Growing up LGBT in a world that constantly shifts forward and backward on how it tolerates you, it's hard to know where you stand with the people around you.
“A lot of people just assume,” said Claude Stikeleather, 18. “I have short hair and I dress kinda masculine, so everyone is just like, ‘Oh that's a gay girl, thats whats happening.There is a lesbian. But then it’s deeper than that ...not just a lesbian babey.”
Like most teens, Stikeleather puts some thought into how they dress. On a recent evening, Stikeleather rustles through a closet at their home in Durham.
“What do I wanna convey? That I’m funky and I’m fresh,” Stikeleather said.
Stikeleather dresses very distinctly. Their closet is full of loud button-down shirts and jackets, many, many jackets.
“I have my jackets here, this is my mom’s varsity jacket, a jean jacket, because what
kind of gay would I be if I didn’t have a jean jacket,” Stikeleather said. “I have a military jacket…This is my favorite…. It’s reversible!”
Stikeleather holds up a black and silver windbreaker, which speaks to their 80’s fashion sense.
I’ve known Stikeleather for a while, and they’ve always been someone who’s inspired me. Stikeleather identifies as non-binary – they describe it as outside of the categories of woman or man. Stikeleather uses they/them pronouns. They’re trans, but not in the way many people would expect.
“I know a lot of people think of trans as male to female or female to male, like you were in one box and you're going into another box,” Stikeleather said. “Not that it's wrong to go into another box, but I feel like trans, personally, is a word that applies to anyone that doesn't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.”
I met Stikeleather the summer of 2014 at Girls Rock NC, a summer camp for girls and gender nonconforming teens that want to make music.
“I was 14 the first time I went so I was kinda on the old end,” Said Stikeleather. “I remember that was the first place I went where they asked me what pronouns I used, and I was so excited about that. I lost my mind, It was incredible. I was like, ‘Oh, they care? This is so good.’ And they just let me play bass a lot.”
Stikeleather and I both played the the bass when we met. They still play in the same band from girls rock, Fish Dad. I think they’re really good. Earlier this summer, I went to a show they played at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill.
During the show, Stikeleather stands center stage, with a rainbow bass strap and glitter on their face. Playing music gives Stikeleather a chance to present themselves to the world without having to compromise on who they are. And their bandmates are always there to talk.
“They definitely understand all the things I go through and talk about… It’s a very safe, good space,” Stikeleather said.
Stikeleather has always been uncomfortable with what they call the “girl box.”
“I was in there for a while, and then... I just didn't feel it anymore, and then I did get in the boy box a little bit,” Stikeleather said. “And then I was like, mmmm, I think that was just a reaction to being like, ‘I’m not in the girl box, let me jump in the boy box a little bit’.”
The girl box is something I have struggled with, too. I don’t want to be confined to anyone’s expectations of how I should behave or present myself. Stikeleather is somebody I’ve looked up to as someone who refuses to conform.
“I just feel like the two boxes of what gender can be, neither of them particularly make sense for me, and I don’t feel comfortable being strictly either one,” said Stikeleather. “I feel really great existing outside of that...It’s not because I wanna be unique, or a special snowflake or whatever. It's not a choice I made. It's just a thing in my heart and my brain and my soul.”
Stikeleather is going off to college this fall. They’re sharing a dorm with three other trans students. They are excited about making new friends -- even if it means explaining their identity to a bunch of new people.
”I feel like I can become, just a different version of myself, a different way of representing my transness to the outside world,” they said.
Stikeleather sounds optimistic, but, they still have to work through some anxiety about how they’ll navigate their identity with new people. And that includes correcting people on their pronouns.
“It's scary,” says Stikeleather. “To people I know I’m very much like ‘gender, gender, gender. Let's talk about gender issues!’ It’s like ‘Oh I’m really quiet until you get to know me, then I talk a lot.’ I’m like that with transness, so maybe I’ll just be loud all the time with that in college. That’s what I hope I do….then I’ll just be living my wildest best life.”