What does it mean to dress gay? Can you tell someone’s sexuality by how they dress? The answer is of course not and 100% yes.
Since mask-wearing has become commonplace I’ve been called ‘sir’ and ‘mate’ a lot more than usual. Most recently at the library last week to which the librarian said ‘oh sorry, it’s the hair’ by way of explanation. I’m faintly amused that it only takes short hair and a bulky coat to confuse people.
Part of the joy of coming out for me was being able to dress the way I wanted and not how others expected me to. I stopped wearing skirts almost immediately and embraced the intersection of hipster/athleisure/90s fashion that I longed to wear in my pre-teen years. I have always been more comfortable in trackies and big jumpers than nice dresses and it was a relief to no longer have to chase approval from others on my appearance that I didn’t even want in the first place.
Gender and sexuality are interconnected but separate and clothes are just one way of expressing both of these. Not all women who dress ‘masculine’ (whatever masculine means) are queer, not all butch lesbians dress less feminine. I can only really speak to how the way I dress functions as a projection of my queerness to others, both positive and negative depending on who the viewer is. There is of course no real way to dress gay, but there are codes and stereotypes you can choose to play into or not, that can signal different things depending on who’s company you are in. For me, that happens to look like a comfortable, baggy clothed subversion of gender norms — hardly anything radical.
Clothes in the real world require a navigation then of our own expressions of gender and sexuality intertwined with other people’s perceptions of how they perform their own gender and sexuality through dress and how they think others should. Dressing more masculine as a woman comes with those kinds of comments I got in the library, of having to rethink formal wear and learning to judge a curious stare from a hostile one. For many queer and trans people it comes with real danger, anger and aggression from others who see their way of dressing as transgressing some imagined gender binary. Stares, abuse and being chased out of bathrooms being an all too common experience for many of us.
However, one area that only brings me joy when dressing up is in videogames. Especially if those video games let me dress gay. It’s no secret that I’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons since it first came out at the peak of lockdown in March. The clothes in particular in the game offer a greater variety of expression than ever before, allowing you to combine tops, trousers, shoes, socks, hats and bags any way you please. The game progresses in real-time, encouraging you to play a little every day and as we’ve now entered Autumn both in real life and the game (my favourite season) I’ve delighted in dressing myself each day as gayly and autumnally as possible. Which for me means flannel shirts, caps, trousers and a cute little bum bag.
There’s no real gender in the game either. There are two ‘face shape’ options to choose from but all hairstyles and clothes are available whichever you pick. The body shape of the Animal Crossing person you play as is the same for everyone: kind of squat, androgynous and softly round in a way that mirrors my own little stomach I’ve nurtured since I started playing. None of your villagers comment on how you dress, except maybe to say how great you look. Every day I can pick a new gay outfit and know everyone will love it. Honestly, I wish I had my Animal Crossing wardrobe and, more importantly, it’s vast storage, half of which is filled with sports socks, although this is true both virtually and IRL.
More recently I started the remastered version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 which comes with a fairly standard character-creator. There’s no gender option per se only different heads and hairstyles but they do lock you into certain body shapes. However, it’s the clothes that really shine and allow for some great gay-role playing. By this point I’ve probably spent longer in the clothes selector than I have trying to ollie the channel gap in the opening Warehouse level. THPS is perhaps unwittingly the perfect dyke simulator in that it allows for some fun projection onto the kind of perfectly cool skater girl that I will never be. The cosmetics of the character doesn’t change the way you skate but I appreciate being able to play as someone who looks a little more like me.
This is far removed from the games I played growing up. In the original 1999 Pro Skater the only female skater I can remember you could play as was Elissa Steamer (who actually is gay, but I don’t think was vocal about it at the time). The Sims, also released in 1999, was accidentally same-sex friendly due to a mix-up with the game code, but it was only in 2016 that it removed the gender restrictions on clothing, allowing you to dress your Sim the way you wanted. Then there were games like Harvest Moon: Back to Nature on the PS1, which I loved but only let you play as a boy and made you choose a girl in the town to marry. Although looking back at it now, farmer boy with his backward baseball cap, neckerchief and pet dog was quite the dykon (dyke icon). Still, it’s far away from modern farming simulators like Stardew Valley which afford the player the option of romancing the men and women in the town regardless of their gender and can dress how they wish.
I don’t want to get into the messy discourse of representational politics which in our online, virtual world feel more limited than ever in effecting meaningful structural change. But, the freedom to dress in a way which pleases me in the games I play, to roleplay living on a little island where animals are happy to see me every day, or a game where all anyone cares about is if I can land my 540 Indy flip, is a degree of escapism that I welcome right now.
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