Repetition, Subculture, and Radar: “Gay” Fashion and Performative Construction
Repetition, Subculture, and Radar: “Gay” Fashion and Performative Construction
When I first came out to my mother, she said, “You’re going to need to dress more fashionably, or the gays will kick you out.” Tight clothes always struck me as rather gay. In the tutoring program I’m in, our students asked why two counselors, who happen to be gay, always wear tight pants. We decided that “Because they’re gay” was a bad answer. Somehow, we dodged answering.
In 2005, William Lee Adams, a senior at Harvard College concentrating in psychology, finished his thesis – and it made quite a splash. As heterogeneous audiences watched Brokeback Mountain and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (which was entering its third successful season) in droves, Adams argued that gay men and lesbians could tell if another person was gay – usually within two seconds. “Gaydar,” Psychology Today, the New York Times, and the Advocate reported, really did exist. And Adams, himself a self-identified gay man, attested to his own “finely-tuned” sixth sense: “My first year of college I suspected that half a dozen people were gay. By graduation they had all come out, and I had silenced my skeptics.”1
The idea that gays and lesbians are identifiable by visual signifiers isn’t especially new. Indeed, for whatever reason, the indicators of homosexuality have remained stable in the most basic sense: gay men have always been “effeminate,” lesbians have always been “masculine” – never mind that those very words have shifting definitions and signifiers themselves. It is an overt and unapologetic simplification, a denial of human complexity: an arbitrary construction that reduces men and women, of all types, into conveniently labeled boxes. In an outdated popular conception, homosexuals are inverted, reversed, men with souls of women and women with souls of men – and however that translates into visibility is self-affirming and beyond question.
But that construction, that conflation of gender and sexuality, is just that: a construction, built upon a foundation of presumed sexual and gender difference. To be an effeminate man is to reify, through negation, what it is to be a “masculine” – or “regular” – man; and to be a masculine woman is to reinscribe the notions of what is means to be a “feminine” – or “traditional” – woman. These popular conceptions – of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine” – aren’t at all tied to reality, to life as it is experienced or identity as it functions. The signifiers of “masculinity” and “femininity” connote whatever society deems appropriate. Thus, if we interact with these supposed inverts of the human form, we’re interacting with deviations from the standard, both visually and substantively: men acting and looking like women (by desiring men) and women acting and looking like men (by desiring women).
Fortunately, popular conceptions of sexuality and its signifiers are no longer so monolithic, so static, so reductive. We can conceive of men who look – who “act” – like men and desire men; and we can do the same with women. It is no longer enough to cite a label or identity as an explanation for appearance, mannerisms, taste, or sensibility – sexual desire is much more complicated, and much more individual, than that careless association between an original “sexuality” that doesn’t exist and the signifiers that supposedly represent it. And if we are to question the validity of “sexuality” as it exists and its attendant labels, if we are to question the very notion of what it means to be “gay,” we must necessarily question what it means to look gay– for often, in dominant heterosexual culture, to look gay is enough to be gay.
The matter of “gaydar,” then, is an interesting one, for Adams’ thesis concludes that to look gay isn’t necessarily to dress gay: homosexual men and women can identify other homosexuals in a relatively short period of time, with relatively little visual information – participants in his study received head shots of the subjects, no more, no less. Such immediate responses to so few visual cues are inherently problematic in any construction of what it means to “look gay” or “look like a lesbian,” for certain facial structures are not inherently “gay” or “lesbian.” And to complicate matters, “of homosexuals, gay men were more easily recognized than lesbians…Gay women were more likely than men to be misclassified by both heterosexuals and homosexuals as straight.”2 Adams explains this discrepancy by citing the gay male’s more visible niche in the entertainment world – a niche reified by and dependent upon the presumed existence of a vibrant gay sensibility. “Gaydar,” then, hardly functions independently from the cultural signifiers of homosexuality – it is, instead, an extension of the visual tropes long identified as “gay” or “lesbian.” To some, certain facial features may be inherently “gay” – but they’re only as “gay” as their surrounding environments, as their contextualizations, as their processes of social construction as “gay.”
