Trans woman shares gender expression journey, from 'femme to dapper'

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Eli Erlick, a trans woman, used to feel societal pressure to dress like a woman. (Photo: Instagram/Elierlick)
Eli Erlick, a trans woman, used to feel societal pressure to dress like a woman. (Photo: Instagram/Elierlick)

Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox told Yahoo Lifestyle in an interview that there was a point in her transition towards becoming a trans woman where she did not feel comfortable leaving the house without makeup. “It was my armor in the beginning,” she explained.

There are many other trans women who experience similar pressures, and Eli Erlick is one of them. Erlick recently shared side-by-side photos on Instagram: at 17 years old, with two years on hormones, and at 22 years old, with seven years on hormones. In the first photo, they are wearing a polka dot dress and black high-heel pumps. In the second, they have on flat shoes, a casual tuxedo suit, and an edgy hair look, pulled to one side.

Erlick wrote in the caption, “You can see my transition from femme to dapper over 5 years. In a lot of ways this sort of transition was more important to me than my gender transition. It’s not that it was more pivotal on my life but rather it represents that I have reached a point of self-understanding where I am comfortable in my aesthetic.” They went on to explain how after transitioning (from male to female), they initially “felt the need to dress extra feminine” to affirm their gender.

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Soon after posting, a flood of comments appeared. Lots of people supported Erlick’s sentiments. One person wrote, “Your dapper style is my dream style. I also think that your comfort level in your body is something people only dream about having in their own bodies.” Another shared, “Thank you for being an inspiration to anyone struggling with self-expression!! Not to mention you’re gorgeous… First time I saw you on my feed I was charmed!!”

There were also a few negative comments questioning why Erlick would choose to “dress like a man” if they want to be a woman. Erlick eloquently responded with another Instagram post: “First, I don’t dress like a man, I dress like a trans woman (because that’s what I am). Second I’m not trying to be a woman. I am one. Gender expression how one presents themself is different from gender identity who they are. Trans women can dress butch, just like any other women. If anything, our trans identities shouldn’t confine us to femininity: they should open up new and creative possibilities for how we present ourselves to the world.”

We caught up with Erlick to learn more about their “dapper” look and how they handle negativity on the internet.

Yahoo Lifestyle: What inspired you to post your ‘femme to dapper’ journey on Instagram?

Erlick: Transgender people have far too long been forced to present a certain way, in order to be seen as legitimate, human, or worthy of the most basic respect. I want other trans women to know that we are still valid no matter how they dress. I’ve met so many trans people assigned male at birth who want to dress less femininely but don’t consider it an option because they also want to be recognized as women or non-men. This post was for them to understand that their genders are legitimate and for the general public to know that trans women can look like anything.

Why do you think after transitioning you felt the need to dress feminine to affirm your gender?

Feeling the need to dress femininely after transitioning comes from outside social pressure. Psychologists have historically determined if a trans woman was “authentic enough” through our appearance, sexuality, and ability to perform femininity. While this gatekeeping has subsided, these understandings of transgender identity have seeped into society. By posting this photo, I want to show that transition is not linear and that there are many ways to be trans. Most people assume that the longer after a trans woman has transitioned, the more integrated they will be into conforming to gender norms. This myth must be dispelled in order for us to to truly self-determine our bodies, narratives, and aesthetics.

What steps did you go through to realize your trans womanhood is valid no matter how you dress?

Realizing that trans womanhood is always legitimate wasn’t a personal process: it was a collective one. I spent years growing up as this queer, Jewish trans girl in a rural community, not knowing what to wear outside of brightly colored tops and skinny jeans from the Junior’s section. However, I aspired to be recognized as a queer woman and didn’t really feel that the dresses and tight clothes I was wearing were really right for me. When I began to dress in more men’s clothes, for the first time since I was 13 (when I transitioned), it felt correct. It was not an issue so much of dysphoria but rather a desire for that recognition of being queer and transgender simultaneously. Through conversations with many other trans people, I was able to find a style that worked for me, and even get recognition for it.

Importantly, speaking with other trans women who wanted to present butch or outside of what is normalized for our community finally inspired me to change my aesthetic a few years ago, and helped me realize that our identities are always valid.

It is also important to recognize my whiteness allows me some legibility that people of color are often not afforded. Having access to white privilege is also having access to having my gender recognized. This doesn’t mean I’m not still facing blatant targeting for how I dress or being trans but that I am in a unique position to help people understand the difference between gender identity and expression.

Are there times now where you still feel pressure to dress feminine?

I still feel the pressure to dress femininely every day. I continually receive comments that I’m not trans enough for not wanting to express myself consistently with femininity. I am told that I “look like a man” or that I’m just confused. Sometimes I find myself beginning to internalize this rhetoric and worrying that I will appear “too masculine” (whatever that means). When I find myself doing that, I just remind myself that it’s really only my own opinion that matters.

How do you handle negative comments people have regarding the decisions you’ve made, and regarding the way you dress?

I try to ignore them. Often I’ll block the users because I don’t want them taking up any more space than they already have. Within a few hours of posting, it was liked and shared thousands of times, which also means I received hundreds of messages of everything from death threats to how they were affirmed by the post and hope they can unlearn gender roles too. Sometimes it feels like being trans is a stream of negative comments about my body. Most trans people learn to live with it. I’ve learned not to accept it but to push back and fight for us to be able to share our own stories with the world.

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