Growing up, I did not care for fashion at all. In fact, I hated going shopping with my mother and sister because they would spend the entire day shopping for themselves while I would be bored out of my mind watching them. Up until my teenage years, my mom pretty much outfitted me. My clothes were sized to my body but there was nothing too amazing about the clothes or styles I would wear. I never cared much about how I looked. Honestly, I only wore clothes for practicality rather than making a statement.
It was everyone else who cared too much about how I looked.
To my Black schoolmates, what I wore was a statement of my sexuality before I even understood the concept of sexuality myself. To them, I was an “other” that did not adhere to what a Black boy should look (and act) like, especially in comparison to the other Black boys at school.
So, what was a kid who had no idea why his clothing choices challenged heteronormative standards to do to fix his situation, or at least make people stop paying negative attention to him?
Two individuals during high school and in my transition to college stood out in this evolution of my style. They were both white boys who swayed me in two entirely different directions.
The first white boy was someone I was acquainted with in high school who would constantly berate me for not “dressing Black enough.” His idea of Black men was based in rap videos and movie stereotypes of “the ghetto.” I gave into his berating in the hopes that it’d divert people’s attention away from me. It had also given me the room necessary to come to terms with who I was without outside voices dictating who I was sexually and romantically attracted to as I had reached that age of sexual awakening.
I met the second white guy a year after graduating high school. By then, I had grown comfortable with who I was and how I wanted to present myself to the world. There was no longer a reason to hide and I didn’t have to encounter people who made me feel inadequate for it. Compared to my high school acquaintance, he didn’t care about how I looked in clothes as a Black man, but rather how I looked in clothes as an individual.
…or at least, that’s what I thought at the time.
I realize now that he was concerned about my race but in a different way.
Growing up in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania, with hardly any Black people in the area, my style of baggy clothes was seen more as a threat to his white comfort than as my means to survive Black America as a gay man. His thought process was more focused on my looking “presentable” rather than “ghetto,” lacking an education of what it means to be a gay Black American. From his white cis-het perspective, he would never understand and he would never have to.
So why were these white kids the trigger to my style journey? Why did I rely on people who didn’t have to face questions of their own sexuality or race to give me advice on what to wear?
As someone who lived and went to school in a predominantly white area, it was difficult for me to blend in to make friends and meet new people. Aside from that, I grew up in a conservative area where it wasn’t easy to be out and proud. I didn’t really like being the center of attention, so I did everything I could to blend in and not stand out, including changing my style of dress. However, I also went to a small school where there was a cap on how many students there could be in each grade, so it was also Mission: Impossible to not be the center of attention, especially as the only queer Black kid at the school.
Moving forward through college, I had started to make my own decisions on how I wanted to dress. Instead of relying on other people’s advice for commentary that was not applicable to my tastes and emotions, I wanted to be my own person. It was during these years that I learned to love myself as a proud gay Black man. After years of looking for the approval of others, I had finally found my ability to rebel. What better way of starting my rebellious phase than through picking my own clothes without commentary from friends or family?
Through it all, I had found this untapped confidence in myself to challenge the norm. With every new shopping spree or retail therapy moment, I take the initiative in wanting to change up my look and push my own envelope in my comfortability because it’s fun and helps build my own self-confidence. After years of conforming for others, I finally don’t have to do it anymore. I know that with each article of clothing I choose, I make a decision in self-love and self-preservation.
I do still live in a conservative, predominantly white neighborhood, so I do often get stared at still. Sure, it makes me a bit uneasy, but it feels like I’m challenging their minds without saying anything. It starts to feel like my outfit is a revolutionary act of protest to the norm.
These days, I know that style is subjective. Not everyone has to conform to a certain look just for the sake of fitting a stereotype people have of others based on race or sexual orientation. I had to figure it out on my own as an individual. Instead of letting my race or my sexual orientation dictate the way I should look in the eyes of others, I’m the only factor in what I’m allowed to wear. No one else can make that decision for me.
Now with life and everything that I do, I follow one simple mantra that I created: “I don’t follow trends. I start them.”
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