It seems that fashion, then, is key to understanding modern gay existence, for its status as gatekeeper to the signification of gay sensibility emerges from both queer protagonists and their heterosexist antagonists. Part of the social construction of sexuality is its attendant visualization – we must see gay men in order to believe that they exist. And that attendant visualization necessarily extends from body language and mannerisms, from vestimentary codes and stylistic behaviors. If we can identify gay men from the neck up because of our conscious associations between facial characteristics and the entertainment industry – an industry in which the gay experience has been commodified and translated into a larger, identifiable sensibility, of which fashion is a part – it isn’t because there is anything inherently gay about entertaining. At the same time, there isn’t anything explicitly or functionally gay about many commonly identified “gay” fashions; nothing about tight jeans or chokers precisely signifies a man’s desire to fuck another. And yet we maintain that we can really see gay people, that we can tell them apart from the larger population, that we can pick them out in crowds like some sort of incredibly visible novelty.
But how, beyond the most shallow explanation, does fashion interact with the “gay” experience? Doubtlessly, it serves as a means of “identifying” that which is otherwise unidentifiable, even in the most revealing of spaces – a personal, fluid structure of desire is transformed into a public lifestyle, an easily recognizable and patently coded system of signs that discloses the appropriation of a highly unstable social construction. But does fashion serve only as a revelatory agent? Is it the unmasking of the highly tenuous, fluid, and hysterical organization of desire that matters most, or rather the construction of a discursive political force, a hostile gay subculture within the paranoid dominant culture, that systematizes the unmasking of that hysterical construction of desire? Even then, what is fashion’s place in that system of signs – that is, that hysterical construction of sexuality?
With these questions in mind, I interviewed fifteen gay men currently attending Harvard College. My reasons for selecting men only extend from a pursuit of achievable academic honesty: the gay male “community” – if one can even call it that – at Harvard is much better represented than the lesbian one, and thus offers a broader range of experiences, tastes, and backgrounds than Harvard’s small lesbian community could provide. At the same time, gay men have had, by virtue of patriarchal privilege, more access to individual inclinations than lesbians; historically, they’ve had more purchasing power and economic autonomy, and thus more money to pursue various lifestyles outside of the traditional or domestic sphere. And most importantly, gay men have been commodified by advertisers and retailers, resulting in the growth of a more visible gay sensibility; lesbians, on the other hand, have been largely ignored by the consumer economy and left to flounder in whatever base stereotypes that have achieved visibility in mainstream discourse. 3
These interviews will inform my larger academic project: to examine the extent to which fashion is used as a means of constructing categories of performative gay sexuality. By looking at fashion’s influence in the creation of gay subcultures, we can provide a tangible link between the social construction – via repetition – of gay sexuality and the clothes gay men wear. And by analyzing the state of the gay community at Harvard College – perceived as an increasingly progressive and supportive space – we can determine the degree to which “gay” fashion operates as a unifying force in an increasingly invisible and unnecessary gay subculture.
“Being gay” is a performative self-construction. I think once people come out of the closet, they do generally settle on an average mien: more effeminate, more trendy, more campy, more flippant, more hyper-energized. The true answer, then, is yes, that you can often dial up your gaydar and spot the gays on campus with a good degree of accuracy.
Harold’s arrival at Harvard College in the summer of 2006 was, by most standards, unexceptional: he was reserved, quiet, and adopted an air of seriousness. The son of a factory worker and a small tradesman – and the resident of a small town in the rural Midwest – he spoke softly and dressed modestly (he was usually trimmed in a neutral blazer, a solid oxford, and a pair of worn jeans). But that reservation and impersonal presentation masked an important distinguishing characteristic, one he wouldn’t reveal until he was asked (and even then, only after a few months of adjustment): Harold was attracted to men, and only men. A far cry from the over-represented “Harvard man,” that illustrious and well-respected combination of privilege and good breeding, Harold thrived in a tenuous but fluid space, one marked not by the omniscient oppression of a small town, but rather the dynamic and largely accepting – but historically hostile – milieu of a large research university.
