“I could do this!” I exclaimed to nobody in particular one day in class. Makeup design, circa 2003. I caught my professor smiling in the periphery. I was busy blending grease paint on my face - I don’t remember what the project was. The process of manipulating light on my face through pigment was what I cared about. I regretted the timing of the course in my degree - one of the last. I thought several times throughout that class that I would have done makeup rather than lighting and sound, had I tried it sooner. Years later, I would joke about how I always said I would do makeup if lighting design didn’t work out for me.
“Fashion is for everyone, every day. Costume is for specific people in specific moments.” The words of my costume design professor, Lizz, are still clear in my head, twenty years later. I regret having to drop that course, but I was overstretched at the time with my other design classes and something had to give. The initial lessons still reverberate over the years; I still hear Lizz’s voice as I rummage through racks.
“You’re a male feminist,” my design advisor, Céline, said with a smile when I told her I was taking a course entitled Women, Gender and Culture. Anthropology was an interest of mine, and my anth professor let everyone in her section of cultural anthropology know that this other course was on the next semester. I was uncomfortable with the observation. I absolutely was a feminist. Still am.
"I WASN’T TRYING TO BE FEMININE. I WAS BEING ME."
At the time, nobody regarded my interest in these subjects as especially feminine. Nobody saw my taking the classes as me trying to be feminine. I wasn’t trying to be feminine. I was being me. My desire to learn things associated with feminism or stereotypically feminine things did not make me feminine or masculine. It made me other things: curious, well rounded, aware. Not effeminate or girly.
“You try to be feminine. You wear feminine clothes and keep your hair long.” A village near Southampton, 2018. A friend’s observation. “You make your face up.”
“Well yes,” I replied, “But that’s because I like those things. I’m not trying.”
I wasn’t trying. I was following my interests. I followed my interests before and nobody seemed to believe I was trying to be feminine. The only difference between now and then is that I’m following my interests by wearing them. Somehow, wearing makeup and using fashion concepts in my clothes was trying to be feminine where studying makeup and costume was not.
In my explorations of myself - explorations that are ongoing, it’s worth noting - I’ve just found a relatively feminine place to be. A place that, really, isn’t much of a surprise when people stop to connect the dots. But I don’t try to be feminine. I try to be comfortable, and it just happened to work out that feminine is comfortable for me.
I did theatre by accident, but I found a comfortable space in design. Granted, costume and makeup were not my focus at university. They were a taste; I sometimes wonder if I’d have fared better in the field had I pursued them. In the end, I found a comfortable space in education.
“I like the idea of you working with little ones,” my ex wife told me one day. I landed a job as a learning support assistant in a primary school after some years in secondary schools. I discovered I enjoyed it, too: the job was an emergency filler. I ended up staying. I enjoyed being in a female dominated setting. Nobody saw me as feminine for working there, but I was comfortable.
“Is Mr. Barnhurst becoming a woman?” a child asked one of my fellow teaching assistants a few years later. I had painted my nails and pierced my ears. I bought a handbag that I didn’t carry around school but inevitably someone saw. Word gets around. My headteacher called me into her office for a conversation at one point: we made a deal that I would finish the term being perceived male. She quickly realised she had no grounds to stop me and the conversation turned to more friendly topics.
Could they have seen my changes as an attempt to be more feminine? Possibly. I wasn’t attempting, I was exploring. It was comfortable for me. I was experimenting, and so I had to try things — is that trying to be something? Nobody thought I was trying before.
"I’M SHOWING NO SIGNS OF BEING COMFORTABLE WITH FOLKS TELLING OLD STORIES ABOUT ME USING MY OLD NAME."
“You will probably get to a place where you won’t mind your mum referring to your childhood stories using your old name and pronouns.” My penultimate headteacher at an end of term do. I was dressed properly and we were talking about my adventure— it was all I talked about in those days. She was wrong. As it turned out, my mum got to a place where she didn’t mind using my new name and pronouns when telling childhood stories. I’m showing no signs of being comfortable with folks telling old stories about me using my old name. Are we trying to be or simply being?
Something happened after coming out. My exploration and interest started to be perceived as attempts to be rather than being. Teenagers seem to get the same kind of scrutiny. “You’re learning what kind of person you want to be,” my mum would say to me occasionally as I grew up. She’s right, of course.
With major change comes evaluation, reflection, experimentation. We are always deciding what kind of person we want to be, but some changes prompt more experimentation than others. We’re not trying to be something. We’re being. We just don’t know what we are yet.