There have always been rules.
A lot of them make sense: Don’t slam the cabinet door while your mom is on the phone, don’t push people, don’t laugh at funerals, etc. These rules are explicit, told and repeated.
And then there are other rules, rules that aren’t always spoken aloud but are nonetheless enforced and perpetuated: Don’t wear clothes like that, don’t talk like that, don’t do that for fun. It’s these rules that construct expectations for expression of gender and sexuality.
Like many college students in Claremont, I don’t really like these rules, but I still perpetuate them. It can be hard to dismantle rules, especially ones that aren’t spoken aloud, and it can be harder still to recognize them.
Enter the cowboy hat.
From Lil Nas X to Orville Peck, queers are claiming the cowboy hat. This movement isn’t sudden — it’s been building since the release of “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005 (which Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Rush Limbaugh notably called “Humpback Mountain”).
No, the movement is pretty old. But Lil Nas X and Orville Peck have something that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal don’t — gayness.
Cowboy hats have long been associated with straightness and with a rigid blueprint of masculinity. Take the Marlboro Man, or John Wayne, to name a few. But gay country artists Lil Nas X and Orville Peck have claimed the cowboy persona for their own, and this is important for reasons beyond the fact that they both look absolutely incredible.
This claiming of a dominant symbol of heterosexuality and masculinity espouses a deeper message — that there is no “queer look.” Yes, there are elements of fashion and culture that are exclusively queer (and should remain that way), but there are no elements of fashion and culture that are exclusively straight.
The headline of this article was clickbait. Cowboy hats do not connote queerness, but that’s my point: Nothing does. There is no box on a grid that anyone is required to check — there is only the space you take up, and that’s yours to do with as you please.
It’s necessary to become better at recognizing the role that college students play at perpetuating the existence of rules. Take “gaydar,” for example. Gaydar relies on the perpetuation of stereotypes and expectations for behavior and presentation.
Positionality matters, of course. Queer people are privy to certain cultural references that make identifying each other easier. I wouldn’t expect a straight person to know the differences between twinks and twunks, for example.
Sure, gaydar can be useful, particularly for the non-confrontational. But it’s also damaging in its perpetuation of a blueprint.
Obviously, there are times when this can be confusing, especially since us non-straights already struggle with initiating conversations with one another. The deconstruction of gaydar and the erasure of stereotypes can make initial interactions more hesitant and confrontational.
But ultimately, gaydar is a myth. There needs to be a deconstruction of the stereotypes of queer people. Queerness is not isolated to specific mannerisms, to specific styles and to specific objects. It travels with you, wherever you go, however you look or exist.
Unfortunately, not all cowboy hat wearers are not-straight. But that’s the main idea: To stop otherizing queerness, we have to deconstruct the blueprints we have in our mind. Yes, this can become confusing. But communication about sexuality and gender expression — these conversations are necessary for progress and equality.
A week ago, I asked a fellow non-straight person if they thought someone I knew was straight or not. They didn’t know the person at all, but they asked why I didn’t ask them myself. It felt uncomfortable for me to do that. I was hesitant and nervous to do so — it felt taboo.
We’re so used to recognizing queerness on sight and so conditioned to expect certain behaviors that the thought of asking people what their sexuality is has become frightening. Occasionally, this is with good reason. Not all of the straights are comfortable being asked their sexuality, unfortunately, and some people aren’t out.
But in places of privilege like Claremont where discussions of sexuality aren’t as taboo, conversations like this can and should be normalized.
There have always been rules. Some of them are easier to break (like painting your nails or growing out your hair), but others (expectations of representation) are deep-seated and rarely discussed.
To break these rules and end otherization, it’s necessary to talk about them.
Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, California. If you’d like to buy him a cowboy hat or a coffee, you can find him on Twitter @eamoncmorris.