Hairstyle Nonverbally Communicates Queer Identity

Merry Christmas, read an essay!

I know my professor has graded this essay, but she told us we had to go in to the school and physically get a paper that said our grades after final exams were finished. I didn’t want to do that so I don’t know what grade I got. I know I got an A- in the class over-all though! So far, I got A- on three out of the four classes I took this past term, and I don’t know my grade for the 4th yet. Feeling pretty good about these results.

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I am a queer person with short blue hair. A few years ago, my hair was purple and shoulder-length, and a few years before that it was long, natural, and dark brown. My hair changed with me as I become more comfortable with my queer identity. Because I have a personal interest in people’s relationships with their hair, I wanted to do some research and discover to what extent hair is used as nonverbal communication between queer people. I found that, despite the fact that some queer people have normalized hairstyles and naturally-coloured hair and some non-queer people have abnormal hairstyles and unnaturally-coloured hair, hairstyle non-verbally communicates queer identity because queer people need to be able to identify each other for emotional reasons (avoiding being misgendered), for social reasons (meeting like-minded people), and for safety reasons (avoiding prejudiced people).

For the sake of concision and clarity, I’m going to use the word queer as an umbrella term to refer to all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary people. I will also be using they and them pronouns for specific and non-specific people for the sake of gender-neutrality, unless I know they use different pronouns.

Queer people use hairstyles and unnatural hair colours to signal their identities to other queer people. These nonverbal signals communicate to other queer people that they are safe to approach. “Common signals include […] non-traditional hair colors and styles (especially short hair and undercuts). This serves as a way for LGBTQ+ people to more obviously and explicitly disrupt the conventions of hetero- and cis-normativity” (Sims, 2016). Once a queer person believes they have understood some nonverbal communication of queerness, they may come out to the other person in some other small way, such as subtly mentioning a partner or a gay bar. For example, I was in a group activity with a man who I thought might be gay for a number of reasons such as his long hair, piercings, and mannerisms. We grew more comfortable with each other over time because we saw the nonverbal cues for queerness, and by the end of the course we were openly talking about gender and sexuality. If I had come out to him without having received the nonverbal communication, I would have been opening myself up to someone who may have been homophobic or otherwise prejudiced in some way. It’s important to avoid violence and harassment whenever possible, which makes nonverbal communication a key part of every queer person’s life.

To get into more specific identities, lesbians and bisexual women have stereotypical haircuts that tell each other that they’re the same. This nonverbal signal communicates to other lesbians and bisexual women that they may be able to date, be friends, or at the very least feel safe in each other’s presence. The short-haired lesbian, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow, is a well-known stereotype and is often used by lesbians to find each other. “The way we wear our hair is one of the more obvious ways we signal — to other lesbians and bi women and to the world at large — that we’re queer” (Thomas, 2016). Of course, there are lesbians who don’t follow this specific short hairstyle, but they are often overlooked by the lesbian community because they aren’t sending overt signals. On a similar note, “Not all women with short hair are lesbians, but most women with short hair are regularly read as lesbians” (Thomas, 2016).

Furthermore, transgender people use hairstyles to communicate their gender to everyone around them. It’s difficult to get hormones and it can be expensive to buy an entirely new wardrobe after coming out as transgender. Surgeries are on a whole other level of difficulty and expensiveness. A haircut or wig is often the very first step in transitioning because of how effective and accessible it is. “Part of being transgender, at least for me, means desperately wanting to be able to exert control over how I look — and doing whatever I can to take matters of my appearance and presentation into my own hands. […] My hair is a source of power. It’s the one thing I can always change, whenever the mood strikes me, easily and without any oversight, input or restrictions from anyone else” (Hampton, 2018). When a transgender person’s whole body feels like it is betraying them and causing others to view them as the wrong gender, a new hairstyle can make the difference between being misgendered all day and only being misgendered a few times per day.

This can apply to some non-binary people, but other non-binary people might see their hair in a different way. Hair is an extremely versatile part of one’s appearance and can be changed from day-to-day. This can be endlessly helpful for someone who identifies as genderfluid, for example, and wants to express themself as masculine one day, feminine another day, and perhaps androgynous on other days. “My small cabal of non-binary friends all have excellent hair, myself included. For better or worse, I’ve built my persona around my hair. It’s my biggest defining characteristic: Jamey with the revolving door of hair colors […] At first, I didn’t feel the need to analyze my preoccupation with my hair too much. […] But the more queer folks I met who had similar strong feelings about their hair, the more I started to think about why that might be” (Hampton, 2018). Non-binary people can become particularly obsessive about their hair because there is no set gender norm to follow to make people know what pronouns they use. Bright and interesting hair takes the focus off of gender and puts it on something much less serious, which can be a nice break.

There are people who believe hair is just hair and that it isn’t that deep. Hair may seem unimportant, but it’s tied to identity and spirituality in many cultures. Also, for many queer people, hair provides a sense of self-expression. “It’s definitely not just hair. […] It can be really important to a lot of people, and it can be really not important to a lot of people. It tells other people a lot about how you want to portray yourself” (“Shave It Off,” n.d.). This person also advocates for shaving one’s hair completely off at least once. I would have to agree with them because the first time I shaved my head, it was like a beautiful fresh start. It removes so many expectations surrounding looks and it’s a lot less work.

I wanted to find out how queer people communicate nonverbally with their hairstyles and dyed hair, and I found that queer people need to use nonverbal communication, including with their hair, in order to identify like-minded people, avoid prejudiced people, and to avoid emotional turmoil; this is despite the fact that not all queer people have abnormal hairstyles and that some non-queer people do have abnormal hairstyles. However, “Based on the results of our Counter Culture Survey, significantly more self-identified LGBTQ+ people have non-traditional hairstyles than not” (Sims, 2016). Therefore, it’s fairly safe to say that queer people will know who they can trust based on nonverbal communication through specific types of hairstyles and hair being dyed unnatural colours.

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Shave It Off

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