I became a certified, card-carrying queer, not because my haircut had magically changed my sexuality, but because others saw me as queer. This phenomenon is also true in reverse: The more traditionally feminine I look, the more often it’s assumed that I’m straight, even as an active member of the queer community. And I am not alone.
There is a tension in the question of signaling, adopting specific styles of dress and expression to indicate gender and sexual identity. “I’m constantly in a conversation with myself,” says Kim Southcott, local poet and event organizer. “Should I cut my hair? Should I not wear dresses?”
Members of the LGBTQ community have historically expressed queerness in particular ways, sporting “queer” haircuts and a shared fashion sense, including piercing only the right ear, wearing violets in the lapel, or carrying bandannas in the back pocket of their jeans. In a world where expressing romantic or sexual interest in someone of a similar perceived gender can be dangerous, signaling becomes a necessary safety measure, helping distinguish potential partners in a field of landmines.
Gender queerness makes signaling even more complicated. “I don’t have the luxury of people knowing who I am on sight, so I have to flirt twice as hard when I’m flirting with a woman,” states Laurie Works, who identifies as gender fluid, meaning they present characteristics that would stereotypically be considered masculine and feminine, and at different times. “Sometimes I catch myself wearing things to signal. Sometimes I wear them because I genuinely enjoy them and feel more comfortable that way. Other times, it’s to make a clear statement: ‘I’m not what you think I am.’”
The queer community prides itself on its openness, its acceptance of different manifestations of gender and sexual identity, and its resistance to the conflation of appearance and identity. However, members still often make assumptions based on signaling, contributing to the exclusion of those who do not look queer enough, a social reality often known as “erasure.” Becki Yukman, a member of the local queer community, puts it this way: “Signaling was empowering for queer people, but now it perpetuates marginalization.”
Even a community that sees itself as nonconforming expects conformity, often unconsciously. “I feel like I look too straight,” Yukman continues. “I don’t have concrete reasons, but I feel that way. I feel like I’m not a real queer.”
Signaling — or the lack of signaling — doesn’t just erase the identities of those who appear more feminine. Meredith Smarr, a local queer artist, cut her hair short just after college. “People assumed I was lesbian and that I got all the ladies, but that wasn’t true at all. I was identifying as asexual at the time.”
Unfortunately, the fact remains that it is still easier to make advances toward someone who appears obviously queer, even for those who know the pain of erasure. “I’m far more likely to hit on someone who has all the signifiers. I contribute to the same issue I run into,” says Southcott. “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t assume.”
Is signaling necessary for safety, a protective adaptation for survival in a homophobic world? Or is it beginning to outlast its usefulness? Erasure, while not the same as violent homophobia, carries its own psychological burden and compromises the queer community’s commitment to acceptance, disconnecting rhetoric from reality.