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Brooke Candy, photography Roxy Lee

Does your hairstyle give away your sexual preferences?

From ‘bisexual’ bobs to skinheads and bleached blondes, we explore the styles speaking volumes about our preferences, persuasions, and kinks – according to experts and members of the LGBTQ+ communities

Hairstyles are not prescriptive to sexual identity (of course). Not every lesbian has an undercut and not every gay guy has bleached his hair blonde, but they do appear to form part of the new queer semiotics.

It was by complete accident and split ends that Jordan, a writer from London, got her first ‘bisexual bob’. “Once I had it, though, I thought it might at least convey the fact that I fancy women”, she tells us. The haircut, which grows anywhere between chin and shoulder-length, has, of late, become one of the most identifiable tropes of bisexual culture. While she says her hair often ends up “more like a stubby ponytail”, there’s no denying that the bisexual bob is something of a phenomenon, as seen on everyone from Brooke Candy, to Tessa Thompson, to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in The Good Place, with Joan of Arc as its apparent originator (at least according to Twitter).

Whether it’s the liminal length or nondescript style, there is something about the haircut that appears to signal sexual fluidity. For Jordan at least, it’s “straight-up ambiguous with femme energy”. In the slipstream of femme and tomboy, the bi bob (ironically) defies categorisation – reflecting back that same duality of identity which so many bisexuals inhabit.

Queer folk in general though have a long history of signalling identity via personal aesthetics. Dr Shaun Cole, associate professor in fashion at the University of Southampton, says that “as members of a marginalised community, recognisable aesthetics are and always have been important to queer people”. After all, “the gay liberation movements were built by people who had distinct and visible aesthetic codes.”

Among these signifiers were gay semiotics, which arose during the 70s when it was illegal to declare any queer sexual identity. Here, the dressing of handkerchiefs, keychains, and piercings formed part of a vernacular which communicated sexual preference (and kink) to a knowing audience. This kind of flagging, with its "codes and aesthetic styles, was imperative for recognition between like-minded people”. In fact, it fulfilled a vital function at a time when the ability to accurately suss out a situation was essential, if not fatal. 

As these codes evolved, they unwittingly became key to the development of visible queer communities. And hair, as one of our most visible aspects, went from self-expression to political motif. Take gay skinheads for example, whose hair became a symbol of defiance during the institutionalised homophobia surrounding the AIDS crisis. 

Dr Cole explains that in the West, shaving heads not only has an association with criminal activity but even “has resonances with the Holocaust and (the often forgotten) queer victims of concentration camps”. The reclamation of the shaved head as both a smart and subcultural look, therefore, became an act of transgression for many gay male skinheads. So much so, that it eventually “became key to the styles associated with queer movements like ACT up and Queer Nation in the 80s and 90s” – activist organisations working against anti-gay violence and the AIDS pandemic.

“I have always been conscious that my look doesn’t fit with society’s view of heteronormativity. (My hairstyle) looks like a short, choppy blonde bob from the side (and) allows me to show my differences in a way dictated by me, not to me” – Jake, social media editor

Members of the queer community continually challenge hegemonic structures of ‘appropriate’ hairstyles. “I have always been conscious that my look doesn't fit with society's view of heteronormativity” says Jake, a social media editor who has a “fabulous” chin-length fringe, which he colours blonde and styles to the side (think a cooler Harry from TOWIE). At a time when femmephobia is on the rise, the fact that Jake’s chosen style “looks like a short, choppy blonde bob from the side” could be read as rebellious. But as Jake says, it “allows me to show my differences in a way dictated by me, not to me”.

In an interview with Elle UK in 2016, Kristen Stewart told the magazine that she was “really in love with her girlfriend” (film producer Alicia Cargile). Marked by a chin-length, dark rooted, crude cut, it was the first time K Stew had really addressed her fluid sexual identity. It also coincided with a time when her personal aesthetic was beginning to feel more counter-culture and visibly queer, a significant move from her ingenue Twilight persona. It was a drastic shift in identity which could be read on her hair – in a way which seemed reminiscent of a 2015 Miley Cyrus who came out as pansexual to Paper magazine at the peak of her Bangerz blonde cropped style.

