7 Rad Women Talk The Intersection Of Hair And Queer Identity
By Robin Babb
‘I guess I have a pretty gay hairstyle, but so does everyone else here.’
Teenagedom is largely a parade of awkwardness, self-doubt, and one’s body rebelling against its owner. It’s a time of newly forming identities and changing bodies, and many will go to extremes to try to outwardly represent the inner turmoil. (Hence these years being frequently accompanied by a fashion sense even more worse than the psycho-sexual torture of growing up.)
For young queer girls, this time can be especially unwieldy, marked not only by burgeoning sexuality, but by a slew of quickly shifting hairstyles that let the world know they’re “not like other girls.”
This might be one of the reasons why queer women love to talk about their hair. At the risk of generalizing here, I think there’s good reason that this subset of the population has the hair fixation that we do. Histories of femininity and of gayness inform so much of the way that we feel about our identities, and hair has so much to do with the external manifestation of an identity. For some, short hair is the most obvious flag of queerness. Others experiment with dye and crazy cuts simply for the sake of marking ourselves as “other.” For me, the series of bad haircuts I had as a teenager sort of paralleled my own awkward coming out to myself, a process which continues today.
Hair has so much to do with the external manifestation of an identity.
I decided to talk with a few queer women I know about their relationship with their hair, and how it’s evolved over time. Every one of them had a different story (although a lot of them have had the same hairstyles), but they all admitted that their sexuality did affect the way they viewed their hair. While there’s no great objective truth to be reached on the topic — spoiler alert! — my hope is that by sharing and listening to these stories, other queer ladies can feel justified, validated, and heard in their own hair feelings.
Behold! Seven rad women reveal their respective insights on the intersection of hair and queer identity.
Shawné is American artist who is currently living and studying in Paris. When I called her, she was in Berlin for the holidays. Yes, she has a cool life.
Growing up, Shawné wasn’t allowed to do anything drastic to her hair — it stayed long and curly throughout her childhood. “I was already an outlier as a Black girl wearing braids in this very small, white town. So I didn’t really experiment with any crazy hairstyles until I was older,” she says.
For the past five years, she has worn her hair cropped close — a minimalist and gender-non-conforming cut that she says allows her a modicum of respect in the highly competitive (and highly sexist) world of digital art that she works in. It also allows her to wear wigs more easily, something that she does mostly for performance art projects. She’ll wear natural-hair color wigs in public occasionally, but also says that the social injunction for Black women to wear wigs or weaves can definitely feel oppressive.
“Having the option [to wear a wig or not] is important, and I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to pass it off as my own hair because mine isn’t good enough,” she explains.
“I love this haircut!” she says about her current style. “It allows me all sorts of social mobility. It could definitely read as gay, but not so much that like, men won’t talk to me. And it’s weird enough that people in the straight world recognize that ‘oh, she must be an artist or something,’ but not so wacky that I scare anybody away. It’s like my passport.”
Kamala is a writer for The Establishment living in Oakland, California. She’s currently working on a novel about almost-adult life, tentatively titled Zigzags.
“I’m half Indian and half Japanese. Which means my hair is thick and straight, straight, straight. And, honestly, I love that,” says Kamala. She wore her hair long for most of her childhood and into college. Mostly because it was so heavy that she didn’t know what else to do with it. But also because she resented the idea that she had to have short hair to be read as gay.
“In college, all my queer friends started getting short haircuts and I thought, ‘No, that’s not my style, I’m gonna keep my hair long.’” But then, after a breakup in college, Kamala was visiting an old friend when they both spontaneously decided to get mohawks. It was love at first sight, and she’s had only small variations of the same haircut ever since.
“Everyone reads a short haircut as masculine, and I have a lot of trouble with that,” says Kamala. “Because, honestly, I’m pretty femme! And I don’t love the assumption that I’m not because of my hair. It just goes to show how much our culture centers masculinity, I think.”
Anna is a 27-year-old philosophy major/former pro-domme queer lady. She loves Hannah Arendt and hates Heidegger. She and her hair are currently in therapy to repair their relationship (which was almost destroyed by a long affair with bleach).
“I definitely look straight now,” Anna says of her shoulder-length brown hair, adding that her hair went through some interesting iterations in her early twenties, but has been getting “more boring since then.”
When I first met Anna back in her non-boring-hairstyle days, her hair was dyed black on one side and white on the other, Cruella de Vil-style. For a while, she had a mohawk-pompadour, and pixie cuts in various colors. She has a few wigs that serve to create characters for her domme work, and encourages everyone to try wearing a wig at least once. “It’s fun trying on a new identity for a day. You get to be Daphne today! Daphne is such a badass.”
