Monday Roundtable: The First Queer People Who Pinged Our Gaydars With Their Style

Just like Alison Bechdel, many of us remember the first time someone seemed queer to us because of their style. For this week’s But Make It Fashion roundtable, we asked our team: Do you remember the first time (or if not first, maybe a notable time) that a gay person pinged for you based on what they were wearing? What did they have on and why did it ping?

Carrie Wade, Staff Writer

Honestly, some of my high school classmates, specifically those on sports teams. I know the jock-girl-as-lesbian thing is a stereotype and not at all universal — but some of them just carried themselves differently, and that was the first time I was able to tell. I think the fact that everyone on a team wears the same uniform helps you spot key differences in personal vibe. I managed the girls’ basketball team for three years (yes, hello, I am gay) and even though I was only out at the tail end of that time, I distinctly remember being able to read the room in this regard. After I came out it became a lot clearer what I’d been sensing from the beginning. (And for the record, all of my early pings have proven true.)

Erin Sullivan, Staff Writer

The era of their reign has largely passed, but even before I knew thumb rings were essentially flagging for queer women, something about them set off all sorts of alarm bells for me. I don’t know why! Now even! The first person I remember wearing a thumb ring was a girl named Andy, because of course that was her name, and while I didn’t know her long enough into adulthood to learn how she identifies, I would bet you one million dollars the low-pony-tailed soccer goalie I knew whose name was Andrea but wanted to go by Andy turned out to be gay.

Heather Hogan, Senior Editor

I have such a specific memory of siting in the backseat of my middle school bus in the high school parking lot where it had stopped to pick up some more people, and studying what clothes the high school girls were wearing like they were some kind of alien species. I was only in sixth grade, so I sort of instinctively knew that had a little bit of time to still dress like a child, but I also sensed that things were about to get a whole lot more complicated for me. My entire life all I have ever wanted to wear is jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and flannel shirts. Maybe a puffy vest like Marty McFly. Always and only ever sneakers. And a lot of girls still dressed like that, like me, when we were 12, but I realized they were going to start dressing like women soon.

That summer was the first summer that I went to the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball camp, which means it was the first summer I was surrounded by Older Girls and women who still dressed like me. (So many of them also walked like me and just generally moved their bodies like I do.) (Every way I move my body, even my hands, is just very gay.) There was one coach, in particular, who just stood out to me. She was dressed as athletic as everyone else and her hair was as short as all the other women coaches. There was just something about her. The way she walked, the way she held her mouth, her gestures. On the last night, the night of our awards banquet, the other women wore skirts. She wore slacks and a blazer. I’d actually never even seen a woman in a blazer before. Like a men’s cut blazer. It really was like Fun Home. Inside I really did feel like I KNOW YOU! She’s known to be gay now but isn’t out too publicly because she coaches in a very homophobic environment. I still adore her; she really changed everything for me.

A.E. Osworth, Staff Writer

I didn’t really have a lot of queer community before Autostraddle — I had a girlfriend at the time, but though she dressed in a butchly way, it was honestly more of a New Jersey style than anything else (fellow former and present New Jerseyans, you know exactly what I mean I’m sure?). So to be queerly honest, the first time I recognized any sort of queer aesthetic was at my first A-Camp, and it wasn’t one person, it was a horde of queers, wearing everything from fringed boots to flannel to boots to binders to bold eye makeup. I hadn’t really developed my own aesthetic at the time, or at least not one I felt sure of, and I was watching closely the style of other queers in this strange and separate magical place. Perhaps pinging isn’t the right word, because everyone in the space was very gay, but I think in that moment I realized what, for me, made something gay fashion. It was the total absence of not only a cis male gaze, but a straight one. Outfits and eyeliner and total looks were constructed entirely for the gaze and pleasure of the self and the community. I took that understanding with me into the world, and now every time I see a fashion choice that is “made for the self and the queers,” I know someone is… not hella gay, plenty of gay people don’t dress this way if they’re at the stage I was at, but a member of a queer community and reveling in it.

