Hillary Clinton’s sense of style has been criticized for as long as she has been on the national political scene. One of the uglier forms this mockery has taken, most often in barbed private jokes and comments but occasionally openly by anti-gay activists, has been the “rumors” of secret lesbianism, supposedly evidenced by her pantsuits and her (actually not always full-throated) support of gay rights. Suggestions that Hillary Clinton is or might be a lesbian rightly belong where I first heard them: in the hallways of a middle school, coming out the mouths of homophobic pre-teens. Still, if Clinton were a lesbian, I’d be proud to claim her fashion sense. Clinton embodies something many lesbians accomplish effortlessly: She dresses in a way that does not cater to, or even consider, the male gaze. Clinton has never sought to make herself a sexual object to please straight men, even when such men have mocked and insulted her for having the temerity not to.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t look like every lesbian, of course, because there’s no one lesbian style. In addition to many who “look straight,” or straight-ish, a huge variety of styles are recognizably queer but don’t look remotely like Clinton’s pantsuits. Asymmetrical haircuts, combat boots, or menswear on women are all arguably queerer than a simple women’s pantsuit and hair that falls just above the shoulder. (That Clinton’s style looks queer at all shows how small the box is for straight women who don’t want to be labeled gay.)
Wherever lesbian sensibilities diverge from straight expectations, they provide a hint of how women might choose to look if they weren’t worried about whether men found them attractive. (Being women themselves, lesbians can rest fairly easy in the knowledge that if they like the way they look, at least some other women probably will, too.) Sometimes this means being more colorful, more playful, and weirder than most straight women allow themselves to be. Sometimes it means being plainer and less adorned with frills and bows and jewelry, or trying items of male clothing and either recombining them with womenswear or adopting them wholesale. Sometimes it means showing less skin. Sometimes it means being louder, less afraid of being visible. Sometimes it means being practical and wearing comfortable shoes.
Hillary’s look is a practical one. She chooses outfits that are variations on a relatively narrow theme. Her clothing and hair are neat and well suited to her face and frame. She goes without excessive adornment and avoids showing much skin. Her suits are chosen to convey competence, professionalism, and authority rather than attractiveness. Many lesbians dress this way, but it’s also how most professional men dress—a default style for half the population. It’s only straight women who pay a penalty if they dress without at least half an eye toward making themselves attractive to the opposite sex. It’s simply not possible for straight women to dress practically and simply without judgment, reflection, or comment the way men do. Hence the rumors about Hillary’s sexuality.
It shouldn’t be this way. While many people enjoy looking sexy for their partners, dressing up to go out on the town, or showing off their bodies during a particular stage of life, the demand that women always signal attractiveness can be a burden in the workplace—or when seeking political office. The expectation that women must worry about being pretty first, and everything else second, can feel constrictive to all kinds of women, not just to lesbians.
It’s a natural impulse for any human being to prefer to present themselves as a competent employee or a strong leader rather than as an attractive potential sex partner, at least some of the time. While some women may want to feel pretty and desired all the time (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that for those who do), a great many others would rather be seen and judged on the basis of their accomplishments rather than their beauty. This has nothing to do with sexuality, but rather with being free from considerations of sexuality at times when sex isn’t relevant. The way Hillary Clinton chooses to present herself follows naturally from that impulse. Whatever one thinks of her political positions, she should be lauded, rather than denigrated, for her personal style.