Clothes Make the Man by Tom Barlow

Sybil had known her brother Wyatt was gay since he was 14 and sold his BMX bike to pay for a ticket to a Madonna concert. However, in the 15 years since he ran away from home, they had avoided the subject during their infrequent phone conversations, he in San Francisco, she back in Columbus.

Although she and her husband Ian worked hard to show no prejudices in that direction, she’d been just as glad to avoid sharing her brother’s orientation with their children rather than try to explain it to Xavier and Bailey. At eight it might just confuse the boy, and Bailey, now a teenager, had reached the point where anything having to do with her family, from her father’s bicycle commute to Sybil’s hand-knit Christmas sweaters, was deeply humiliating.

“Shouldn’t we tell the kids before he arrives?” Sybil said to her husband as she continued to slice rutabaga for a root-vegetable broil.

Ian added another dollop of almond milk to his scorched coffee, sipped, winced. “Maybe we should let him make the call. He might still have doubts about you.”

“If so, I earned them. Back when Wyatt came out to Dad, we were going to church every Sunday and Wednesday. I even wanted to be a minister after college. So when he turned to me after Dad gave him that beating, I told him I was praying for him to change because gay people went to hell. I think that hurt him more than the broken nose.”

“Wow,” Ian said. “But he must know you don’t feel that way anymore.”

“We’ve never talked directly about it. And maybe I’m not quite as advanced as you are. I still look away when I see two men kissing.” She began scrubbing a Yukon Gold.

“Considering your parents, I think you’ve made amazing progress.”

“Thanks. But let’s see how tonight goes before claiming me cured.”


She barely recognized her brother when he knocked that evening. His beard, long as Walt Whitman’s, made him look much older than her, although they were separated by only a year. He must have spent a lot of time in the sun, too; crow’s feet now bracketed his eyes, while his plump cheeks were laced with tiny blue blood vessels worming their way to the surface.

He showed no sign that they’d ever been estranged as they settled down for pre-dinner drinks. He also spared them the need to dance around his sexuality, speaking of it as common knowledge.

“So after Barry moved out,” he said, continuing to fill them in on his absence, “I didn’t even date for a couple of years.”

Xavier had never met his uncle Wyatt, and the boy seemed enthralled with him. Sybil wasn’t surprised; her son bonded quickly with his teachers, tossing a fit each year when he returned to the same school building to find that he had to break in a new one. She tried very hard to dampen her jealousy, as his affection for her seemed to diminish every time she disciplined him.

“So you moved back here to get a fresh start?” Sybil said.

“That, and I can buy two of the best houses in this neighborhood for the price of a one-bedroom condo in Pacific Heights.”

“What would you do with two houses?” Xavier said.

His uncle chuckled. “I wouldn’t know what to do with one, actually. I have enough trouble filling the apartment I just rented.”

“Any news on the job front?” Ian said.

“Truth? Rumor is the company I programmed for is going to be bought by Google. We were paid partly in shares. I’ll never need to work again.”

Sybil chastised herself for the spurt of envy that pulsed through her at these words, the same feeling she’d had every time Wyatt went off on some exotic vacation. Certainly she wouldn’t give up Xavier and Bailey for anything, but still, the image of her meditating at a seaside ashram in Key West came at times so clear she could almost cry.

“Must be nice,” Ian said. “All that free time.” Sybil listened carefully for a note that suggested her husband coveted such freedom but didn’t detect any, which made her feel even worse.

“My soccer team needs a coach,” Xavier said.

Sybil, one of the league organizers, could name at least three parents who would be reluctant to allow a gay man to coach their boy’s team. She was more than willing to go to war to demonstrate her support for gay rights, but not for such petty stakes. “We’ve already filled that position,” she said to her son, then, to Wyatt, “Not that you wouldn’t be welcome.”

He nodded slightly, leaving her in the dark about his true reaction. She worried that he would tweak to the subtext.


 Sybil found out the next morning as she escorted her mother Ellen on her usual Saturday morning shopping rounds that her brother hadn’t even told her he was back in town.

And Ellen wasn’t happy to learn it. “What’s his problem? He never returns my calls. And he refuses to friend me on Facebook.”

“Maybe because you didn’t lift a finger back when Dad beat him half to death. So you’re OK with him being gay now?” The lane departure warning dinged and she jerked the Prius back on line.

“They put a snake in the White House–if the world’s going to hell, what can I do about it? And I figure, if straight people can suddenly decide they’re gay after 30 years married, maybe it works the other way too. He could still change back, couldn’t he?”


“This is the weekend of Bailey’s class trip to Washington,” Sybil said that Thursday as she and Ian brainstormed possibilities for someone to watch Xavier while they caught a Coldplay concert in Cleveland. “So she won’t be home.” 

“What about Wyatt? He volunteered when he was over last week.”

To her embarrassment, a moment of hesitation came over her, echoes in the voice of her youth minister. She angrily shook it away and said, “Why not? Why should I be the only family member stuck at home on Saturday night?”

“He might have a date, though,” Ian said.