Small-town America, in all its idyllic conception, is nevertheless a constraining force: it is a space in which gay men and women can exist, sometimes openly but usually not, under the aegis of the dominant culture. Neil Miller successfully chronicled the state of gay subcultures – or, rather, the lack thereof – in small towns across the United States in In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in a Time of Change. Notably, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the visual cultures of the gay sensibility were largely absent; in repressive spaces, those that operate under the patronage of the binary conceptions of gender and sexuality, discursive representation – or even identifiable representation – as the “other” constitutes an infringement of propriety. (In Bunceton, Missouri, a rural town infamous for its continued support of an openly gay mayor, an “influx” of gay males (approximately three of them) yielded the paranoid and hysterical vandalism of one man’s house – which was apparently identifiable by its high-quality renovation.4 )
Unsurprisingly, Harold – and millions of gay men like him – didn’t identify a visual subculture in his town of around 13,000. There was no “gay” fashion, for one’s quiet and stable existence was predicated on silence: to be openly (and visibly) gay was to admit one’s willing and conscience transgression of the ever-present binary. Of course, this fear of transgression depends upon a reductivist conception of what homosexuals are and what they wear – men dressing (and desiring) like women!, women dressing (and desiring) like men! The paranoia of the restrictive space necessarily restricts the rebellions against it; by anticipating and discouraging dissent early, it solidifies its existence as one free from challenges to heteronormative constructs. “Gay fashion” has no room in a space so small and contained; its presence is too indicative of the larger threat beneath it.
Despite challenges to its authenticity, fashion is less shallow than its critics charge. Indeed, it is profound in scopes both wide and narrow: it is a central mechanism of socio-cultural formation, and it is instrumental in the social construction of gender and sexuality. The clothes one wears mark much more than taste or class; they are signifiers of identity, markers of gender, cogs in a complex machine of sexual acculturation. Fashion isn’t limited to merely providing a visual point of reference for gay men and lesbians – it is a means of social resistance, a mechanism of visible self-identification and definition, an apparatus of distinction. But most importantly, fashion is a means of repetition: it is the continuance of popular conceptions, the constant legitimization and reification of the “gay man” as he is conceived and as he is recognized.
If we are to understand fashion’s effect on the creation and replication of gay sexuality, we must understand its genesis from a codifier of sexuality to a mechanism of subcultural formation. And we must start at the origin; we must examine what sexuality is – how it forms, how it functions, how it exists. In its broadest definition, “sexuality” is a structure of sexual desires. But society’s more tailored definition isn’t quite so forgiving: it codifies those sexual desires into convenient labels, reducing the scope of individual inclinations into universal themes. While any given person has any number of distinct sexual desires, society operates with just a few indexes of those desires: there is homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality. (There are, of course, other labels – like “queer” – but they have hardly been accepted by mainstream discourse.) Even then, those constructs fail to legitimize the desires of an individual: it is only whom the subject desires that matters, not how or when or where. As “homosexuals,” gay men are defined not by their actual inclinations – that is, whom they want to fuck, and how, and when – but only by the most common, and least exciting, element among them: a sexual desire for other men.5
Doubtlessly, human desires have not always been structured into arbitrary codifications defined by subject/object relationships. Though Freud conceives of sexuality as an extension of sub- and unconscious desires, and while Foucault laboriously charts the history of sexuality as the germination and propagation of an institutionalized discourse, neither explanation adequately accounts for a desire distinct from society’s codification of that desire. And as appealing – that is, intellectually simple – as it is to point toward an anthropological analysis of kinship systems to represent the emergence of the earliest societies and the organization of the sex/gender system therein, such an analysis would be an overt simplification in itself. Kinship societies, while not yet fully “civilized” along modes of western thought, are nevertheless organizations that post-date the origin of humanity. As such, we cannot rely on Claude Lèvi-Strauss’s anthropological research or Gayle Rubin’s application of still extant kinship societies (which reaffirms the social construction of “obligatory heterosexuality”)6. Instead, we must go back further, to the “origin” of sexuality – an “origin” that just so happens to have never existed.
