by Amelia Abraham
Why, for LGBTQ+ people, getting dressed is still a delicate balance between safety and self-expression.
What is it that dictates the way we dress? For designers, brands and trend forecasters, it’s the million-dollar question – or rather, the $3 trillion dollar question, since that’s what the global fashion industry is worth. But it’s a question that has long piqued the curiosity of behaviourists and psychologists, too. In short, they’ve found that our choices are informed not just by fashion, but by many other fluctuating factors, like the identity category or subculture we feel that we fit into, our mood, our insecurities, our desires, and the image that we want to project to the world.
If getting dressed is a complicated process for all of us, I would argue that it can be even more complicated when you’re queer, however. To be queer is not just to be LGBTQ+, it’s to push against the so-called ‘norm’. From Prince’s purple, chest-baring suits, to David Bowie’s effeminate brand of glam rock, you can be labelled queer by virtue of what you wear, while others use the way that they dress to tell the world something about their sexuality or gender, fashion is a means to outwardly establish your identity or to distinguish you as different – think Ellen DeGeneres’ suits or RuPaul’s high glamour drag looks.
But of course, there’s a thin line between ‘different’ and ‘Other’, between ‘fabulous’ and ‘vulnerable’. The weight of this distinction hit home for me when my friend Jordan, a 25-year-old gay man from London, told me about one formative memory of wearing a pink T-shirt when he was fifteen and having a milkshake thrown at his head from a van as though in punishment. “I was afraid of seeming too gay after that,” he says now, explaining that, for him, getting dressed has become a delicate balance between safety and self-expression: “Shamefully, I am often masc-ing up my wardrobe to feel more comfortable, safe and attractive, but then when I dress plain I feel far too blended in.”
Similarly, for Kai, a young trans guy from Leeds, a lot of his personal style comes down to feeling a need to pass and not be misgendered – in other words, to be perceived as a cisgender man in the street; “It’s about my safety and I need to look masculine in order to feel safe,” he explains. Trainers were Kai’s route in to men’s clothing, and he loves workwear, “because of its lack of female or male silhouettes”, but he avoids tight T-shirts and sometimes uses sunglasses as a way conceal his face, he admits: “I think that’s about breaking the clarity people try to get when attempting to work out my gender, kind of like a comfort blanket”.
For Jordan and Kai, clothes and accessories are like a literal shield, armour to protect them from prejudice and violence. And unfortunately, that prejudice and violence is still all too common; according to the LGBT charity Stonewall, attacks on LGBT people in the UK surged 80% in the four years up to 2017, and one in five LGBT people have experienced a hate crime or incident in the last 12 months. When the statistics look so bleak, it’s no wonder LGBTQ+ people don’t feel totally free to dress how we want to, why our style is governed by how the world perceives us.
However, it isn’t just strangers that wield this power over us, Bryony, 26, who moved from South West England to London, points out. Before she came out as gay, Bryony says she dressed more feminine as a way to subconsciously conceal her sexuality. Then, once she did come out, this look prompted members of the LGBTQ+ community to repeatedly tell her she doesn’t look gay enough, which led her to dress more stereotypically ‘butch’. Then there’s her family, who tell her she looks better in dresses and the girlfriend who preferred it when she dressed more girly. It’s no wonder Bryony claims it took her years to just be herself, and even now, she “tones down” her queerness when she’s back in her quiet hometown.
And as for me? As someone who dresses like a ‘tomboy’ but overall passes as straight, the way I dress is shaped by a combination of things: not wanting to attract attention from men, wanting to be comfortable but maybe also get a compliment, and wanting to signal that I’m gay without looking ‘too gay’ – a product of my own internalised homophobia. After years of being told gay is not okay, I have to actively catch myself policing the way I look and behave, and remind myself that ‘looking gay’ is an unhelpful and redundant idea in the first place, given that there’s no single way to be gay or queer or trans – especially in 2018, when representation has never been better.
The maverick Bowies, Ellens and RuPauls of the world have always existed, but there are now more expressions of gender and sexuality in the public eye than ever before, and the fashion world is leading the charge by embracing more diverse casting and agender lines. Since 2015, Gucci has committed to putting male and female models in the same clothes, while Selfridges launched a ‘gender neutral’ concept store the same year. More recently, brands like Hood By Air, Gypsy Sport and Ivy Park have championed gender diversity on their catwalks and in their campaigns, and models like transgender Teddy Quinlivan or intersex advocate Hanne Gaby Odiele are dominating the fashion industry.
Personally, seeing all of this diversity has helped me to embrace the androgynous way that I dress, and Kai too sees this inclusiveness in the world of fashion as a positive thing, even if the drip-down of the change is slow to improving the safety of LGBTQ+ people on the streets. “Any visibility that is dismantling the structures that oppress us has positive impacts,” he says, name-checking genderqueer musicians like Mykki Blanco as personal influences in making him feel more confident in the way that he presents. But what we need is yet more diversity still, says Kai. Particularly when it comes to trans people. “Often the image portrayed of trans guys is masculine white guys who would easily pass, but transness is so much more than just passing.”
Bryony agrees, adding that there’s more to queerness than fitting into pre-existing boxes like ‘butch’ or ‘femme’. She also reminds us that whilst representation in fashion is important, it can sometimes obfuscate wider problems. “For example, just because you’re showing more queer representations on billboards, what about the laws and policies the undergird all of that?” she asks. “Queer people should be able to put on the clothes they want to in the morning free from the pressures of what trouble it might cause, and that won’t happen by just pushing queer people to the front of brand campaigns,” she concludes, “it will happen by making the world a safer place for LGBTQ+ people more generally.”
Amelia Abraham is a freelance journalist from London. She writes for The Guardian, Vice, i-D, Dazed, Refinery29 and Vogue. As well as arts and culture, one of her main focuses is LGBTQ+ issues, and her first book, about LGBTQ+ culture and politics, will be published with Picador in 2019.