Spaces & Places is a three-week series focusing on the private and community areas we occupy, the ways we personalize them, and the meanings that we assign to them. Organized and edited by Meg Jones Wall.
I’d purchased a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom, first floor unit in an unassuming brick building with the money I’d received in my divorce. I was decorating this new condo when I started questioning my gender. You know: switch up your wall color, switch up your pronouns.
Even as my ex-husband and I shared a similar taste in decor — quirky, tacky, unexpected — there were limits to what he’d indulge me. My decorating decisions still had to be approved by another person, which meant some things I’d really wanted were vetoed. Nothing too queer (he was straight, after all), nothing too reminiscent of Florida (he hated my home state), and nothing that was a priority to me but not equally important to him (so: hanging new wallpaper in the home’s entryway never happened, but wiring the entire house for surround sound did).
Letting go of the house I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in was a grieving process. I mourned not only the life I walked away from but also the home I lovingly poured myself into. It was filled with flea market finds and Craigslist deals and Facebook Marketplace purchases. A Tiffany chandelier I’d found for $350 from a couple gutting their newly purchased Victorian; a beautiful dining room table with chairs with high wicker backs and rust-colored velvet upholstery we’d purchased from an elderly woman in the richest part of town who was downsizing from her mansion. I said goodbye to the chartreuse-colored dining room and the geometric, mod-futuristic-tiled floor in the bathroom we’d just finished redoing months before I moved out.
I’d worked so hard to make that house mine and now it never would be again.
There are no rules to maximalist design. I tried to find some, but the only rule I ever came across was that there were none. It can generally be thought of as “too much:” pattern and color and texture mixing in whatever way suits your fancy. Is there a point when maximalism reaches the point of being “too much?” Too much too-muchness? I never found an answer for that, either. It seems that the limit does not exist.
To me, maximalism also feels inherently queer in that it is entirely extra. Maximalism is supposedly trendy now, a response to the minimalism and bland sameness of all the homes on Instagram and HGTV, the decorating equivalent of a mayo and white bread sandwich. I suppose coming out as non-binary is trendy now, too. Merriam-Webster did name the singular “they” as the Word of the Year in 2019, after all. But I’ve never cared much about being on-trend; being trendy just means that mainstream, dominant society has finally deemed something desirable, and all too often those trends are borrowed (read: stolen) from the marginalized groups the mainstream had demeaned and ostracized for such aesthetics in the past.
When I think of minimalism, I am reminded of the images that documented the AIDS epidemic: the empty bath houses, the dwindling crowds in the clubs, the starkness of the hospital rooms, the sterility of it all. I think of Tony Just’s 1994 photography project in which he cleaned and photographed public restrooms and tea rooms that were closed in New York City during the AIDS epidemic, which José Esteban Muñoz described as “the ghosts of public sex” in his book Cruising Utopia. Just’s project is a commentary on the memory of what was, but also the potentiality of what could be.
“What could be” is what comes next, what comes after the emptiness and starkness of the minimalist aesthetic. The absence allows the space for the potentiality of once again being “too much,” for the exuberance of taking up as much space as possible.
After the epidemic, after the marriage, after a lifetime spent performing a womanhood that never existed.
Maximalism, while currently trendy, is not new. It has existed for centuries, evident in the Baroque and Rococo aesthetics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or the Hollywood Regency styles of the 1930s, or the Pattern & Decoration movement of the ‘70s: opulent, ornate, excessive, busy as fuck. In historical times, it symbolized the luxury of wealth and status. That maximalist aesthetic is evident, too, inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, my adopted hometown. The museum is known for the infamous, still-unsolved art heist that occurred there, but I think that’s the least interesting thing about the place.
Gardner was a socialite who purchased land in the Fens in 1899, which was essentially a swamp at the time. In the mushy, marshy landscape, she envisioned something glorious and grand. Unassuming on the outside, full of treasures on the inside. The star is the courtyard at its center, visible from every room, a garden Gardner once described as “riotous, unholy, deliriously glorious.”
To walk through the Gardner Museum is to have your sense of sight assaulted with so much color and beauty that you are never quite sure where to look. The walls are papered in shiny brocade fabrics, trimmed with intricate carved wood borders. There is art hanging on almost every inch of every wall, and each surface is exquisitely detailed. Doors are covered in carvings, floors are tiled in beautiful patterns, and the pairings of the items seem to make no sense at all, though they did to Gardner. She acquired and arranged every single item in her museum, and then put it in writing that if anyone ever moved anything, the entire place should be shut down and her collection donated to the Museum of Fine Arts down the street.
Like maximalism, there are no rules when it comes to gender. But our cissexist society would have us believe otherwise. It wasn’t just my interior design instincts that were constrained within the confines of my marriage; my ideas about my gender were, too.
