On Queer Haircuts, Gatekeeping, and the Value of Identity

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Christopher Keelty is a writer and artist based outside New York City.

For every queer person, coming out is a defining experience, not unlike a volcanic eruption. It is preceded by a slow build of pressure as we come to terms with our own identity and consider the potential ramifications of telling the people most important in our lives. Next comes the moment of declaration, a release that catches some people by surprise, and may be violent or traumatic. Coming out is transformative, sometimes destructive, and creates change that cannot be undone.

Like an eruption, that first coming out shapes the world we will occupy as queer people — and some of us do not survive.

It’s also not something we only experience once. For queer people, life is full of little coming-out conversations: Every time we make a new friend, start a new job, join a new club or sports team, there is that question of when and how we will announce ourselves, and how we’ll be received. But it’s that first coming out — the one where we come out to our parents, our relatives, and our closest friends — that carries the most risk, and shapes us the most profoundly.

I’ve done it twice. The first time, in my late teens to early twenties, I came out as gay. And yes, it took me a few years to have those conversations. I began with my most trusted friends, and eventually worked up the courage to talk with my parents. That’s how frightening it was.

The second time, in my late 20s, was almost as frightening. I’d been living as an out gay man for almost a decade, forming friendships and relationships in the Philadelphia gay community, even working for an organization championing gay rights. Now I had to tell them that I’d fallen in love with a woman, that we’d been dating for some time, and that it turns out I’m bisexual.

I feared I would lose their friendship and respect. I feared I’d be seen as a fraud, like I’d only been “playing gay” to advance my career. I feared I’d be ostracized from the community I’d always found so welcoming. More than anything, I feared that I would lose my sense of self, the queer identity that had finally brought me confidence after a childhood of social anxiety.

Having lived as a gay man for years, having dated other men and frequented gay bars and gay events, I was acutely aware of the privilege enjoyed by people in heterosexual relationships. I could hold my partner’s hand, or hug or kiss her in public, without that little twinge of fear and dread that some passerby might be triggered to attack us. We could get married if we chose; and I’d never have to endure that awkward moment when some stranger making small-talk mentioned “my wife,” and I had to correct them (“husband”) and wait to see if their response was revulsion or violence.

So every time I held my partner’s hand, it triggered guilt and shame, a feeling like I’d abandoned my people for an easier path. I was so insecure, in fact, I dragged her into a new closet I’d constructed, convincing her to keep our relationship a secret for almost a year, and almost ending it in the process.

Years later, that woman is my long-time partner, but at times and on certain levels, I still struggle with my queer identity. I am acutely aware of the privilege afforded by my heterosexual relationship. There’s no need to fear hate or judgment when inviting delivery workers or contractors into our home, no strange questions from total strangers about our sex life, no relatives hiding us at the back table at weddings and family events.

I know that for many bisexual people in heterosexual relationships, that ability to blend in is so tempting, so safe, that they spend all their time blending — living in a closet with an open door. It’s why I put effort into living openly — why our house flies a Pride Flag in June, why I make a point of telling people about my orientation, why I make sure to join queer organizations and attend queer events, and especially why I’ve crafted an online persona who is proudly queer first and foremost, with a Pride flag in my Twitter handle and my orientation and pronouns in my bio.

These things aren’t performative; they aren’t only to prove my bona fides to others, or to ameliorate my guilt at betraying the community (though those are factors, for sure). They are for me, for my own self-image, to reinforce the queer identity that has always been so important to me.

So it was heartbreaking to see the response on Twitter to Kate Raphael’s personal essay, “My straight boyfriend gave me a queer pandemic haircut.” Like me, Raphael identifies as bisexual, and lives in what I would term a “heterosexual relationship.” Like me, she struggles to hold on to her own queer identity, especially in the mist of a pandemic that has isolated so many people in the confines of their own homes.

“One of the many things this pandemic has robbed us of is the opportunity to present ourselves as complex, evolving individuals,” Raphael wrote. “Through Zoom screens and absence, we are collapsed.”

She found meaning in something simple: A haircut, what she calls “a queer haircut,” that helped her feel more secure in her queer identity, and made her feel closer to her boyfriend. Simple, right?

You might think so, but no. On Saturday, Raphael endured Main Character status on Queer Twitter, as users with follower counts ranging from single digits into the tens and hundreds of thousands took turns mocking her. I won’t link to the abuse, but it’s quite easy to find if you simply search “queer haircut” on Twitter. In no time, her essay was a beach ball at a concert, batted around by thousands of people who each took a turn dunking on it.

