Until I was twelve years old, I had waist length hair that adults used to regularly tell me I should never cut. People would always comment on how ‘lovely and long’ my hair was, and my hair was something that other people would always enthusiastically compliment. It was crucial in how other people perceived me, and yet it was something that I had no real emotional relationship with.
So when I was 15, I had my hair cut into a bob. I also admitted that I fancied women out loud for the first time. Then, when I was 22, I cut my hair very short and realised that I was definitely a lesbian. As such, my hair and my sexuality seem to be interlinked.
As queer women, we have relationships with our hair that are far more complicated than those of our heterosexual peers. It’s hard to ask your hairdresser to effectively communicate your romantic interest in women to the world, but still many of us rely on our hair to be our queer calling card. Indeed, in her poem, The Queer Hokey-Pokey, Joy Young speaks of a friend getting an undercut and her hair becoming “her own queer bat-signal in the sky announcing her lesbian arrival”.
This feeling of visibility that comes with the right haircut is something that I am all too well acquainted with.
“Queerness and counter culture are so intrinsically linked that often anything people might call “edgy” can also be read as a queer signifier.”
Even when I my hair was at its shortest, I still dressed in a way that was very typically feminine. However my head’s familiarity with the whir of hair clippers and my facial piercings assured that even in my pinkest frock, I was still read as queer. Now that I’m slowly but surely growing my hair out and I removed my piercings at the request of a previous employer, I generally feel fairly invisible as a queer woman. Perhaps this might not be the case if I lived somewhere where people were more familiar with the subtle visual clues that I am not straight. Rhiannon Argo remarked in The Creamsickle, “A lot of femmes grow their hair out in the city like they don’t need it chopped short anymore in order to be visibly queer, how they did in whatever small town they moved from.” But as it stands, although I am happy with how I look, I often feel that my visibility depends almost entirely upon the context in which I am viewed.
This is a sentiment that was echoed by Sarah Wingrove: “When I met an ex girlfriend, later on she said she would have only guessed I was gay because I was at an LGBT event. She said my long hair made her presume I was straight.”
Pip Williams also concedes that it is most likely their hair that prevents them from being recognised by other queer people. “I always think my hair is what stops me being visibly queer and is why I’m read as femme rather than more futchy, like I generally dress very androgynous but between my hair and my curves I will forever be read as a women and in all likelihood a straight one.”
As frustrating as feeling invisible can become, it has it’s advantages especially when visually signalling your existence to your own community also alerts everybody else, who might not be quite so welcoming, to your arrival. As Lu Allan reminisced, “When I had short-back-and-sides etc. I felt more visible–both to other queers and to the wider world in general. If I could’ve changed a setting so that I was more visible only to other queers, that would’ve been grand.”
Garen Abel Unokan also remarked that wearing her hair short changed the way that people responded to her.
With straight men it’s that horrible, […] knowing that you’re not a women they’re interested in fucking, so knowing that they have no interest in helping you, being kind to you, or getting to know you. […] With straight women, I always feel like I have to be very cautious about how I talk about my romantic attraction lest I be labelled as a creep. […] On a lighter note, it’s very amusing to make eye contact with the rare cute boy I see and realise that we both have the same haircut. […] It’s really weird moving through space the way I look right now–once I got misgendered and catcalled in the same five minutes.”
Long hair still isn’t a sure fire way of flying under the radar though, Rachael Scarsbrook reassured me:
“Apparently even with hair down to my butt I still scream GAY from 10 feet away. That’s definitely more down to the way I dress and carry myself though […] For me, my long hair goes with my more androgynous style to physically express how much of a mixed media I feel my own gender is. Like, wearing men’s clothes but having ridiculously long hair is a juxtaposition that I love to exist between.”
Every queer girl I asked had different reasons for choosing a hairstyle. Garen said that for her it was “inextricably tied up with race”, my friend Kay told me that she had “wanted it done for ages” and Fanny told me she cut her hair to feel like she didn’t have to “justify [her] existence in queer spaces”. But they all responded more or less the same way when I asked why they thought short hair on a woman was perceived as a signifier of queerness: they said it was because it was gender nonconforming, deviant, not considered to be feminine, and almost deliberately unappealing to men. An idea Pip summed up when they said, “I think a lot of queer women’s visual identity comes from rebellion and pushback against hetero norms. […] Short hair is a stereotype that perhaps there’s not that much truth to but it’s kind of a starting point. Queerness and counter culture are so intrinsically linked that often anything people might call “edgy” can also be read as a queer signifier”
It might occasionally be difficult to tell the difference between a queer woman and a trendy art student and our hair cuts aren’t always the most easy to read calling card, but for me it’s still the way I feel most confident recognising my own people in the wild. I have a complicated relationship with my hair, I always have done, and as it grows I feel a little like I am fading into the background. When I see an unapologetic woman with short hair, I recognise a part of myself.