I knew I was queer before I met my husband, but I had always identified as a cis woman. In a marriage to a straight, cis man, I felt pressured to conform to a certain idea of womanhood. Even as a queer femme with decidedly offbeat wardrobe sensibilities, there were limits to where I felt I could go.
One day, after sliding on a pair of knee-length, black denim cut off shorts, I walked downstairs, where my husband was cooking. He was an avid cyclist, and I thought my shorts were reminiscent of the ones he wore to bike around town.
“You look like a lesbian.”
I thanked him, pleased.
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
Another time, he walked into the bedroom while I was getting ready and watched me put on a floral sundress.
“You look great!”
The “compliment” curdled as it hit me.
Then I stopped shaving my legs.
“Being in bed with you feels like laying next to a man.”
In a marriage to a man who saw me as a woman, I was trapped in a box that was much too small. My forays into gender expansiveness were often quelled: the lesbian shorts sitting in a drawer, reminding me of what I was missing, not unlike the empty frames remain hanging on the walls of the Gardner, remnants of the still-unsolved heist, reminders of stolen beauty. Out of spite, I kept my leg hair, though I continued shaving under my arms. A compromise. A shrinking. My version of minimalism.
Any woman or feminine person—regardless of gender—will be familiar with the concept of “too muchness,” which has been used to police feminine expression for centuries. Hell, Rachel Vorona Cote recently wrote an entire book on the Victorian constraints that seek to shame women for their excesses, that criticize them for being “too much” (Cote’s book is called Too Much).
As pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen sings in her song “Too Much” (an absolute banger), “I live for the fire, and the rain, and the drama too,” embracing the trope of being a woman that is “too much” for the society — and the men — around her.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was also “too much.” Set aside, only for a moment, that any wealthy white woman who collects treasures from around the world is likely obsessive, self-indulgent, and probably engaging in an unhealthy coping mechanism (Gardner once compared her compulsion for acquiring paintings to a whiskey or morphine addiction, and she began collecting art to escape her grief following the death of her young son). Access to money creates a sense of entitlement, one which allows someone to collect masterpieces from other cultures and keep them in her personal collection.
Focus instead on the fact that she is also a person who leaned into her too-muchness, relished her reputation as an eccentric, and refused to conform to the ideas about what a woman of her time and status should do with herself. Her privilege afforded her space not usually available to those who traditionally are required to shrink themselves.
She was an early champion for gay rights, as Douglass Shand-Tucci argues in his book, The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Shand-Tucci paints a picture of Gardner as a Victorian-era Grace Adler; in place of Will and Jack in Grace’s television world were essayist Logan Pearsall Smith and art historian Charles Loeser, among others.
Gardner “lent sympathetic attention to their struggles with the pressures of heterosexual society,” Diane Wood Middlebrook wrote in the New York Times. Like the men in her company, she also strained against the constraints placed upon her by a patriarchal, cisheteronormative culture.
Gardner filled her life with queer, effeminate men, the same way she filled her home with things she loved — both things made her happy. Gardner surrounded herself with beauty as she saw it: screw what anyone else thought.
In my new place, the only limits were financial ones. I had no one to answer to and could make whatever decisions I wanted. I wallpapered my bedroom in flamingos with human legs that were wearing high heels (my nod to Florida), I brought back the chartreuse I’d loved so much in my old home by painting the trim in my living room, accenting a deep teal on the walls. I hung the queerest artwork I could find, creating gallery wall after gallery wall of misandrist prints and queer and trans people joyously existing. Artwork painted by my children hung side-by-side with vintage photographs, sculpted ghost women who appeared to be exiting a mirror and entering my hallway, and the work of professional artists.
As I let my household decor expand to the places it naturally wanted to go, seeping and oozing into corners and crevices I didn’t know existed, my ideas about myself started to expand, too. As these queer and trans bodies took up space on my walls, my queer and trans body felt free to take up space in the home itself.
I was drawn to a painting of an androgynous person, breasts bare, one arm behind their head, revealing pit hair, the other hand shoved into their white boxer briefs with the word “handsome” across the waistband, standing in front of a background left streaked with color by chaotic brush strokes. I purchased it to hang in my bathroom, and then purchased several pairs of boxer briefs for myself.
I hung a print of two transmasculine merpeople at the other end of my bathroom gallery wall, and then I asked my transmasculine partner to begin calling me “good boy” instead of “good girl” in bed. I purchased a shirt with the words “pretty boy” across the chest.
I took selfies—something I had never wanted to do before. I used to look at photos of myself and not recognize the person staring back at me.
Who is that? I would wonder. That’s not what I look like, I’d think, embarrassed that maybe that was how other people saw me—unsure of myself, awkward, never quite comfortable in my skin.
