Out of the closet: Gay youth identity performance and resistance via fashion


By Elli-Anne Karras

My first ethnography began with a desire to find out whether a collective style sensibility exists within the gay community. I rifled through ‘the closet’ in search of how clothing choices relate to self-expression and contribute to gay youth identity formation. Sedgwick examines the closet as a symbol of secrecy surrounding gay-self-disclosure. She calls it ‘the defining structure for gay oppression in this century’ (1991: 71). In this context, clothes can play a significant role in the process of disclosure of sexual orientation; they are indeed the first thing to ‘come out of the closet’. In addition, clothing creates a powerful mode of resistant self-expression. In this paper, I will closely examine the construction of the self through stylized identity performance. My depth-interviews with gay youth in their twenties as well as qualitative observations revealed that a collective gay subcultural style does not exist. But while each one’s personal narrative varies, their style performances do share the same specific youthful search for a stable identity in opposition to the postmodern state of a self constantly in flux.

Gay subcultural space

At the start of my research I went out in search for a gay subcultural space in Amsterdam. The term ‘subculture’, however, proves to be vague. Typically, the dominant majority or cultural norm of ‘heterosexual’ is used to define a subcultural ‘homosexual’. The ‘homosexual’ is then measured against the ‘heterosexual’ standard. Gay youth, in particular men, are often thought to be more fashionable and well-kempt than their straight counterparts. However, shared style may not be enough to create a tangible subculture. Most subcultures are defined by members of a group who see themselves as standing apart from others as a boundaried group. One of the ways members do this is through style: ‘In a subcultural approach to style, members code and signify their outsider status (a status gained either through self-definition or ostracism), which allows for the emergence of a distinct collective subculture’ (Freitas, Kaiser & Hammidi, 2010: 94). Distinct collective subcultures are also expressed in particular places. For example, a sign at the entrance of De Trut Disco in Amsterdam reads ‘Gays and Dykes only’. Its message, ‘This is a gay space’, is perfectly clear. In fact, its mission is to create a safe and respectful dance and party space for dykes and queers distinctly separate from other party spaces. One of my interviewees suggested I go there for qualitative observation.

‘The oldest and most historical gay club is Amsterdam is called De Trut and it means ‘The bitch.’ It’s only open on Sunday nights. It’s very well mixed between women and men. It’s a classic. It’s always a good time. If you’re going to that don’t bring a bunch of straight people.’

I could see what he meant by classic. It was an unassuming place with no flashy lights or signage. Instead two faded red doors opened up to a small intimate space with peeling flower wallpaper and disco balls sparkling down from the ceiling. It had a relaxed feel with most people mingling and having conversations rather than drinking. It felt different from other gay clubs. It was a secure, safe place filled with regulars. Everyone was casual and relaxed with more animated, expressive dancing and kissing on the dance floor. Hegemonic analyses often ignore how members of subcultures create their own cultural space like De Trut. It was like a gay subcultural haven for young and older gay people with power over their space that only they understand and direct. Spaces like this enable gay youth to express their own ideas of power and ownership.

Performing ‘gay style’

The concept of style as performance stems from Judith Butler, who claims all gendered and sexed identities are performative: ‘hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations’ (1993: 125). This notion of gender as imitation or performance points to the salience of self-expression. One of the key ways that individuals perform their gendered identity is through expression of style. The situational ‘performance’ aspect of social identity proved important to my interviewees in different ways.

Jason, an American living in Amsterdam in his early twenties, was my first interviewee (all names in this paper are fictional). I spoke to him in his kitchen while he ate lunch. When I asked him how he dressed differently for different occasions he suggested we go to his room so he could show me his clothes. As he opened up his wardrobe, he said:

Everybody changes what they wear for different people. Changing hats is a basic idea. If I dress like a slut it’s because I want boys to notice me. If I dress in a dandy way or my Boy Scout uniform it means I’m looking for an older guy.’ (Jason)

