Looking for people whose lives encompass some form of duality seems like a ubiquitous, almost easy task. Most of us engage in some daily form of shape-shifting: abstaining from the candor we’d use with friends when speaking to a grandmother; moving between professional polish and the soft, unglamorous realities of parenting; projecting or subduing aspects of our innate or acquired identities based on who’s standing in the room.
To close out Man Repeller’s Duality Month, we talked to four individuals whose true sense of selves are divided in ways that appear to be at odds. Whether they chose their worlds or had no say in the matter; whether they embraced their disparate personas or negotiated them with difficulty and pain, we asked these people to explain the intricacies of how and why they move between multiple identities.
Sharrica Miller, PhD, RN
I live between worlds where the people in each of them can’t fathom me in a different way. I have a doctorate in nursing from UCLA, where I teach, and I do research on foster youth as they transition out of the system. I grew up in and out of foster care in Compton. My dad sold drugs, my mom was a heroin addict, and they were sometimes incarcerated.
Around high school, I started to hang out with gang-bangers — I was really just trying to survive. On the inside, I was very academic — taking AP and SAT prep classes — but I was in an urban environment where you have to have a certain amount of external bravado. Going to Howard University was a game changer. I thought, I’m going to a black college because I’m from the hood and all I know are black people. But I was not ready for upper-middle-class blacks who were like, “You said Tupac? Who’s that?” In general, I’ve found these black “elite” circles not very LGBTQ-friendly, so I didn’t really come out until very late in college, and even then I was still wearing skirts and dresses. I was trying to fit in. I didn’t want to attract attention: I was poor, struggling academically — my friends knew where they were staying for Christmas break and I didn’t. I think coming out as a lesbian happened later because it’s hard to figure out that identity when you’re like: where is my mom, dude, I haven’t talked to her in a year.
My sexual identity is probably more of an issue now that I’m on a nursing faculty whose average member is probably white and 52. I’ve fully embraced my sexuality at work, but I do dress ultra conservatively. My ankles are out; I’m in little loafers and blazers; they call me Dr. Miller. I also definitely tone down my blackness; I have to code switch. I play Erykah Badu in my office, not NBA YoungBoy. I speak and articulate differently because I think society has ingrained respectability politics into black people. I grew up with my parents saying things like, “Don’t embarrass us in front of these white people,” implying I needed to act a certain way to fit in with them. But when I’m with the black nurses, I can be more relaxed. With them, however, I’m less open about my sexuality.
When I leave work, I go back to my mostly white neighborhood, where they’ll call the police on me if they don’t recognize me. I wear basketball shorts, a backwards hat, a white tank and Jordan sandals. I party on the weekends, take Hennessy shots, go out at the clubs. I feel comfortable in both environments. I could be at a research conference sitting at the table with other PhDs, and I’m right in the middle of the conversation and feel good there. I need to sit at that table because I have great ideas. But I also feel good being with my hood friends; I feel connected to that world because it’s genuinely who I am.
Before I became a mother, I was more masculine and caught up in being a stud, which is what the black community calls a butch. Now I feel motherly; I’m very tender and gentle with my two-year-old. She brought a softness to me. I’m all about intentional parenting and I want to provide stability for her.
Now I don’t care about hiding anything. When I graduated from Howard — which is my pride and joy, by the way — I was like, “That’s the last skirt I’m wearing; I’m not going to be unhappy for anyone.” I can’t hide anymore; I have to be happy.
Paige Eden, Finance Business Analyst
I got a Bachelor of Science in business administration because it was practical, and I minored in math for fun. I then combined these skills in my Master of Science in business analytics. I really like the computational aspect of finance and that I can leverage my ability to work with large datasets to go beyond what most analysts can do in Excel. Because business analytics is an emerging field, I have a lot of freedom in terms of how I can arrive at an answer.
My work is intellectually challenging, and it tickles the logic part of my brain. That said, I don’t really have any room for creative expression, so nearly 100% of that comes from my life outside of work. I’m a radio DJ at an independent, student-run station, and every week, I play music from a different year on my show. I’m a dancer and have performed with different squads; I love tarot and the metaphysical.
It’s not that I can’t talk about my some of my interests with coworkers — like DJ-ing, for example — it’s just that I feel like even “mainstream” hobbies can make me feel uncomfortable because of the intense work culture. (My interest in tarot, however, I keep secret; I feel like it will lessen my credibility.) I’m lucky that my position gives me a good work/life balance, but most coworkers my age work at least 70 hours a week. It can make me feel guilty talking about what I do outside of work to people who don’t have the same amount of free time.
The most obvious difference in the way I live in my work and personal lives is my appearance and my scent. I love patchouli, but it won’t fly in a finance firm. Outside of work, my style is funky or grungy: a lot of bright colors and patterns, combat boots, crop tops and sleeveless shirts. At work, however, I have a “uniform” that consists of a button-down, long sleeve shirt and tailored slacks or a long skirt with stockings, heels and loafers. Everything is navy, black, white, beige or gray. I don’t remove hair anywhere on my body, so I have to keep my legs and armpits covered. What affects me the most is the undergarments I have to wear. I hate wearing bras, but at work, nipping means I have to wear a cup bra daily. It’s super uncomfortable. But I actually do agree with the thinking behind the spoken and unspoken policy that informs the expectation of my appearance at work. Someone dressed too flamboyantly sends the message that they’re not taking it seriously.