Rachel Kincaid, Managing Editor

The first person I can remember being visibly, legibly Lesbian in my life was my high school health teacher. She looked — and was! — just like so many mid-50s dykes I know and love: short-cropped curly gray hair, round body in sweaters and practical pants, comfy shoes; good communication skills and lots of talking with her hands. She had style I now recognize as being indicative of someone who probably dressed more butch in her daily life, but felt the need to compromise a bit at work and landed somewhere this side of frumpy. Long live dyke frump, etc. I love thinking of these details now that I recognize them; at the time I didn’t know exactly in what ways these were markers of a gay aesthetic, but I think I was deeply struck by how much wasn’t there, the abdication of heterosexual feminine obligations. No makeup, no attempts to flatter or imply a certain body shape, no sparkly jewelry or long flat-ironed hair. It was a revelation honestly! You Can Just Not. Thank god for her, and for having a dyke health teacher, what a blessing!

Alexis Smithers, Staff Writer

As almost always (maybe moreso in my head than in anything I’ve written here), this first time took place in church. There was a girl in the grade above me who was very interesting (surprisingly not in a way that I had a crush on which is ????? for me) and had mostly guy friends but everyone was a fan of her (as far as I knew) and she was charismatic and really good at sports and had a killer smirk (maybe there was a crush at some point) and one of the coolest people on the planet as far as I was concerned. True, the memory’s hazy but she wore pants. to. church. And I don’t mean my black ass Protestant Church during Bible Study which would’ve set off a whole different bunch of fireworks. I’m talking about First Communion, where I went to school in front of SCHOOL GOD AND ALL OUR FAMILIES, where we did the weird transfer from the auditorium to the really nice church built not even a block away. Like, she came in where the god I definitely wasn’t doing right by since birth was and she wore PANTS!!!!!! TO A HOLY (I’m assuming I’m Catholic but it seemed like a big deal, honestly I was just a fan of the crackers and wine) CEREMONY!!!! That shit ROCKED my world. Now, I’ve been in school with her I’m pretty sure most of my life, so she’s always been my kind of butch role model without me ever telling her, and this is where it started. Like HOMIE IT WAS IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH??? AND I KNOW SHE HAD THE SAME TEACHERS DRIVING THE FEAR OF OLD TESTAMENT GOD INTO US AND YET!!!! !AND YET!!!!! SHE WAS A BABY BUTCH AND STAYED THAT WAY AND DIDN’T EVEN LOOK OUT OF PLACE AND THEY LET HER DO THIS??? I WAS LOSING MY DAMN MIND but also couldn’t cause church amen.

Archie Bongiovanni, Cartoonist

A shaved head, ripped baggy pants, doc martens, body hair, and a cocky snaggle-tooth smile. It was the whole combination of the look that made it ping for me. They were an art student who attended my first university in Alaska and I only saw them for an instant as they walked by, but I will say I dated many people with this look (or parts of this look) after I came out as gay years later.

Riese, Editor-in-Chief

In the mid-nineties my mother joined a support group she told me was for “women in transition.”  That has a different connotation now than it did then, but I didn’t really want to know about the transition so I didn’t ask. I was 15. She started making new friends and these new friends were not like her old friends, who had mostly been the mothers of my elementary and middle school friends. This is to say — because I’d gone to private school with a lot of people who were in an unfathomably high economic bracket — wealthy heterosexual women with fantastically maintained hairstyles. My mother’s new friends were not like this. They did not have teenage daughters. They wore high-waisted tapered jeans and big chunky belts (this is back in fashion now, at the time that style of pants was slowly falling out of style, replaced by low-waisted flare jeans that revealed sexy thongs) and usually baggy t-shirts, tucked in, with the sleeves rolled up. If it was cold they put flannel shirts on over the t-shirts, and sometimes tucked those in too. Then a bulky leather jacket over the whole thing. This was the ’90s lesbian style, this was Darlene Conner style. They also had short hair. Very short hair! Sometimes it was in a specific style and sometimes it was just like “look I need short hair.” The person I remember most distinctly was Tabitha, ’cause she was young and very cute in that teenage-boy kind of way. She had a shaved head besides some bangs in the front. She seemed cool. I also remember another friend who only wore BIG DOG t-shirts. That was funny to me, ’cause nobody wore those anymore. She definitely got them at the outlet mall. Anyhow, this is what was happening around me and I fully clocked it without letting myself see the real truth of what was happening here which was that my Mother, too, was gay.