Clearly, different outfits are based on different objectives. Jason started with his favorite t-shirt. ‘If I’m not really trying to impress anyone I’ll wear a t-shirt with something on it.’ He held up a faded white t-shirt that said Giovanni’s Room Philadelphia. He turned interviewer for a moment and asked me, ‘What does this mean to you?’ I replied hesitantly, ‘That you have Philadelphia pride?’ Yes, but Jason added that it’s a famous gay bookstore in his hometown. ‘If I’m going to a club with gay dudes that’s kind of kinky or sex might be happening I’ll wear this. It asks people to touch you.’ I reach out my hand and feel the three dimensional texture. ‘If I’m going to a lecture, doing a presentation, or doing an interview I’ll wear a button down and a nice sweater but if I’m just hanging out with some homies I’ll wear an ugly sweater.’ The ‘ugly sweater’ was crucial to Jason’s description of his personal style.

Well, the truth is I really love to wear sweaters. The sweater to be honest is normally at the center of what I wear in a day which is really goofy to admit but people know that about me. I do like to dress dandy sometimes with a tie and a nice sweater and some pressed pants or something. I’ve also really liked to do the dandy thing. Like, in high school I wore a suit every Thursday.’ (Jason)

My other American interviewee, Nick, age twenty-one from Chicago, had a similar take on sweaters.

I collect a lot of old sweaters. I have cool Bill Cosby sweaters. I love old sweaters. I like to be comfortable. Comfort is definitely a big thing.’ (Nick)

Like Jason, Nick dresses up for more formal functions. He likes to look very clean cut and more fashionable with a skinny tie. As Schofield and Schmidt (2005: 319) argue, ‘At the situational level, clothes are therefore important in gay life, as they allow each individual to “have a different face” for different occasions.’ However, the degree of visibility depends on the personality of the individual.

The range of style performances

Andrej, age twenty-one from Slovenia, was the most flamboyant of my interviewees. I met him for coffee after the class we have together. He arrived wearing a red-printed hoody, a skull scarf on top of an Emporio Armani jacket, black winter pants, and red and black side zip boots with fur trim. His accessories included a metal chain necklace, an eyebrow ring, a turquoise earring in his left ear, and a bejeweled Buddha ring. A creative, fashion-savvy guy, he still hesitated when I opened with: ‘Describe your personal style’.

Okay why do you have to start so difficult? Um, I guess I would say I try to look different from most people especially in Slovenia because everyone is dressed the same. Here it’s not that noticeable.’ (Andrej)

Andrej gained more confidence when I asked him about his signature pieces. He explained the importance of bags, belts, and jewelry. He also described a period where he was ‘really obsessed’ with belts and bought a lot of them. However, his biggest obsession was a purple necklace he found in Las Vegas. ‘I went looking for it. I got it for one dollar so it’s basically the cheapest thing I have but I love it so much.’ Andrej expressed the most passion during our conversation. He has amassed many different pieces over the years so it was difficult for him to choose a favorite outfit. ‘This is the worst. I can’t choose! I don’t even know what to choose there are quite a few of them for different reasons.’ He paused to ask my permission to include more than one.

I love my purple hoodie. That’s a pretty simple thing but it’s just so purple. That’s why I think I love it so much because purple is my favorite. These red flared jeans that I bought in Tokyo have these bats hanging from them on a little chain. I love those. A couple of my friends gave me a personalized t-shirt. It’s not even something that I bought in a store but I just love it because it’s very personal to me.’ (Andrej)

There was another pause. ‘Ok, I don’t want to do too many. Oh God I love everything!’, he said excitedly and animatedly clapped his hands. I looked over at the shopping bag on the table next to him. Before we got to the café we walked into a store that specialized in rave wear. Andrej picked up a black hat with a neon glow in the dark splatter paint design. I pointed to the hat and asked him what made him choose it.

The colors are amazing and it’s very flashy. I’ve wanted to wear some hats. I have one or two. Also, I think it’d look really great with the bag that I have and it’s kind of a party hat. I don’t take myself too seriously.’ (Andrej)

On the other hand, Darian, age twenty-five from Canada, expressed the opposite opinion about himself.

I just think that my style reflects my personality in that I’m an academic focused sort of person and that’s had a lot of influence on my style. Working for my university for two years has made me feel comfortable in a dress shirt and pants as opposed to always wearing jeans.’ (Darian)

Darian was the most introverted of the four men. This was reflected in the way he described his personal style.

