I remember the moment I first became acutely aware of my gender. I was about five years old and playing with several other neighborhood children—all male—in a friend’s finished basement. Like most games invented by five year-old boys, ours was rife with play violence. As I remember, one of the boys had gotten hold of the brightly colored, Toys-R-Us equivalent of a crossbow, and was pursuing the rest of us as we leapt from couches to tabletops, navigating the scrapheap of blankets, stuffed animals, and half-built lego structures on the carpet.
We were well into the game, breathless and giggling, when someone proposed that we take off our shirts. We’d seen the macho, half-clothed warriors in cartoons and video games; I suppose partial nudity fit the game’s rough-and-tumble sensibility. But as I watched my neighbors peel off their jerseys and baseball t’s, I was uncertain whether or not to join the group. Something about the gesture didn’t feel right somehow—though I couldn’t point to what felt wrong, either. Fearful I’d be mocked for not following my playmates’ lead, I stripped.
I’d just begun to like the rush of climate-controlled air against my torso when an adult’s footsteps sounded on the basement stairs. I turned towards the door, where my neighbor’s mother was staring at my bare chest with a mix of incredulity and horror. “Put your shirts back on!” she ordered the room, her voice flat and stern. As my friends scrambled to redress, her eyes met mine. “You can’t do that,” she reprimanded. “They can, but you can’t. Ever.”
I nodded dumbly. Her disapproval weighed on me. I felt suddenly sick. I understood that I had committed an inexcusable offense, broken a rule so obvious, so deeply ingrained in social consciousness that no one had bothered to warn me about it. I wanted to run home and cry into my mother’s stomach, to ask her how it was fair for a rule to apply to one person and not everyone. Instead, I put my shirt back on.
For Carmen Carrera, this moment of realization came when she was three years old. As Carrera told an audience in McCosh just over two weeks ago, she was in the bathroom when she saw a box of maxi-pads. “I thought, this is something I’m supposed to be using; this is for me,” she said, laughing. Were Carrera like most girls, her curiosity might have been dismissed as normal. But Carrera wasn’t most girls. In fact, in the eyes of her family and friends, she wasn’t a girl at all. Her name was Christopher Roman, and even the shape of her own body told her she was a boy.
Nearly three decades later, Carrera has the sort of magnetic presence that belongs to celebrities and the exceptionally charismatic. In an oxblood leather skirt and stiletto sandals that lace up to her knees, she doesn’t work to hold our attention. She’s come to Princeton thanks to the efforts of the nascent Princeton University Latinx Perspectives Organization (PULPO), who worked alongside the LGBT Center, the Program for Gender and Sexuality Studies, and several other academic departments to bring the internationally lauded drag performer-turned-model, actress, and reality TV star into a lecture hall.
Carrera’s talk was refreshingly unrehearsed, and moving in its earnestness. Acknowledging her celebrity status, she began by noting that widespread recognition does not amount to widespread understanding. “I don’t think everyone knows my true story,” she said, adding that this was, in part, because it was “still happening.” Indeed, while Carrera’s story felt, in many ways, like a traditional overcoming adversity narrative, it also felt shockingly intimate and immediate. Maybe it was the leather skirt, or the talk’s conversational tone—peppered with fucks, shits, and references to clubbing and weed— but the event felt less like a lecture or call to action than a really great conversation with a very wise friend about prejudice, self-perception, and the weirdness of gender.
A New Jersey native, Carrera grew up in Paterson, a largely working-class city roughly an hour away from Princeton. Her early years, she explained, were as marked by trial as they were community. The child of Peurto-Rican and Peruvian immigrants, she recalled feeling persistent pressure to “make it,” to seize opportunities her parents had not had. This obligation to achieve only mounted when her father passed away from AIDS. “I didn’t know what AIDS was until I read about it in the death certificate,” she said. She’s since used her celebrity status to reduce the stigmatization of the disease.