Molly Priddy, Staff Writer

When I was a child I noticed Idgie Threadgoode’s character on Fried Green Tomatoes the movie dressed and acted a lot like I did. When I got a little older, during puberty, I REALLY took notice of how she wore men’s clothes and hats and ignored the churches and flirted with pretty women named Ruth. I can’t explain what it’s like to see yourself reflected on screen, closeted and hidden as it was.

Valerie Anne, Staff Writer

Every summer, the movie theatre by my house growing up would turn part of its parking lot into one of those tiny traveling carnivals. Taped-together rides, lots of games, fried dough. Once after seeing a movie together when I was 13 or 14, my dad and I walked around the carnival for a bit and played some games. At the last game we played, the girl working the game was a few years older than me, and she was wearing these BOOTS. They were, by my naive assessment, men’s boots and I had never seen a woman wearing them before. Her other clothes were probably also “men’s” clothes but that wasn’t as odd to me for some reason. I had worn plenty of sneakers, but I had never seen a woman wearing men’s boots and I remember it striking me. Maybe it was the way she was standing in them. Confident and strong. Or maybe it was a whole vibe and I just also noticed what she was wearing on her feet. Who knows, really. But I did like her boots.

Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor

Okay I’m kind of cheating here because I know this wasn’t the first time a gay person pinged for me based on what they were wearing, but it was a Very Important Time and I really want to tell you about it, so here we are.

Once upon a time I thought I was straight. We all make mistakes, whatever. But then I met Emily. Emily was… everything. She blew my whole brain open. I wanted to devour her, or I wanted her to devour me, or I just wanted to wear her hoodie with the perfect patch right over her heart.

Let me tell you about the patch.

It was two androgynous figures with messy hair, kissing as if their lives depended on it, with the words FEEL NO GUILT IN YOUR DESIRES stamped above their heads. Do I even need to tell you how that patch made me feel? Like I couldn’t breath. Like I could finally breath. I was 20 by then, I’d been going to NYU for three years by then, I had absolutely seen many many many gay people and had them ping as gay based on what they were wearing or saying or doing but –– this patch. It pinged inside me, do you know what I mean?

Like, I had looked at all these gay people in the past and I had seen gay people, they’d pinged, but I never knew I was looking at… myself? And to be fair I still didn’t know exactly that I was seeing me when I fell in love with Emily and her hoodie and her bleached short hair and her Stephen Sondheim tattoo and that fucking patch, but I finally knew enough. She looked both like something I wanted and something I wanted to be. She was the epitome of desire, really.

When Emily kissed me for the first time and I stuck my hands in the pockets of her hoodie I felt those words burn into my own heart: FEEL NO GUILT IN YOUR DESIRES. It took a long time for me to internalize that truth, but I felt a ping of recognition the first day I saw it, and I am grateful.

Raquel, Staff Writer

The first time I saw the person who would become my first girlfriend, she was longboarding down the hallway of the art building and wearing a t-shirt I owned: a large black triangle with a bullet going through it, from Threadless. She was also wearing skinny black jeans that tapered perfectly at her ankles, worn low on her waist to show the band reading “HANES” on her boyshorts, and a blue American Apparel hoodie under a black leather jacket. One ear was plugged and pierced up the side. Her shoes were colorful high-tops, and half of her hair was cropped close, half of it falling down over her eyes. I mean.

