“Do you paint your nails? I was feeling Sad and GayTM so I went to CVS and spent too much money on a literal rainbow of nail polish.”
Of course my friend Xander paints his nails. My text is an excuse to make sure that two nights later, I’m in his apartment, telling him why I felt so sad and so gay – so queer – after a night with my extended family that my only recourse was to wander the aisles of the Cleveland Circle CVS, prowling for snacks and Sally Hansen Xtreme Wear. More accurately, it’s a way to spend exactly one minute telling him why. I need to get the words out of me, but I need tonight even more. Tonight will be spent discussing my cactus-covered Hawaiian shirts, giddily sipping white wine, watching Drag Race, showing his roommate Kelby the wonders of makeup, offering to share clothes, and of course, the actual nail-painting. I will walk home at three in the morning, the early birds starting to chirp as I crawl into bed. Our night will be spent in his makeup cabinet and dreaming of our closets, and I couldn’t be happier.
When I came out of my metaphorical closet, I went deeper into my physical one. First, I dug out the flannels I had saved from the Great Purge of 2015. The Great Purge came when I decided that upon entering high school, I wanted anything other than to be seen as gay. I was aware of the myriad disadvantages of being gay, and, as unpopular as it might be for me to admit this, I knew I liked boys. I felt like the only options were out and proud gay, and straight. Even if neither fit neatly, the latter was more convenient, involved a lot less work in unpacking emotions, dealing with the world around me, and ways of being I had been taught.
The Great Purge left me with a single salvageable flannel. Its bright yellow pattern was reminiscent of Cher from the movie Clueless (blonde, beautiful, and definitively not interested in women). When I later wanted to look gay, I had to borrow clothes from friends, like the flannel I wore on my first queer retreat. In the years since, I’ve expressed myself with Hawaiian shirts in the most garish patterns and colors imaginable, with starched collar shirts taken from the men’s department, and everything absurd. I now own glittery green pants that are half harem pants, half sweatpants, a two piece crop top/bell-bottoms set that makes me look like a rejected member of Abba, purple velour high-heeled boots, and a t-shirt covered in glow-in-the-dark skulls. They had to come into the closet with me.
I took comparatively little out of the closet, although that’s beginning to change. Perhaps “out of the closet” better refers to that, to discarding the matronly tops my well-meaning family buys at Ann Taylor, the jewelry that makes me feel like a Stepford Wife, the starchy dresses that always felt like an ill-fitting costume. That said, the additions to my closet are more profound– and more frequent– than the subtractions. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Style is a great way to broadcast your sexuality. Certain hairstyles, makeup choices, clothing, and even the way you cuff your jeans can clue in another member of the queer community to your membership in the same group. I don’t trust straight people who say they understand these signals, or who claim to have a “great gaydar!” Don’t get me wrong– sometimes straight folks get it right and gay folks get it wrong, but these codes are complicated systems, highly specific not only to the queer community at large but the smaller subgroups within them. Some gay men may present as highly feminine, but there are also a lot of bears in the community. This is to say nothing of butches, femmes, and the wide spectrum of lesbians who identify as somewhere else along the spectrum, and the way that masculinity or femininity may look very different on a lesbian than on a straight woman. The very qualities that may lead you to dismiss someone as potentially in the queer community may be the same ones that broadcast their queerness to their friends.
Basically, there are a lot of ways to “look gay,” so my fourteen year old self thinking throwing away a flannel would get her out of it was sadly naive. The way using these codes work is largely based on mutual understanding and looking for a few at the same time. Some codes or stereotypes are pretty obvious or well known. Short hair on women, particularly if shaving is involved, reads as queer to almost everyone, but cuffing your jeans can reveal your bisexuality. Regardless of your gender identity, wearing clothes not designed for your “assigned gender” is pretty common, and pretty queer. I am a regular in the Goodwill menswear department, and one of the great joys of having queer friends is offering to share clothes. Any guy I know is welcome to try on my dresses and skirts, and I have been promised some pretty enticing button-downs in exchange. A deep and profound interest in frogs, possums, raccoons, and other little-appreciated woodland creatures or cryptozoology can be a sign of queerness. This is particularly true if someone is wearing an article of clothing with such a creature on it. This is to say nothing of historical trends.