The nasty tweets came in three main varieties, that I could find: (a) This is stupid and inconsequential, when other queer people have real problems; (b) How ridiculous for a person to think something like a haircut can be queer; and (c) Garden variety hate on bisexuals, who are only queer as long as they’re actively having intercourse with someone of the same gender.

It was ugly. It was hurtful. Especially upsetting were the gleeful dunks I saw from certain queer writers — one might call them “Queer Twitter Celebrities” — for whom I have a level of respect and admiration. Once again I will avoid linking, because (1) I’m not writing this with the intent of calling out or embarrassing any individuals, and (2) I don’t want to subject myself to the kind of abuse that could potentially ensue. But I’ll be honest: It hurt my feelings. And late Saturday night, after trying and failing to shield my feelings behind some pithy, cutting tweet, I decided to simply say so.

I’ve already said, quite clearly, that bisexual people in heterosexual relationships enjoy a lot of privilege. I will go on record, loudly, that almost everyone else in the queer community — trans people, queer people of color, nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks, “swishy” gays, “butch” lesbians, the list goes on! — experiences more bigotry and hate and bias. And if Kate Raphael were in any way suggesting that her problems are worse, I would agree that such a thesis is offensive. But that’s not remotely what her essay is about; she wrote a simple, personal essay about how something as small as a haircut helped her connect with her queer identity.

It’s not even like it’s a foreign concept that haircuts, or other forms of physical expression, are important to a queer person’s identity! Throughout history, a person’s physical appearance, be it clothing or makeup or hairstyles, has arguably been the thing most associated with queer identity. Whether we’re drag queens or leather daddies, transgender or gender nonconforming, Elton John or Liberace, queer people have always manifested our identities in the way we choose to dress and style ourselves.

So it’s a mystery why this particular essay, by this particular person, was received with so much scorn. I suspect to some extent it’s because she’s bisexual and in a heterosexual relationship, and to some extent the nature of Twitter, where every day needs a few Main Characters. Once that beach ball starts bouncing around the concert, nobody examines it too closely before taking their turn punching it back up.

But it’s especially shameful because it attacks the very thing this author identifies as an insecurity: Her sense of belonging within the queer community.

Late Saturday, the author Nick Mamatas tweeted about the queer haircut controversy, “Communities are machines for expelling people from communities.” And yes, in a lot of ways that is true. I know there are those who find the concept of a “queer community” absurd, and those who have found only judgment and exclusion in queer spaces. But for many of us, that idea of community is a safe space in an unfriendly world.

As young queer kid, the first place I ever felt welcomed and truly comfortable was when I walked into a gay bar. For years while I lived in the suburbs outside Philly, I would make the trip (often an hour each way) into the Gayborhood, not even to buy anything or to pick up guys, but just to be. To exist in a place where I felt like I belonged. Often I didn’t do anything, I just hung out on the sidewalk somewhere and felt my batteries recharge.

To this day, when I feel those queer batteries draining low, I know I can walk into almost any gay bar for a charge — but I haven’t been in a gay bar, or any bar for that matter, in more than a year. Like many, I’ve turned to queer social media as the best substitute for that sense of belonging.

So to see queer social media turn on this person, who openly wrote how her sense of queer identity is a place of vulnerability, and take pleasure in mocking her idea of queerness… Policing other people’s queerness is always a bad look, but this is worse than that. It’s more than just gatekeeping. It’s a betrayal, and it just… really sucks.

I have no idea how Kate Raphael is feeling after Saturday, but I know she chose to lock her Twitter account. I don’t really know how I would feel if I were her — my own queer identity is a weak spot for me, emotionally, and I don’t think I’m capable of imagining how awful I would feel if seemingly all of Queer Twitter chose to pick on me.

If you’re someone who participated, I hope you’ll consider apologizing. I’ve certainly been caught up in the moment and joined a Twitter Mob I later regretted. I hope you’ll try to remember there are real people behind those accounts, with real emotions, and consider how you’d feel if you had to face them in person while you hurt their feelings.

And if you happen to be Kate Raphael, and you’re reading this, all I can say is I’m sorry, and it won’t be long before we can physically return to queer spaces, and you can put this behind you. I liked your essay, I’m glad you connected with your boyfriend, and while I haven’t seen your haircut, I’m glad you like it and I’m sure it’s super gay.

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