‘It’s fun trying on a new identity for a day.’
Anna isn’t totally comfortable with how straight-presenting her hair appears now, as she’s growing it out. She says that the way she’s treated in public has definitely changed since she swapped the black/white dye split for this more “normal” style — it gets her a bit more respect in certain circles, but it also changes the nature of the street harassment that she deals with. “It used to be dudes leaning out their car window to yell ‘dyke!’ but now it’s more like ‘hey girl.’ And, you know, I don’t really know which one is worse.”
Stevie is a queer hairstylist, so of course I had to talk with her. She lives in the Houston area and performs as a drag artist and in The Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast. She’s currently rocking a hot pink mohawk that she dyed herself.
A mohawk was her first gay hairstyle. “I got a mohawk my junior year of high school. I lived in a really small town in Texas, so nobody else there looked like me. My hair kind of came out for me.”
“In cosmetology school, they actually teach us to ask if a customer has recently had a big change in their life whenever they ask for a really dramatic, really different cut,” she continues. “It’s just psychology. People want to mark a big change in their life with a big change in their hair. But they sometimes end up regretting that big hair change, because they were in a very particular frame of mind when they got it.”
My post-break-up buzz cut has nothing to say about this.
Lilly is a non-binary trans lady studying and engaging in witchery in Chicago. Since we went to school together a few years ago, she has cycled through even more hairstyles than I have, which is an impressive feat.
Lilly got her first “gay hairstyle” when she came out as trans about two years ago. It was around the same time that she started dating “very visibly queer” people with very queer hair, and began taking notes. That summer, she dyed her hair teal and started growing it out.
“At first, I was told a lot of things about how ‘girls like me’ are supposed to dress, supposed to look,” she says. “But like, I’m 6”6’ and have shoulders like a battleship and frankly, I don’t fit into anything Forever 21 makes, and I never will. And that’s okay!” She cut the sleeves off a leather jacket, got some pins, and cultivated a witchy punk look.
‘I don’t fit into anything Forever 21 makes, and I never will. And that’s okay!’
For Lilly, hair is the main way of flagging as queer: “People have no idea what to make of me most of the time — I’m pretty gender-ambiguous. But at least with my hair, people tend to think ‘whatever this person has going on, it’s really gay.’”
When I asked Lilly to comment on the state of queer hair in the nation, she thought for a moment and said: “Fuck bangs.”
Crystal is a culinary mastermind living and working in Oakland. For her, hair has always been a matter of practicality versus style. She works in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant, so she can’t have hair getting in her face. “I have to look passably professional, too,” she says. “I used to have a little rat tail I was growing out, but I had to chop that off. People eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant don’t want their server to have a rat tail, turns out.”
We are girls who have wants so big, they encompass many things — especially ourselves.theestablishment.co
Crystal cut her hair into a mullet when she was 17, mortifying her parents. These days they’re a little bit more tolerant of her life choices (hair and otherwise), “but my mom will ask me to, like, reign it in on special occasions. Like, ‘honey, can you not shave your head? Your father’s birthday is coming up and we want to take family pictures, please let it grow out a little.’” Now, she goes for the shaved sides look and relies on a little bit of product on occasion to sculpt it up.
According to Crystal, typically gay hairstyles are starting to hold less and less significance, especially in the Bay Area. “I guess I have a pretty gay hairstyle, but so does everyone else here,” she says. “It’s really not a reliable method of telling if somebody is queer anymore. Turns out you have to actually, like, talk to people to figure out if they’re queer these days.”
Angela is a Chinese-Indonesian queer person studying theology at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She moved to America to be gay, by her own admission.
She was very femme-presenting, with very long hair, for most of her early life. Then, once she moved from China to America for college, she chopped off all her hair and really came out. “A normal, boring, schoolboy haircut,” is what she got.
Back when I first met Angela in 2012, though, she had a bright pink mohawk. “There are so many cool gay people I wouldn’t have met without that mohawk; it was like a beacon for queers” she says. “But I can’t do it anymore. Bleach is so toxic, and I have to bleach it for so long to get it to stick because my hair is so dark. My lymph nodes would be swollen afterwards!”
‘There are so many cool gay people I wouldn’t have met without that mohawk.’
Now, she has a less dramatic style, short but simply styled, with no dye. She says that it reflects where she is in life: She’s less concerned with her appearance, with flagging as queer, and more focused on her studies and her inner life. She thinks that when people first come out as queer, their instinct is frequently to get a crazy gay haircut to signal their out-ness to the world. “But later on in life, you start to realize that there are more important things than hair, than making it obvious to everyone that you’re gay. Because you’re more than just gay, there’s other parts of who you are, too.”