“My Style Is A Statement”: LGBTQ+ Men On What Their Clothes Mean To Them

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“My Style Is A Statement”: LGBTQ+ Men On What Their Clothes Mean To Them

Words by Mr Colin Crummy and Mr Jason Okundaye | Photography by Ms Hazel Gaskin | Styling by Ms Otter Hatchett and Ms Sophie Watson

19 August 2021

For Mr Marc Thompson, an organiser in London’s Black queer communities, style is a matter of being seen. “It’s not that I want to be noticed for vanity,” says Thompson, director of the not-for-profit organisation The Love Tank. “I want to stand out because, way too often, we are invisible as gay men, as Black people. If I put those two together, I need to shout loudly. My style becomes a statement.”

How members of the LGBTQ+ community make these statements are as varied as their experiences. Loud and proud is one way to do so. It’s the route favoured by the lead character in the new British film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The musical, based on a West End show and inspired by a real-life story, sees a gay teenager from Northern England turn to drag to express himself. It’s a time-honoured tale about style as a way to tell your story, which will be familiar to anyone who has binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, or seen the balls on TV series Pose, or ever marched in Pride.

Collectively, Pride is the community at its most visible. Individually, LGBTQ+ people use style to be seen. It can be used to signal identity to each other (handy that, when you’re looking for love in the local pub), the wider world and yourself. It’s especially important for a trans man like Sam Moir-Smith. “Style and identity are so intertwined for everyone but especially for trans people,” says the London-based PhD student. “Style adds that extra layer for self-understanding and self-expression, which isn’t afforded a lot.”

Ahead of London Pride in September, which has reverted online again this year, we gathered individuals from across the capital’s LGBTQ+ community, including Thompson and Moir-Smith, to share their personal style stories.

Mr Matthew Johnston shares a childhood memory of dressing up that will be familiar to many LGBTQ+ people. “There are lots of photos of me at three years old, wearing my sister’s uniform or my auntie’s heels and pearls, and using a tea towel as a wig,” the Ireland-born, London-based creative director recalls. “I was the poster child for queerness.”

For his fiancé, Mr Mohsin Zaidi, snapshots of childhood style growing up in east London tell a different story. “I remember this one picture of me in traditional Pakistani dress, and I looked deeply uncomfortable,” says Zaidi. “I was happy to be Pakistani in the home, but to do so on the street felt really complicated, it felt like it made me different in a bad way. My skin colour made me stand out, and then here I was almost putting a magnifying glass over my skin colour by adding traditional clothing.”

These intersections of Zaidi’s identity and the tensions between them are explored in his book, A Dutiful Boy, which tells his story of growing up in a devout Muslim household where it felt impossible for him to be gay. The award-winning memoir – and Zaidi’s writing debut (he is a high-flying criminal barrister by day) – sees him journey from his working-class upbringing to Oxford University, while grappling with acceptance of himself, and then seeking the same from his family. Later, when his boyfriend, Johnston, enters the picture, Zaidi worries about introducing him to his parents.

Relationships in the five years since have healed and grown, and the couple are deep in the planning stages for their wedding, postponed due to the pandemic. The question of wedding attire is usually a fraught one, but for Zaidi it is saddled with additional questions about identity. Traditional dress will form part of the two ceremonies the couple have planned, he says, but it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “I thought, do I have the right? Am I entitled to this part of my identity, or did I give it up when I came out? I didn’t give it up. But you can be made to feel that way by the internal struggles within your different identities.”

Mohsin and Johnston went to London’s Green Street – a hub of south Asian retailers – to try out clothes, like the black shirvani that Mohsin will wear on the second evening of their celebrations. “It felt like a really special moment,” says Johnston. “There’s been a big struggle with Mohsin’s identity and us getting to a place as a couple where we’re now really close with his family, so that felt like a final step, actually getting to put on these Pakistani clothes and stand together in front of our families and friends, and drawing a line under that journey.”

On the MR PORTER shoot, Mr Marc Thompson has opted for a soft-pink, cotton-twill suit from Richard James. “I love the funkiness of it,” says the veteran activist. “I love the boldness of it. I put it on and I was like, that’s the suit. I’m quite brave in my choices. If I was going to an event, I would wear something like this.”

