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Do you really need to wear your identity on your sleeve? 

By Jillian Cung, September 1 2022

The popular sound bite — “but you don’t look gay!” — by Evyn Collins sparked a popular TikTok trend of members of the LGBTQ+ showcasing themselves before transforming into visual stereotypes associated with being queer. This particular trend opens the floor for discussion about not being visually read as queer when you identify as LGBTQ+, especially in a world where people are assumed to be cisgender and heterosexual. Considering this, some members of the LGBTQ+ may not feel queer enough if they do not conform to “queer-associated aesthetics.”

The history of visual signalling in the LGBTQ+ community started when homosexuality was heavily criminalized. Canada did not decriminalize homosexuality until 1969. When members of the LGBTQ+ wanted to find others within the community safely — it made discrete signalling necessary. According to LGBT+ Cultural Heritage, signals “had to be subtle enough to fly under the radar of cisgender heterosexuals, so they were often items of clothing, accessories, slang, styles, or small tattoos that could easily be covered up.” 

Although progressive movements have advanced LGBTQ+ rights, it is important to note that even in 2022, 70 countries criminalize same-sex sexual activity — with Supreme Court justices in the U.S. calling for the reversal of the Marriage Equality Act earlier in July. Society’s progressive attitudes do not change the fact that the LGBTQ+ community still faces systemic and administrative marginalization from the top-down. 

Why do people feel the need to be visually read as queer, especially in LGBTQ+ spaces? In our heteronormative world, some members of the LGBTQ+ want to be visually identified within the community because they do not want people to view them as cisgender and heterosexual, especially for members who have recently came out about their identities. 

“But the last thing I wanted during that period in my life was for people to think I was straight. I wanted to claim my sexuality, and that felt like something I needed to embody in my dress. If I didn’t wear flannel and beanies, how would girls know I wanted to hook up with them?” said Rachel Charlene Lewis. Lewis described her experience of wanting people to be aware of her queer identity, but not knowing how to present herself. 

At the same time, why can’t people always look queer? Some members of the LGBTQ+ community may not feel inclined to because they do not have an interest in queer-associated aesthetics. Other members may not feel it is safe for them to be visually read as such. It is not uncommon for members of the LGBTQ+ community to be out of the closet with close friends, but not publically out in a way that may impact the way they are perceived around family and in the professional world, particularly if their line of work isn’t traditionally sexually or gender diverse. 

LGBTQ+ people often are associated with visual stereotypes, however, not everyone conforms to them. 

“It is also important to note that the overwhelming majority of people I worked with were university-educated young women and I do consider the majority of them fairly educated about LGBTQ+ issues,” said Bianca McNaughton, elaborating on what it is like to be an “invisible” member of the LGBTQ+. “I just didn’t fit their stereotypical idea of what a young queer woman would look like, I didn’t have short hair, or rainbow pins on my backpack, or wear flannels every day like every lesbian on television — I looked like them [feminine].”

The issue stands that when members of the LGBTQ+ do not conform to visual stereotypes, engaging in the LGBTQ+ community can be difficult — as even the LGBTQ+ community can invalidate your self-expression. When the LGBTQ+ community perceives members of the LGBTQ+ as cishet, it forces them to feel like they have to prove their identity. 

“Along with the constant process of coming out that so many gay, bisexual, queer and transgender people face in a heteronormative world, we also face constantly having to prove our identity — both within queer communities and outside them. Instead of feeling like we have to prove ourselves within queer communities, let’s work to fully accept each other,” one writer commented, from a piece out of Archer Magazine. “There’s no criteria or litmus test for being who we are. So let’s just be ourselves, unashamedly.”

The Gauntlet had the opportunity to sit down with two members of the University of Calgary’s LGBTQ+ student body to provide their thoughts.

“I guess [the notion that] they [the LGBTQ+] are a monolith that you can just look at as fitting one particular stereotype,” said Allan Birkett, a gay third-year U of C student and previously served on the Residence Rainbow Council as an administrative coordinator. “I feel like that notion has been completely shattered for me, because I have all kinds of queer friends who dress in all different ways, present in all different ways, act in all different ways — have different interests. Fundamentally, queer people are just people and we’re going to come in all in all different forms.” 

The Residence Rainbow Council aims to provide LGBTQ+ programs, events, advocacy, education and outreach for all those living in U of C residences. Part of the journey of newly out members of the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to understanding their identity is to just align themselves with queer aesthetics.

“Because I had spent so long closeted, when I came out of the closet, I felt that I had to really express myself. For a lot of that I did just lean on stereotypes of what I thought the idea of a gay man would dress like. But more recently, I’ve come to terms with just expressing myself however I feel comfortable and not really caring, whether it’s stereotypical or not,” said Christian Parent, a gay non-binary second-year student. 

Parent continued by explaining how coming out and growing comfortable with one’s queer identity is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. 

“I think it’s okay to learn to be comfortable in super queer stereotypes, especially when you’re first coming out of the closet — all of these things that are stereotypically gay, stereotypically feminine, stereotypically queer in any way. I think it’s fun to embrace them and play around with them,” said Parent.

The internet has changed queer socialization, however, there are two sides to every coin.

“I think it’s more prevalent online than it is in real life. Online queer people are very into policing the way that other queer people look. I see it a lot on TikTok. I saw it a lot on Tumblr growing up. Where it’s important to look a certain way — it’s important to follow certain career stereotypes. In real life, I don’t find that as much. Or when I do find it, it’s a more of a joking tone. Online, the pressures are a lot more prevalent than it is in real life,” said Parent

Although being visually read as queer can create solidarity and community for the LGBTQ+ it is important to recognize that not every member will conform to queer aesthetics. 

“I think we also have to work very hard to be cognizant that not everyone will necessarily do these things or look a certain way and, and that ties back to my main overarching point, which is that we aren’t a monolith. Hopefully, we can move toward embracing queer people looking all different ways as well,” said Birkett. 

A world of heteronormativity and the othering of the LGBTQ+ into visual stereotypes leaves little room for people to express themselves freely without conforming to societal molds. One’s appearance should not determine if one should be included in LGBTQ+ spaces. Excluding people because they do not conform to societal molds of the LGBTQ+ upholds cisgender heteronormativity. Society’s cisgender heteronormativity continues to make cisgender heterosexuals the default — because it marginalizes LGBTQ+ and reinforces the gender binary.  The LGBTQ+ community needs to celebrate and embrace all members to truly illustrate that the community is as diverse and inclusive as it claims to be.

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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