In her oft cited and groundbreaking essay Imitation and Gender Insubordination, philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler makes an arresting proposition: both gender and sexuality emerge from copies of an origin that doesn’t exist. Masculine/heterosexuality is the “origin,” and feminine/homosexuality is its derivative “imitation.” Butler theorizes that this “origin” is, in fact, performative heterosexuality: in the homophobic mind, “queens and butches and femmes are imitations of the heterosexual real,” where “imitation” connotes derivativeness, a secondary existence, one subservient to the dominant and real heterosexual “origin.”7
That “origin,” however, never truly existed, and thus relies upon its “inversion” and replication to maintain its status as the prototype, the heterosexual real: “the origin requires its derivations in order to affirm itself as an origin, for origins only make sense to the extent that they are differentiated from that which they produce as derivatives. Hence, if it were not for the notion of the homosexual as copy, there would be no construct of heterosexuality as origin.”8 Thus, both heterosexuality and homosexuality are mutually dependent on the other to reproduce and re-legitimize the existence of each. Each is dependent on the other’s repetition to constitute itself as real: the masculine/heterosexual/“original” construct relies upon its feminine/homosexual/“imitational” derivative to emphasize its importance as the “original”; and the feminine/homosexual/“imitational” derivative sustains its repetition in order to exist in opposition to the “origin,” which nevertheless reifies the assumption of its derivativeness. But because neither sexuality exists as the origin, we must necessarily conclude that sexuality is, indeed, socially constructed: both heterosexuality and homosexuality are nothing more than reductivist concepts manipulated to compress the expansive capabilities of individual sexual desires.
Nevertheless, constructs of sexuality as they exist necessitate our examination of them as they function. If we take this false construction further, we can extend the repetition of the homosexual “copy” – for, truly, dominant and mainstream discourse presumes that homosexuality is an aberration from the original and natural heterosexuality – to reproduce the attendant notions of the construction itself. In other words, the copies of the “origin” constantly reify the significations of that origin’s existence – and by examining the signifiers of the origin, we necessarily examine the signifiers of the copies. For it is through the repetition of the copies that the origin derives its purported legitimacy; if we identify the “straight male” as the origin, we mandate the construction of both the origin and his imitator, the “gay male”; and it is through the repeated visual tropes of the “gay male” that we identify the “straight male” and, thus, his imitator.
Butler, in her attempt to prove the repetition hypothesis, rests part of her argument on “gender stylization,” for gender – like sexuality – is performative to the extent that “it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express.” To be a “man” is to reify, and therefore inherently support, the signifiers of that “manliness” – for the idealized “man” is the origin, and modern “manliness” is its sustained repetition. Like sexuality, gender itself, as it exists and as it is perceived, predicates its existence on its having existed and its ability to exist; and it takes, as its sign and “origin,” the heterosexual standard. Indeed, “the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect.”9 In other words, the “masculine heterosexual” is the original gender from which queer imitations, or copies, constantly reinforce, by oppositional negation, the “masculine heterosexual” as the origin. Those imitations carry the significations of secondary status, and therefore exist within the pejorative context of aberrational existence. Much like the psychiatric discourse surrounding homosexuality in the 1950s, these imitations are conceived of as inverses of the heterosexual ideal: “masculine heterosexuality” necessarily becomes “feminine homosexuality,” and the visual tropes of masculinity determine, through the same process of oppositional inversion, the signifiers of femininity. Thus, masculinity = heterosexuality and femininity = homosexuality. The binary’s repetition culminates in a visual “swap” of signifiers: that which once connoted “masculinity” codes female homosexuality, and the signification of “femininity” necessarily extends to male homosexuality. Gays look “effeminate,” and lesbians look “masculine.”
Those visual tropes are, indeed, visible signifiers that encompass numerous literal and figural gestures. Doubtlessly, part of our construction of gay male sexuality is our visualization of the gay male himself, and those tropes – whether mannerisms, body language, or vestimentary style – both offer an example of his “origin” and perpetuate its repetition over time. Thus, if we examine the fashion worn by gay men, we can better understand the gay male’s progression through history as a marked man, one identified, ostracized and, eventually, supported by his self-representation and the conclusions drawn from it. For it is fashion that has, historically, helped shape gay communities and subcultures into visible, progressive sanctuaries apart from the threatening, heterosexist, dominant culture. Indeed, “the professionalization of gayness requires a certain performance and production of a ‘self’ which is the constituted effect of a discourse that nevertheless claims to ‘represent’ that self as a prior truth.”10 In other words, “gayness” – a sensibility dependent upon gay sexuality – is nothing more than a performance that predicates its existence upon its ability to exist and its history of having existed. It presumes an origin, for it is from that original “gayness,” which is itself a derivative of original “straightness,” that modern “gayness” has produced a copy.
