How Exactly is an LGBT Person Meant to Dress?

Annemarie Ní Churreáin 

previously published at

“Is your friend gay? She doesn’t look gay!” asked a girl beside me in the crowd. We were standing among two thousand people at Dublin Castle on 23 May 2015 awaiting the marriage equality referendum results. The sky was a clear blue and I could feel only pure joy as one by one, the constituencies on a large-scale map of Ireland began to light up with YES votes. Here we were, so near to equality and yet with some distance to go in terms of accepting the true diversity of LGBT people.

Having a conversation about how and why it’s demeaning to judge a person’s sexuality based on how they look or what they’re wearing is tricky, not least because we all make assumptions of this sort every day. We scan a person for visual clues and recognisable signs and think we know something when in fact we know nothing at all.

Panti Bliss, in conversation with Dr Emer O’ Toole (at Concordia University last year), says it is genuinely ‘discombobulating’ for some when a person deviates from the visual rules. It makes us uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Panti is just another expression of the person that is Rory O’ Neill; they are simply two parts of the same person. But, they are treated as if – in reality – they are two different people. Panti and Rory are presumed to have wildly different personalities and they illicit very different reactions and levels of social respect from the public. All this, because of two very different looks.

Conforming to dress expectations has, in all communities, distinct advantages. However it can also promote labeling, exclusion and discrimination. As we move towards greater social equality, I hope the LGBT community will embrace greater freedom and acceptance of individual expression. I hope that diversity will become the new norm and that the crass idea of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of dressing up (or down) as an LGBT person will cease to exist.

Many dating sites feature too many LGBT men seeking ‘straight-acting’ men i.e. men who dress and act ‘straight’. Meanwhile femme women often find themselves in the very perplexing situation of being praised (usually by men, of all sexualities – not just straight) for adhering to what they think a real woman should look like whilst being simultaneously dismissed by others for bucking the trends of queer style.

How exactly is an LGBT person meant to dress? And how can clothing ever fully reflect the true fluidity and complexity of gender and sexuality? Can a person dress to show who he/she loves? It just seems quite a lot to ask of your wardrobe. My brother recently called a pair of trousers ‘gay-looking’ and I found myself thinking – are some femme women less ‘gay-looking’ than even a pair of trousers? Who is to say that those trousers were not just expressing another part of their gender identity, or bisexual, or that the trousers are simply open to the prospect of falling in love with another pair of the same trousers? How do we know by looking at the trousers what they are?

Most people I know, want – like Panti – to dress for themselves without fear of judgment or exclusion. In that regard, I’ve had some lucky insights over the past few years. I’ve had the pleasure of befriending an extraordinary human who, for a while, came each week to ‘clean’ my apartment. I use the word ‘clean’ lightly as any cleaning done was secondary to the visit’s main purpose, which was really to dress up in fancy clothes. Sally, as I knew her, liked to dress in customised bo-beep outfits, with matching floral bonnets and pink slippers. Never had she heard of cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry, but she looked every inch Perry-inspired. From week to week, and for good reason, Sally’s outfits were stored in a black travel bag in my utility room. Rarely did she take any of the attire home. Inside the safety and privacy of the apartment, Sally was free to be Sally. But outside, every other day, she was Patrick – a retired man in his 70s who had no other outlet for this part of his fun, playful and creative self. Sally was known outside the apartment as Patrick, the retired priest from Kilkenny.

And is there something sexual to this? concerned friends asked. No, there wasn’t. And is it not hilarious – do you not want to laugh out loud? Well, after a while it just wasn’t, and I didn’t. Is he gay? Surely he must be gay? No, I don’t think so. And why and how did he end up like this? Frankly, though Sally and I did have some really interesting conversations about gender expression, it was really none of my business. Patrick was, essentially, a perfectly ordinary and emotionally healthy man who knew exactly how he wanted to express his feminine self through dress.

Ireland has voted YES to marriage equality and already I have lost count of the number of people who’ve reported that magic feeling of being able to walk hand-in-hand in the street, with the person they love, without fear of judgment. An invisible shift has taken place and LGBT people have been moved from outside the circle of acceptance, inside. It’s incredible to feel protected by 1,201,607 people. But it will take a while longer for our preconceived notions of what being LGBT looks like or should ideally look like to peter out. It will take a while longer for trousers to be neither gay or not gay, for Panti or Sally to be taken as seriously as any other person in a pretty dress and for society to accept that men and women wearing all types of clothing could potentially be anywhere on the gender and sexuality spectrums.

Annemarie Ni Churreain