The first time I painted my nails, I was six years old, visiting my father’s house in rural Pennsylvania for the weekend. My stepsisters were wearing a clear sparkly shade, and I’d been bugging them since I arrived to paint my fingernails for me. I idolized these stepsisters. They were four and six years older than me, and existed at the unfathomable edges of teenager-hood; I was an only child who modeled myself after anyone older than me. This began with my eldest cousin, a future West Point grad who at 13 was already handsome and charming and harbored ambitions of running for president—I followed him doggishly whenever I went to his house. In preschool, I adopted the mannerisms and phrases of the boys I befriended, though they often tossed me aside once they grew tired of someone repeating what they believed. I was a body in search of a self.
But imitating my stepsisters crossed an unspoken line, and they treated my request with caution. A few weekends earlier, I’d woken them early on a Sunday and asked to try on their dresses. They presented me to my father; he told them never to dress me up like that again and brushed aside their claims that I’d asked to put on the dress. Nail polish wasn’t as dramatic as wearing a dress, but they suspected it wasn’t too far removed, and I had to beg them before they reluctantly agreed. I was, once again, presented to my father, but this time he hardly acknowledged what happened. “Kids are gonna make fun of you at school,” he warned me. For the rest of that Sunday, I kept my hands as pocketed as possible, until he drove me home to my mom’s house.
At home, I demanded my mom take off the polish. I could already hear other kids teasing me at school the next day. Chunky and desperate, I had enough working against me: I couldn’t weather painted nails too. My mom wiped off the polish using acetone-soaked cotton balls as I sat on the closed lid of the toilet, crying. “Why did you let them do this?” she asked. I didn’t have a good answer—I hadn’t let them do anything—but I made no attempt to set the record straight when she assumed my stepsisters did this to mock me. This was just what older siblings did, we agreed. I was happy to accept that story if it meant protecting me from my desires.
This couldn’t have been the first time I lied to protect myself—but it’s the first moment that stands out in my memory. I hadn’t even finished first grade. Already, I knew to deny wanting the things that I wanted: nail polish and dresses and sometimes—though not always—to have been born a girl. What I felt in those few drags of nail polish and the swish of a dress on my thighs was a life in which things were different. However, I never pursued those feelings. I was scared of them. The contents of my personal Pandora’s box always cowered neatly back inside at the first sign of disapproval from my parents. In light of legislation being drawn up across the country that would strip trans children of their rights to receive life-saving hormones or play sports with their peers, I’ve been obsessing over who I could have been if I hadn’t felt so sticky with shame—if nothing was ever crammed back into its box.
Something I should be clear about: Wearing nail polish doesn’t make someone trans. Clothing brands and magazines are more than happy to sell cis men on the idea of wearing nail polish and concealers and dresses and heels. The more genders spending, the better! But for me, these minor fashion decisions have helped quiet an ongoing hiccup of gender dysphoria. Nail polish is both frivolous and important, or it’s important because I wish it were frivolous. I wish it didn’t mean anything to me or to anyone else, but over the past two years, since I first came out as a trans nonbinary person, wearing nail polish has acted as both an armor and an invitation. It’s an armor against flickering doubt and self-hatred—fears of not being trans enough, fears I won’t bother you with; that’s for me and my therapist—that also invites others to see me how I wish to be seen.
In May 2019, I was living in Houston, completing the final months of a Ph.D. program and experimenting with dresses and heels and tights and pinchy blond wigs—going “overboard,” as the writer Harron Walker recommended last December on Daniel Lavery’s Dear Prudence podcast. Only my closest loved ones knew I was trans. The two times I’d left my apartment fully femme—once for a walk, once to a bar—I returned home taxed: I wasn’t ready to present in public that way.
During those weeks of experimentation, I painted my nails vivid, eye-squinting reds and purples and blues and was obsessed with seeing the color flashing at the ends of my fingers. Simply catching the color while I was washing dishes or arranging my hair in the mirror could make me pause, smile, proud of the new person I saw. But I always removed it before leaving the house, still as scared, at 30, as I’d been about being teased as a child. After weeks of removing the polish and repainting, often multiple times in the same day, I grew tired of hiding something that brought me such pleasure. I longed to bridge the divide between my private life and my public life. I was tired of feeling ashamed.
I don’t think about self-acceptance as accepting more and more of myself so much as exhuming parts of myself from the mountainous rubble of shame that piled over me during the first 30 years of my life. Every once in a while, I pluck out something about me that I like, wipe off the dust and debris, and allow it to live in the light. Twenty-four years after begging my stepsisters to paint my nails, then begging even more loudly for my mom to remove it, I discovered I liked seeing my nails painted. More specifically: I liked seeing them painted because it made me feel like less of a man—rather, more like myself.