When I talk about work to my friends, it can get pretty awkward. What I do is specialized, and it can seem like I’m speaking another language. Some people straight up look at me like I’m evil when I say that I work in finance — it’s got such a bad rap. I have to remind myself that it’s not any different from working in advertising or being a model. Each of these vocations contributes to capitalism and inequality just as much as the others.
Miguel Torres, Merchant
My parents emigrated from Mexico to Long Beach, CA, where my two older brothers and I were born. My father was an orphan and managed to move to the U.S., work in the restaurant industry, learn how to read and write English in his spare time and then start investing in properties. What I got from him is his work ethic, the fact that he keeps pushing. What I try to emulate from both of my parents is how caring they are. They’re super respectful and loving and genuinely care about their community.
They always treated me a little differently than my siblings, who are more masculine than I am. I started dressing in an eclectic way in high school, but I didn’t come out to my mother until I was 18, and it arose out of tension. My parents are Catholic, so their feelings stem from what the church has told them and also what it meant to be gay in their rural town in Mexico: being ridiculed and ostracized. It was intense when I came out, and my mom and I didn’t speak for several weeks. I think she associates any form of femininity with transitioning into a woman, even though I am comfortable in my identity as a man. Now, when I go home on the weekends, I avoid dressing in a flamboyant way to avoid going back to that place.
I’m probably the realest version of myself in West Hollywood, where I live. I dress in pieces that are more form-fitting; I wear a little more color or clothing that exposes my skin. I wear thicker heels, snakeskin boots, more feminine sandals. At home with my parents, I wear baggy jeans, sneakers and T-shirts I’d wear to the gym. I speak only in Spanish. I don’t flail my arms and I’m not as expressive or bombastic. We talk strictly about family and work, and I never mention my boyfriend. I don’t say “Peter and I went to this art show,” I say, “I went to this art show.” Part of my life gets omitted.
Honestly, when I’m there, it feels performative and exhausting. When I’m in a queer space — produced for queer people, by queer people — I feel energized; like electricity, like I can move forward and gain strength. When I’m with my parents, it feels like an anchor, which is exhausting but can be a good thing — it keeps me grounded. The foods I grew up eating, the huarache sandals I love, the wonderful childhood I had — they’re really a part of me. I’ve decided to make it easier for my parents because my family is really important to me and I know that, underneath, it’s not so much a criticism of my character; they just don’t understand the fluidity. The way I dress makes me feel empowered, but it’s not going to change the core of who I am.
Sasha Tivetsky, Photographer
My late grandfather was a Russian Orthodox priest in Los Angeles, and priests in the Russian Orthodox religion are viewed like celebrities. He and my grandmother followed my parents to America in the 1980s. There’s a word in Russian — rodina — which roughly means “motherland.” It’s less patriotic than it is romantic, and it characterizes how my parents thought about their country. The Russian traditions my parents instilled in me have carried me my whole life. If I don’t know anything, I know that I’m a Russian woman. I know my traditions and my language. It’s a foundation of my life.
I went to church and Russian school every weekend, and I basically knew from a very young age that I was gay. Russian Orthodox is a very reserved culture; it’s about following the rules. There are so many beautiful things about its history and traditions and art, but I don’t agree with a lot of the rules against women. Women have to cover their heads and wear skirts; they can’t go behind the altar in the church. It makes me angry even thinking about it. They can’t take communion or receive confession when they have their periods because it’s considered unclean. I thought I was unclean. When you’re baptized, you get a cross, and I never took it off, believing that I would summon the devil if I did. I hid my sexuality. It took me a long time to understand that I’m not a bad person.
I think people who don’t know a lot about Russian culture are intrigued, but I am apprehensive about bringing up the fact that I’m Russian right now. I photograph people’s homes for a living, and I don’t mention it . I don’t want them to get upset or turn on me.
After my mom passed away four years ago, I made it a point to start photographing and spending time with my grandmother, who is now 92. I don’t bring up my sexuality — she justifies all of her opinions with the Bible, and when I told her I was gay, she was terrified I would burn in hell. I wear sleeves when I visit so she doesn’t see my tattoos. I have two dresses in my closet, and they are only for attending mass with her. People gossip. Even though I wear a dress, I still don’t look how they want me to look: I don’t put on a lot of makeup and I don’t wear heels (whenever I speak the language, Russians have a moment of shock because I don’t look the part). The fact that I’m the granddaughter of a priest means I’m supposed to be a prime selection of perfection and purity. My family is considered holy, in a way, because God selected my grandfather. People revere my grandmother; they come and give gifts to her so that she’ll pray to my late grandfather to pray for their family.
My mom really wanted me to be a part of this community; it’s where she went when she needed help. Now it’s just my dad and my grandmother, and family is important to me, so I want to hold onto it.
Photos by Maggie Shannon.