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2 July 2009, 12:00 pm 8 Comments

What Does Gay Look Like?

TNG reader Jean Stanula submitted this post. lesbian-haircut

In the almost ten years that I have been dating women, only the last 2 or so have I been really, completely “out.” In college, my relationship was passed off to most as a really close “best friendship” and after college, girls I dated were accepted among friends but never known by my family. It wasn’t until I found someone who I really thought I could spend my life with, when I was in my early 20′s, that I thought, “Yeeeeeah. If we are going to get married someday, I should probably tell my family.” The final coming out was truly anticlimactic. I felt lucky that it was easy.

It was easy for me to choose, during all those years, when I wanted to pass for straight and when I wanted to “look” gay. I’ve always had a little bit of a tom-boyish style, but I wear makeup and always had long to medium length hair. I straightened my hair and painted on the eyeliner to go to a dance bar with my roommates, and I put on a baseball cap, and a button-down shirt when I took my girlfriend to the movies. I moved in and out of both worlds seamlessly and without repercussion.

Then, 3 months ago, in the anticipation of the Hades that is DC’s summer, and an uncontrollable urge for change, I decided to cut my curly locks. I strolled into a salon on a Saturday morning and walked out 30 minutes later, leaving my ambiguity in a pile around my chair and a faux hawk sprouting from my head. Saturday and Sunday I reveled in my new look. I broke out the cargo shorts, tried on sunglasses, earrings and eyeliner. I felt powerful. I loved it.

And then I didn’t love it. I swooped out of my apartment on that Sunday night to pick up some Thai food and crossed paths with a couple of young men who gave me a look I’ve never seen before – I couldn’t tell if it was anger, or curiosity or fear, but a knot bunched up in my chest. For the first time in my life, when a stranger saw me they saw Lesbian. Gay. Dyke—Other.  This was a whole different kind of coming out. In 30 short minutes I had lost my X-Man power: my ability to live in both worlds, to choose when and if I revealed my sexual orientation, to not live my whole life “out.”

I flew home to Chicago for the weekend and I felt my old friends’ and family’s discomfort that I had crossed a line—that I was “gayer” than before, that they supported my lifestyle more before when I didn’t look the part as much.

Maybe this isn’t true. Maybe it was me who saw myself differently, not them. I haven’t figured that out yet.

A haircut seems like such a simple cosmetic alteration, but it has changed how I see myself and how others see me. Yes, I am more afraid of discrimination, but I’m also acutely more aware of my community now. I have found a whole new kind of confidence in presenting externally who I am; in being more serious about activism and awareness; about talking and writing about LGBT issues; about being out.

When someone inevitably asks me when I “came out”, the only response I have is, “every day.”

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  • cdc said:

    interesting topic.

    my girlfriend and i take advantage of the fact that people on the streets and at our workplaces don’t know we’re gay (though it’s a annoying when we get hit on by guys). however, we’ve also found that when straight people find out that we’re a couple they are forced to realize that lesbians aren’t always fat, flannel-clad, feminazis that the media makes us all out to be. funny how both feminine and butch appearances can make people think differently about sexuality.

  • Lauren said:

    Very interesting topic. You know, the idea of a “lesbian haircut” is inherently offensive, however, you’re absolutely right. Simply having a haircut like the one you describe identifies you as “other” in people’s eyes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Hey-it helps you get dates sometimes! :) Thanks for the interesting article. I hope to see you write more on thenewgay.net.

  • Mark said:

    Whether you pass for straight or look “Gay” it’s all an affectation constructed by social pressures forcing you to conform to something. Yes. The “Gay Box” is equally confining.

    How can you be sure you’re not “passing” as Gay? I doubt you’d agree that looking housewife or diesel is an honest, authentic expression of your actual self.

    Pick a look you like (the real you independent of social pressure) and stick to it.

    Don’t wait until you’re 40 to get over yourself and realize Official Gay Culture is kind of bullshit. Do the work now.

  • T said:

    I love this topic.

    When I first went overseas to a gay bar in an Eastern European city. Almost every woman asked me, “Do you know this is a gay bar?” I thought it was obvious…they didn’t.

    Recently, going to an overseas pride everyone saw me as lesbian. Coming back to a more conservative country where they aren’t allowed to have pride. In no time talking about pride and my community, non-English speaking co-workers translated Gay Pride easily. Before I knew it they were talking amongst themselves in front of me and calling me the Washington Dyke.

    This was surprising since the little bit have have been here, I have been perceived as a lost tourist, activist lesbian, dyke, and straight co-worker. The perception of what is queer or “other” is interesting and something that will have many people coming out constantly.

  • Rhea said:

    Great piece, Jean. Though I identify as straight, I found myself nodding vigorously as I read. Maybe because I have this “other” identity as a hippie throwback in a clean-cut city–someone who bikes around and ferments sauerkraut on my countertop. I would probably be received very differently if I stayed in sweaty bike clothes at work rather than mopping up and putting on heels, or ate my homemade lunches out in the cafeteria. I think of the ability to go back and forth sometimes as a luxury, other times as a game, and now and then as a kind of cowardice (why not wear my inner identity on my sleeve 24/7 like you do?) Perhaps it is trivial to compare a few lifestyle choices with sexual orientation, but the parallels really got me thinking. In my opinion, it shows your writing is even more awesome.

  • shelby said:

    thats the truth.

  • rachle said:

    I decided that if I ever come out of the closet, I will wait until my hair is really long. I don’t really like the stereotypical lesbian look, as funny as that sounds. I mean, I am kind of butch but it bothers me when I go to a gay bar and 90 percent of the women ARE indeed wearing flannel shirts, lumberjack boots and crew cuts… (not that I have a problem with how people look, because it isn’t my business)… maybe just because stereotypes in general bug me. Strange though, because the women I am very attracted to are always very androgenous.

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