Reader, she was so, so, so, gay. And in that moment, so was I.

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  1. I didn’t know lesbians existed until I was like 6 years old, so the first lesbian I saw shaped the way I identified queer women for years: the german comedian Hella von Sinnen, who wears overalls/jumpsuits exclusively. The funny thing is that the first real-life-queer-women™ I encountered had to passionatetly kiss in order for me to actually grasp that they were gay. And they both were really femme.

    At the same time I had been wearing my brother’s clothes, dungarees, flannell shirts, bucket hats, hiking boots, you name it, and probably pinged a lot of gaydars in my confused way through puberty.

  2. In high school there was *something* about our history-geography teacher. She had short hair, wore no makeup, masculine attire, and she was also very bony, very smart, and very strict.
    Of course, there were rumors that she was gay.

    I was both fascinated and terrified. I longed for her to give some sign that she knew that I knew that she… and I was dead scared she would read right into me, which would mean I was the same, which at 13 was NOT an option.

  3. In the later years of elementary school my school had a hard time keeping a gym teacher. In grade 6 they hired Ms. D, and I just KNEW. I didn’t have much of a frame of reference, it was more so that she dressed like a jock, always even at grad, she was short haired, and spoke with confidence. But what was really different was the way she laughed.
    Unabashedly, loudly, taking up space.
    I’d never really seen any of the women in my life laugh like that- they were always in the background of things or holding back to not detract from the men around them. But Ms. D laughed and yelled and encouraged us to run, throw harder, climb all sorts of weird stuff (“you think that brick wall could be scaled?”).
    She also started the baseball team, where she made me short stop even though I hated it at first but became pretty excellent at.
    Thank you Ms. D <3

    • Came here to say this!

      Also I strived for a “best friend” like Ruth…my baby gay brain was utterly fascinated by their relationship

    • I saw the cover of our VHS copy of Fried Green Tomatoes when I was about 9 and became OBSESSED with it, especially Idgie. I wasn’t allowed to watch it until high school, at which point, in my mom’s words, “All of your favorite movies are about weirdly strong friendships between women”.

  4. The bit about the difference between someone pinging you and something pinging WITHIN just made me say OH so very loudly at work, so…thanks?

  5. I was so far in the closet and so isolated from lesbians growing up that the first time I remember someone pinging was a team leader at my first job. She was in the store uniform like the rest of us but her haircut and her boots and the way she walked made me hope I was right about her being gay, which of course, I was. I was never out in that job but it was nice to know there was another lesbian there whose style and confidence I could aspire to.

  6. Wow Vanessa! I really really want that patch!!!
    I think I was 5ish at the local kitsch amusement park and saw this gorgeous person walking around with their friends. They were wearing a beautiful floral skirt, plain tank top, and boots and had pretty long curly hair and facial hair. I was so amazed by their style and confidence, they looked so happy and free. I didn’t know what the feeling I recognized in them was for a long time but I kept looking around the crowd to see them again. Something definitely pinged and opened up in me when I saw them, and couldn’t name but recognized what I wanted in my life in how they looked and how they interacted with their friends.

    • I also really want that patch, LOL! I’m still friends with Emily (bless queer community) so maybe I can ask her about it…

      Also I love love love that the first person who pinged for you was wearing a floral skirt and had long hair. You always make me so happy Jay but this comment makes me extra happy! <3

      • Yes! Let me know if there any patch updates!
        Well, floral babes are the best!!! Not sure if floral queer folk are my fave because of this ping person or if this person pinged because I instinctively have always loved florals and queerness. Either way, I love floral femmes a lot <3

  7. I was so deeply closeted until college that I probably wouldn’t of known anyone was queer unless they wrote it on their forehead…

    It wasn’t until my sophomore year when I met my now-best friend that I felt that ping inside me from her. But she was also very, very openly gay, so there was no subtleties ha. I joined the rugby team that she played on (duh) and then whoops I was gay!