One of my favorite ways people have broadcast their sexuality are hanky codes. Wearing a particular color of handkerchief in a particular pocket or in a particular way could convey ones sexuality and sexual preferences. More authoritative lists can be found online or in resources like Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook, but basically wearing one on the left side indicated being the top, and the right indicated preferring to bottom. Particular colors meant different sexual acts. Perhaps my favorite anecdote comes from the color red meaning “fisting,” so Bruce Springsteen’s cover for the hit album Born in the U.S.A. had a completely different (and almost certainly unintentional) meaning. I doubt that any gay guys were coming on to Bruce Springsteen after Born in the U.S.A. If they were, it was probably because he was Bruce Springsteen, not because he intentionally broadcast his sexual desires to the world. This brings me to a central point: these kinds of codes are conversation starters. Not everyone will recognize them, even in the queer community, but putting the puzzle pieces together can help you spot someone who might be queer.
The idea of “code as conversation starter” is complicated. Most homophobes aren’t particularly interested in the nuances of hanky codes, cuffed jeans, and carnations– they just know a fag when they see one. When you’re afraid of being out, any whisper of gay codes becomes anathema. Even when I had accepted my sexuality, it took time for me to be comfortable presenting as queer. In my freshman year of college, I got an undercut. Initially, it wasn’t something I did to be perceived as gay. I have thick hair, and one of the best ways to grow it out is to remove some hair where no one will see it. Besides, I liked the way it looked. While undercuts and shaving on AFAB people can be a gay thing, it isn’t inherently one. That said, I remember spending the majority of a Mass debating whether to wear my hair in a ponytail or not. I knew not to look gay in a Catholic Church.
I’ve since grown more comfortable in more places, although not everywhere. The closet is a place one is constantly entering and exiting– the idea of a one and done coming out doesn’t really exist. I’m what I call “mostly out”– friends and immediate family know, but for extended family, acquaintances, and employers, it depends on a wider variety of factors. When evaluating those factors, it’s worth it to take advantage of the signals queer people teach themselves. Where and when I can, I try to signal myself as queer, not just for me, but for those around me. No matter where I am in my coming out process, there are few joys as complete as looking at someone who’s openly queer and seeing someone like me. The reason why I go to pride events isn’t just because they’re fun– it’s to be in a room full of people who look queer. The promise of no assumptions about who you are and what you love is intoxicating.
The last drag show I went to had every color of hair in the audience, natural and unnatural. I saw Hawaiian shirts on people of every gender, cargo shorts, ball gowns, enough nipple pasties to supply a strip club for a decade, and high heels that I think could be classified as weaponry. People wore makeup of every kind and quality, bare faces and eyeliner only and fake beards and glitter that’d make Lady Gaga jealous. My date and I met people wearing blue antlers, leather harnesses, glittery dresses, understated floral shirts from Brazil, and of course, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Needless to say, we had an amazing time with all of them.
In my pink shorts, rainbow crop top, and baseball hat, I wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Red Sox game or a basement party, but I didn’t look out of place there, either. Why? I was comfortable. I looked happy. I kept smiling and staring around the venue, to the point where my date had to ask me what I was looking at, or looking for. I told her I was looking at the room, because I never thought I’d get to be in a room like this. There must have been 4,000 of us filling the audience, calling out the names of the queens we wanted to see performing, dancing like nobody was watching, and screaming the words to our favorite songs. We looked fucking fabulous.
It’s moments like this when I wish I could urge my younger self out of her closet faster. I know why I stayed there. The first words I said when I came out were “I think I might be gay.” I sobbed before I choked out the next words, “but it doesn’t matter, because then I’ll lose LAG”– the church choir that was the only community I had. When I go to drag shows, when I dress in Hawaiian shirts, when I see my guy friends wear dresses, I’m reminded that not only did I keep that old community, I got a new one. I remember how I longed for clothes that felt like me, fascinated by flannels and enchanted by suits. The queer community community was secret, transmitted on headphones playing songs called “Androgynous,” “Heterosexuality is a Construct,” and “I Am What I Am.” It was Google searches on incognito tabs, Buzzfeed articles about gay TV shows to remind myself that yes, there were people like me in the world out there, it was running to queer discussion groups like my life depended on it, and writing papers about HIV/AIDs for class. I wanted to know who people like me looked like, where we came from. Three years later, I know.
To me, being queer looks like a wine and nails night, watching Drag Race and recovering from a week in a world that didn’t want me to be as happy as I am. It looks like the glittery rainbow nails from a night at Xander’s, or doing makeup until 2am. It looks like six Hawaiian shirts hanging in my closet and one on my body. It looks like many, many flannels to replace the purged ones. In short, it is not a closet where my queerness is a cause for fear. It is a queerness where my closet is my greatest joy.