In September 2020, Highsnobiety celebrated Tom of Finland, the late iconic artist known for his masculinized homo-erotic artwork. An excerpt of the interview and corresponding visuals from the artist's foundation were posted on Instagram. Within three days of publishing, the channel saw a spike of 32,308 unfollowers. How dare a style publication celebrate an artist who has had a vast impact on fashion and culture at large? Many of the 3,500 comments, unironically, agreed, and littered Highsnobiety’s post with openly homophobic statements. "Officially unfollowing. Disgusted" said one. "Nasty shit, time to unfollow," said another.
Not long before this, the Summer 2020 Supreme tribute to ’80s era performance artist and nightlife icon Leigh Bowery was treated much the same. “[James] Jebbia has a thing for weird AIDS infested artists,” commented one Hypebeast reader. After appearing in a Spitfire Wheels video, trans skater Cher Strauberry told Thrasher Magazine in November 2020 that they received 40 death threats. A June 2021 post of Lil Yachty and Tyler, the Creator in blond wigs on Complex’s Instagram account got a “Gay and gayer” comment.
The examples are simply the latest in a slew of regularly occurring incidents that display a growing sentiment among many streetwear afficionados that being gay, dressing gay, or associating yourself with anything LGBTQI+ is unacceptable in the scene. Any attempt to challenge the streetwear culture aesthetic or gender norms results in a frenzy of aggression. It’s hard not to feel like streetwear is totally out of touch with pop culture, despite the two being closer linked than ever. Why is the whole industry in such contrast with mainstream culture, particularly the wider fashion industry?
We’re calling it like it is: Streetwear has a homophobia problem.
The Trumpification of Streetwear
As Bobby Hundreds of LA-based brand The Hundreds points out in his 2019 book This Is Not a T-Shirt, streetwear was once underground and powered by culture and community that was “down with the lifestyle,” and fans carried a sense of ownership over a brand. It was once the bastion of counter culture fringe populations, including early skaters, surfers, graffiti artists, punks, and hip-hop artists. Most people that wore the product contributed to the scene, giving one real street cred that aligned you with a like-minded community. Seemingly, that mindset belongs entirely to a former era.
“We often think of streetwear as some kind of small community, when really that hasn’t been the case for a very long time,” says Brendon Babenzien, who started his career out at Supreme, founded new darling on the block Noah, and recently took the creative reins at J.Crew. “Streetwear, as a term, used to describe a specific style, or in some cases, to define a certain culture. It's no longer a small community of people with a shared ideology. It's everyone, and unfortunately our culture is homophobic, often brazenly so.”
Now that streetwear as a subculture has become the status quo, everyone and their mother is wearing hoodies. And while the unification of these once disparate communities may seem forced or sudden, there is one specific link that connects many of the foundational subcultures.
“While each subculture has specific beliefs, norms, customs, traditions, and attributes, there are shared subcultural traits or common languages that includes hypermasculinity between them,” says cultural historian Elena Romero, author of Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry, and curator of the upcoming exhibition "50 Years of Hip-Hop" at FIT in New York.
Here is where the big conflict lies: numerous fringe subcultures linked by a central identity of aggressive masculinity have come head-to-head with a broader culture eschewing this very characteristic as no longer ideal. The cis white male dominance of streetwear has never been as disrupted as it has been over the past decade when it entered the high fashion industry and, with it, its plethora of LGBTQI+ designers. Riccardo Tisci’s Rottweiler T-shirt for Givenchy Fall/Winter 2011, followed by his first limited edition Nike AF1 collab in 2013, changed the streetwear demographic. So did Kim Jones, who was one of the earliest pioneers of merging street and luxury when he was Creative Director for Umbro back in the early 2000s through to his Stüssy collaboration at Dior Homme. Shayne Oliver’s heavily queer-influenced brand signified a new era for streetwear from the underground. Not to mention the transformative flirts with fluidity by the hip-hop celebrity cognoscenti that turned streetwear on its head. Think Frank Ocean’s coming out letter on his tumblr in 2014, or Pharell and Kanye’s pink phase, followed by Yeezy wearing a Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci kilt in 2013, all signifiers of “non-traditional masculinity.”