    Now I think more about how I am perceived by those much younger than me, and what I can do to be visible. A lot of my younger cousins and some of their friends (some of whom are queer or figuring it out) follow me on social media, and I hope that I can be that ‘ping’ and contribute to normalizing queer lives and also show that there is a much bigger world outside of the small town Wisconsin lives we come from.

  8. Story #1 is more like an anti-ping story: I grew up in Catholic school, idolizing the nuns because they were all so utterly kind to me. Also they were a bunch of women with extremely short hair who eschewed makeup and who wore a uniform that, while granted it was a skirt and veil so definitely a heteronormative thing, had as its purpose to say these women are not here for flirting and marriage, so it was a rejection of the male gaze even if its specific form was also a reflection of patriarchy. And they were the authority within the school and they acted with confidence. Among other things, this resulted in my gaydar being totally screwed up at least for that age group. I still usually have no idea if a middle-aged woman with short hair, no makeup and practical clothes is queer unless she’s got some other obvious marker.

    Story #2 is my first ping: my high school biology teacher, who was also the track coach (and maybe also girls’ volleyball and/or basketball or something, now I think of it). She had that lanky, laid-back athletic grace and she was always in pants or shorts, never a skirt/dress/heels. No makeup, lots of confidence. I wanted to be her so badly. A lot of the casual-affectionate interaction style I use with my own and other kids is influenced by how she acted with me. I don’t know for sure that she is queer but there were always extremely vague rumors about her and the (female) health teacher.

  9. Does the West Hollywood Halloween parade when I was like a pre-teen count years old count? Cause I went there with my parents in the mid-90s when things were different back then and straight people were less respectful. It was either the guy in the assless chaps(80% sure that wasn’t a costume and he was just a leather daddy), or the two guys where one was dressed as a penis, and his friend/partner dressed as a condom(I think used as the costume was two different colors if you catch my drift) greeting and dancing. For a few years, I lived like a block away from the Troubadour; so the main WeHo area was always a block away from that, and always felt like a boys club(the ads featuring men in swim brands with gay marketing always added to that).

    • “Outfits and eyeliner and total looks were constructed entirely for the gaze and pleasure of the self and the community.” This just nails A-Camp and all of the incredibly beautiful people there. We’d all hang out on this sloped field before meals this summer and looking out at everyone just being so intensely themselves in the sun was magical.

  10. I also loved Idgie Threadgoode so much, from both the movie and the book. I even used Idgie as my internet handle for most things throughout the late 90s but especially the Chainsaw Chat room and chat profiles. I knew she was explicitly gay too, because in the book it’s clear, even though they don’t make a huge thing of it.

  11. A camp counselor when I was maybe 7 or 8. She dressed mostly femme goth, but without makeup and with totally visible above her pants boxers. I loved it.

  12. every roundtable i pretty much just love everyone at autostraddle even more

    like this: “Once upon a time I thought I was straight. We all make mistakes, whatever.” MADE MY DAY and the permission of “Long live dyke frump, etc” how do people make it through their days without you all also now I need a Stephen Sondheim tattoo that is amazing

  13. oh my gosh i have a green cardigan from my college years with the FEEL NO GUILT IN YOUR DESIRES patch!!!! i sewed it on in approximately 2005 and it is also right above my heart. nobody has ever made out with me over it, but a co-worker whose parents disapproved of his sexuality once told me that it healed his heart a little bit (my paraphrase). maybe i need to re-sew it on and start wearing it regularly again!

  14. A.E. I am so here for what got said about people with style that stands out as queer not being all queer folks but rather specifically those queer folks who are “member(s) of a queer community and reveling in it.” I love dressing as gay as possible to signal my queerness and recognizing others who do the same but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way “gaydar” conversations create rules around how gay people (or straight people, for that matter) should look. I don’t want to put boundaries around what makes someone’s appearance queer because those boundaries are never going to be accurate. …I am going to continue to dress like a Pokémon trainer though! (This is how my bestie describes my style.) Gotta catch em all.

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