Mary Valentine
Mary Valentine
Mary Valentine
Mary Valentine

Mary Valentine


One of my earliest memories of school involved being sent on an errand to the main office. I was in second grade, and I was sporting a short haircut for the first time. Months of fighting about brushing my long locks had worn my mother down, and so I got a version of the haircut that would be mine for life. My short hair made me feel powerful and more like me.

I grew up in a small town. A place where everyone, the butcher, the postal workers and the school secretaries, knew my family. People were close and in each other’s business. So, it was with great surprise as I delivered the class's daily lunch count to the main office, when the woman behind the counter said, "Thank you, handsome young man.”

I froze in this moment thinking to myself What do I do? Do I make sure she sees who I am? She knows me; she knows my mom. Do I correct an adult? My second thought was a brief moment of pride. Yes! She sees me. She noticed something deeper inside of me that would go unnamed for 12 more years but felt so good and so right in that small moment.

A fellow secretary piped up, "Handsome...young man? Nancy, can't you see that’s Pam's daughter? Do you not see the pink corduroys?”

I froze again, Pam's daughter oh no! What will my mom say when she hears this happened? Will she know how it made me feel? Will she be mad at me for this? I thought, I am never wearing those pink pants again!

Moments like these would arise throughout my childhood and teenage years. These moments of being called a boy were always cause for a combination of worry and pride. I worried when I thought or knew my mom was aware it was happening. If she actually heard my gender mistaken and then intervened, I would sit there embarrassed and feeling sorry as if I’d done something wrong.

My mother never seemed mad at me in these moments. Despite the worry, I was drawn to the feelings of being in between or being a different version of a girl. I lived within the gender binary of my family’s and society’s expectations just like everyone else I knew, so the reality of being between gender was far off my radar.

In my world, in the eighties, gender norms were only broken by musicians. Performers like David Bowie or Prince seemed like beautiful creatures from somewhere far away. Hair bands with their makeup and long hair were blurring gender fashion lines but also had an intense masculinity that was not appealing . As a teenager I bought a K.D. Lang and a Tracy Chapman cassette out of the bargain bin at the mall record store. I knew little about either but the photos beneath the clear plastic of the cassette case drew me in.

I remember feeling like I needed to be incognito when I bought them, worrying that the clerk at checkout would see me see the picture of the two androgynous musicians and I’d be caught. I was never clear what exactly I’d be caught at, but that was the feeling I had. I remember listening to those tapes in my 1988 Volkswagen Fox until they would no longer play. I also remembering hiding them away depending who got in the car.

Before leaving home for college, I did not have language for what I was doing and feeling, but the tension of being pulled into the gender binary was always present. Primarily, issues related to my gender expression would come up around formal events. Events when my mom would insist I wear a dress, I would feel bad and apologetic for not being the kind of girl it seemed my mom so desperately wanted. I would resist and fight but eventually, feelings of guilt, and the fact that she was buying the clothes, made me cave each time.

Later, I would feel painfully awkward and sorry for myself as I pulled at the edges of the least feminine dress I managed to find and begrudgingly convinced my mom to buy.

I wore my last skirt when I was 18 years old. It was a long-flowing hippy skirt worn with a rag wool sweater and a turtleneck that I wore as I went with fellow environmental activists to lobby the New Jersey State Assembly. I hated the outfit, but when told we needed to dress up for the event, I reverted to how I’d been taught and the expectations of home. Thankfully, a friend, a bisexual woman, said to me that day, “Mary, dressing up for you should involve pants.” It was a simple but life changing moment that began a real transformation. I would never again force myself into clothes that made me feel less like myself. I began to realize I did not need to feel sorry for what I wanted to wear and how I wanted to look.

Realizing my own sexuality and getting more involved with the queer community opened up a space for me to more fully embrace what I was feeling. Girlfriends who bought me ties and boxer briefs or called me handsome pulled me into the most authentic version of myself. Older butch women, showing me how I could be comfortable and confident in the world, even maybe have a little swagger, slowly chipped away at all of those past apologies for just being me.

Today that version of myself seems so distant. These days I am not sorry for loving my bow ties. I am not sorry for bringing men’s clothes into the women’s dressing room. I am not sorry for sometimes confusing people when I walk into a public bathroom. I am not sorry when a stranger calls me sir and then awkwardly tries to apologize or explain. I am my own version of what it can mean to be a woman, and for that I won’t be sorry.

I can’t go back to my eight year old self and explain all of this and make her feel seen, empowered and confident. Instead, I talk to my eight year old kid, a gender non-conforming child, who has recently selected to use male pronouns. I listen to him, I straighten his ties, and I tell him every day that he can be whoever he wants to be. I do this for his well-being and because I want him to never feel sorry for being himself. I will never apologize for who he is and my life before his arrival guides this new journey.

About the photo:

When asked to pick a location for the photo, a place where I feel my best, I immediately thought of the beach. For me it is a place where I can breath deep, fully relax and reflect. There is something about standing on the edge of the vast body of water than can provide perspective. On the day of the photo shoot, with a few locations in mind, Tracey and I met up in Jersey City on a spring-like December afternoon. With sunny blue skies and the temperature above 60 degrees we set out for Asbury Park, New Jersey. A beach town that has space for a diverse group of people, Asbury Park is one of my favorite New Jersey beaches. We drove south on the Parkway discussing global warming, it was a warm winter day, and the four years of a Trump presidency lie ahead. When we arrived, we decided a quick stop at a beachfront bar would be a good start to the day. Tracey captured this shot, sitting in the sun drenched bar with a bourbon. Anyplace that offers an opportunity for good conversation and a space for people to express themselves without reservation is a place I feel my best.