How Collecting Sneakers Helped Me Come to Terms With Who I Really Am

“I convinced myself that pretending to be a boy was not only the better option, but the only option. So I went about my life. I threw myself into work. I threw myself into sports. Eventually, I threw myself into sneakers.”

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“Got ‘Em.”

It’s been years since those two words could determine whether my day was going to be a good one or a bad one, but even seeing them written out next to each other is still enough to make my pulse quicken. 

For the unfamiliar, “Got ‘Em” is how Nike’s SNKRS app tells you that you’ve just defied the odds and won the opportunity to spend $220 on, say, a pair of Travis Scott Air Jordan 4s—shoes that could eventually be worth five times that on the secondary market.

I used to love collecting sneakers. Whenever someone would ask me why, I’d tell them it was this little moment of victory that got me hooked. Or I’d start talking about basketball, about my love of the game and the people who played it, and how the shoes made me feel like I got to own a little piece of that story. Or I’d talk about resale value, and how shoes could be sound investments, especially if they’re kept in their original boxes.

Yeah, I told a lot of people that I had a lot of different reasons for collecting sneakers.

I lied to all of them.

Because I was lying to myself.

The real reason I loved collecting sneakers was because I was a closeted trans woman, and basketball shoes were the most socially acceptable way for me to obsess over pretty shoes without people realizing the secret that I had known for most of my life. Suddenly, I could spend hours obsessing over shoe colorways. Silhouettes. How they’d compliment outfits. And all in plain sight while privately I struggled with the great question of my life.

I had known, on some level, that I was different from the other boys since junior high. But for the longest time I never had the language for it. Then one day, sometime around my 19th birthday, while living in New York and spending time around honest to god queer people, I started to find that language. Unfortunately, once I found the language, I couldn’t find the courage.

What followed was a decade of me living in various identities that I felt were maybe going to be close enough. I embraced my bisexuality publicly. I embraced talking about the years I spent doing sex work. There were moments where I considered making the leap, but I always convinced myself that I could never be the woman that I wanted to be. I convinced myself that pretending to be a boy was not only the better option, but the only option. So I went about my life. I threw myself into work. I threw myself into sports. Eventually, I threw myself into sneakers.

Now, before the pitchforks come out from those who are all too quick to “protect” children from the “immorality” of transness, I’m not saying that sneakers made me trans. But sneakers, in their own way, opened the door to a world of fashion for me. And even though I worked at this very publication for a number of years, I misunderstood fashion and what it could do for someone. (Which explains why I wrote about politics and sports.)

I had always thought about fashion from an outsider perspective, but falling in love with sneakers and the culture behind it helped me understand what getting dressed could mean more clearly. For the first time in my life, I felt like I cared less about how others perceived what I wore and more about how I felt wearing it. And this experience of finding a pretty pair of Nikes or a color-changing pair of Converse or some insane looking pair of whatever Pharrell was doing with Adidas at the time helped me not only explore parts of myself I had told myself I’d never let out, but also learn to love them.

The kind of confidence and joy I felt expressing myself with shoes, was a huge part of me starting to come to terms with the fact that if I was ever going to be truly happy, I was going to need to express myself in a much more honest and total way. Shoes were a good start. Therapy and the support of a good community got me the rest of the way there.

And so here I am, a trans woman, who has been out in this world for a year and a half, happier than she has ever been. I’ve spent much of the last year selling and donating much of my sneaker collection. (Though not the Jordan 1’s. I’m not insane.) Don’t get me wrong. I still love sneakers, but these days I mostly apply my sneaker hunting techniques and tactics to chase the most basic of women’s shoes, because a women’s size 15 is not an easy thing to find. I’d kill for a pair of Louboutins. And honestly, just finding cute shoes that fit me these days gives me more joy than even the rarest of limited edition Nikes.

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