After growing up being afraid of looking gay, Gregory Wazowicz feels like he’s paid his dues.
At my fairly recent wedding reception, a straight male friend asked me, out of the blue, “Do you ever get annoyed by straight guys dressing like gay guys nowadays?” This took me by surprise, as I’d actually been thinking about it a lot.
“Yes! Yes, I think about it all the time.” I had been. After just eight years in New York, I was used to seeing men pay extra attention to their appearance, no matter where they fell on the Kinsey scale. This wasn’t anything new, at least for someone who came of age during the metrosexual phenomenon of the 1990s, and then working in publishing introduced me to the many foppish literary dandies who just love fucking women, and love to write about eating them out. GQ has been in print for over 50 years, and men have heeded The Sartorialist’s advice since I moved here.
That’s fine. I’ve never been ahead of fashion trends, or found fashion very useful or exciting to me, but I’ve certainly always acknowledged its obvious, inextricable ties to my community.
Today is just an interesting time to be gay. Two years ago, my relationship wasn’t even recognized as valid enough to keep my Colombian partner in the country, and only a year ago were we allowed to marry in the state where we met. President Obama stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell finally ended. Any celebrity with something to plug started caring about gay kids not killing themselves. This wasn’t the same country I grew up in, where being gay felt like the worst thing you could possibly be, and where it seemed like a decent gay role model didn’t even exist until Danny on MTV’s The Real World: New Orleans, when I was just entering middle school.
My friend Denzel and I were the only out kids in our huge public high school, and he was ragged on incessantly by students and faculty for the fashion choices he made. My younger sister, only five years behind me, had about 10 openly gay kids in her class alone who could give a fuck if anyone cared about it. And why should they? I wish things had been as seemingly easy for us growing up, and for every other queer person before us, but I’d never take away from them what feels like the fruit of queer history’s labor. I just feel very protective of it.
I’ve been wearing the same pair of shoes for years now. I’m never going to wear a tie clip, or a pocket square. I’ll never skip lunch to go to a Barney’s sale or get my fingernails manicured. I have straight coworkers who do. But I feel like I’ve earned the right to wear a big, floppy pink pocket square if I wanted to. There is just no way the same straight guys I see in cut-off shorts and penny loafers walking around New York City today would have been brave enough to do that 10 years ago, or before Ryan Gosling ascended to fashion idolatry. Recent progress in LGBT legislation and the surge of hetero fashionistos out of their own closet are very closely connected. And admittedly, this has made me very self-conscious about my appearance.
When we were little, there was a legitimate fear of looking too gay. Your hat, your shoes, your pants could all potentially make you the target of any bully that just flat-out didn’t like the way you looked. I remember what a big deal it was in elementary school if the hem of your pants was too short. “Where’s the flood, fruit?” was the taunt. Now it makes me laugh to see guys in my neighborhood so brazenly showing off their fashionable ankles. And I’ll look at what I have on and worry that people around me will think I’m straight— but with good taste. It hasn’t stopped me from wearing what I want, but the awareness that I might be perceived as straight based on my fashion has trumped any concern I had for looking gay growing up.
I live off of Manhattan Avenue in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, and there’s a group of men who hang around in folding chairs outside the off-track betting parlor that we always pass on the way to our gym. Without fail, they yell out in disgust, things like, “I wish all faggots were burning in hell! Take that shit back to the Village!” Mind you, we are almost always wearing basketball shorts and old t-shirts. Now I’ve been called faggot my entire life, but it catches me off-guard here sometimes. And I can’t help but notice they never yell at other men walking by.
The other day, my husband and I went out to lunch at a restaurant off McCarren Park. The hostess sat us outside, next to two other guys who I paid no mind to until I heard one say something about my husband’s tattoos. “Whenever I see someone with two-inch tattoos I just think, What were you thinking?” the guy facing me told his friend. I glanced over to see if they had tattoos, if I was just being paranoid, but they had no ink I could see. They looked clean and coiffed, like kids who went to Yale, their dress shirts tucked into their belted shorts. They could have been gay, too, if I hadn’t already heard them talking about their girlfriends. Their eyes on us made me uncomfortable, and I immediately reached across the table for my husband’s hand, as if to say “Look, we’re fucking gay and we will look the way we want.” They turned their attention away from us to complain to their waitress — they’d ordered truffle fries and were mistakenly served regular French fries.
Gay men don’t need magazines or leading actors to dictate our fashion choices, to make us feel comfortable with our masculinity, because we were challenged to do just that from the day we were born. We took the risks, we pushed the envelopes, we forged ahead and all for the sake of being ourselves. There would be no waiting for trends to trickle down to us, for others to machete the path and allow us to feel comfortable with our manicured masculinity. Denzel would get picked on mercilessly for his fashion, only to see other kids wear the same thing no less than a year later, when he’d already moved on to something else. I wore a fucking rainbow winter coat through elementary school and my mother made me a purple unicorn costume for Halloween. It’s great to imagine a world in which you cannot tell a straight person from a gay person based on what they’re wearing, but to act like we’re there already is jumping the gun. There are still more states that allow you to marry your first cousin than allow a same-sex marriage. Lavender marriages remain a Hollywood tradition. I still get called a faggot by old Polish men every day. So for now, there will always be white people with dreadlocks, spring breakers getting the wrong Chinese character tattooed, and straight men strutting around the newest gentrified area in high-waisted farmer jeans.
This article originally appeared at The Advocate.