After six months, I was single, broke, and sad. Welcome to Los Angeles.
I started shopping. When I arrived in the city, all my clothes were totally wrong. I brought dress shirts and coats. On my first day at work, I wore a blazer and looked sadly like a youth pastor. “You never have to wear a collar here,” someone said.
L.A. is a terrifying neon landscape of palm trees and gorgeous cinemas. Everyone you look, the people are beautiful. Everyone wears athleisure. The wealthy wear flip-flops to the Beverly Wilshire. No one dresses up. I can’t say I’m a West Coast person, but my personal style developed there and has followed me back.
Chic L.A. streetwear for men embraces the fem and queer, at least it did at the time (and I’m sure it still does), and I liked it. I started challenging my old ideals of masculinity, hangovers from a Baptist childhood. It’s hard to step out of your upbringing. I still thought masculine guys were sexier than feminine guys, and I still thought masculinity was something I, too, had to work towards. I had to get as close as possible to it. It was this unattainable, rugged, football-ish ideal that was born from watching home games in high school and later, playing on the team, surrounded by men who drive trucks and shoot guns and look beautiful.
One day at the Grove I found a drapey black cardigan, and it looked cut on me. It looked like something I would never wear before, something my parents would hate, but it somehow worked on me. I then found the skinniest jeans I could stuff my legs into. I tried the look at work. No complaints, only compliments.
This would be an experiment. I recognized a level of discomfort that I needed to work through. I was at the other end of the country, far from everyone who would ever judge me. I could find myself here.
What I found in L.A. was a thing for jewelry. When I was little, my father yelled at me in a restaurant because I was wearing three rings on one hand. We were having lunch with relatives and they looked down at their plates, red-faced and embarrassed, as he pitched a fit. I took the rings off. He said, “Give them to me.” I put them in his hand and never saw them again.
I found new rings in L.A. I got my ears pierced, found gold drop earrings, tried bracelets and cuffs. I bought necklaces on Venice Beach. Coworkers complimented them and encouraged me. (Granted, I was working at The Advocate, the queerest place on earth, where all forms of self-expression are welcomed.)
I got my first piercing near the end of my time in the city — a septum ring. Over the next two years, I increased the size of the ring to roughly the thickness of a pencil eraser. I got my first genital piercing. I got barbells through my nipples. Rings, I realized, didn’t work for me. My work is done on the computer and it’s not easy to type with them on my fingers. Earrings, on the other hand, became my jam. My best earrings were found in the women’s sections of stores, places I thought I was not allowed to shop until the day I just stepped over and started browsing. Nobody said, “Sir, you’re not allowed to be here.” It felt wrong, it felt dangerous. But then, I realized, my feelings were silly. They were just clothes.
And then it clicked — all the discussion of gender and binarism, all my genderqueer friends, all the men I know who play with their masculinity. I understood, or at least I began to. Gender was a marketing trick. A construct. A myth. We had all been duped into believing these stories. Like Santa Claus, gender was taught to us by our parents, who were taught by churches and tradition and — most aggressively — advertisers. Companies spent billions of dollars to sell us gendered garbage. The women’s jeans were jeans. Women’s shirts and men’s shirts were all the same shirts. It was all just clothes. But manufacturers profit from parents taking one of their kids to one section of the store and buying an entire wardrobe and another kid to the other section of the store and buying another entire wardrobe, spending double the money, and the cycle never stops.
One of their kids identities with “girl” and grows up wanting more and more “girl” clothes and the other kid identities as “boy” and wants more and more “boy” clothes, so the old ones need to get thrown out and more money is spent. I saw it all, the entire scam, one supported by Bronze-age religions and ancient social norms that have no bearing on our modern world. Gender — the ideas of “man” and “woman” — is just a bunch of cultural detritus, an accumulation of years of siloing and tradition and misogynist laws and social structuring and violence and plumage, and clothing makers have piggybacked off these things to make money. I felt deeply wrong, all because I wanted a set of women’s earrings.
I started to grasp the concept “queer.” For me, it had been a non-hetero catch-all, a word younger, angstier kids called themselves when they knew they were simply “other.” I saw it as a placeholder, a vague descriptor in lieu of something more specific, either to intentionally keep things vague or because they weren’t sure yet what their more descriptive label was. It may still be that word for some, but it’s more than that.
It’s the identity adopted by those who recognize that we labor under a plethora of myths telling us how to dress, act, and behave. Extended slightly, it’s the stance that we are products of deeply-rooted misogyny and social power structures that have harmed many and elevated a privileged few.
Eventually, I had to leave L.A. Although the city did great things for me, it also saw the beginning of some problematic drug usage, and I simply ran out of money (a 14k gold nose ring might’ve contributed to that). The city started my writing career, but it also made me feel isolated and alone, and when it was time to be with people I knew, I drove back East. But I took some good things with me — fabulous earrings among them.
Above: Duncan Roy is a Los Angeles-based photographer who runs a blog that captures the best and worst of LA. Sadly, I think he has chosen to stop posting.