But as I started to play with not only my gender expression but my own understanding of my identity itself, I couldn’t get enough of photographing myself. Maybe it was the fact that it was Leo season, but maybe it was that something inside me had clicked into place.
I photographed myself in various states of dress and undress, staged boudoir shoots on my bed, learned all my best angles, purchased a ring light and a tripod so I could take photos of myself in even more places and positions, my home’s interior always serving as the backdrop for the pictures.
I sent more thirst traps than I ever had in my life, which is not saying much, because thirst traps were not something I’d ever really felt comfortable sending lovers or friends in the past. But when I photographed myself now, there was something different in my eyes, in my body language, in the way I carried myself.
I am hot and I know it, my photos seemed to say. It radiated from within me. Look at me. I’m fucking fantastic.
Throwing off the gendered expectations that were placed on me, the word “woman” began to feel limiting. So, too, did restricting myself to shopping only for “women’s” clothing. I wanted to look like the femme who would step on your neck before calling you “Daddy,” but I also wanted to look like the androgynous sports queer who rocked jerseys and Jordans, while sometimes I wanted to look like the twink I saw on a Netflix reality show, and still other times I wanted to look like Adam Lambert when he is performing on-stage as the frontman of Queen.
It became clear to me that I was creating a home that was reflective of who I am at my core, and one that was an expression of not just my decorating taste, but of my gender. I began to understand my gender as its own form of maximalism, a response to the minimalist idea of “womanhood” that had been placed on me for far too long. My gender is entirely too much. Too many colors, too many textures, too many patterns, too many truths. It is expansive, limitless, spilling out so that it cannot be contained.
My gender is a contradiction, rich in its insistence that it can be everything it wants to be and nothing that it does not. That it can choose to shrug off the prescriptions and expectations that other people put on it and instead try on the pieces that fit, that feel like they were always meant to be there, discarding them again when they no longer do. Rotating them like the art that adorns my walls, changing them out when I am tired of them and am ready to move on—but never again letting someone else dictate the aesthetic of either my home or my body.
If maximalism is the yes, and of decorating, my non-binary identity is the yes, and of gender.
Trans maximalism is a politick, one which Kay Gabriel described as “something that has a really expansive imagination, maybe an extensive appetite, that proposes a formal maximalism as a mirror of an actual, political maximalism, which demands the world for everyone.” We want it all, we want it fucking all, Gabriel and Andrea Abi-Karam write in the introduction to their radical trans poetry anthology of the same name.
I, too, want it all—on my walls and on my body. My home and my gender are both explicitly political, they break the rules of what I’ve been told is acceptable—and respectable. I just want to layer everything I love and not have to choose. I want to surround myself with beauty as I see it, screw what anyone else thinks.
I recently went back to the Gardner Museum for the first time since I was in college. It had been nearly 15 years and, this time, I went with two other trans people, both of whom had witnessed my transformation over the previous year. As we walked from floor to floor, I was struck this time by the many portraits of Gardner scattered throughout the museum, each showing a different side of her. The paintings are her versions of selfies, showcasing her through different lenses and at different points in time.
In one, she is wrapped in a white sheet like a mummy, her face staring out from the cocoon that otherwise entraps her. In another, she wears a salmon-colored dress, looking regal and rich. There is one that obscures her entire face, but her posture still commands attention, and another in which her face is covered by a veil while she reads a book.
But most of all, I was drawn to the two most famous portraits of Gardner. The first was painted by Anders Zorn in 1894, while the two spent time together in Venice. It hangs in the Short Gallery, a small, narrow room in the museum. In the painting, Gardner’s body fills the frame with its presence, not with its size. She is staring straight ahead, relaxed, in a white flowy dress and a long string of pearls.
The second was painted in 1888 by John Singer Sargent. It is incredibly large, larger than life-sized, and hangs in the corner of the Gothic Room, which is otherwise filled with artwork portraying mostly Catholic imagery and themes. She holds court over the space, standing tall with her hands clasped in front of her body. The painting was scandalous at the time, due to the amount of flesh Garner displays in her black dress, though to our current sensibilities it would be considered a fairly conservative garment. Gardner rejected eight versions of the face until she was satisfied, not unlike the dozens and dozens of selfies I take before getting one I like.
Though the two paintings differ in so many ways—style, tone, color palette—there is something about Gardner that doesn’t change. Her confidence and self-assuredness comes through in each painting. Her eyes have the look of someone who knows who she is. Her pose conveys the sureness of someone who completely owns her domain.
She peers back at the viewer as if to say, “Yes, I am fabulous. And everything in this place? I chose it, I placed it. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to you, but it all makes perfect sense to me. It is entirely too much, but so am I.”
So am I.