We’ve been told we're entering an age of gender fluidity, and with the success of trans models like Hari Nef, the mainstream coverage of participants in RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the faces of fashion brands ranging from & Other Stories and Marc Jacobs to Adam Selman, it seems like we're actually well on our way. But in a roundabout way, this movement lays the foundation for those — such as Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry — who, in a deepening of the gender equality conversation, question the notion of "masculinity" and the damaging impact it can have on everyone, including men.
Last month, I was given a pair of earrings. I’d complimented a female friend on the ones she was wearing, and within a few weeks — voila, she’d sent me some. They are beautiful, simple silver circles by a London-based brand called Coops. They're also the modern-day version of a clip-on, able to squeeze onto my non-pierced ears. Since there was very minimal commitment on my part to try them on, I did. The reactions I received were varied.
Sure, it’s not at all uncommon for men to wear earrings — the hip-hop and rap archetype certainly includes one, or even two (Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa), weighty diamond studs. Frank Ocean has been spotted wearing a very sleek silver number by polymath designer Kia Utzon-Frank, which I am very much into. And it’s not limited to the music industry: André Agassi was a babe with a hoop in his heyday, and working-class British culture sees men adorn their lobes with surprising frequency. Every decade has had its male earring-wearer: ‘90s jocks, ‘80s machismo, ‘70s punks, ‘60s hippies. Even Shakespeare, it is said, wore an earring.
But, so much separates me from these men.
There’s a lot to unpack, because there’s a huge range in how the earring is used by men. It can be an indicator of wealth or class, of anti-establishmentarianism, fashion-forwardness, sexuality, or all of the above. Earrings have been worn by men from incredibly diverse backgrounds, for incredibly diverse reasons and yet, besides our shared sartorial choice, very little unites us.
In hip-hop culture, an ostentatiously expensive earring represents triumph within a context of racial struggle that is sewn into the fabric of the United States. Ludacris wrote, in the foreword to a book titled Bling Bling, that “being Black, coming from a background of struggle, all of that has a lot to do with the bling mentality. We always feel like we have to prove something and we have to be real flashy in order to show what we’ve achieved.”
Not so for me: I am white and middle-class. I am also gay. And that’s my earring entry point. Gays, whose sexuality wasn't decriminalized in the U.K. until 1967 (and in 28 out of 50 U.S. states, you can still be fired for being gay), have developed a number of ways to communicate sexual preference to one another over time. The most coded is perhaps handkerchiefs (using a system of colors and placement to suggest not only homosexuality, but also what you like to get up to sexually), but earrings were a little simpler. A single earring in the right ear, and wham — you were broadcasting. (Hal Fischer does a lovely photographic study of this gay sartorial language in the 1977 book Gay Semiotics).
I have, admittedly, had a long fascination with earrings despite never having worn one publicly. My most potent memory of my late grandmother, for instance, is also my first real earring memory. It is of her answering the telephone; she wore clip-ons (bless) and would very gracefully slide one off her right lobe with her left hand, as she picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear. The movement was so practiced and elegant, yet really did the job of highlighting how impractical — even annoying — it was to wear a massive bit of plastic dangling from your ear. It was an object lesson in the language of fashion: She wore earrings for a purpose that was 0% related to function. For me, as an 8-year-old, that was captivating.
I soon learned about the men-with-earrings gay connection, although by then we were in the '90s and loads of mainstream men were testing them out. Yet when you spend your playground life avoiding being called a “fag,” you know that purple jeans are a bad idea (oops), and you definitely don’t get an earring. You’d be asking for it.
Now, with the confidence(ish) of a 32-year-old man — definitely a fag, but today incredibly proud of it — earrings are on the menu. It’s liberating, and many more gays and queers younger than me are much quicker at getting to this point. The thing is: One facet of gender and identity fluidity that certainly isn’t new is how linked our self-expression is to circumstance. Yes, I now own earrings, but I don’t want to wear them all the time. And when I’m not wearing them, I’d rather the question of whether I ever have be left to mystery. (No sad little hole like André Agassi’s, please.) For me, earrings are still a very powerful tool of connection (to other gays), and of subversion (to the mainstream). I still think they do more to put you in a category than take you out of one, but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Because really, a truly fluid identity might also be the most traceless.