I do kind of like to splash a little bit of color in my outfits but I tend to be more reserved in my palette. My personal style is preppy not too crazy and also affordable.’ (Dylan)

Andrej’s objective to stand out was the complete opposite of Darian’s objective to avoid differentiating himself. In their study of homosexual ‘communities, commodities, cultural space, and style’, Freitas, Kaiser and Hammidi (2010: 85) argue that: ‘Visibility has become important to the gay and lesbian communities, because it provides a space in which to live as gays and lesbians.’ At the same time, as pointed out in Herdt’s (1995) study of gay and lesbian youth, heterosexist ideology continues to perpetuate both the invisibility and the stigmatization of homosexuality. It comes as no surprise that some gay youth do not make the visibility of their sexuality a priority because they see themselves as just another person. Darian’s attitude towards visibility suggests that not all gays attribute the same importance to visibility or want to occupy the same space.

There’s also that feeling even for myself that I don’t want people to be like “That guy’s gay. Oh look, gay guy on the rise.” I feel like sexuality is not huge in my life. It’s not all encompassing of who I am. Sure, I’m gay and everything but that’s not something I put on my resume and tell my boss, “Hi, I’m Darian and I’m gay. I want to work here. Let’s make your workplace more diverse.” For me at least I don’t think that’s appropriate.’ (Darian)

Similarly, Sedgwick (1991: 68) claims that: ‘Even at the individual level, there are remarkably few of even the most openly gay people who are not deliberately in the closet with someone personally or economically or institutionally important to them.’ Darian’s choice to dress less visibly gay whatever that means to him contradicts Schofield and Schmidt’s (2005: 311) claim that ‘Gay identity exists only at the point when one’s homosexual identity is actively presented to others and when affiliation within the gay community occurs’. This claim neither captures the full range of style performances nor does it reflect Sedgwick’s point that all homosexuals are not out to everyone.

Collective style sensibility

Like other communities, citizenship in the gay community can be expressed through style. ‘Communities may use style to signify membership, separation from a more general culture, and expression of common feelings and values’ (Freitas, Kaiser & Hammidi, 2010: 85). Thus communities or ‘tribes’ are often thought to share collective sensibilities of taste and style. However, Nick argues,

I wouldn’t say that there’s a collective style sensibility at all. I don’t think that there’s a collective sensibility because I know gay people who dress to the nines and gay people who don’t care about fashion at all.’ (Nick)

Moreover, Schofield and Schmidt’s findings show the gay community to be highly fragmented, with an abundance of different subcultures, best conceptualized as ‘neo-tribes’ (2005: 318). Their findings confirmed clothing as a visual code communicating tribal affiliation. Likewise, Jason describes a few of the most well-known gay tribes.

In the gay culture you have circuit queens, guys that are bald, wear V-necks, tight jeans. They all look the same and they have tribal tattoos. There are thousands of them in every city. In the seventies it was all about mustaches and leather men. Twinks are these young, hairless, blonde super-skinny guys who wear American Eagle or Hollister. They’re under twenty or under twenty-two. Bears are supposed to be manly and fat. Still, I don’t think you can say there’s a collective gay style but I think you can identify it in a very problematic ethnographic way. There are certain distinct pockets with uniforms. People used to call it the uniform in the seventies.’ (Jason)

Their respective uniforms communicate unique forms of intergroup communication. Yet, they are not united in views and attitudes by virtue of being homosexual. It would be both essentializing and generalizing to make such a claim. The gay community itself is a fractured group whose members have different opinions and experience a variety of realities.

Resistance and subversion through style

Clothing inevitably delivers social messages to other human beings. So, fashion can be used both as a way to assert personal freedom and as a political choice. In the classical work of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, subcultures take on a political guise. ‘Using their “resistant” styles and activities, members [of a subculture] oppose the hegemonic meanings and values of the “dominant” culture and crusade to “win space” for their own’ (MacDonald, 2001: 57). Subcultures develop resistance and self-identification strategies to resist oppression by the dominant culture. Jason identifies as queer and was the most politically active. He spends a lot of time in gay bars and queer spaces. Throughout our conversation he mentioned several political projects he participates in to promote the gay community. Individually, he opposes heteronormativity based on the way he dresses and the topics he chooses to talk about.

