop cutting my hair short and let it grow out. Just like with the clothing on my body, my head of coily, darkest brown 4C hair was a gender battleground. I had always wanted longer hair, but the only option open for me was a close-cut caesar, that kind of default Black boy look. I debated with my father, trying to get him to warm up to the idea. Going the nostalgia route ended up being the ticket; I mentioned the huge afro he had in the 1970s as reason enough for him to support my desire. We compromised, deciding that as long as I kept it “neat” by his standards, then it would be alright. I’m sure it seemed small to him, but this moment ignited something else in me and set me on a path to deciding other aspects of my personal style.
By the time I reached high school a few years later, I had become even bolder in resisting the conformity of my peers by wearing form-fitting hip-huggers and skinny jeans before it was the in thing for boys to do. And Express was one of the stores that had the bright, bold colors that I loved, even if I was still dressing to fit a gendered standard that wasn’t necessarily me. I had a particular affinity for the sweater vests, of which I had one in magenta, cerulean, and a deep plum. Express has been a part of my life for so long. In fact, when I transitioned it was one of the brands I didn’t have to leave behind. I had finally given myself permission to crossover to the women’s section and try on the clothes (especially the articles that were jewel-toned and sequiny) that made me feel like me. If you look back at photos of me throughout the years, it’s clear my style has changed drastically, but more important is the transformation in my confidence. I went from a child shielding their deepest desires and being stifled at every turn to a powerful woman daring the world to accept me just for who I am.
To see more from Out's Executive Editor, Raquel Willis, visit Out.com/LoveUnites. For every Love Unites item you purchase by July 15, Express will donate 25% of the net income to GLAAD to accelerate acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.
Shop the Love Unites Collection at Express.com/LoveUnites.