My Gender Expression isn’t a Phase

Tanya Compas, youth worker and youth engagement specialist, CHIME FOR CHANGE Advisory Board member, and founder of Exist Loudly — a space for creative queer Black women — tells her story of dressing gender fluid.

“When will you grow out of your tomboy phase?”, a question I have been asked on countless occasions by strangers, by teachers, by family members and by friends.

Photo of Tanya Compas, a youth worker and youth engagement specialist who also serves on the CHIME FOR CHANGE Advisory Board sitting with a white wall in the background.
Photo of Tanya Compas, who also is the founder of Exist Loudly, a space for creative queer Black women, captured smiling while walking in her neighborhood street.

My choice of clothing has always called my womanhood into question and the questions surrounding my gender expression have followed me from childhood to adulthood.

As a child I was free to wear boys clothes, tracksuits, football kits and even boys boxers. I still to this day remember the joy I felt, when my mum came home with a pack of white boys boxers for me. Did I want to be a boy? No. I wasn’t even thinking about gender. I just wanted to be Tanya and wear clothes I felt comfortable in. Which was fine, until I got into secondary school, when the questioning around my gender expression became almost deafening. Without any representation of older masculine presenting Black women in my every day life or in the media, It only further pushed this idea that girls dressing in boys clothes was a ‘phrase’ and something that you ‘grow out of’. This led to many years of performative femininity, only wearing boys clothing when I was playing sports or at home, yet wearing womens clothing and putting on makeup, not because I wanted to, but because I felt like I had to. I spent my teenage years and adulthood, trying to find validation in my womanhood and femininity, by wearing feminine clothing, by ‘looking like a girl’, by dating men.

Closer-up photo of Tanya Compas standing in her London neighborhood street with a building under construction in the background.
Closer-up photo of Tanya Compas crouching in her London neighborhood street with a building under construction in the background.

I still remember when I was dating a guy back in University and I was at a club night, wearing heels and a body con, but I left early to go home. I went home, got changed into a tracksuit and a beanie hat and rode my bike back to the club to meet my friends. I saw the guy I was dating and I immediately felt shame run throughout my body, because I didn’t want him to see me dressed like this. I got on my bike and rode straight back home, getting changed back into my more feminine clothing because he had said he was coming over.

A lifetime of being asked ‘is this a phase’ led to shame and it was only shame that kept me out of the mens clothing section, even as an adult. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve really let go of the shame and have felt free to wear clothing that makes me feel at home within myself. Often, this clothing is found in the mens sections, sometimes in the womens and the most important thing is, I now feel free enough and confident to wear what I choose. I no longer just feel comfortable in mens clothing, I feel sexy, I feel affirmed in my womanhood, I feel like Tanya again. After years of performative femininity, I forgot who she was. But I’m here now and I’m ready to see more masculine presenting queer Black women in menswear campaings, on billboards and on our TV’s. I don’t want anyone else to feel this shame that I’ve felt, I want young girls to be able to point or name masculine presenting women to say ‘look this isn’t a phase’. —Tanya Compas

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