People like me, I purposefully out myself to people at least within the first two meetings with them. Not to say that I’m trying to fuck with people but I purposefully try to confront people with the fact that I’m gay to make them acknowledge that there are queer people in the world. In the way that I am which includes the way that I dress, the way that I speak and what I talk about because I’m also very political too. There is a weird balance between who is trying to make themselves visible and in what way and to what audience.’ (Jason)

Everyone had different opinions about whether their personal style could be interpreted as resistant. Andrej, for example, demonstrated complete indifference toward judgment.

I mean if I really cared about people judging me I would not wear the things I’m wearing. I mean I would wear them here but not in Slovenia. I think a lot of people look at me weird for what I’m wearing. One time I wore a mask on a regular day in the city. I guess I’m sort of like “Fuck you.” I mean I just want to wear stuff that I like.’ (Andrej)

Of course, this ‘Fuck you’-attitude is in itself a resistive performance. For Nick it was more difficult. It took him five or six years to feel fully confident in his style.

I think in some sense my older clothes are resistant or subversive. It took me a long time to get to this point but now I’m at a point where if I think it’s cool I’m going to wear it regardless of what other people are going to think. Now I would never stop myself from buying something just because I didn’t think it would fit in with what I think other people would wear. So I think in that sense it’s a little subversive.’ (Nick)

However, Darian definitely considers how he will be judged or whether he will attract too much attention.

I don’t try to be that subversive in my attire. I don’t try to be too crazy because I don’t want to be excluded and stared at due to my appearance. I’m a little self-conscious in that I don’t always feel comfortable looking like completely different. It’s often my boyfriend that helps me find a new piece of clothing that I didn’t really realize would look nice. He has a lot of influence I think. He supports me in taking risks in my attire.’ (Darian)

The risk-taking and rebellion often associated with youth explains why youth cultural anthropology focuses on deviance and its social consequences in cultural practice. The youth category itself lacks a clear definition but adjectives used to describe youth typically include ‘delinquent’, ‘deviant’, and ‘troublesome’. Bucholtz (2002) makes a distinction between youth as a flexible and contestable social category and adolescence as a universal life-stage. Adults who view adolescence as a period of transition take youth culture for granted when they dismiss it as a stage. Youth become a spectacle rather than individual agents actively participating in subcultures of their choice. Consequently, youth often feel misunderstood. Nick expressed resentment toward his parents for the way they interpreted his ‘rebellion’ in high school.

My senior year, I didn’t get along with my parents at all. That was when I started dressing differently. To me it wasn’t so much a form of rebellion. That’s the way my parents saw it “as a time of rebellion.” But for me, it was really a period of self-discovery and my beliefs not aligning with theirs and me wanting to be my own person rather than the person that they always expected me to be.’ (Nick)

Nick grew up in a typically conservative mid-western town north of Chicago. He believed he had to be a certain way and felt insecure with who he was. However, during his senior year he went on a trip to Kenya which he called ‘a big self-discovery moment’.

After that I just decided I was going to do what I want to do and wear what I want to wear and be the person that I want to be. I got to a point where I thought ‘I don’t like wearing those things, I think they look kind of stupid’ and everybody wears them. So, I started shopping at different stores. I started going to thrift stores. I started wearing skinnier jeans and stuff that I always wanted to wear but never felt comfortable wearing.’ (Nick)

Nick’s experience relates to Bucholtz’s assertion that youth are often the agents as well as the experiencers of cultural change. Queering gender offers one way for gay youth to challenge oppression. Jason explains,

The first distinction you have to make is between gay and queer because queer means something totally different to a lot of people. It’s an identity that a lot more young people have chosen to identify with in opposition to what they see as a mainstream, assimilationist or normative gay culture or LGBT culture. So queer is like we’re fucking with that. We want to fuck shit up.’ (Jason)

Thus, for Jason, Nick, Andrej, and Darian style becomes a critical youth cultural practice used to demonstrate agency of their identities as gay men. As Sedgwick, a youth icon from the 1960s, put it, ‘It’s not that I’m rebelling. It’s that I’m just trying to find another way.’ This quote demonstrates the individual choice stripped from youth when adults label their style or their behavior ‘rebellious’. To youth themselves, being ‘rebellious’, through style or otherwise, means to find a way to be themselves. For Darian, his ‘style rebellion’ was a personal decision to differentiate himself from his two-years-older brother.

