Here’s a fun fact: It took me way longer to figure out my gender identity and sexual orientation than it did to fall in love with black lipstick and the Sisters of Mercy. By the time I realized I was queer and nonbinary, I had called myself a goth for over a decade. Part of the appeal of the macabre subculture was certainly goth’s reputation for androgyny, its reclassification of tight black jeans and flowing shrouds as equal opportunity, and its campaign of eyeliner for all. But when fashion is a perpetual dance of self-expression and survival, visibility isn’t just about being seen. It’s about being understood.
I’m into heavy eyeliner, pointed nails, swaths of jewelry, the works. By goth rules, none of these elements are necessarily gendered; by queer rules, they’re downright femme. Femme isn’t an identifier I bristle at, exactly. I like the word’s ability to signal fashion sense without signaling gender, and its usage within the queer community: Yes, I like lipstick. No, I’m not necessarily a woman. Yet if a goth man in lipstick doesn’t think of himself as femme, why should I?
There’s a conflict between fashion as gender expression and fashion as expression, period. Splitting gender and aesthetics carries its own kind of privilege: While cisgender goths can wear lipstick and skirts as a “fashion thing,” the sartorial choices of trans goths are inherently and automatically politicized. Being goth, in a way, is a public statement of “I have reviewed society’s rules and decide to go against them.” Gender nonconformity due to nonstandard gender identity, on the other hand, is an individual saying “this is me” while those around them assume they just haven’t read the manual.
Goth culture, unfortunately, does not exist in a vacuum. Within the subculture, items like cosmetics or clothing might be themselves genderless, but that doesn’t mean that the gender binary has ceased to exist and hundreds of years of assumptions have gone up in flames. To truly follow through on its mission, goth must work harder at dismantling oppressive thinking where it starts, rather than merely bending the rules for a select few.
I asked on Facebook if other goths knew what I was talking about, and my inbox was flooded. “Essentially everybody just sees me as a female without questioning,” wrote Laila Autumn, who is also nonbinary. “I get misgendered—especially in the goth scene—all the time. It sucks because I feel like a lot of people don’t take me seriously as a trans person … or they just think that I’m not really nonbinary because of the way I dress.”
And since coming out as genderqueer, Kenyatta JP Garcia felt pressured to change makeup routines and color palettes “to really show I was more than just a goth guy doing the goth thing.” Goth was how Kenyatta first began challenging gender norms; it was for me, too. But the insistence on separating fashion from gender ultimately fails the community’s trans members. People look at you and they have the bandwidth for one label. Does your eye shadow mean you’re goth, or does it mean you’re trans? This call is generally made based on how well (or not) we “pass,” which sucks.
“Even though I love makeup, I find that I’m still self-conscious over it increasing the likelihood that I’ll be misgendered,” another goth, Zoe, told me over email. “As a DFAB [designated female at birth] trans-masculine person who hasn’t had surgery or taken hormones, this is a pretty typical internal fight that happens while putting on my eyeliner. Even in queer spaces, I find that I’m assessed as ‘not doing masculinity right’ because of personal fashion preferences.” Zoe’s experience, sadly, is not uncommon.
“I stopped wearing alternative colors and lush fabrics and makeup of any kind because of folks coding me as Young Goth Chick,” chatted Ariel Leigh, a trans man with a closet “full of ’90s brown and greige lipsticks and Manic Panic colors and stupid velvet suits and EGL clothes” he hopes he’ll be able to wear again someday. “Maybe it’d be different if I lived in a different climate, but wearing lush, layered fabrics and layers of makeup, dyeing my hair and then also binding and packing in Florida, only to be misgendered. … It’s not exactly one specific event that pushed me over the edge, it was just the ordeal of it all! I felt terrible.” So one day he threw all of his clothes into a big box and bought an entirely new wardrobe. “My friend Daniel, bless his heart, still wears New Wave hair and makeup well into his transition because he’s way braver than I am,” Ariel tells me. “But he also literally draws on a pencil moustache so people don’t just think he’s a butch alt lady.”
Kuill came out as agender at age 26 and, seven years later, routinely encounters a problem that makes me want to rage-quit the universe: being read as a poorly made-up drag queen, even in fully styled pin-up goth looks. “I’m still explaining myself,” Kuill writes. “I always get weird looks and attention while out, every single day. I’m sorry I have chest hair. I'm sorry I usually have facial hair (because shaving sucks). I'm sorry I can't fit into any of your boxes.”
An aesthetic built on subverting gender norms also reinforces those same norms by constantly referencing them, and whether one’s gender presentation is read as subversive or subpar still depends on how digestible it is to mainstream society. At the same time, it’s difficult to totally trash the subculture where many of us discovered our sartorial voice. “Goth was sort of a way I came into [my identity],” Cassandra, a trans woman, tells me. Kuill agrees: “Goth fashion helped me evolve my own understanding of myself and has also made it easy for me to leave the house in whatever way I need to.”
“I think those of us who are trans and goth wind up becoming trapped in the binary all over again,” Ariel believes. The popular goth podcast Cemetery Confessions is dedicating their July 2 episode to the topic of trans visibility in our community, which feels optimistic. If anything, a shared affection for the unusual and macabre should keep us fighting for the right of every person to exist as they want to. Zoe has an even more succinct way of putting it: “Death is coming; wear what you want!” And in the meantime, you’ll have to pry my black eyeliner out of my cold, goth hands.