we need to talk about streetwear’s problem with queer people

What will it take for the streetwear community to address the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech breeding within it?

by Douglas Greenwood
06 July 2018, 11:30am

Fashion is gay as hell. From Yves Saint Laurent to Karl Lagerfeld to Cristobal Balenciaga, the greatest designers in history have either been queer men, or women who exude so much B.D.E. (Donatella, Miuccia, Coco -- we’re looking at you) that they’re without question considered legendary gay icons too. That's before we get to the photographers, stylists, editors, PRs, and everyone else behind the scenes too. The fashion world has long been a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Nowadays though, that’s not entirely true.

Streetwear, with its roots in skating and hip-hop culture, has predominantly been a space for other stigmatised members of society to wear clothes that double up as a badge of cultural unity. As the community began to grow over the past five years, with Supreme and Palace being ransacked by hypebros rather than OG skaters, those often socially-conservative culture vultures brought their hideous and hyper-masculine views on the LGBTQ+ community with them.

The rise of streetwear has had a knock-on effect on the publications writing about it too. Since their inception, outlets like Hypebeast and Highsnobiety have been havens for fans of streetwear, and have transformed from humble sneaker blogs to multi-million dollar publications over the past decade. But what was once a casual space for sneakerheads to voice their thoughts on the latest drops became something different when the scene itself transcended underground culture to become a big part of the mainstream fashion conversation.

On Hypebeast’s Instagram page, you’ll come across a recent post of artist Daniel Quasar’s new vision of a Pride Flag, revised to include stripes for queer people of colour, the trans community and those living with HIV and AIDS. By posting it, Hypebeast intended to highlight their support for the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month, but it also triggered a gaggle of closed-minded trolls that followed them to voice their shitty, damaging opinions too. Everything from throwaway, uninventive digs like ‘#sogay’, to the downright denial of queer oppression could be found there. But whose responsibility is it to try and change their mindset?

“I don’t know where the ‘responsibility’ lies,” Max Grobe, Associate Fashion Editor at Highsnobiety tells i-D. “It probably falls on the people who comment “gay people don’t get killed anymore!” under a pride flag on Hypebeast’s Instagram, the week of the Orlando massacre’s two year anniversary.”

These trolling hypebros aren’t just satisfied getting their kicks from demonising the gay community either. They also flexed their transphobic side too when Supreme unveiled their link-up with the legendary photographer Nan Goldin. Her work -- often depicting LGBTQ+ people, those living with AIDS and society’s marginalised communities -- is intrinsically tied to the idea of rejecting manufactured and sanitised culture. Nan and the world famous skate brand are, in many ways, cut from the same creative cloth.

But when Supreme chose to use some of Nan’s work depicting the drag queens and trans women she had photographed over the years, the response was ugly. 15 yr old boys gunna be wearing shirts w trannies. Lol” the top comment on Hypebeast reads, while another commenter, wanted people to know that the “Supreme Team be on that Fag-Hag Wave.. Supreme LA Staff gone look hella gay on Thursday”. Their reactions were rotten, but the predictions were correct: the collaboration failed to fly off the shelves, taking weeks rather than minutes to eventually sell out.

“People will pick and choose how much counter-culture they want to really be a part of,” Max says, dissecting the sad reaction to the Nan Goldin and Supreme link-up. “‘Skateboarding? Sure! Pictures of drag queens? No way, bro.’ -- people only want to dip into counter-culture as long it doesn’t actually ostracise them. It’s both amusing and tragic.”

Fear of backlash or trolling means that many of streetwear’s queer leaders online would prefer to downplay their sexuality, but that’s not something Gallucks -- the moniker of Instagram influencer and fashion vlogger Joel Mcloughlin -- is interested in. Instead, he knows it’s important to use his platform to point out the darkness at the heart of a community he otherwise has plenty of love for. “The whole hypebeast subculture, in my eyes, is [shaped by] hyper-masculinity,” he tells i-D. “In some way, it's as though men feel the need to overcompensate because of their interest in fashion and style -- which makes no sense to me at all."

“There’s a lot of homophobia and negativity shown towards the LGBTQ+ community,” he continues. Over the past few years, anti-gay trolling is something Joel has been subjected to, with fans often unfollowing him when they learn about his sexuality. “Some might think it's light hearted and just a 'joke', [but] it all adds up to create a level of normalisation surrounding homophobia.”

He’s right. Part of the reason homophobia is so salient in online streetwear communities is the way queer lingo has been used as a pejorative, a slur, by its members for so long. “That’s pretty gay” is something that most people – even once closeted queers – can attest to using back when they were more naive. As streetwear’s audience broadens, and skews younger, the kind of people who engage with it become increasingly immature, and those petty comments can develop into a hateful mindset.

Perhaps brands like Supreme being catapulted from the underground skate scene on to the backs of middle-class teenagers everywhere hasn’t given their new audience the opportunity to appreciate its history. Skateboarding after all, as our very own Matthew Whitehouse said, is a movement defined by “disaffected youths starting fires (literal and metaphorical)”.

So when we take that movement and watch it transform into something bigger -- so big we can’t tame its narrative -- we struggle to pin down its stance on issues like these. What gives us hope is that those at the roots of the scene -- the designers, brands and publications reporting on it -- feel differently. After all, they too were once outcasts of a different kind. It’s just a shame that the scene’s contemporary tagalongs are rising to the surface (as scum does) and are giving it a shitty name.

While it’s hard to change the minds of bigoted people, finger-pointing over the heads of those responsible does nothing to counteract the issue either. It should be those commenters that do the real leg work, but the highly influential publications that these guys read can help by leading them down the right path; something both Highsnobiety and Hypebeast are trying to do.

“A change really has to come from within the streetwear community itself,” Max tells us, “and it has to be a genuine paradigm shift, which takes both time and exposure. You'd imagine that now streetwear has parlayed into the fashion world, the following exposure to queerness and queer designers will [lead to] a reduction in hate speech, ignorance and bigotry.”

But Max knows that change that takes time, even if we’re on a steady path to making it a reality. Just a few weeks ago, Virgil Abloh -- one of the few straight men at the head of a luxury fashion house -- debuted his first menswear collection for Louis Vuitton. Something about it felt different: here was a man with a background in the hypermasculine world of streetwear sauntering into a legendary house as a creative director for the first time; only queer men had come before him.

What Virgil does with that platform, even without directly referencing it, is prove that the women and queer men he’s regularly rubbing shoulders with are not there to be objectified or ridiculed. From the hypebro’s perspective, the gay identities of creative directors -- like the ones heading up Balenciaga, Gucci, Dior and Saint Laurent -- have long been overshadowed by the designs themselves. But with the visible personality of Virgil Abloh now sitting alongside them, maybe the queer men who were once mocked will become the hypebro’s new hero instead.