I think it’s the type of community that has manifold little subcultures, and it seems difficult to speak about the thing as if it were totemic. Instead, I think there are a lot of little groups that sometimes overlap: the political gays, the BGLTSA gays, the theatre gays, the closeted gays, probably a bunch of other little subcultures I don’t even realize. But as a whole, I’d say it’s at the very least tolerant of others.
I don’t really think there is much of a gay “community” at Harvard, since so many of Harvard students come from such different backgrounds and walks of life, unlike other minority groups which are made up of people who come from similar experiences (I mean by socioeconomic, religious, or political backgrounds). Nowadays, these other “categories” have much more influence in defining one’s life experience and “community” than sexuality.
West Orange High School is located twelve miles west of Orlando, Florida, in a small, but growing, suburb once known for its citrus industry. My family moved to Winter Garden in late 1999, escaping the increasingly crowded Kissimmee/St. Cloud region of Osceola County for the more relaxed agricultural town situated on either side of State Road 50. By the time I reached West Orange, the community was quickly and expediently changing – the downtown district received a major renovation, more homes were being built, more young white professionals were moving in, and more Baptist churches were erected between the subdivisions. My friends and their parents were overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant, and overwhelmingly conservative. Winter Garden was not my ideal place to be.
In fact, I didn’t “come out” until the winter of my first semester at Harvard – but that’s hardly surprising – for I didn’t see a glimpse of a real, live, gay community until I reached Harvard. One symptom of growing up in a conservative suburb that discourages homosexuality – or sinning, as most people call it – is the unfortunate belief, constructed out of resignation more than anything, that homosexuals don’t really exist: that they’re phantoms, ghosts on television or in movies, identified by their immaculate hair and high-pitched voices and limp wrists. (I am sure that, if one were to poll Winter Garden residents, this would be the most frequent description given.) In my high school class of 556, exactly zero students were openly gay; I was suspected, but I enjoyed enough privilege – because of my extracurricular activities, grades, and general administrational support – to absolve me of any guilt. During my last year, a few juniors – with the support of a single faculty member – started a Gay/Straight Alliance. It was heavily discouraged and widely mocked. But for however many queer students attended West Orange, it was heaven. (I did not participate.)
My experience, as avoidable as it was, is nothing more than a repetition of the experiences millions of gay men. To live a life that is frowned upon (at best) and cause for violence (at worst) by mainstream culture is, to appropriate the dire and melodramatic taglines of countless 1950s pulp novels, to “live in the shadows.” Today, most gay men (myself included) wait until they arrive at college to “come out” and explore their sexuality further. The college campus has become a symbol of intellectual and sexual freedom, a liberating force, one that encourages openness, tolerance, and, in the safest of spaces, complete acceptance. But historically, homosocial intellectual institutions throughout the Western world, like Harvard, have functioned largely as they do today – the most substantive difference being the pervasive requirement of secrecy.11 While men didn’t necessarily “come out,” they did have sex with other men, and often, that was enough. (In fact, in Harvard’s storied history, same-sex relationships – or even suggestions of same-sex relationships – were enough to warrant expulsion.) It wasn’t until the formation of vibrant gay subcultures in the post-Second World War gender malaise that gay sexuality was explored substantially and more than tangentially.