Tailoring forms the cornerstone of Thompson’s wardrobe. “I like to be really smart. My dad and my granddad were Jamaican men of a certain age who worked really hard. My granddad was from the Windrush generation, so he liked a good suit, wore a hat, was always dressed in shoes. My dad would always dress up on weekends. He liked a Gabicci shirt, good shoes. He would buy outfits for himself and a mini version for me.”

Sartorial lessons were not just for show, either. “Dressing well in Black communities comes very much from a place of not having a lot of material things,” Thompson says. “We can present our status, who we are and how we may have succeeded in life by dressing really well.”

Thompson has a successful history of community organising and engagement, starting in the 1990s when he co-founded Big Up, an initiative to respond to men’s sexual-health needs. He has worked for a number of HIV charities, and at The Love Tank, his role involves promoting the health and wellbeing of underserved Black and queer communities. The work brings him into spaces where he is in the minority; style, he says, is a way of making space for himself.

“In the gay sector that I work in, I’m very often the only Black man in those spaces. So, I am not just representing myself, I’m representing my community. It shouldn’t be the case, right? But to be well turned out says to people that this is somebody you should respect, this is somebody who has a valued opinion.”

While Thompson has always taken pride in looking polished, his younger days as a clubber often saw him in T-shirts and jeans at London clubs such as DTPM and Queer Nation. Now, at 52, his style reflects less time on sweaty dancefloors – but is still an expression of his identity. “I’m interested in expressing my style as a Black gay man,” he says. “That means combining my Jamaican heritage, my Black British heritage ­– informed by casuals [football culture], by hip-hop – and then the gay aesthetic. Good white T-shirts, good selvedge jeans, particular types of boots and shoes that we would wear as gay men that my [straight] Black British brothers may not.”

Growing older hasn’t stopped Thompson from taking style risks – quite the opposite. “I care less about what people think when they see me,” he says. “My age has given me an opportunity to be braver. I want to stand out as an older queer man. I want to be the person who [makes] you go, ‘Damn!’”

Sam Moir-Smith likes oversized style and bold colours, so he’s particularly pleased to be sporting a Valentino silk shirt, wide-leg Dries Van Noten shorts and plenty of his favourite colour, pink, for his MR PORTER shoot. “Pink is my favourite colour because it plays with masculinity,” he says. “I like to think that I look quite masculine, so wearing colour is a nice juxtaposition.”

Moir-Smith came out as trans at 15. At the time, baggy clothes were a way of concealing his true sense of himself. “Before I transitioned, I was hiding under my clothes,” he says. “I was so self-conscious that I would just wear baggy clothing.”

As a keen BMX rider, Moir-Smith felt most at ease in streetwear, where oversized silhouettes were the norm. “When I transitioned, it was important to me at that time to be read as masculine by everyone else. That’s where my style developed from. For me, streetwear was also very linked to masculinity.”

At the start of his transition, Moir-Smith thought about style in terms of how people saw him. “When transitioning, there’s a lot of pressure to prove yourself, to your friends, and sometimes to family and within medical institutions, where the narrative of proving yourself [and that you are a certain gender] is really strong.” This affected how he dressed.“I’d think of everything in terms of full outfit and the effects that that was going to have on people. I’d think this is the masculine T-shirt, this was something else that’s masculine; it always had to be focused on that.”

Seven years on, Moir-Smith, who is studying human geography, is in a more comfortable place. “Now I just buy clothes that I like, and then I will style that item accordingly to how much I love it,” he says. “I feel more relaxed in myself, which helps with fashion in general, because you’re just able to explore.”

As a result, he’s been able to continue his love of one particular colour. “I have always loved pink,” he laughs. “The longer that I was in my transition, I realised that I didn’t have to conform to one type of masculinity and could experiment more. It’s not the same for all trans men, but the further away I got from having to be in a situation of proving myself to other people, the more I’m able to accept fluidity in myself.”

Ask Mr Max Harwood about style mistakes and he immediately recalls what he wore to prom. “Jeans, brogues, a tweed blazer,” the Hampshire-born actor explains. “I didn’t do a full suit, and my hair was a mess. But it’s not a regret, it’s one of those moments where you look back, laugh and ask yourself, ‘What did I wear that for?’ But at the time, it would have been right for me.”

