On Queer Haircuts, Gatekeeping, and the Value of Identity

April 5, 2021 Gay and Lesbian, Pop Culture Comments (0) 122

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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Well, THAT was horrible. Now what do we do?

November 9, 2016 Featured, Gay and Lesbian, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 981

1. We protect our mental health

This has to be the immediate priority. The traumatic shock of this result is already being compared to the 9/11 attacks, and we need to take care of ourselves and each other.

For starters, try to avoid freaking out about things that haven’t happened yet. As someone with anxiety, I understand the impetus to catastrophize and panic, but that kind of thing only takes a toll on you, and does nothing to solve any problem.

Yes, there is abundant reason to believe Donald Trump will be a catastrophically terrible President. And his mere election reveals terrible things about the United States and Republican voters. You can mourn those things–but try to avoid panicking about the things you expect to happen, because you don’t know the future.

If you feel lost or hopeless, talk to someone. A friend, a family member, even a suicide hotline. Do what you need to care for yourself–if you need to take a sick day, do it. If you need to be around people, do it. But try to get outside. Go for a walk. Being isolated in your stress and anxiety will only cause more harm.

2. We face reality

This election taught us a terrible lesson about the United States: We are not the country many Americans believed we were. Going into the election, I thought Donald Trump would show us all that racism, xenophobia, and misogyny remained serious problems in the US; I didn’t expect to learn that they were strong enough to win.

What this means is that we, as progressives or liberals or Democrats or Social Justice Warriors or whatever we call ourselves, must reevaluate our strategies. We should resist blaming isolated causes, and face the harsh reality of the America we live within.

And yes, what I’m saying is we may need to find strategies for appealing to fragile white voters who are far too concerned with race. Condemning the majority of voters for refusing to come along with us might feel righteous and good, but if the end result is a White Nationalist party controlling all branches of government, we end up harming the very people we are trying to protect.

3. We prepare ourselves to be vigilant

This is not the first time in history that men with evil intentions have assumed power; it’s not even the first time in recent history. The administration of George W. Bush took office with a plan to invade and occupy all of the Middle East; they got as far as Iraq before the nation stood up against them.

This time it may be even harder, because the GOP majority looks to be so definitive. But again, we cannot predict the future. If we stay vigilant, and act early to resist the worst efforts of our new government, we can likely prevent at least some of the grevious damage they wish to do to our country.

We must, first and foremost, fight for and alongside the most vulnerable Americans in the wake of Trump’s bigoted campaign: Muslim Americans, Black Americans and other people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, Jewish Americans, immigrants, people with disabilities, and anyone else Trump’s followers (not to mention Trump himself, and his administration) wil now feel futher empowered to persecute. Already this morning the Ku Klux Klan staged a celebratory march in South Carolina; it’s up to us to send the message that, in spite of what this election would suggest, racism and hatred are not American values.

4. We start organizing for 2018

I know, it feels hopeless right now. Our Congressional districts are gerrymandered to all but ensure a GOP majority, and the Republican Party now knows that trading their racist dogwhistle for a big damn trumpet can be a winning strategy with white voters. But it wasn’t that long ago when things looked equally hopeless for the GOP. They got where they are today by persistent, strategic effort, and we can do the same.

It begins by understanding how we lost in 2016–again, facing reality no matter how much we may dislike it–and building our strategy from there. We have to address the needs of all voters, and motivate Democratic supporters to get out ot the polls. We have to weed out disenfranchisement and voter suppression. And we have to find the right candidates to appeal to the largest number of voters.

None of this will be easy, and a win is not guaranteed. But all you have to do is look at the current GOP to recognize that persistence pays off.

5. We resolve to resist obstructionism

I refuse to play the game the GOP has played for the last 8 years. As much as Donald Trump offends and terrifies me, I will not support an effort to block his initiatives simply out of spite or to score political points. As much as I loathe saying it, we need to rally behind the new President and help him make the right decisions for America.

One thing I will say for Donald Trump: We legitimately don’t know what he will do as President. Yes, candidate Trump said a lot of horrible, deplorable things, and he certainly could follow through on them. But Trump also has a long history of lying and betraying those who work with him, and his past positions (before he needed the support of GOP voters) were actually relatively progressive. I realize I sound like a ridiculous pollyana, but it is possible he could be an okay President–or at least he could advance some positive initiatives.

One way or another, the Democrats simply cannot become the new Party of No. It’s a surefire way to further alienate voters, it shows contempt for our whole political system, and I refuse to be a part of it. We have to be better.

6. We work to restore civility

On that same note, we just cannot have another election like this one. Our political discourse has steadily decayed with each election, to the point where Pew research says we are currently even more divided than during the Civil War. As Lincoln said, a house divided against itself simply cannot stand. We need to build bridges, or things will only get worse.

We need to return to an understanding that we are capable of disagreement without hating one another. I refuse to defend racism or urge “empathy” for people who vote based on hatred, but I do believe we need to at least understand other perspectives, so we can begin to speak with one another. Part of the reason we are currently so divided is that many of us don’t even live in the same world; the facts as we understand them on any particular issue may be directly contradictory. That simply cannot continue.

What I’d ask is for every person to develop an instinct: That when you read some piece of news or opinion that affirms your beliefs, that gives you that endorphin rush of righteous validation, that you regard that feeling the way you would a heroin high; addictive and ultimately damaging. We need to work to learn more about people who disagree with us, not reinforce the walls of our echo chamber and live assured that we are the ones who are right.

Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of showing you the articles you are most likely to agree with, Facebook changed their algorithm to show you the ones you’re least likely to have seen? It wouldn’t be hard to transform social media into something that would broaden our perspectives, rather than reinforcing our divisions.

I certainly don’t think that will happen. But each of us has the power to find those pieces ourselves. Instead of dismissing or unfollowing your conservative relatives, try reading those articles they share from Breitbart and Drudge. Yes, you’ll be horrified, but at least you’ll start to understand the paradigms in which they operate. Maybe then we can try to speak to one another as humans.

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More Crimes That Never Happen!

November 12, 2015 Artwork, Comics, Gay and Lesbian, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 812

Perhaps the very worst thing about the repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is that voters feared imaginary sexual assault so much that they voted in favor of actual sexual assault. There’s basically no documented history of straight men pretending to be transgender so they can access womens’ bathrooms. There is, however, a long and savage history of sexual abuse of transgender people just for being transgender–and for using the restroom to which their chromosomal gender would assign them.

There are people I respect who believe this vote really was about restrooms, and a visceral response to a perceived loss of privacy. Clearly I am not one of those people.

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The Homosexual Putsch (Love Wins!)

June 26, 2015 ACLU, Gay and Lesbian, In The News Comments (0) 799

Here’s the decision.

FINALLY! We queers can remove our flesh-masks and reveal our true reptilian forms!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go marry a goat.


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