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.
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.