The question of what to wear to prom is one that’s also at the heart of Harwood’s film debut, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, in which he stars as the titular character who sees the school dance as the opportune moment to debut his drag-queen alter ego. Not everyone is on board with this choice of career path (his teacher, played by Ms Sharon Horgan, immediately tells him to “get real”). But he finds support and guidance from best friend Pritti (Ms Lauren Patel) and a drag-queen veteran (Mr Richard E Grant).

The film explores the transformative power in dressing up, as Jamie takes on bigotry and bullying by embracing his drag-queen persona. And performing show-stopping numbers in high drag style helped the film’s leading man get into the swing of it. “The film is about drag, and the clothes, especially the more drag moments, were completely transformative,” says Harwood. “It takes you to that place of elevation, feeling glamour, and the clothes become an extension of you. They’re your armour.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a film about finding the right fit for you and wearing it with pride, and the feel-good message has left its mark on Harwood, a young LGBTQ+ actor in his first major part. His personal style has evolved, for one. “I’ve become braver,” he says. “I’m definitely more willing to try a loud print, a Cuban heel or a skirt. The film definitely has helped me to do that.”

But it’s also helped him embrace himself. “I’ve come into my own with my queerness, and making the film has 110 per cent helped me step into that space,” he concludes. “I have way more drag queen friends and queer friends than ever before. So, I feel more comfortable stepping into myself in a really fun way.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie premieres 17 September 2021 on Amazon Prime Video.

What to wear when presenting a podcast? For Mr Brendan Geoghegan, co-host of the LGBTQ+ mental-health series Bottoming, the answer lies in comfort. “No one can see you, but when you’re talking about your deepest, darkest secrets, the conversations make you feel a bit raw,” he says. “Comfortable style puts me at ease. I always hold a pillow to my stomach when we record because that’s a real comforting thing for me.”

Listeners to Bottoming may be advised to reach for something soft and comforting, too. The show, now in its second series, sees Geoghegan and co-host Mr Matthew Riley open up about their mental health in candid terms, a style the two fashion graduates developed in their decade-long friendship. “We’d seen each other go through different things, spoke and laughed about it,” says Riley. “Because we’d already had lots of conversations with each other, the podcast felt like the next step.”

The podcast – named after the idea of hitting rock bottom mentally – is like dropping in on a very honest and heartfelt conversation. “Every episode, I’ll have a realisation or we’ll speak to someone who unlocks something I’ve not really considered. For me, it’s cathartic,” says Riley. It’s an exploratory conversational style that’s reflected in our chat about style and identity. We talk about what they’re wearing for today’s shoot; Riley is especially taken with his pair of Yuketen calf hair slides, but his go-to style is considerably safer, he says – a palette of black, grey and white. “I would love to parade around in them all day long, but I’m just, is it a bit much? There’s that uncertainty,” he admits.

We discuss why this might be, and how many LGBTQ+ people’s experiences growing up in the closet and having to hide their identity might still play a part in how they present to the world. Riley went to an all-boys sports college, where any style other than “laddish” drew unwanted attention. Geoghegan learned the hard way to conceal his identity. “I came out at 14 and on a school trip to [amusement park] Alton Towers. I wore this purple top with exclamation points. It was loud. A group of boys kicked my bag and said homophobic stuff. After that, I wore the most boring clothes possible – what I thought the straight guys were wearing.”

The LGBTQ+ community reports much higher levels of mental-health issues than the general population, with hate crime, homophobic bullying, and discrimination in the workplace, healthcare and the family home all taking their toll. The podcast was a way to eradicate the shame in talking about these issues. “Doing the podcast was like putting out a bat signal. I didn’t want to feel like I was alone,” says Geoghegan. “We wanted to talk about our issues and find out if anyone else was feeling the same. And they were.”

It’s quite an exposing thing, they admit, to put themselves out there in this way. But it’s helped them, even if they’ve yet to figure out entirely why. Geoghegan says the podcast has given him a way of expressing himself that he used to rely on fashion to do, and in a way, that’s freed him up to be more fun in his style choices. Riley is also getting comfortable with new things. He shows off his nails, which he’s had done before the shoot. “I've always hated my hands. I’ve got small hands. I always hide them,” he explains. “And I was like, no, come on. I’m a grown man. I can go and get my nails done.” He pulls a grin as wide as the smiley faces painted on his nails. “So, I went and did the full set.”