The girl walked up to Senior Yonni Hirner during passing period, noticed his purple terry cloth shirt, fluorescent Supreme hoodie, black corduroy pants, and said, “I like your style. Do you like women?”
Dressing outside of the high school norm often makes people question Hirner’s sexuality, due to the misconception that a male who is stylish is also gay, a thought deeply ingrained in our society. However. Hirner and other students including seniors Jesse Newman and Eli Rosenthal and freshman Jake Cohen,are all taking strides to break down the stereotyes about men’s fashion, whether or not the stereotypes pinpoint their sexuality or lifestyle. In doing so, they face a plethora of criticisms and accusations regarding their sexual preference and lifestyle choices every day.
The connection between style and sexuality may stem from the considerable amount of gay designers in the fashion world. It’s also tied with gender roles, including the historical reality that fashion and apparel are a woman’s concern. This stereotype is so complex and deeply rooted in the present day fashion industry that it’s difficult to distinguish when it first started. According to The New York Times, men in the 19th century had to follow a strict dress code; those who revolted against this proper attire were perceived as lazy, unkempt, and lower class. In the 21st century, the same type of restrictions still exist, but now if a male shows even the slightest concern about what he is wearing, he is seen as feminine and potentially gay.
Those who take pride in what they wear aren’t the only ones who notice the issue at hand. “I think that women’s fashion is much more emphasized in high school,” senior Raven Twilling said. “Teen girls gain respect from their peers for having unique or hip style, whereas boys do not. Fashion is stereotyped as a feminine thing, and I think that’s why boys tend to dress in a more homogenous manor, with the aim of fitting in rather than standing out.”
Cohen, who identifies as queer, has taken pride in being one of the few teenage boys at Tam who enjoys standing out. He has a more extravagant style than the average teenager, regularly wearing latex pants, a leopard print jacket, band t-shirts, and the occasional pair of high heels. Due to this style, people often assume he’s a member of the LGBTQ+ community without asking him. Solely based on his appearance and clothing, strangers frequently make assumptions and even approach him to ask about his sexuality.
“I’ll have people who don’t know me, start a conversation with me, and then bring up the fact that I’m gay, and I’m always like, ‘Oh, I don’t remember telling you that,’” Cohen said. “I think that [assuming sexual identity] just adds to the whole culture of homophobia and stereotyping. When really clothing has nothing to do with gender, and I think that’s something that people don’t really understand, and especially [that it] has nothing to do with our sexuality. But sadly that’s not how our society really sees it yet.”
Even students who don’t identify as LGBTQ, including Newman, Hirner, and Rosenthal, are stereotyped or have their sexualities assumed based on their outfits.
“I do know that people have believed that I’m gay before because of what I wear,” Rosenthal said. “But I’ve never thought that ‘Oh because I’m wearing this, somebody’s gonna think I’m gay.’” Rosenthal’s signature style consists of monochromatic tones, tight skinny jeans, kimonos, stripes, and silver chains. Since Rosenthal’s style is usually more laid back, he receives fewer critical comments than those with a more audacious style.
“There’s definitely some negative connotations with certain clothes,” Newman said. “If you wear all black, people think you’re emo. If you wear flight pants people think you’re a hipster. If you wear band t-shirts, even if you like the band, people might think that you’re just hopping on a trend. I have long hair, people think I smoke weed, [and] I don’t smoke weed, that’s just how I express myself…. Sometimes adults, or adult males just kinda assume I’m feminine, or call me ‘Pretty Boy’ because of the way I dress. I feel like the older generation is more worried about masculinity, and they’re more conservative, so they don’t really understand when people wear stuff like this and aren’t gay.”
Cohen too has faced many difficult interactions and sometimes even threats due to what he’s wearing. “Whenever I walk through the halls, or I’m in public, or traveling people always give me these hostile looks of either resent, anger, amusement, or even like they want to physically touch or hurt me,” he said. “I used to be scared, and sometimes still am. I won’t deny myself that emotion, but at the end of the day what I’m wearing does not affect anyone else but me. And if somebody makes what I’m wearing about themselves then I cannot spend time with them. It’s taken me a long time to realize how to put myself first in that way,” Cohen said.
Yet the issue Cohen discusses doesn’t seem to be taken too seriously by other students. “Tam has a big problem with ‘jokes,’” senior and Student Body President Robbie Samec said. “Members of the LGBTQ+ [community] are stuck at the middle of social trends. It ranges from calling everything [bad] gay, to making fun of people who don’t believe in only two genders.”
But these offensive jokes don’t just affect the LGBTQ+ community. Rosenthal has also experienced similar judgmental comments from his his peers. “The biggest response that people give me is probably just, ‘What the hell are you wearing? What is that?’ I have a couple close friends who completely embrace my style, so it’s not from them. But then I have some friends who will just kinda dig at me, like a joking dig. And sometimes those questions or digs just really make me feel bad.” With little support from peers, many students find themselves shielding their self expression from others.
“You shouldn’t suppress how you want to present yourself to the world, through your clothing, because of your personality, just based on what you think others want you to do,” Cohen said.
Hirner stands with Cohen on this issue, understanding yet disregarding the unnecessary pressure to dress a certain way. “As long as you feel confident in what you’re wearing, then that’s all that matters,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else is thinking or what their opinion is. If you want to wear something, wear it.”