A self portrait by London-based artist Aaron Bird.

“Even from a young age, I have never been one for sticking to gender norms. Growing up, I spent most of my time with my mother and two older sisters, who would include me in their more “feminine” activities; watching rom-coms, playing with dolls and dressing up. I even remember my sisters dressing me in a blue princess dress, when I was about five or six years old, and my dad jokingly locking me outside for the neighbours to see. I was traumatised, they thought it was hilarious! Not much has changed since then, maybe it was a sign of things to come…

My dad was in the army which meant that we moved around a lot; by the age of twelve, I’d been to four different primary schools and had found it so difficult to connect with people. I always felt like an outsider anyway and moving around all the time really amplified that. I grew up in England until I was seven years old, then we settled in a small town called Cowdenbeath (Fife, Scotland) which was my mum’s home town. Although this was my ‘final stop’, it was still difficult to fit in, especially with other boys who bullied me. Maybe it was my ‘funny’ English accent or maybe it’s because I was (and am) strange and sensitive, whatever the reason, I didn’t understand it and it left me feeling lost. I spent a lot of my time wandering the playground alone and struggling to form meaningful relationships.

I continued to feel this way through my final years of primary school and into my first few years of high school. My sisters were growing up and didn’t want their weird little brother cramping their style, so I couldn’t even rely on their company anymore. It was around this time that I started to explore alternative genres of music where the musicians expressed themselves in ways I found fascinating. Icons like David Bowie and Marilyn Manson who were androgynous, inspiring, emotional and unconventional – they demonstrated emotion in ways I could relate to and connect with. These artists helped me gain the confidence to dress and act how I wanted and to bond with other like- minded people. Alas, I’d found a group of friends who I could build lasting relationships with.

I was still at high school when I started making changes to my appearance, changes such as wearing nail polish, a full face of makeup and shaving my eyebrows off to look like the idols I identified with. This, of course, only led to more bullying. My friends and I were often physically and verbally attacked in the streets. I was constantly taunted. I remember one day I was wearing a fedora hat and a group of guys snatched it from my head and threw it back and forth before putting it on top of a bus stop, all the while throwing insults at me. Even to this day, strangers feel the need to take my fabulous hats from my head, it’s a mystery to me why people think this invasiveness is acceptable.

Apart from having my entire appearance scrutinised… and the general bullying, people always assumed my sexuality. To this day, people who first meet me often still do. If my sexuality ever comes up in conversation, I’m faced with the ‘accusations’ and assumptions that I’m gay. “No, you’re definitely gay,” they’ll argue, as if they know me better than I know myself. Not that it bothers me if people think I’m gay but I just don’t really feel like I should have to continually ‘defend’ my sexuality because I don’t fit into a heteronormative stereotype. “Are you a boy or a girl?” was another question I’d face – there were even times people put bets on my gender and would very publicly ask me to determine who had won the bet. So rude.

Although I had an array of friends with similar interests, I still felt like a bit of an outsider at times. I felt a divide between me and my other ‘straight, male’ friends and their ‘masculine’ energy. I couldn’t relate to their conversations the way I did with my female friends. Sometimes I’d try to join in their conversations and it felt like I was putting on an act. Back then, terms such as ‘gender neutral’ weren’t really a thing. Things felt more binary. Although I’d been dressing in women’s clothes and makeup from a young age, it wasn’t until later on in life that I started to understand things better.

At age 23 – and after dropping out of university and going through a tough time with drug and alcohol abuse – I met a girl called Erica, from Glasgow (now my fiancé and partner of 9 years). Erica was intelligent, ambitious and driven and just the female role model I needed in my life. She helped me get back on my feet, encouraged me to go back to university and graduate…and she fully introduced me to the LGBTQ community. I started dressing in drag and performing in bars and clubs, I even opened for a few of the RuPaul Queens and performed at a Pride event. I was Glasgow’s only straight drag queen at one point! Although I’d always had gay friends, Erica introduced me to real queer culture – my new friends were vibrant and diverse, and I realised that regardless of our gender, sexuality, race, religion…whatever…there is no real divide between any of us. I realised that gender norms were installed into us through oppression. We’re brainwashed.

Growing up in a small town in the 90’s; being judged, discriminated against, bullied, beaten and taunted was challenging. But it didn’t break my spirit. It’s important to be true to your authentic self without changing for anyone. Small minds shouldn’t get to dictate the lives of others who are living their truths. I think we’re making slow progression but there’s still a lot of hate in the world, a lot of trans kids being killed and exploited, a lot of minorities, women, gay people and underrepresented groups of people being hurt. We live in a world that’s designed to benefit white hetero males, bonus points if they’re rich. I empathise with these men who have been taught to fear their feelings, who are scared to express themselves in a way that should feel natural to them. This type of repression is reflected in male suicide rates, because society has ‘taught’ us that it’s easier to end our own lives than to talk about them…all because it makes us less of a ‘man’. The people who run this world are scared of change and freedom because without their dated rules, their power is torn away from them. It’s pathetic. I feel grateful to have had a supportive family growing up. My family encouraged me to be myself and not everyone has that luxury. I hope as time evolves, love wins and humans treat each other with the respect and equality we all deserve.”