What does it mean to 'look like' a gay man? Can we, or should we, be able to answer this question?instagram/them

With lockdown entering its twelfth week and every Netflix show on my list binged to completion, I did something that I vowed I would never do; I downloaded TikTok.

It took a total of twelve hours before I was hooked, and in my mindless scrolling stupor, one trend in particular stood out to me: “#ifiwasstraight.” A typical video under this tag is as follows: a queer person, dressed in their usual style, cosplays as their heterosexual alter-ego. They shed their gay exterior, removing piercings, scrubbing off layers of bold makeup and ditching their thrifted wardrobe as a voiceover says: “This is what I think I would look like if I was straight.” The final look is conservative, generic, and stripped of character. With over 4.7 million views, the trend is wildly popular. But as much as I enjoy watching the LGBTQ+ community poke fun at the blandness of heterosexual fashion trends, it does beg the question: What does straight look like? What does gay look like? And should we be enforcing aesthetic binaries based on sexuality?

Iconic figures like Crystal Rasmussen cast an image of the histrionic gay man into our minds, when in reality the sexual orientation should not come with visual stereotypesinstagram/gaytimes

Presenting one’s social identity through clothing is nothing new. There are many styles that can immediately identify its wearer within a certain cultural or religious group; orthodox Jews, for example, are often visually recognisable when they wear traditional religious clothes—yarmulkes, and payots are particularly characteristic. Whilst the LGBT community is firmly established within modern society, it is not as uniform or prescriptive as a religion. As a movement loosely built around ideas of individuality and self-acceptance, there are no rigid requirements for how to present as queer. Queer expression is also unique in that it isn’t mandatory—whereas people of colour always have to be perceived by others as a person of colour, with all the prejudices that accompany it, queer people can choose to highlight or subdue aspects of their sexual identity depending on whether they perceive their environment to be safe or not.

To some individuals, environment is crucial to assuming sexuality. “In a non-queer space, I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching any girl, no matter how ‘queer’ she looked,” says Emily, a nineteen-year-old gay woman from Manchester. “If you’re looking to date (within the LGBT community) you want to attract and approach the right people; in some situations, this can be dangerous.” While straight people can approach members of the opposite sex with the likelihood that they share a sexual orientation, queer people must rely on contextual factors—and even then, assuming sexuality is a slippery slope. Not only do we run the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, but we make ourselves vulnerable to prejudice and, in some cases, violence.

Queer people must rely on contextual factors—and even then, assuming sexuality is a slippery slope

“A lot of gay clubs in Manchester don’t allow certain people in if they don’t “look” gay,” Emily goes on to say. “It’s mainly men, because there’s a lot of gay-bashing that goes on in the club ‘G.A.Y’, a lot of instances where straight men will go in and beat up gay men.” Whilst this kind of gatekeeping is clearly necessary to ensure the safety of the people that these spaces were built for, it is still a deeply flawed system. It imposes an arbitrary way of presenting sexuality, and with queer styles being entirely self-defined, club bouncers will inevitably get it wrong sometimes; no matter how necessary it is to keep these spaces safe, it’s upsetting to think that sexual profiling prevents queer people from accessing them.


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But dressing “gay” isn’t just necessary to get through the club doors. Once inside, queer people want to attract the right kind of sexual attention, and despite bouncers’ best efforts, not everybody in the gay club will be gay. Whilst straight-looking men are handled with suspicion, bouncers are often more lenient towards groups of women. Manchester’s gay village seems to be a favourite for hen parties and straight people who don’t find the usual clubs, (the ones where gay men would be brutalised for holding hands with their boyfriend,) risqué enough. To some straight people, the gay village is still wrapped in taboo, and becomes a kind of safari where drag queens and drug culture abound. To others, mainly heterosexual women, it’s a safe haven where predatory men won’t grind against them on the dance floor. This means that flirting as a queer woman in a queer space is not as straightforward as it should be, and requires us to fall back into making appearance-based assumptions. “I pass well as straight most of the time because I’m quite feminine,” Emily tells me. “When I’m in queer spaces I want to look queer because I don’t want people to assume that I’m another straight girl in the gay club.”

Kristen Stewart, one of the contemporary gay iconsinstagram/outmagazine

Despite its emphasis on individuality and self-acceptance, those who are new to the LGBT community still face the challenge of fitting in. Charlotte, a twenty-year-old lesbian from Liverpool says: “at first, when I was coming to terms with myself and my sexuality, I told myself: “I need to look gay” in order to be accepted. To achieve this, I dressed extremely butch because I thought that was the only way I could present as queer—snapbacks, joggers, trainers—I looked a mess.” Charlotte has since grown more comfortable with herself and her choices, and wears clothes that she likes. Despite this, her sexuality doesn’t seem incidental when it comes to her style; she might have ditched the snapbacks, but she still looks right at home in G.A.Y. Did she develop “queer” style organically? Does she simply have a predilection for Doc Martens, padlock necklaces and obnoxious second hand blouses? Or has her style been tailored to convince club bouncers to let her through the doors?