by Ben Wood
A few years ago, I was out for drinks with my boyfriend at the time. The sun was shining, and we were outside in the beer garden. I was living in Newcastle at the time, whereas he’d managed to get a job in Leeds, so we’d gone from essentially living together in our days of undergrad to only getting to see each other every other weekend. He was wearing a bright red shirt with shiny gold accents on the sleeves. I’d never seen it before and asked if it was new. “Oh no”, he said. “Do you like it? I’ve had it since before we met but never really felt I could pull it off. I’m trying to dress gayer”. It was slightly ostentatious, but I was into it. Without Jack’s slightly louder than usual dress sense, we were just too blokes having a beer. Now, for the first time, people might even read us as gay for once, or even a couple.
Elton obviously never struggled...
In fact, I wanted to dress gayer too. I’d been to a party a few weeks before and borrowed a particularly flamboyant shirt and the reception was so positive that my friend let me keep it. Where I struggled with this idea was finding the confidence. Jack is far from a shy person. In all the time I’ve known him — we were friends for three years before we got together and had been together 4 years at that point — I have never seen him show a shred of self-doubt, except for that day. He’s tall and he’s got a jawline you could cut glass with. I used to say he could wear a binbag and still look good. I, on the other hand, have been riddled with anxiety since the day I was born, especially about how I look.
Based on a difficult set of teenage years struggling with bullies at school, disordered eating, and parents who would tell me to “straighten up” in one way or another on a near-daily basis, I didn’t think I’d be dressing gayer at any point in the future. The nagging voice in my head reminded me of the time I bought some purple skinny jeans and I was told to take them off immediately. Apparently, they were too feminine. The voice also reminded me of how I would look at myself in the mirror and no matter what I wore, I would believe I looked terrible. Even when my friends were telling me how good my shirt looked, the voice told me they didn’t really believe what they were saying. What would change now? Nonetheless I decided one day to take that nagging voice and stuff it in a box for a day or two.
In my final year of undergrad, I could actually count on one hand how many straight men I knew. Three — even then, they were comfortable enough to embrace their camper sides if they felt like it. When I left the gay bubble of my undergraduate and started an office job, I struggled to adapt. Suddenly, I was surrounded by macho straight men and before I knew it, someone assumed by “partner” I clearly meant girlfriend and my anxious brain couldn’t figure a way out of the web of lies I’d inadvertently spun for myself. Around this time, I also broke up with Jack and dramatically lost much of my confidence. There would be no dressing gayer in this office. I simply didn’t have the guts.
In the 1980s, the mainstream blurred
masculine and feminine
So much of this is to do with being gay. Not only are you attracted to men, you also find yourself making comparisons between you and them, sometimes damaging your self-esteem in the process. You might pretend to be someone you aren’t but end up miserable because you can’t be yourself even though you might fit in. You’re trapped in between a rock and a hard place which doesn’t exist. This all seems obvious, but it took me years to figure this out. When I eventually left my boring finance job to move to St Andrews, nobody knew me, so I dug out that one shirt in my wardrobe and went shopping. Eventually, I had a more varied wardrobe which didn’t always read as gay, but it did often enough. The most exciting part was that this didn’t terrify me.
Fast forward one year and my parents are coming to visit for the first time since I moved to St Andrews. It’s the first time they’ve visited since I graduated from my undergrad five years previously and the most frightening of all, the first time since I’ve come out. I haven’t seen them in person in over a year, but our relationship hasn’t been the best. So, understandably I was nervous about them coming to visit. I had already thrown away much of my straight-passing gear. There would be nowhere to escape to while they were in my house. I wore something relatively inoffensive — a pastel pink jumper, some boots, and black skinny jeans — and to my surprise the first words out of my mother’s mouth were “oh, you look lovely, darling. I like your jumper”. I was dumbfounded.
The Flamboyant Gay Man — Harmful Stereotype to some, Mundane Reality for others
If masculinity weren’t so fragile, my parents would never have felt the need to police my style choices, I would just be a man by virtue of identifying that way. Now I’m a grown man who evidently doesn’t cause the sky to cave in by wearing a floral shirt, there’s nothing they can do. What was at the core of their panic then? Surely some kind of misplaced parental concern, some crossed wires and miscommunication, the desire to protect me from the bullies? Or was it something more manipulative? In all honesty, it could have been all of these things. Parents were children once: victims of the same restrictions on their gender expression which they pass onto us to try and maintain the status quo — for no other reason than that’s the way it’s always been. Boys don’t talk like that, don’t walk like that, don’t dress like that. What they were afraid of was obviously not the case when confronted with the reality. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some kind of coming out, but the more time I spend away from the stifling environment of where I grew up, the less I find myself striving towards being masculine.
Style Icon Billy Porter (right) paying homage to Ballroom Legend, Hector Xtravaganza
Dressing a bit more adventurously is just the first step of course, but it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend about the first time he started binding his chest. “Yeah, my family were a little bit weird about it to start with, but it was worth it”. Now obviously me wearing the odd jazzy shirt and occasionally painting my nails is not the same, but with just a few small changes comes a huge amount more freedom. Rather than having to come out over and over again, I get the chance to just be myself and we can go from there. People assume gay rather than straight. People have noticed the boost in my confidence. I myself noticed that I would keep closeted if nobody asked and that’s no longer the case. You’d be surprised how people will respond. So if you, like me, have that one shirt (or a dress, or high heels, or a haircut, or a binder) that you just don’t think you can pull off and you’re in a safe position to do so, be brave and try it on.