Many young queer people are drawn to goth, or as I like to say “The Darkness.” The folks I spoke to, like most outsiders, manifest their internal struggles through their physical appearance and the art they associate with.
“I discovered mall goth subculture during the same summer I came to the realization that I’m not straight,” my friend Rachel told me. “I struggled to find the correct language to articulate my queerness, however, I knew how to present goth, and so I channeled most of my anger/frustration/feelings of alienation into that.”
My self-realization story is similar to most queers: always felt different, knew I wasn’t like other girls, (insert stereotypical depressed queer maxim here). I discovered Hot Topic when I was 12, right around the time I started having cyber sex with girls through The Sims Online. By 13, I had already decided Hot Topic was NOT goth enough and started to make pilgrimages into Manhattan to visit Trash and Vaudeville, Search & Destroy, and Gothic Renaissance. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but an oppressive loneliness and fear was bubbling inside me that was easier to express with black vinyl skirts than by shouting, “I’M A LESBIAN!” in the middle of my high school cafeteria. The inherent androgyny of goth fashion allowed me to experiment with my sexuality and gender identity and present how I felt most comfortable.
Rachel as a baby bat 1999
I remember passing “But I’m a Cheerleader” at my local Blockbuster and being too scared to touch the VHS. When I finally worked up the courage to rent it, my heart burst when I saw the goth girl character, Sinead. Seeing another goth isn’t much different from how I feel today when I spot a queer in a crowd; it’s the same feeling of being two weepy fucks in a sea of normal hetero bliss.
Sinead from But I’m a Cheerleader
I eventually had several crushes and relationships with girls who were either older or more advanced than me in terms of figuring out their identity. I connected with the girl who became my best friend throughout middle and high school simply because we were both the only goths in the 7th grade. At the time, she identified as bisexual and I felt that I had finally found someone who I didn’t feel alien around. Of course, I also had a giant unrequited crush on her, because after all, to be gay is to experience endless, mawkish suffering.
Your author circa 2004, before I learned how to do my eyebrows
The introduction to queerness/goth by an older mentor is a common experience among darkly-inclined queers. I spoke to my Internet pal, Trash, about their introduction to the lifestyle.
“My queer god-sister introduced me to the world of goth,” they told me. “She was around 14 at the time and I was still six. She let me listen to Evanescence and watch her put on black nail polish and lipstick. She tried to get me to watch ‘Queen of the Damned’ with her, but I was too scared.”
Rachel, too, had a dark mentor. “During high school, goth inadvertently became how I flagged my queerness,” she told me. “The next summer, I went to a different camp, where I was terrified to ‘come out.’ However, an 18-year-old lesbian who worked in the kitchen ‘read’ me. She wrote me letters and burned me a Jack Off Jill CD (I had forgotten mine at home).”
Trash at age 17
For many queer folks, flagging is the way that we find our own. An ankle tattoo of two female symbols interlocking, a Limp Wrist band shirt, a leather collar: these are all subtle examples of flagging. While both queer and gothic fashions are now quite popular and mainstream, an undercut on a girl used to say, “I AM A DYKE PLEASE SEE ME.” It’s worth noting that growing societal acceptance of queerness and the mainstream embracing of gothic/alternative fashion have developed alongside one another. Perhaps this means that as a culture, we’re becoming more fluid or accepting. But if you’ve always used fashion as a way to “identify your own,” new struggles arise when the alternative becomes the ordinary. Rachel expressed this frustration:
“Today, both gay/lesbian culture AND radical queer culture have been so co-opted that I feel pretty lost. I don’t know how to meet other gay/bi women, because queer as a self-descriptor is somewhat of a norm. However, as a goth teenager in the early 2000s, queerness was a quality I felt relatively comfortable embodying. Well, not queerness — I actually struggled for many years to be able to apply a label, and nobody was calling themselves queer back then. But I felt okay being not straight. Being not straight was an extension of my general feelings of not belonging.”
But younger queer folks are still finding solace in The Darkness. Trash always longed to embrace the goth lifestyle:
“I’ve always been drawn to Goth culture. I was born the black sheep of the family. When I was six years old, the era of the mall Goth reigned supreme. Whenever my grandma and I went shopping and passed Hot Topic, I begged her to let me go inside. Unfortunately, I was never allowed to because it was ‘satanic’ and ‘evil.’ It was my dream to wear Tripp pants and spiked chokers.
I’m almost 20 now. I’ve been an Official Goth since the age of 17. Being Goth is so liberating, especially as a gay person. When I was small, practically everything I did was satanic. Flirting with girls at the park/at school/in the neighborhood/at church? Satanic. Wanting to trick-or-treat? Satanic. Watching a special on psychic children on The Tyra Banks Show? Demonic. Wearing all black? Possessed by evil spirits. But when I turned 17, I left that type of environment and decided to paint my nails black, buy spiked collars off of eBay, start wearing all black, buy tubes of black lipstick, and listen to Bauhaus cassettes in the bath. And to be gay as hell.”
While outward expression is a huge part of being an “alternative” person, a seasoned goth knows that The Darkness is about much more than how you adorn your mortal shell. Constant feelings of isolation and nihilism are gothic sentiments that are common among the LGBTQ community. Another significant element of the gothic is horror and “the grotesque.” Gothic literature uses these themes to come to grips with the essential pointlessness of human action and to examine societal ills; this is what inspires gothic fashion.
Another element of horror is violence, a sad reality for most queer people. So to face that straight on, to look violence in the eye, can be empowering to them. My close friend Jordan (an opera singer and lifetime lover of all things macabre) was recently brutally assaulted in Manhattan, beaten with a skateboard and called homophobic slurs.
“My attraction to dark things at this time relates to my need for liminal space,” said Jordan. “This space of neither here nor there that is nondescript, mirrors the true self at its most insecure time and promotes a type of ambiguity. It becomes a safe-haven, or cushion in which one can lay out emotions perilously. What came from abuse or rejection laid clearly in front can eventually move forward to integrating sexual embodiment that is accepting and individualistic.”
Jordan (right) as a forlorn teen
Marginalized people will always be the first to embrace what is counterculture because the standards set out by mainstream society simply don’t apply; they’re not relatable and they don’t fit our needs. Young queer people will continue to find comfort in all the scary aspects of life that many people are afraid to confront, but which we have no choice but to look at head on. When your reality is that you might get the shit beat out of you for existing as you are, you might as well look like a hot spooky bitch and embrace The Darkness, because then it can’t hurt you.