“Then he can damn well break it. He owes me, leaving me alone with our parents for fifteen years.”

She was ready to play hardball with her brother when she placed the call, but he agreed so readily he left her disarmed.


The concert ran long and it was 1:00 a.m. before they arrived at Wyatt’s apartment to pick up their son. Xavier was so wired Sybil wondered if her brother had fed him cola.

The boy yammered non-stop all the way home, mostly recapping the superhero films Wyatt had screened for him that evening. This was not unusual, and Sybil only half-listened to his blather until he mentioned something about a sequined gown.

“Say that again,” she said.

“Uncle Wyatt showed me the dress he’s going to wear in the Gay Pride parade. It’s all red with silver sequins. He’s got a ruby thing for his head to match.”

Before she could reply, Ian laughed. “He’s going in drag?”

“What’s that mean?” Xavier said.

“When men dress like women,” Ian said.

“Or women dress like men,” Sybil said.

“Like when you wear Dad’s sweatshirts?”

“Not at all,” she said quickly.  “It’s when someone attempts to fool people into thinking they’re of the other sex.”

“But Wyatt’s got that beard. No dress is going to disguise that.” Ian said. “Is he planning to shave?”

“No,” Xavier said, unsnapping his seat belt so he could lean forward between the front seats. “He said he’s marching with some other bearded guys, to make a point.”

Ian looked at Sybil. “What do you suppose that point might be?”

“Damned if I know,” she said.

“Mom?” Xavier said.

“What, dear?”

“Can I march with Uncle Wyatt? He said it would be OK with him.”

The parade was growing every year, with thousands of straight people lining the streets both to show support and enjoy the whimsical expressions of sexuality among the more flamboyant of the hundreds of marchers. She and Ian had attended a couple of times, and many of their friends wouldn’t miss it. Which meant that they were sure to see their son.

She remembered the cruel way Wyatt, slight for his age in grade school, had been treated on the inner-city playground. And certainly eight was far too early for a child to begin deliberating on his own sexuality.

“He said he could get a matching dress made for me,” Xavier said.

She couldn’t breathe for a moment, and before she could tell the boy no, Ian said, “We’ll see.”


Sybil waited until they were in bed, until Ian had turned off the light and punched a pocket in his buckwheat-husk pillow to fit his head, before she said, “‘We’ll see?’ What were you thinking?”

Ian sighed in the darkness. “I assumed you’d talk to Wyatt, get him to take back the offer. I know you have reservations.”

“I do not,” she said, hurt. “It’s just that I’ve had first-hand experience with the way it can stigmatize a boy when he’s still young.”

“Times change. Your dad is dead, and it sounds like even your mother is coming around.”

“This is still a blue-collar town,” Sybil said, “much as you may not like it. Anyway, I think we need to handle it ourselves, not leave it to my brother. This feels like a life lesson moment.”

“I’m afraid it will be something about hypocrisy,” he said.

“What’s the alternative?” she said.

 “I don’t want to fight you about his,” he said. “You do what you think best, but remember; you can’t fool your children. You want them to grow up without prejudice, you need to demonstrate it.”

“Thanks, Dr. Phil.” She fumed for an hour before sleep finally overcame her.


Sybil was surprised that Xavier even knew the word hypocrite, much less had the nerve to throw it back in their faces. But the boy had a point.

“You let Bailey take part in that zombie convention last year,” her son continued. “You even painted brains on her forehead and poured fake blood on her hair.”

She refused to meet the boy’s eyes. “This is different. There are people who might harm you.”

“You mean pervs? You think that Uncle Wyatt’s friends are pervs and zombies aren’t?” Xavier’s face was scrunched up the way it was when he did his math homework.

“Wyatt has nothing to do with perverts,” she said. “But there are thousands of people that line that parade route. There are bound to be a few people that might mean you harm.”

“I trust Uncle Wyatt,” Xavier said. “He wouldn’t let anything happen to me, would he?”

Ian looked at her, eyebrows raised in amusement. Peeved, she replied, “No, Wyatt would protect you.”

“Then I can march?” Xavier pinched his tongue between his front teeth.

Ian gave her a wry smile. Sybil, trapped by her purported values and unwilling to further besmirch her brother, said, “I suppose so.”


But she didn’t give up. At her behest, she and Wyatt met at Starbucks the following Tuesday morning.

  After the latte had set her foot to tapping, she broached the topic. “Ian was a little upset that you offered to let Xavier march with you in the parade.”

Wyatt pursed his lips. “You sure you’re not putting that on him to hide your own attitude?”

She waved her hand. “I think any mother might worry that Xavier is too young to understand what’s going on, and his classmates might ridicule him. You remember how you were treated in grade school.”

“That’s why I’m marching,” Wyatt said. “Because I remember all too well.”

“That’s the reason for the sequined gown?” She leaned forward.

He smiled, but his eyes were hard. “The reason for the gown, if you must know, is to say “fuck you” to people who make it their business to judge others based on their appearance or life choices. We’d be among thousands marching in drag out west, but here I figure we’ll still stand out, and the most bigoted people in the audience wouldn’t get the message with anything less flamboyant.”