Indeed, the War’s intensity and duration necessitated the systematization of private homosocial spaces. Men from all across the United States, from disparate regions, with disparate backgrounds, and with disparate interests, met each other under the aegis of an intense war effort. More than 16 million men and women were enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces (most of whom were single), and 35% of whom were teenagers.12 They lived in close and incredibly impersonal spaces; the nude male body was systematically publicized, for soldiers shared crowded quarters. Even more, “as these young people left home, they also left many social and sexual pressures and expectations behind” – and homosexuals comfortable with their sexuality found opportunities to transgress those expectations and live without those constricting social pressures. Unsurprisingly, homoerotic tensions flourished in such impersonal barracks; men who once identified as heterosexual often began to question their sexualities, for the homosocial space provided almost no outlet for preoccupation with women.13
At the same time, the American public was more and more frequently exposed to images of the eroticized and heroicized male body. Photographs of members of the armed forces at ease, lounging semi-nude on beaches in the eastern front and in camps in the western front, came to dominate wartime coverage in popular magazines, like Life and Look.14 Americans saw, for the first time, sexualized, muscular American bodies lying together in close quarters; some images even showed one man giving another a massage. While a pejorative homosexual subtext wasn’t necessarily the intention of the photographers – and while many of the men photographed weren’t sexually attracted to men – the male body was, nevertheless, contextualized within the sphere of homosocial homoeroticism. Many men who discovered their desire for other men within the context of the war machine eschewed returning to their small hometowns; instead, they settled in “gay ghettos,” like Greenwich Village in New York, the North End and Beacon Hill in Boston, and the Tenderloin district and North Beach in San Francisco.15 And those subcultures freed gay men and lesbians to dress however they wanted, without fear of overt stigmatization. Many of them recognized each other by adopting “gay” fashion: they wore gabardine slacks, knit sport shirts in pastels, tasseled loafers, bright sweater vests; or they wore tight pants, tight shirts, military boots, chokers; or they dressed like women. Whatever their chosen style, gay men could identify each other, and that was enough – they could form friendships, relationships, cliques and social circles. The veil of invisibility often inflicted by mandated domestic relationships with women, while still overwhelmingly common, was no longer the only recourse for young American men attracted to men.16 Such a milieu was not restricted to the 1950s; over the course of the past six decades, the “gay sensibility” has only strengthened, increasing its visibility and influencing the modes of signification in the dominant culture. Paradoxically, the significations of “gayness” have both differentiated the subculture and sensibility from mainstream, dominant culture while being appropriated by that dominant culture. “Gayness,” to the extent that it exists as a performative manifestation of the feminine/homosexual “imitation” (and in opposition to the masculine/heterosexual “origin”), has muddled that binary by shifting the definitions of masculinity: the hypermasculine “bear,” for instance, thrives in a significant and visible sensibility within the gay subculture, while some “feminine” tropes of male homosexuality – described by Harvard student Adam K. as a “well-dressed, tight jean wearing” aesthetic – have been appropriated by the softening masculinity of male heterosexuals. In a word, the “gay sensibility” (and its attendant “gay fashion”) occupies a highly fluid space, one in which signifiers can be read and misread, understood and misunderstood.
The whole topic of gaydar has always been more of a joke than a topic of serious inquiry, but I have to admit that there are certain characteristics that raise a ‘gay’ flag in my mind when I’m meeting someone for the first time. Fashion is definitely a huge factor – generally, it seems that straight men are more concerned with the utility of their clothing (except, of course, when it comes to impressing women) and gay men are more concerned with the aesthetic style of their clothing. So, when I see an extremely well-dressed guy, it gives me the impression that he may be gay. If a guy associates primarily with women, that may also be an indicator, but beyond that I’m not sure I buy into the stereotypes about gay men.
Despite its loathsome history as a gatekeeper to aristocratic homophobia, Harvard College seems to have a disproportionate amount of gay students on campus; in the words of one student, “it’s the gayest place I’ve ever seen.” The College has tried to make up for its record of holding a secret court to purge gay students by fostering, at least theoretically, a progressive and safe space for its queer students. Whether Harvard is as progressive as it wants to be, or as accepting as it perceives itself to be, is a matter for debate. But removed from debate is the existence of a thriving gay community within the College – even if that community isn’t unified. The majority of students I interviewed perceived a profound polarization among gay students on campus – between the “BGLTSA (Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters’ Alliance) gays,”17 the “theatre gays,” the “political gays,” etc. Still, despite such disunity, gay students can easily identify others. Exceptions notwithstanding, body language, fashion, and posture are mostly reliable indicators of gay sexuality: flamboyant gestures, tight pants, and a rigid stance are often sufficient clues to make an accurate guess about a man’s “gayness.” Even if the community is discordant, it is nevertheless extant by virtue of its ability to foster self- and other-identification among gay students.
