I refused at first. For the first 14 years of my life, I would not allow my hair to be cut shorter than its comforting length of just below my shoulder blades. It wasn’t a fashion statement. I usually just pulled it back into a ponytail, since anything more elaborate than that was too feminine for my teenage tomboy sensibilities.
I finally “came out” the Spring of my junior year, four months after having my hair cropped boyishly short, a gendered descriptor I had always anxiously avoided. It was a low-maintenance cut with a straightforward part to the side. Simple. Safe. And I felt like I had made a daunting choice.
It was dyed bronze and still a little wavy from an old perm that was as shaky as my grip on the closet.
I was desperately afraid of being a stereotype. My occasional dresses hid the cargo shorts-wearing skeletons of my childhood. I laughed away the lesbian jokes about going to a women’s college. Acting straight allowed me to defy those who made assumptions about me. It didn’t matter that they were right all along. In fact, it infuriated me.
When I finally announced my bisexuality to as much of the world as my Facebook privacy settings permitted, I very firmly maintained that it had absolutely nothing to do with my new haircut. But it only took a couple months to get over my own suspiciously specific denial and embrace my queerness in all its stereotypical triumph. I came out with my hair.
A few months later, I decided to come out again. Aesthetically. Whereas my first step into my queerness was cautious and filled with anxiety over how I was read by others, my second step was to accept the person I secretly wanted to be. So, I spouted radical politics, owned an obscene number of faux leather jackets, and became the tomboy of my childhood (sans cargo shorts). And then I got an undercut.
In my relief and rejoicing, I had forgotten that my queer identity came part and parcel with my race.
For a moment, it felt right, both attractive and a defiant statement, but only because I badly wanted it to be. For weeks following, it felt off. The short hairs clipped close to the side of my head stuck out like bristles. My cowlicks wouldn’t stay down. It wasn’t the feathery fades of the photos I had brought to show the stylist. My hair was too straight, too coarse to stay coiffed. I had forgotten a crucial point.
In my relief and rejoicing, I had forgotten that my queer identity came part and parcel with my race. My hair — the texture of my mother’s and grandmothers’ and aunts’ — is dark, thick, and straight. It’s not light, downy, and delicate like the white models who showed up whenever I googled: “women, undercut.”
Being Asian and queer complicated things.
It’s an ongoing journey to feel positive about my queerness, my race, and my hair on top of that.
Androgyny has always been about that hard-edged balance between masculinity and femininity. But when Asian masculinity is desexualized and Asian femininity is infantilized, twists on gender presentation don’t quite make the same impact. With my short, flat hair, and my soft racialized features, I felt like a 12-year-old boy. I got carded at bars the same days baristas called me “sir.”
It’s an ongoing journey to feel positive about my queerness, my race, and my hair on top of that. Even out of the closet, I would often feel awkward and ill-fitted. I tried new haircuts. My hair wasn’t fine enough to pull off the pixie cut or flexible enough for a pompadour, and my cowlicks were too tenacious for anything asymmetrical.
It took trial and error and error and error, until I figured out a solution. I found a Japanese hair salon. They knew my texture, the quirks of my part, and the shape of my skull. While they did not share my Taiwanese heritage, they understood the very specific struggles I had with my hair.
Instead of going wild with a clipper, my stylist brought shape to the back of my head with careful trimming. She left the sides and top long to let my cowlicks bear down with their own weight, but added a choppy texture to keep it from flattening. When I stopped bringing in photographs of models I wanted my hair to resemble and instead worked with my stylist to understand the ways my hair grew out, I finally settled into cuts that suited me and my queerness.
I walk the streets happy to confuse strangers with my gender presentation.
There is no one way to look queer. A haircut isn’t a requirement for coming out. But the decision to resist against assumptions of gender and femininity and race can be a healing and invigorating aspect of loving and accepting yourself in a world that continues to police beauty.
These days, I walk the streets happy to confuse strangers with my gender presentation. When I feel especially frisky, I style my hair up with some grooming cream, and when frisky is too much work, I wear a hat. Either way, long or short, my hair will always be as queer as me.
Image Source: Courtesy of Jo Chiang