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I’ve also noticed something curious when I look at pictures of myself, in the mirror, or when the camera on my phone accidentally opens facing me: I feel okay, connected, grounded, unsurprised by my reflection. What changed?
I think I always understood that identity was malleable, that the idea of it as fixed (men are like this, women are like this, gay guys are like this) was a fallacy. I understood I could play with my self-image. It seemed a given.
But I didn’t understand its importance until I realized mine was fractured. Visually, I couldn’t see a continuous, consistent me in my life. My clothes were representations of how I felt on a particular day, but not how I felt as a person. When I worked in an office, I felt like an office worker and dressed as one. When I was a freelancer, I dressed as a slob. When I went out, I dressed well, but not particularly uniquely. There was no connective thread, no statement that I could look at in a photo or mirror and read back to myself.
Identity can be many things: a plaything, a political statement, an orientation to the world. To me it’s mostly a sign proclaiming, "This is what I want from the world, and this is what I don’t want." In this framework, until you decide on what things you want and don’t want, it’s hard to decide on the physical ways to represent them.
To me visual identity is mostly a sign proclaiming, 'This is what I want from the world, and this is what I don’t want.'
I’m sexually gay (I like other men) and politically queer (I consider defined sexualities constructs), but while I’ve been pretty okay with these identities for some time, only now do I feel as though I’ve figured out how to represent them visually. I want my appearance to call out to those I want to attract, but also protect me from harassment, homophobia, or even just people’s weird looks.
I have many friends who proudly proclaim their queerness. I’m not as brave as them. I need to be more subtle in my presentations because that’s what allows me to function in this world. My clothing is a flag signaling "I’d like to have sex with other men," but it’s also a shield, a cloak obfuscating what I really want from those who can’t discern what the tightness of my pants and the color patterns of my outfit mean (that I’m gay). Finding that subtlety, the point at which I can walk through the world asking for what I want without being in constant fear of what (possibly violent) reactions that desire creates in others, has taken me more than a decade.
In high school I looked like many white kids in New York: hip-hop-ish, sneaker-obsessed, New Era fitted on my head. I knew I was gay and had come out to friends, but wasn’t ready to acknowledge what that would mean for me. I wasn’t ready to ask the world to accept my gayness. And so, perhaps subconsciously, I became an near-parody of a straight man, doing more to look like a typical New York white boy than my friends. I had a dozen baseball caps. I had the baggiest of jeans. My swagger mimicked that of a rapper, even though I’d grown up in the West Village. Dressing this way made me feel safe, but it was also a private acknowledgement that my clothes were cuffs, a costume.
To an extent, even as a teen, I realized that there’s nothing about our anatomy that requires us to dress or act in a certain way. We aren’t born with clothes, cliques, and political predispositions; these things are just subtly mandated for us. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, the philosopher Judith Butler refers to this social mandate, writing that "the ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytical features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility."
Even at my hippy-dippy college, my identity felt too personal to constantly wear on my sleeve as a political badge of honor.
A large part of the modern queer movement has been about proving just this: that normative identity is a construction that benefits some and harms others, and that in order to overthrow its restrictive boundaries we must renounce those normative identities for political ones.
"Obviously, the political task is not to refuse representational politics — as if we could," writes Butler. "The task is to formulate within this constituted frame a critique of the categories of identity that contemporary juridical structures engender, naturalize, and immobilize."
In other words, to mess with the system, we must mess with its preferred identities.
And I did. In college, a liberal arts school called Hampshire that was so liberal it was consistently made fun of on Saturday Night Live, I joined the radical, queer, often-deodorant-rejecting crowd in finding personal liberation through presentation. I’d wear cut-up clothes, goofy thrift-store sweaters, makeup, and jewelry. I remember one outfit in particular: a bright blue hat, white jeans, a multicolored, extremely itchy, ’80s sweater, lots of fake gold necklaces, and a single fake-gold dangly earring. I fit with the aesthetic of the college, but I looked like a mess. It was a way of saying to the world, I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it. Family holidays were uncomfortable.
But I soon regretted the bursting of the bubble and resented the vulnerability of living outside my armor. Even at my hippy-dippy college, my identity felt too personal to constantly wear on my sleeve as a political badge of honor. And I began to recognize that while clothing can help define you, it can also do the opposite. We wear suits and button-downs to work not because they represent us but because they make us one of the crowd. With certain clothes we can go through the day without being asked why we are how we are. I missed that.
Academic discussions of identity don’t often acknowledge this. The dry language in which these political aims are written, and the hardcore insistence with which people at my college argued for politicizing appearance, belied the emotional process behind changing identities. In these texts and discussions I found little room for the immense personal struggle required to turn your visual identity from a shield into a flag. The queer world was telling me, "Just do it," without, I felt, acknowledging why I might not want to.
To constantly express a political statement through clothing is to constantly live in fear of being judged.
That struggle was hard enough for me that my visual identity now somewhat negates my political one. While politically I’m determined to prove that gender is a construction and that institutions such as marriage are harmful to our society, in how I dress I am a moderate, bound in black jeans and a black sweatshirt, a black hat and Nikes: something of a health-goth look that communicates that I understand trends (which in turn conveys that I want to have sex with men), but masculine enough (in a normative sense) that I don’t have to defend my choices on a daily basis. In New York, this black-on-black-on-black look lets me fly under the radar.
I know that for a person of privilege who could do more to fight the good fight, this is something of a cop-out. But it’s also how I feel healthy enough to make it through the day. To constantly express a political statement through clothing is to constantly live in fear of being judged, of being looked at strangely, of being called "faggot," a word I’ve been called several times and that some of my friends are called on a near-daily basis in New York.
Jasbir Puar, a gender studies professor at Rutgers University, has argued that extremely visible queerness can act as an exercise in privilege, allowing those who can afford to rebel against structures that require some form of fitting in — regular jobs, religious institutions, etc. — to present themselves as exceptional, leaving behind others who cannot or do not want to free themselves from their communities.
I grew up with a lot of financial and geographic privilege: Coming out as a teen in the West Village is a lot easier than it would be in many places. But Puar’s critique nonetheless resonates with me. It was one thing to showcase a radical identity in the bubble of college, but another thing altogether to walk around the real world on full display.
I feel a responsibility to be queer and to let others know about it, to represent myself in opposition to normativity and its attendant problems. But I also operate best — with confidence, collectedness, calm — when I feel I have some security, when I can borderline pass.
I now look like a straight guy twisted ten degrees. This is a selfish position. It’s all about taking from the world, and not giving to it. One day maybe I’ll be able to assume a more visual and visible form of queerness. Until then, I’ll be speaking in code.
Peter Moskowitz is a writer living in New York.