When I first told my friends that I would be wearing a bustier, lace ruff and pearl-studded, brocaded mock-Elizabethan gown for the cover of my book, they were doubtful. In the past I had flirted with androgyny by wearing women's jewellery and a dash of perfume, but I had never worn a dress. To my friends, though the notion of a man wearing a dress meant having an extra pair of balls, it seemed essentially perverse. To me, the idea made perfect sense. My book, Fairytales for Lost Children, was about gay Somalis exploring their sexual identities and gender roles, so why not riff on these motifs by donning a jewel-encrusted frock?
I liked the flamboyant cheekiness of the concept, but when I went to the costumier for my first fitting that sense of cheekiness gave way to something more dynamic and surprising. As the costumier strapped me into the corset I didn't feel constricted. Instead, I felt – and looked – sensual, beautiful, powerful, virile.
In Against Interpretation and Other Essays Susan Sontag argues that, ‘What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.’ To me, this is the most elegant breakdown of the Jungian theory of ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ – the feminine principle within men and the masculine principle within women.
According to the psychotherapist Carl Jung, anima symbolises the unconscious way in which most men repress their sensitivity, or what is perceived as their feminine psychological qualities. Animus is the reverse for women with masculine traits. Jung perceived the anima process as a huge source of creative ability.
My personal understanding of anima is rooted in my upbringing. I grew up around a lot of girls and, as I aged, my female friends would constantly borrow my jewellery or perfume and ask for tips on makeup. This feminine energy in me was deemed an appealing quality by these women because it declared kinship, a sense of shared sensitivity – a layer of the androgyny that is present in all of us, laced with vigour and vitality.
Some of our most influential cultural figures – David Bowie and Prince in particular – have straddled this dichotomy for decades. Miles Davis summed up Prince's visceral sex appeal as such: ‘He's got that raunchy thing, almost like a pimp and a bitch all wrapped up in one image – that transvestite thing.’
In Somali culture, hyper-masculinity is the most desired attribute in men. Femininity signifies softness, a lightness of touch: qualities which are aggressively pressed onto young girls and women. When a woman lacks (or repudiates) feminine traits it is considered an act of mild social resistance. This precept applies equally to men who are not overtly masculine, but the stakes are considerably amplified. If a Somali man is considered feminine he is deemed weak, helpless, pitiful: the underlying message being that femininity is inherently inferior to masculinity.
Variants of this thinking extend across most cultures, belief systems, races and sexualities: Western gay culture is as obsessed with exaggerated masculine traits as the patriarchs of Somali clans. Femininity is predominantly perceived as an unappealing quality, a cancelling-out of hyper-valorised masculine traits, with effemiphobia reaching its natural end-point on the online gay dating circuit with the infamous ‘No fems’ or ‘be straight-acting’ tags that pop up on most profiles.
In the case of gay men, one could argue that decades (if not centuries) of stigmatisation have created a culture of conformity fuelled by internalised homophobia: the accusation – and it is framed as an accusation – that same-sex-attracted men fail to be authentically masculine has left an enduring mark. But where does that leave everyone else who doesn't fit the ‘straight-acting’ tag? After all, weren't the Stonewall riots, the birth of the gay civil rights movement, kick-started by the transgender community, drag queens and effeminate young men – the most outcast members of the gay community? Shouldn't they be our heroes?
The case for effemiphobia often hinges on a threadbare argument against 'camp' overexposure. Prominent and popular performers like Paul O' Grady, Graham Norton and Alan Carr are constantly cited as stereotypes of what an imagined mainstream society wants from their gay performers: flamboyant, with outsized, unthreatening and mostly desexualised personalities. But it takes a tremendous amount of chutzpah to be as charming and exuberant as O'Grady, Norton and Carr have been throughout their careers. Each of these performers has mined his experience as an effeminate gay man into comedic gold, and each one is now giggling all the way to the bank.
The position of these men as wealthy performers, however, obscures their outlier statuses, and their success is not an accurate representation of the daily stigma and abuse that many feminine men – whether gay, bisexual, asexual or straight – have had to endure from the straight community and certain sections of the LGBT community.
The American writer Dan Savage – who co-created the ‘It Gets Better Campaign’ to tackle the issue of suicides among gay teenagers who were being bullied because of their sexual orientation – put it succinctly: ‘It's often the effeminate boys and the masculine girls, the ones who violate gender norms and expectations, who get bullied.’
I certainly felt this way as I was growing up. I was constantly bullied at school for the fact that I was a distinctly feminine gay lad. It was only a decade later, after I had finished school and was living on my own, when I realised that there was a tremendous sense of beauty and pride in valuing my identity. I had cultivated this sense of pride by forging meaningful friendships and relationships with people who genuinely cared about me and appreciated me for who I was, as opposed to who I could be.
I contemplated these issues as I toiled with carrying my dress to the photographer's studio. The outfit was heavier than I expected and I was sweating by the time I arrived. After I mopped myself down and gathered myself together, the makeup artist helped me get into the dress. As she laced my corset I thought how strange it was that I, an African man living in the 21st century, would willingly strap myself into the kind of constricting garments that European women had fought so hard to resist 100 years ago.
I remained ambivalent until my makeup was done, until I glanced in the mirror and saw something I had never seen within myself before: a sense of poise and daring. I had, at last, morphed from a shy, timid young man into someone who was unafraid to take risks. I stood before the camera and gazed directly at the lens. There was no need for validation. The photographer didn't have to give me directions. I knew what I was doing. I struck confident pose after pose, proud of the fact that there was a hard-won sense of power in my femininity.
DIRIYE OSMAN is photographed by BORIS MITKOV.