“I didn’t realize you were so…militant.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say I was militant. But I am committed.”

“But why the boy? And in a gown? How does that advance your cause?”

“This isn’t some dirty secret that you let people in on when they’re old enough to learn the club handshake. If you really want to teach Xavier acceptance, you’ll let him march. And it will be fun for him. Didn’t you always love marching in parades when you were in the OSU band?”

Sybil had never been good at defending her position in an argument, while Wyatt had starred on the debate team in high school.  “Promise me one thing, OK?”

“What’s that?” Wyatt said suspiciously.

“Don’t tell Mom about it.”

“You see?” he said. “That’s just what I meant. Assuming that I’ll conspire with you to keep certain people in the dark tells me that you’re harboring some secret shame on my behalf. You have to look beyond your Bible or what Mom and Dad taught you.”

Sybil could feel the blush on her cheeks. “I have, but I’m still responsible for a couple of kids. But I’m not ashamed of you. I just don’t have your courage.”

“Yes you do. I know it. You just have to dig deep.”

“By letting my boy parade in drag?”

Wyatt raked his beard. “That’s a good start.” He held up his phone, tapped it until a picture of him in a gown appeared. “I’ll send this to you. I think I look spectacular, and maybe someday you’ll come to think so too.”


Sybil managed to contain her anxiety about the situation by focusing on her diet, depending on ashwagandha tea and extended yoga sessions to help her remain calm.

However, her dread came to a peak on Thursday afternoon. When the school bus stopped outside their home, she watched as Xavier stepped off carrying a cake box under his arm.

She met him at the door. Without comment, he handed her the box as he dumped his backpack on the piano bench. She followed as he made a beeline for the kitchen for his usual post-school acai berry juice. She placed the box on the counter and opened it. Inside, she found what appeared to be a rainbow-colored flower crafted from crepe paper.

“Is this for me?” she said, picked the creation up from the box.

Xavier rolled his eyes. “No, mother. It’s a corsage. When I told the class about marching in the gay parade our teacher had us make corsages. Mine didn’t come out so good, so she made me this one herself.”

“You told your class?” She held her breath.

“Yeah. A bunch of them are going to try to get their parents to take them to the parade so they can see me.”

She closed her eyes and tried to convince herself that, if Xavier’s teacher could deal with the subject, surely she could match her aplomb. For better or worse, her son was going to have to live with the consequences.


That Saturday morning she dropped Ian and Bailey, who to their surprise wanted to join them, at a point along the parade route so they could grab some precious curbside turf. They would wait in their folding chairs to reserve the space until she could join them shortly before the parade started. She and Xavier continued on to Wyatt’s flat only a couple of blocks from the start of the march near Goodale Park.

On entering his apartment, they encountered half a dozen men in sequined gowns in a panoply of colors, resembling one another only in their generous beards. They were standing sipping coffee, unable to take seats due to the tight fit of their dresses. Xavier immediately became the center of attention as, one by one, they introduced themselves to him and Sybil, each grinning broadly as he did so. Her brother stepped out of the bedroom to check on the commotion, and immediately came striding over as best he could given the taper of his gown. He was wearing red sequined high-topped basketball shoes. She had wondered if he would try to march in high heels.

He gave her a quick hug, side to side so their breasts didn’t collide, although his were probably packing foam. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “I was afraid you’d freak at the last minute.” As they spoke, the tailor appeared in the doorway and crooked her finger at Xavier, who took the cue and joined her in the bedroom.

“Don’t think I’m not freaking,” Sybil said. “I do this, I expect your forgiveness.”

“I never blamed you. You were too young to even know what you really thought.”

“Well, I wouldn’t let Xav do this if I didn’t love you.”

“Now that, I’ve been waiting 15 years to hear.” He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Trust me; Xavier will be fine.”

Despite the dress, the makeup, she could see in his grin the boy that was her brother and realized she really did trust him. The sense of release left her giddy.

The rest of the men were standing closer to the bedroom door than she was, so she heard their applause before she could see her son step out into the living room. Sure enough, he was dressed as a smaller version of his uncle, crimson gown with silver sequins, straps at the shoulders with a plunging neckline, tapering to the ankle. The seamstress must had sewn in some padding to give the boy feminine curves. His corsage couldn’t have clashed with the gown more.

She barely noticed the gown, however. Her eyes were fixed on her son’s long, flowing beard.  


An hour later, When Wyatt and Xavier and the other bearded ladies paraded past their curbside seats, tossing Hershey’s Kisses to the appreciative crowd, Sybil had to admit that her brother, sequins glinting in the sun, looked absolutely gorgeous.

When she saw the joy on her son’s face as he came over to give her a hug, she carefully pried off his beard and put it in her purse before sending the two of them on their way.

Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer of poetry, short stories and novels  whose work has appeared in journals including PlainSongs, Ekphrastic Review, Voicemail Poetry, Hobart, Tenemos, Redivider, Aji, The New York Quarterly, The Remington Review, Aurora Review,  Best American Mystery Stories, and many more. See more at

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