Influentially in my life I’ve had brothers who had dark macabre style. I didn’t look up to my brother’s style. It was almost like a rebellion in a sense. That’s not how I want to dress. I want to be more proper and clean cut and that’s going to be my image. There are definitely opposite images with our styles. I try to be more neutral but I really like lighter tones.’ (Darian)

Each style evolution was different but all of them happened during high school. Andrej said,

I started dressing myself more in high school. The more I travelled around the more I was able to find unique stuff. That made my style a little flashier.’ (Andrej)

Forever young

Youth culture recognizes youth as individuals with the power to create and the power to act. Perhaps, that is why Jason and Andrej want to hold onto their youth for as long as possible. Jason said, ‘I do like to dandy up but I don’t want to seem too grown up. I still want to maintain the kid in me too.’ Similarly, Andrej said, ‘I want to be youthful and sort of a bit party but also city style not fancy but nice.’ Neil Young expresses the desire to be ‘Forever Young’, while Cameron Thomaz’s song exalts being ‘Young, wild, and free’. A lack of inhibitions and the freedom to experiment with self-expression are two of the ways society mythologizes youth. Nick believes that gay youth in particular put a greater emphasis on freedom of expression.

One thing I will say about most of the gay people I’ve met is that they wear what they want to wear because they’re people that are true to themselves. A lot of heterosexual people have their guard up more so they’re more likely to dress differently depending what they think other people expect of them. I think that’s the only collective truth to fashion. Gay people are more likely to dress the way that they want to dress because they put themselves out there more.’ (Nick)

Unfortunately, the media stereotype gay youth fashion expression and often trivialize it. Instead, gay youth voices should be heard through projects which genuinely try to capture individual identity.

Defining a postmodern gay identity

Postmodernist theories accept the limits of objectivity and contend that identity categories like ‘gay youth’ must continue to be questioned. Variability and positionality are key themes of identity. For instance, Behrend (2002: 47) describes the creation of the self as ‘a complex process of interaction of multiple practices of identification external or internal to a subject, an elaborate game of mirrors’. Likewise, Butler (1993) emphasizes identity formation which she sees as an endless process of becoming, and Haraway (1991: 586) contends that ‘the knowing self is partial…never finished’. Schofield and Smith’s (2005) findings conclude that gay males recognize postmodern multiple identities. They also illustrate the role of clothing choice in the relationship between multiple identities which interact to form an individual’s continual process of gay identity formation. Thus fashion is used as a major means of expression of gay sexualities and a means of differentiation for individuals both from the straight society and within the complex tribal structures of the gay community (2005: 321). Fashion creates a means of expression through stylized performance or camp. In fact, Schofield and Schmidt describe shopping not merely as the acquisition of things but rather as the buying of identity (2005: 313). Therefore, the gay self is a constructed identity made possible through pluralistic shifting styles.

‘It is this sense of becoming through visual expression that has led some writers to describe contemporary gay sensibility or camp as a “poststructuralist mode par excellence.” As such, it not only deconstructs dominant cultural forms, but also continually shapes and reshapes their forms and meanings.’ (Freitas, Kaiser & Hammidi 2010: 100).

The reshaping of forms and meanings provokes the label ‘deviant subculture’, with all its negative connotations. However, subcultures should be described as ‘resistant’ rather than ‘deviant’. My ethnographic findings reveal a gay youth subculture which agrees with Butler’s thesis that no gender identity exists prior to performance. Jason, Nick, Andrej, and Darian make specific choices with varying degrees of visibility. Their identities are unstable, shifting, and always subject to change. Furthermore, their range of style performances demonstrates both a gay subcultural desire to challenge heteronormative social structures as well as sharing the same themes of resistant and subversive youth styles in general.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


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