The first day I wore nail polish to my favorite coffee shop, a barista I’d known for months but rarely spoke to complimented the color: a shimmering, Prince-rich purple. For months, I blundered through small talk about work with this barista, whose name I didn’t know and who didn’t know mine. They were slim and chipper and wore loose cutoff tank tops and denim shorts and kept their long black hair pulled into a ponytail that tapped the top of their back. Their nails were a tapestry of citrusy reds, yellows, oranges, greens, with squiggles drawn on top. I admired their nails every time I came in but hadn’t said anything until now, giddy over being noticed.
Coming out has featured various firsts. First dresses, confessions, wigs, friendships, and mistakes. Between them all, I’m most grateful for firsts of recognition, those that correct earlier disapprovals. The barista complimenting my nail polish was a corrective to my dad’s silent disappointment. The ex who told me I looked happy in photos wearing a dress corrected the dating-app matches who ghosted when I told them I was trans. Often, the same person corrects. My parents have been wildly supportive since I came out, but I would rather they didn’t have to correct, because no number of corrections can undo the dismissals and disapprovals that preceded them. Shame accumulates quickly and diminishes slowly, like water soaked into the walls of a flooded basement.
The anti-trans bills appearing all over the country make it more likely more children will be made to feel like outcasts during the formative years of their lives. These children need hormones and support and, simply, acceptance. Should the laws pass, many families might be forced to uproot their lives to move to states where their children can receive appropriate care. This discrimination replicates what trans adults face on a daily basis—many are refused access to good housing and health care and jobs and loving relationships. As a kid, I wanted something so simple, so utterly simple: to wear dresses, to paint my nails. And I climbed out of childhood and into adulthood convinced I was a monster for wanting those things. Compared to the discrimination faced by many trans people, the shame I felt over wearing nail polish and summery shirtdresses is minor—minor, at least, until I receive a disgusted stare in the park or a cashier forcefully sirs me when I’m in full makeup and a dress. Just as racist aggressions are built on a foundation of racist microaggressions, large-scale anti-trans discrimination finds root in a world where trans people are made to feel wrong for existing in the most innocuous ways.
The barista was the first stranger in my life who made me feel okay for existing. Through May and June, when I left Houston for good, we compared our latest designs and commiserated over the false promises of quick-drying polish. I only wore purple out of the house, and soon the barista playfully teased me for not trying new shades. I liked being teased in this way, not as an other but as an insider. Every time they asked why I hadn’t changed my nail color, I promised to repaint before coming in next time.
Soon, there were others: A man in a pizza shop in Portland pulled me out of line to say something nice about the silver color I wore; a nurse swabbing me for COVID peeled off one rubber glove to compare her color to mine; countless cashiers ask me if I paint my own nails as I hand them my card.
Two years ago, during a layover at the Phoenix airport, I bought my first-ever drink at an airport bar. Before that night in Phoenix, I normally practiced economy and caution in airports. I bundled carrot sticks into Ziploc bags to eat on the plane. I packed coffee grounds in a French press travel mug and requested hot water from frustrated baristas—though I always tipped. And I rarely spoke to anyone other than my normal travel companion: my wife. My soon-to-be ex.
But that evening, as I read alone at the bar, nursing the most nine-dollar beer that I’d ever ordered, wondering whether I’d ruined my life by coming out, the bartender complimented the crisp Curaçao blue of my nails. I was desperate for a sign I had made the right decision. Her comment was enough. She told me she wished she could paint her nails, but she wasn’t allowed because of her job—apparently, that hadn’t applied to the barista in Houston. Soon we were talking about what I was reading—I don’t remember what I was reading—and a second bartender joined to tell us that Fifty Shades of Grey had saved her marriage. We talked until my flight started to board, and I tipped them anxiously, grateful in ways I couldn’t explain.
In the time since that flight, I moved across the country twice before the pandemic, and two more times locally during the pandemic. I got divorced. I caught COVID. I published a novel. It’s not a stretch to define my life as “in flux.” What remained constant over that time were my biweekly nail-painting sessions. I’ve only ever gotten one manicure. It’s meditative to turn on a basketball game and paint my nails at my desk. And over the past few months, I’ve become more courageous with my designs, free-handing squiggles and polka dots, arranging different colors across my whole hand, belatedly modeling myself after the barista in Houston.
Don’t think I’m promoting nail polish as an act of resistance to patriarchal norms. My wearing nail polish doesn’t do much for trans children in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and elsewhere facing bills that might strip them of life-saving health care. My wearing nail polish won’t convince cis people to stop killing trans women or bosses to hire more trans people or landlords to offer safer, affordable housing to trans people. But seeing the colors flash at the ends of my fingers gives me hope. After 24 years, I am finally able to live how I want, to present how I want, to be called what I want, free of the rubble of shame. I am loved for who I am—by friends, my family, my partner—and not, as I always feared, despite who I am. This is all I’ve wanted since I was a child.
Alex McElroy is the author of The Atmospherians. Their work has appeared in The Cut, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Vulture, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere.