One of the best things about being queer, I think, is wearing a band’s t-shirt to their show. The thing is—and in your heart, you already know this—a band’s show is literally the perfect time to wear their shirt. Nothing could be more correct or appropriate. Wearing a band’s shirt to their show is like wearing a team’s jersey to their game, or a reindeer sweater to a Christmas party. Why else do you even have it?
I was introduced to the “don’t wear the shirt to the show” rule in high school, by one of the older guys my friends and I dated—because of course twentysomethings who hook up with teenagers are the arbiters of cool. At first I adopted it wholeheartedly, out of a deep-seated adolescent need to be seen abiding by the unwritten rules, to be in the know. My friends and I passed this bit of wisdom back and forth the way we shared the names of those rare stores where you could buy black lipstick outside the month of October—like bestowing sacred knowledge, an initiation.
It’s a strange, arbitrary guideline, though, even more so than most unwritten rules of coolness. The only thing you gain by following it is the knowledge that you’re following it, and the only thing you lose by flouting it is literally nothing because no one cares. The Band Shirt Rule has no clear genesis; like so much apocryphal “common knowledge,” everyone who knows it just heard it from someone. It’s one of those rules that absolutely only exists for the sake of differentiating between Those Who Know and Those Who Don’t, and allowing the former to talk shit about the latter.
Today, I’m thirty-two years old and have two children, and it is no longer desirable or even possible for me to pass as cool, which frankly saves me a lot of time and energy. In the years since I’ve given up following the Shirt Rule, I’ve found myself paying a lot of attention to who else is breaking it, and I’ve noticed something. At shows where women and LGBTQ people predominate, the Shirt Rule is seldom enforced or even acknowledged. Sleater-Kinney, Janelle Monáe, and Betty Who shows are packed with people stunting in their old tour merch, freshly purchased souvenirs, and even DIY fan gear. And whenever I talk about the Shirt Rule, the discussion splits almost perfectly between cishet guys who follow it like scripture, and the rest of us, who are like, “why is this even a thing?”
The rationale for the Shirt Rule is muddy at best; some adherents say wearing band merch to a show is “trying too hard,” others that it’s “redundant,” because you’re obviously a fan if you’re at the gig. Beneath all that, though, it’s just a tautology of social acceptability: you’re not supposed to because you’re not supposed to because you’re not supposed to.
Band t-shirts are a way of both presenting and defining acceptable enthusiasms, and the baseline for what kind of enthusiasm is permitted is always socially established by straight men. There are good and bad kinds of fandom; there are valid and invalid ways of liking things. There are rules about where you can wear a band shirt, of course, but there are also rules about how many of a band’s albums you should own before you wear their shirt in public, or how much of a TV show you have to watch to be considered a fan—and so on and so forth. I grew up in a time of robust public discourse about “posers” and “fake geek girls,” which were basically attempts to quantify how much you had to like something before you were allowed to like it, combined with frequent goalpost moving to make sure that women never quite met the requirements. If a girl liked something that boys considered their territory, they’d find a reason to push her out.
Male fan culture tends to be concerned with legitimacy, with establishing qualifications: knowledge of trivia, longevity of enthusiasm, collection of paraphernalia. It’s about loving something, but it’s also about proving something, about being observed expressing enthusiasm in the best, most correct way. And the more countercultural or unorthodox an interest is, the more invested male fans seem to become in legitimacy, in underlining that they may like weird, socially marginalized things, but they like them properly.
LGBTQ people and women, however, have a different relationship with fandom, because our fandom is always at least a little stigmatized. Anything associated with femininity or “fangirls” is inherently socially devalued, becomes frivolous, comical. It’s like a pop culture version of how the pay scale for a job decreases as more women move into the field. Bands women and queer people like aren’t as serious as those beloved by men. Female artists are “cute” or “hot” while male artists are “great,” except male artists with a primarily female fanbase, who are something of a joke.
Women and queer people find ways of expressing their love outside the male-arbitrated mainstream. Since we’re often de facto pushed out of more male-dominated forms of fandom, scrutinized and judged rather than accepted, we have a sort of freedom to treasure the things we love in our own way. Fanfiction, for instance—one of the most derided and stigmatized forms of fandom—became a recognizable genre almost entirely thanks to the dedication of women writers, and LGBTQ people make up a large portion of the fanfic writing community. Queer and female fans practice various kinds of reinterpretation of the art we love, from making playlists for our favorite fictional characters to creating our own band gear.
At a Hayley Kiyoko concert last year, I saw fans not just proudly wearing their brand-new t-shirts emblazoned with the image of Lesbian Jesus, but twisting rainbow flags from the merch table into skirts and capes. For lots of women, band shirts are a canvas for expressing creativity by cutting, braiding, and upcycling—my friend teaches a T-shirt DIY workshop at Girls Rock camp every year. From fashion to fan vids to collages to zines, LGBTQ and female fans create not just our own rules, but our own culture out of bits and pieces of whatever joy we can find. Remixing and improvising and making things our own.
As a woman, a queer person, a trans person, loving what you love without regard to the standards of “coolness” requires a rejection of the heteropatriarchal gaze in all its arbitrary bullshit glory. So wear your band t-shirts wherever and whenever you want, with pride. It’s rare enough to find a piece of art that makes you feel at home in the howling chaos of the universe—when you do, it deserves to be celebrated.