As a TriMet regular, I see great swathes of our LGBTQ+ community in Portland. I encounter all sorts of hair color, piercings, earlobe gages, and Pride-affirming tattoos. Profusions of jewelry. Layers of necklaces. Genderfluid or genderqueer statements made in accessories. Graphic expressions on tee-shirts. I tried and when I turned 28, I gaged my ears slightly. I often think of doing it again to “fit in.” But, is that still me?
There’s a nine-to-five guy on the bus. He’s a seemingly no-nonsense, business casual type. Until you notice he’s exchanged his workday shoes for pink hightop sneakers. Instead of a messenger bag he carries a pink backpack, festooned with pride pins, and patches. His tie, now loosened, is a mass of pink roses on a yellow background.
“My ties and suits,” I note, “are all vintage. That’s as edgy as they get.”
As I sat there, in a fairly fitted, short-sleeved buttondown, patterned shirt, a brown 1960s YSL tie of my late dad's, wearing tortoise Rayban Wayfarers I wonder, “Am I dressing, am I presenting, ‘queer enough’ to be a member of my own community? Am I taking enough fashion risks in terms of expressing my identity?”
I have friends who paint their nails. It’s something I’ve always admired. I tried once. I had a summer where I was obsessed with orange. All my accents were orange. One day, as I was getting ready to leave for a trip to see friends on the North Shore of Long Island Sound, I dropped a heavy book on my big toe. My flip-flops for that beach trip were also orange.
As I beheld the black and blue under my big toe: I thought of my friend the host. Paul would take one look at the black and blue and mock me for the four days we’d be together. Inspired, when I went for a pedicure, I told the attendant I wanted nailpolish for my big toe. She looked puzzled. I pointed out the black and blue and she asked me what color. I told her orange. It seemed strange to her, as this was in a suburban strip mall in South Florida. Not only that I wanted orange but that I--meaning that he--wanted any nailpolish at all.
When I arrived at the beach house, I went into my room. I put on my bathing suit and orange flip flops. I was pleased. That aysymmetrical dab of orange on just one toe, seemed flirty, fun, and a bit risky in terms of how I normally dressed. I donned my orange sunglasses. I went out to the deck.
In a few minutes my host, who brings costumes to every party he hosts for himself and others, was most likely already wearing a Pride boa and a "say something hat" took one look at my toe. “Do you have an infection,” he asked, looking at the lone orange nail on my left foot. He interrupted into laughter. I tried to explain how I had a black and blue. I tried to explain how he would have made more fun of the injured nailbed beneath a clear, au naturel toenail.
Of course, it backfired. The painted toenail to my friend seemed forced. “That’s not you, nurse,” he said. Paul calls everyone “nurse” because our friends tend to “nurse drinks” when together. He produced nailpolish remover.
With this Pride, and many Prides in the past, I contemplate dyeing my hair in rainbows. Sensibly, I think of the cost of upkeep. Or pink. Just one color would be easier to maintain. Alas, no. I know someone who dyes their hair pink. That would be appropriation, right?
"Blond? Yeah. I’m sort of spiritually a blond,” I conceded last year, several consecutive years before since college, and most likely this summer when I get highlights.
I sort of revisit this idea whenever I meet friends who are more adventurous with crossing supposed “norms” of how each gender “should dress.” I feel as if I am not doing enough to express myself to the gay community. And, this is coming from someone who has worked in gay media in some capacity for at least a decade.
I went to Blowpony over my birthday weekend last month. I got into tight black jeans, a white tee-shirt with a sketch of horses intimidated by a unicorn. The horses say of the unicorn’s horn, “That’s a little suggestive.” Since the night was cooling fast, I donned a vintage aqua marine sweater. Of course I neatly tied and knotted it over my shoulders. I first learned of this trick when I studied in Italy as a college student. The stylish Italian boys all did it. Whereas in America, my dad pronouced the look “queer” when he saw it on models in catalogs.
Later at the club, my friend Amanda noted, “Oh, Sebastian, you always look so cute and preppie.”
“Preppie,” I responded crestfallen. Clearly she didn’t think the aqua marine sweater meant any kind of risk. I felt a little humiliated. “Preppie,” I pouted. “My look has kinda always been broke trust-fund-reformed-hipster at the Hamptons,” and...they laughed.
However, my friends assured me my style was preppie but not boring, classic yet fun. It suited me. The next day, for a day trip to Mount Hood, I wore a short-sleeved sweatshirt and a vintage silk scarf tied around my neck, knotted at the throat. Today I was channeling the very queer Mr. Humphries from famed British sitcom classic, “Are You Being Served?”
“Still preppie,” I moaned.
A few weeks later, I met friends for an event. I wanted something easy to wear. I donned a short-sleeved, 1960s vintage sweater in yellow. Something the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew could each wear. I added a wooden unisex bracelet from the 1970s. The tortoise shell sunglasses, my jeans rolled up suitably, a pair of patterend Tom’s.
When I arrived, once again I felt as if I just wasn’t as queer as my peers. Then, a fabulous person, who clearly held no norms about what they dressed in based on whatever identity society thought they were supposed to wear, approached me.
“Your look, it’s just spot on,” they said.
“Excuse me,” I responded.
“Oh, your outfit. Everything really suits your look. It looks great on you.”
At first, I thought they mocked me. But, they held no rudeness in their expression. After that validation I realized we express ourselves however we see fit. Coming out, finding accepting friends, sharing our voices, carving out an identity among our queer peers, this is really the validation we should most treasure. Not how we do or do not dress. I don’t have to emulate the way others express their gender or sexual identity to embrace the way in which I celebrate it. That would not be showcasing myself. It would be appropriating someone else’s style.
“Besides,” my housemates recently said, “you think of yourself as Carrie. But as far as “Sex in the City” goes, you’re clearly a Charlotte York.”
This is Sebastian Fortino's first column as Editor-in-Chief of ProudQueer.com, since coming on board in February of this year. He can also be found on Metrosource.com where he contributes to Gay Voices. He's a proud, lifelong city guy, raised in Philadelphia, and educated in New York at Fordham University. Sebastian has made his home in Portland now for three years, and has never felt more at home than he does in the Rose City.