It may seem a bit obvious to posit that gay subcultures are created, in part, by endless permutations of one gay man’s ability to recognize another. Doubtlessly, fashion has served as an indicator of perceived sexuality. At Harvard, gay students recognize others by telling cues; tight pants, vests, decorative shirts, and accessories (especially scarves worn indoors) are often manipulated to both broadcast one’s own sexual preference and incite a response by other gay men. While an identifiable gay sensibility does not always create a cohesive gay community, the two nevertheless work in tandem to prolong the existence of that gay identity by creating a space (the community) in which the replication of that “derivative” sexuality takes place – which necessarily reifies the signifiers of that sexuality.18
“Gaydar,” then, is much more complicated than its critics often allow. It’s tempting to write it off, for sexuality and gender are performative and socially constructed. But it is for that very reason that “gaydar” is even possible. Because the subculture constitutes, as its origin, the construction of performative gay sexuality, it necessarily ensures the repetition of that construction, insofar as it creates a space in which the visual signifiers of gay sexuality are constantly reinscribed by their existence and the appropriation of gay subjects. In other words, the performative social construction of gay sexuality – as the feminine/homosexual/derivative “imitation” of the masculine/heterosexual/real “origin” – depends upon the gay subculture to foster a space for growth and repetition. At the same time, the creation of the subculture depends upon those very signifiers that constitute a visual repetition of gay sexuality: the tropes of gay male sexuality, like “gay fashion,” are a means of ensuring the constant transcription and re-transcription of “what it means to look like a homosexual,” which is thus employed by gay men to recognize each other. In short, “gaydar” is both a means of creating subculture and a mechanism in the process of repetition, both of which function interdependently to construct the signifiers of gay sexuality.
Originally, I intended to examine the extent to which fashion is a means of “performing” socially constructed gay sexuality and how it interacts with that construction after the subculture diminishes. Without a doubt, gay subcultures will not always exist, for capitalist society, if it progresses, will not require their construction. Quite conceivably, “gay” will appear “straight,” and “straight” will appear “gay.” Within the context of a highly progressive and capitalist society, the signifiers of gay sexuality are appropriated and commodified by the dominant culture in an act of political suppression. By commodifying the gay sensibility instead of equalizing it, the dominant culture creates a perceived space of equality while reinscribing its own dominance. With the appearance and feel of equality, the subculture’s necessity to exist is in doubt, for it no longer identifies a need to exist – a subculture is only as necessary as the dominant culture is threatening. After interviewing Harvard students, however, I learned that the perception of equalization doesn’t exist. Students identify tolerance, acceptance, and even enthusiasm in the community’s relationships with the gay minority; but that “enthusiasm” has yet to be translated into an appearance of equity. Perhaps other spaces, like New York City, would be more fruitful for investigation.
This is an enormous generalization, but I definitely feel like it’s possible to identify as gay some men who display characteristics of the most stereotyped conception of what it means to be gay, that being those who are more effeminate than “normal.” That said, not all gay men fall into this stereotype and not all effeminate men are gay. Generally, if I see characteristics of myself in other men, I tend to think that they’re gay.
Because sexuality is a concept that repeats itself through copies of a non-existent origin, it is necessarily socially constructed and performative: “sexuality,” as it exists, is nothing more than a reductivist approach to highly diverse and individualized sexual attractions and desires. And those endlessly repeated copies of the “origin” – which never existed – reproduce themselves through the visual signifiers associated with that origin. Thus, fashion is a visual means of repeating the concept of the origin, and therefore the signifiers of sexuality. At the same time, fashion is a means of subcultural formation; it has the ability to help form a distinct and visible community, which depends upon and reinscribes the process of repetition that reinforces the social construction of sexuality in the first place. The visual signifiers of gay male sexuality, like fashion, produce a visual repetition of the derivative “imitation” and therefore create common tropes through which gay men can express their sexualities. The process of self- and other-identification, the foundation for the creation of gay communities, depends upon both the expression of that sexual identity and that identity’s repetition, while simultaneously providing a space in which the process of repetition is sustained.
Ergo, “gaydar” isn’t the result of identifying “gay” characteristics via selective headshots. It is both a producer and result of sexual and social acculturation, a tool for creating relationships and sustaining the ability to manipulate that tool. When gay students at Harvard feel isolated from the manifold subcultures within the gay community, they can transcend that isolation by identifying gay men independent of niche. The conglomeration of identifiable signifiers – the cohesive gay stereotype – is often sufficient to support the formation of relationships.