Frank Ocean, too, will forever be synonymous with coloured buzzcuts (a style which only surfaced once he had come out with a note on his Tumblr in 2012). But the coming out glow up has also been seen more recently, on public figures such as Lil Nas X who, after coming out in July 2019, has become increasingly experimental and gender non-conforming in his aesthetic – from Versace harness suits to his latest Goku-inspired hair. For many queer people, the experience of radically changing appearance can represent a hard-won battle to be seen and in this way, queer hair cannot be disentangled from the politics of visibility.

Demi Jay, a musician, got an undercut once she had “finally come to terms with (her) queerness”. She says it makes it easy for others to identify her as a stem (soft butch) lesbian. “I dig that I don’t have to tell people all the time!” It’s a sentiment shared by Liv, an actor who recently braved the undercut - it “can be an indicator of a whole sub-identity and contributes to a sense of solidarity with the queer community”. In a similar vein, Dugald, a bar student from Edinburgh, bleached his hair the day before San Francisco Pride. In his experience, a platinum look helped him feel a proximity to the culture of queerness - “it was about being seen as gay and identifying myself as part of a queer community”.

As Liv puts it, “you don’t have to constantly come out to every new person you meet”. The idea of having hair that comes out for you is a deliberate decision – one which not only flags as queer but situates someone within an intersect of their own community. Lauren, a psychology masters student, recently got their first buzzcut. “I only properly realised the power of hair politically once I did something drastic with my own”. But for Lauren, who identifies as gender fluid, it’s gone further than outward acceptance, it’s been “healing. It’s led me to embrace more of a trans identity and helped me to pass – I’ve never felt more myself”.

To take a non-normative approach to hair may signal sexual identity but it also rejects the heteronormative gaze and its conflation of long hair with womanhood. So while Jordan loves her bi bob, she also misses “having some hair to twiddle round my fingers – even if it does mean missing out on the odd girl eyeing me up”. The buzzcut would seem a cultural pillar for many queer womxn in general – something which has been reflected within pop culture by the likes of Kristen Stewart and Lena Waithe (who even remarked that she had got “gayer” since the shave).

The visibility of these figureheads push queer culture further into the mainstream, and as a result, our hair becomes a marker of an identity rooted in resistance. Over time, such hairstyles become rich cultural references. Think (OG) Shane from The L Word’s short, shaggy do and King Princess’ iteration, or the gender-bending, Ziggy Stardust mullet and its rebirth on the queer figures of today, like Christine and the Queens, K Stew, or Miley.  

“Much like the hetero stereotype of the post-breakup haircut, we have the gay breakdown haircut which is typically when a gay guy bleaches his hair platinum blonde. For example, in February of 2019, Bob the Drag Queen tweeted “If a gay guy bleaches his hair… check on him. He is going through something tough”

How we express ourselves through our hair is intimately linked to the intersectional aspects of our own personal positions - sexuality, yes, but also gender and ethnicity. For many QPOC, namely black people, hair can become a site where tensions between cultural and queer identities forge together. “Being African American, my hair has always played a considerable part in defining my identity”, Trey, a model and writer, tells us. But in his experience, a lot of black barbershops are not the most queer-inclusive and as a result, finding the right space to experiment is “a lot of trial and error”. 

“In black culture, your hair: maintaining it, making sure it's always looking fresh is so important” and in the five years Trey had a flat top, he would often get compared to queer icon Grace Jones. “Whether it was true or not, it was such a high compliment and really helped me embrace my androgynous features”. It’s something Trey feels “would not be celebrated back in Boston” and as a result, other non-conformist styles such as “wigs are becoming more a part of (his) identity”. 

Much like the hetero stereotype of the post-breakup haircut, we have the gay breakdown haircut (which is typically when a gay guy bleaches his hair platinum blonde). For example, in February of 2019, Bob the Drag Queen tweeted “If a gay guy bleaches his hair…check on him. He is going through something tough”. 

And while there is some truth to these kinds of pop-stereotypes, it's indicative of the way queer aesthetics quickly develop inter-community connotations in the age of digital media. For Dugald, these do more harm than good: “I’m a bit skeptical of the (bleached blonde) trope because I think it’s linked to stereotypes that we should be critical of: that gay men are superficial and they turn to superficial fixes to mental health problems.” Hair is key in any expression of queer identity but with the advent of internet culture, these aesthetics have taken on new meaning.