It’s wild that such a simple, often well-meaning question would send me spiralling as a teenager.
In mainstream culture, queer characters often claim to have 'always known' that they were 'different', that they’d harboured this secret since they were young. Not me. As a 22-year-old bisexual woman, I can now look back and say that I was pretty much clueless. I don’t remember liking girls when I was in primary school and it’s safe to say that my 'crush' on Chad from High School Musical was my way of performing heterosexuality (I was too different to like Troy, I told myself).
While I was oblivious to my queerness, other people were not. As I reached puberty, I felt like they knew something about me that I didn’t. And my clothes were part of the reason why.
In true bisexual fashion, my taste in clothes has always existed on both sides of the sexuality spectrum. As a toddler, I wanted to be a princess and everything I owned was pink. But as I grew up, I spent more time climbing trees, playing football and cartwheeling down hills. Clothes were there to serve a purpose, to stay out of my way!
As a teenager, I discovered pop-punk bands and started wearing big flannel shirts and dyeing my hair bright red. I bought a Levi’s denim jacket for £20 on eBay and wore my cherry red Doc Martens until the soles fell off. Fashion became more about self-expression and the way I dressed made me feel like myself.
Oddly enough, the first time I remember being told I dress 'like a lesbian' was at secondary school where I had to wear a uniform. When blazers were introduced, I pretended to be angry like the other students but I secretly liked them because they had a lot of pockets. After trying on the knee-length skirt we were allowed to wear, I hated how stumpy it made my little legs look so I chose the wide-legged trousers instead.
Apparently, this choice revealed me as a lesbian.
As we all know, secondary school boys are the spawn of Satan. Not only was I called 'ugly' for having a pretty normal amount of acne for a teenager but my clothes and boyishness made me the 'wrong type' of girl, one who wasn’t worthy of respect.
In true bisexual fashion, my taste in clothes has always existed on both sides of the sexuality spectrum.
I was frequently called a lesbian or a 'man' by certain boys at school. If you looked at old photos of me, this would probably seem strange – I was tiny with long hair – but clearly there was a standard of femininity that I wasn’t living up to. Add a cocktail of hormones into the mix and you have the recipe for a pretty insecure young woman.
But that was nothing compared to the fear I had that other girls would think I was a lesbian. Being exposed as the secret lesbo lurking in the PE changing rooms and at sleepovers is an experience that many queer girls dread. The words "What are you, a lesbian?" coming out of a girl’s mouth would not only ruin my day, it would also trigger an identity crisis because I didn’t think I was a lesbian but everyone saying it made me think it could be true.
Needless to say, I wasn’t trying to make a statement with my clothes, particularly not a coming out statement. At 14, I’d never experienced same-sex attraction or any real attraction, for that matter – I just wanted to be comfortable. But the suggestion of queerness, even if it was from someone who cared about me, made me self-conscious about how I was presenting. I had no idea what I wanted, who I liked or if I liked anyone at all. The idea that my clothes were 'gay' created this expectation that really stressed me out.
In his coming out video, YouTuber Daniel Howell explained how scary it was to realise he was queer in the '90s, a time when 'gay' was a catch-all term for anything remotely negative. Despite Hilary Duff’s best efforts, this hadn’t stopped by the time I started secondary school in 2010. Many of these kids probably weren’t homophobic – I used to describe things as 'gay' and I didn’t think being LGBTQ+ was wrong – but it was hard as a young person to separate my own queerness from this negative meaning.
Being exposed as the secret lesbo lurking in the PE changing rooms and at sleepovers is an experience that many queer girls dread.
The idea that my clothes were communicating unspoken messages made me uncomfortable at that age. But fashion has been a cultural signifier for LGBTQ+ people since at least the late 19th century. When society largely disapproved of queer identities, it was essential to pass as straight in public. Subtle symbols, such as a green flower or the colour violet, would signal to people in the know: "I’m one of you."
Many women in this period cross-dressed in order to be taken seriously: the painter Rosa Bonheur and writer George Sand wore 'male' clothing to achieve their professional success. By the 1940s, lesbians had become more visible, not necessarily trying to pass as men but openly embracing a masculine style.
Style is informed by culture so members of a community do dress similarly sometimes. Despite this, there’s definitely a confirmation bias when we discuss 'dressing gay'. Effeminate clothing is associated with gay men and masculine clothing with queer women but, for all you know, you could be seeing 12 lesbians in flowery dresses and 15 gay men in hoodies and shorts every day (why do straight men do that? Are you hot or cold?).
Bisexuals, as usual, get completely left out of the conversation when it comes to clothing. Like many people who are attracted to all genders, I’ve frequently found myself doubting my attraction to both men and women: the expectation that I would come out as a lesbian pressured me into thinking I didn’t like men after all. On the flip side, there have been periods of my life where I’ve dressed in a girlier way and had people be surprised that I was attracted to women.
Over time, all of this nonsense is beginning to go away as we embrace a less binary culture. Sure, it’s a lot harder to tell who likes women when I’m standing in a crowd of girls with mullets. But while the influence of our culture on fashion might bother some queer people (and I understand why), I feel a sense of pride about all the trends that were spearheaded by gay women: power suits, button-ups, dungarees, shaved hair.
The adoption of these trends by people of all sexualities and genders may make them feel less special but it comforts me to think that confused teenage girls like me, who are drawn to queer fashion without understanding why, will be able to wear whatever the fuck they want without inciting conversations that they’re not ready for.
Overcoming anxiety about 'looking gay' is the same as overcoming anything: you have to decide whether you’re okay with letting fear dictate your life. As long as it’s safe for you to present however you want, it'll ultimately make you so much happier than overanalysing everything you put on your body. For me, moving to a city showed me that most people don’t think the way 14-year-olds do (thank God). Most people become surer of themselves as they get older so even if someone did have something to say about how I dress or who I’m attracted to, I genuinely couldn’t care less. It’s hard at first but the earlier you start accepting yourself, the better.
I love my ridiculous number of flannel shirts, my wide-legged trousers, my pixie cut. I love going to one formal event in a cute dress and wearing a suit to the next one. I embrace my masculine and feminine sides; I love queer women, I love being one and I love looking like one. More than anything, I love that 'looking gay' will never feel like an insult again.