But if fashion has, historically, functioned as a producer of subcultural formation and its attendant identity replication, why does Harvard College lack a cohesive gay community? Unfortunately, answers remain purely speculative. Stan F. attributes the polarization to a breakdown in identity politics: “the majority of Harvard’s gay community is dispersed amongst the student body, inactive in LGBT groups, who view their sexual orientation as somehow ancillary to their identity.” And Jacob W. posits that the fragmentation is an extension of Harvard students’ generally accepting stance toward homosexuality – without stigmatization, there isn’t much need for a comprehensive minority community.
Whatever its cause, the fragmentation of any gay subculture anywhere is cause for alarm. Because “gaydar,” subcultural formation, and the replication of sexual identity depend, in some way, upon fashion, that fashion’s commodification into the larger dominant culture (which currently functions as a totalizing bourgeois aesthetic) necessarily reduces that subculture’s political agency. On the surface, the diminution of the gay subculture appears to be a positive development: without an overtly threatening dominant culture, it can cohabitate with and assimilate into the larger social structure, which, after reducing the available space for the replication of gay tropes, results in a direct challenge to the strict codification of sexuality. But the commodification of that “gay sensibility” functions as an appropriating force, not an equalizing one; the subservience and derivativeness of the gay sensibility, an “imitation” of the heterosexual real, reinscribes the dominance of that “origin.” Likewise, the commodification of that gay sensibility necessarily creates a new space in which the process of replication functions. Ultimately, a weakened and fragmented subculture is at profound risk of political castration, for its support of replication ensures a gay-slanted and pro-gay reification of “gayness”; the replication of tropes in the dominant culture gives the illusion of equalization and reifies the dominant culture as “origin,” but removes the apparent need for political agency within the gay subcuture.
1 Unattributed. “Studying Gaydar,” The Advocate. July 18, 2006. Stable URL: http://www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid33191.asp. Accessed December 24, 2008.
2 Lawson, Willow. “Queer Eyes: Blips on the Gaydar.” Psychology Today. Nov/Dec 2005. Stable URL: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20051018-000007.xml. Accessed December 24, 2008.
3 That isn’t to suggest that Harvard’s lesbian community is unimportant. Rather, it is far less visible and diverse on campus, and thus a more difficult community to examine. Another caveat: a “lesbian chic” sensibility has been emerging within the past few years, but successes have been fleeting; Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, for instance, lasted just one season – and even then, the “Gal Pals” consisted of three gay men and one lesbian. It would be interesting to examine the increasing commodification of the burgeoning lesbian subculture, but I have a feeling that it would show, more than anything, the truncation of an underdeveloped discursive force; the dominant culture’s early commodification of a tenuous subculture necessarily appropriates, but does not equalize, the subculture with the dominant culture, thereby reducing its political impact. For more information on the increasing commodification of the “lesbian sensibility,” see Danae Clark’s Commodity Lesbianism from the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Heny Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, David Halperin (Routledge, 1993)
4 Miller, Neil. In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in Times of Change. The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York: 1989. Pg 32.
5 The same simplification of desire exists for lesbians and “heterosexual” men and women. Because bisexuals desire both men and women, society’s emphasis on bisexuality shifts to the context of the desire, not the subject of the desire itself.
6 Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women,” Toward an Anthropology of Women. 183.
7 Butler Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. Routledge, New York: 1991. Pg 21-22.
8 Butler, 22.
9 Butler, 21.
10 Butler, 18.
11 Paley, Amit. “The Secret Court of 1920,” The Harvard Crimson. November 22, 2002. Stable URL: http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=255428. Accessed December 26, 2008.
12 Bronski, Michael. The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. St. Martin’s Press, New York: 1998. Pg 87.
13 Bronski, 87.
14 Bronski, 89.
15 Bronski, 88.
16 Lesbians, due to their much more marginal purchasing power, were not afforded the same abilities to form as vibrant subcultures as men. Women were, more than ever, pressured to start families after the war ended. Moreover, men reclaimed their jobs upon their return, necessitating the return of women to domestication.
17 After these interviews were conducted, the Harvard-Radcliffe BGLTSA was renamed the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies (QSA).
18 It is entirely possible for a gay sensibility to exist across multiple subcultures. Indeed, the “gay community” at Harvard College is splintered and hardly unified. Students recognize “little subcultures” within the larger community, which is nevertheless unified around a common sensibility.