But the most challenging part of childhood wasn’t her family’s struggle to make ends meet or the loss of her father. Instead, Carrera was troubled by a conflict between her own self-perception, and the way she knew others saw her. She felt, viscerally, female, and resented the masculine persona she felt she had to put on to earn the affection of those close to her. “I knew, this is how I have to function at home, this is how I have to function at school, and this is how I have to be to be loved—I have to perform,” she said. Every night, before bed, she would pray to God to let her wake up a girl.
Carrera’s “life changed” when, at twenty-five, she was selected to compete in RuPaul’s Drag Race. As a young adult, she noted, drag served as a liberating outlet for the femininity she was fighting to suppress. “I got to feel what it was like to be in girls’ clothes and express myself as the woman I’ve always wanted to be,” she said. Beyond being a pivotal step in her own path towards self-acceptance, the show was the launching pad for her career as an entertainer. Overnight, it seemed, she became an “example,” she received fan letter after fan letter lauding her as an “inspiration.” But although others saw her as an idol, she still felt shaky in her own skin. After years of donning women’s clothes for the sake of art, she knew she still wanted what she’d wanted at age three: a female body.
I saw a drag show for the first time this past summer. I was visiting a friend in San Francisco, and she suggested drag might make for good, cheap, off-the-beaten path Friday night entertainment. The Monster Show was held weekly at a cramped, dimly lit dive bar in the Castro, and it soon became clear that we were two of the only women—and possibly the only straight, cis women— there. As the lipsticked performers took the stage in fishnets and backless chaps, wielding whips and lollipops, I became uncomfortably aware of my own discomfort. I’d taken gender studies classes; read portions of Gender Trouble. Still, watching a leather-clad performer run a manicured hand down their corseted bust, I noticed that I’d crossed my legs. Was I more closed-minded than I thought I was? Had the gendered rules that had seemed so absurd—unfair, even—at age five sunk in to a point where I could no longer see the world without their binary coloring?
Conversations about trans identity often focus on the complications of transitioning—finding a surgeon, balancing hormones, acclimating to a new body. But for Carrera, “transitioning was the easy part.” While she noted that accessing medical care was difficult (“we don’t have a lot of resources”), what was harder was navigating the complex web of perceptions and judgments that others imposed on her identity. It was difficult, she said, to build relationships, to trust, to love, when the way you saw yourself was often so different from the way that others saw you. When she was still on Drag Race, she recalled, she would often travel through airports and other public spaces, dressed androgynously. Sometimes, strangers would refer to her as a man. Initially, their insensitivity enraged her. In time, however, she says she’s come to accept that we’re products of what we’ve learned. “You have to forgive people,” she said.
She’s stopped making it her job to control how others perceive her. “I went through a phase where I had to cover up everything masculine, know how I looked at all times,” she said. “And I still got my heart broken.” Like so many other women, she became obsessed with her imperfections, determined to erase her insecurities with bronzer and eyeshadow. Now, she’s trying to ignore the second, censoring pair of eyes that used to track her every move, chiding her for any deviations from “normal” femininity. “You can’t put yourself through judgment and self hatred for the amusement of other people,” she said. “Because people are assholes.”
Princeton brings in a steady stream of academic lecturers: brown jacketed PHDs who can eloquently theorize from behind a podium. Carrera’s talk was a marked departure from these. Though unfailingly witty, it wasn’t intellectual in an academic sense. She didn’t talk policy, or unpack the construction of gender. Instead, she shared a wealth of wisdom from a life shaped by precisely the kinds of moments that often don’t get brought into University lecture halls: working at clubs, befriending sex workers, navigating the larger-than-life world of reality television. But hers’ wasn’t just a story about “making it,” a TED-talk style narrative of individual ambition and resilience. Instead, Carrera emphasized the importance of acceptance, both of others’ shortcomings and one’s own needs, not in spite of but because of taboos.
Towards the end of the Q&A session following the talk, an audience member asked Carrera where she got her strength. “The gym,” she replied, laughing. After a moment’s reflection, she responded that it came from experience—from learning, not through any concerted effort but simply by living, working, and loving, that even the toughest decisions she’s made were never as harrowing as she’d initially chalked them up to be. “You need to take responsibility for yourself,” she said.