A pair of tiny metal chairs caught my eye as I strode down the dollhouse furniture aisle of my local craft store. I knew almost immediately that I needed those chairs. No, I'm not a miniature collector or a dollhouse aficionado or any other hobbyist title that might warrant buying such small chairs. I'm simply a gay woman with a pair of jewelry pliers used almost exclusively for putting weird stuff on earrings.
This passion for putting wacky little trinkets onto earrings is newfound, having only emerged once I reentered society after months of COVID-19-fueled isolation. Let me back up a bit—the pandemic obviously isn't over. I just got a retail job at a marijuana dispensary near the end of 2020 after working from home most of the year.
When I started my new job, I paid more attention to the clothes I wore to work each day, knowing people outside my immediate bubble would see them. It wasn’t just the funky earrings—my Dickies overalls became a wardrobe staple. When my brother shipped off to the military, I raided his closet and co-opted all the oversized flannels I could find. I went on a hunt for loose-fitting cords and denim vests (with patches, of course) at my local Savers. I even stole an old baseball cap from my dad, complete with a fish embroidered on the front.
In other words, you couldn't take one look at me without knowing I'm queer. I didn't start dressing like this for any reason in particular—it was subconscious at first, as I traded the business-casual garb I wore to my prior job for more casual pieces. But when a coworker at my new job said she could tell I was gay by my clothing, I took it as a sincere compliment and put more effort into presenting myself in an inherently queer way.
Around the same time I started my job, I revisited some queer theory texts I'd saved from college. I asked myself, "Why am I dressing so gay now?" and, to my surprise, those queer theorists had some answers for me.
Even though my change in dress seemed random at first, it followed the idea of collectivism pretty closely. Collectivism is the theory that those of a shared, often marginalized identity will find and exemplify similarities that band their experiences together. For me, that materialized in the form of my clothing—I wanted people, like my aforementioned coworker, to know I was gay just by my appearance.
In the eyes of theorists like Michel Foucault, who conceptualized a self-monitoring society in which individuals absorb their community's norms and reflect those norms on themselves, collectivism makes sense in the LGBTQ+ community. Plus, it offers me some comfort to know that this period of funneling my sexuality into an outward presentation isn't coming completely out of left field.
Foucault described this idea as a theoretical panopticon or a prison setup where holding cells form a circle around a guard tower. In this structure, each cell's interior is visible not only to the person in the watchtower but also to people in the surrounding cells. Foucault theorized that when one feels they are constantly monitored, they adjust their behavior internally to avoid standing out. I made style choices to identify myself as a member of the queer community.
On the flip side, COVID-19-fueled isolation reconceptualized Foucault's social panopticon for me. The influence of outward perspective diminishes greatly when one does not face those perspectives as often as they used to. Without the constant monitoring from others, I stopped monitoring myself so closely. The anxiety I'd once had expressing my identity in public lessened, and I started cutting myself some slack.
I wore clothes because I liked them—an old collared shirt from the boys’ section of Goodwill might not be fashionable to everyone, but it is to me, so I bought one and wore it. This mindset I developed exemplifies the antithesis to collectivism: individualism. Individualism posits that while members of a shared identity may look to bond over similar experiences, each person has their own unique lived reality in their identity, and their performance reflects that.
Aside from clothing, removal of this societal panopticon allowed me to recognize my true romantic and sexual desires—I knew I wasn't straight since early high school, but never truly accepted myself until I started spending this time alone, separating what I actually wanted from what I thought I was supposed to want. I began using "gay" as a label instead of "queer." I stopped willing myself to find men I saw in public attractive. I stopped wearing makeup as often and realized I could look and dress however I wanted while still identifying as a woman. In all facets, I became more confident in my gender and sexuality.
Simone de Beauvoir's most famous work, The Second Sex, explores this phenomenon of how one performs their identity. An existentialist, Beauvoir's writing views gender and sexuality as things one becomes. While I don't agree with all existentialist theory, I appreciate the idea of change woven throughout these texts. Gender and sexuality both exist on a malleable spectrum, so to me, it makes sense that one's presentation of their identity can vary over time.
Beauvoir's work also discusses the freedom, or lack thereof, to perform one's gender and sexuality. Her work touches on socioeconomic status, racism, and misogyny in relation to performance—a wealthy white man would have more freedom to experiment with gender-based performance than a working-class Black woman might. Taking that idea a step further, I believe there are nuances to one's internal freedom to perform their gender and sexuality.
With metaphorical freedom from Foucault's panopticon, I gained internal freedom to perform my sexuality the way I wanted to. I became more confident in my identity, so it makes sense I'd look toward clothing choices that represent me as an individual while still being identifiably queer.
I'm not sure where my style choices will take me next. Maybe in a month, I'll have gone full "hey mamas" lesbian, wearing Nike head to toe and a backward snapback. Maybe I'll even have an eyebrow piercing. And while I'm mostly joking and fairly doubtful I'll go through another drastic wardrobe change this year, if I do, I'll be breaking out some queer texts again to see what the theorists make of it.