Streetwear, as a term, used to describe a specific style, or in some cases, to define a certain culture. It's no longer a small community of people with a shared ideology. It's everyone, and unfortunately our culture is homophobic, often brazenly so.
What most of the naysayers don’t realize is that streetwear has been in ltr with sexual fluidity for some time now. Some of the most sought-after products are directly linked to alternative voices and cultures. The reality is that streetwear culture has become fully pansexual.
Yet homophobia in the streetwear community is so blatantly expressed because homophobic beliefs are not hidden in the cultures that have inspired them. “With hyper-masculinity comes a bravado of boasting that speaks to individuals’ great pride and ego,” Romero continues. “This covers everything from physicality, fighting ability, financial riches, sexual prowess, coolness, and skill sets, to the ability to get the hottest chick or ride in the game. Heteronormativity has been the lens on which youth culture and fashion has seen itself and marketed to.”
Most of all, there is a segment of streetwear fans that strongly want streetwear to return to a closed community, to keep it sacred, special, and most of all, theirs. It’s the Trumpification of streetwear: “Let them have the high fashion, this is ours,” they seem to be screaming.
The luxury industry, traditionally driven by queer creatives, tends to be more open-minded when it comes to change; more trendy. So when luxury, streetwear and hip-hop started to merge in a bigger way over the past decade, we expected there would also be this seamless exchange of values. The exchange, however, never happened. Why?
“It can be argued that gay culture has been central to the creation of modern fashion. The gay level of fashion contributions in streetwear is nowhere near as significant. The fashion is reflective of the culture. I wouldn’t say it has been intentional, but early fashion designers have been predominately heterosexual males. This will evolve, but I don’t see a dramatic shift [happening] anytime soon,” says Romero.
There’s also the issue, which no one talks about, of young men feeling slightly alienated by what is going on. Of not being able to find that identity, or maybe channeling [it] into an unhealthy identity because they can't really find a way to communicate.
“There’s also the issue, which no one talks about, of young men feeling slightly alienated by what is going on. Of not being able to find that identity, or maybe channeling [it] into an unhealthy identity because they can't really find a way to communicate,” says Sofia Prantera, who started out at London’s Slam City Skates, Europe’s first skate store, in the ’90s before founding streetwear brand Silas and currently heading up Aries. “They feel that they don't have their own label. That's the danger; bringing up young men who are attracted by bigotry as a way to identify with their own group.”
These angry voices can’t only be OGs wanting to go “back in the day,” so who are these toxic forces, and what do they know about the true values and soul of streetwear? What should a culture who once cradled a community of outsiders seeking to belong do to curb this wave of hate?
The Role of Brands
Elissa Steamer heads up surf and skate brand Gnarhunters. In the late ’90s, she became one of the the first pro female skaters (later immortalized in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater). As a queer woman who entered the overwhelmingly straight male industry, she has seen just how much has changed from when she first began skating. “People would drive by and say derogatory comments out the windows of their cars, or pull up and try to start fights. Just for riding a skateboard,” she tells me about the beginning of her career in Florida.
Now, while not perfect, skating has become considerably more inclusive, though you’d be fooled for thinking that from a casual social media scroll. In Steamer’s experience, it’s not the true skate community that is raging verbal war on the LGBTQ+ community. “If you're skateboarding, anything that's hateful and exclusionary ain't gonna fly, you know what I mean? So the people disparaging us have to be on the sidelines, on the fringes. Because nowadays, if you make a sideways comment, you're going to get called out for it.”
Iconic creative director Paul Mittleman of the original Stüssy tribe, adidas, and Converse tells me how growing up in a 1980s-era New York plastered with ACT UP against AIDS posters left its mark: “One of the first Stüssy accounts was at Patricia Field, the place that attracted everyone who had no home.” Queer, club, graffiti, and street cultures rubbed shoulders, in a true New York come-as-you-are freak cocktail.
This initial activism, however, is a blip in a long-gone era that is lacking that kind of ally-ship today. With more sets of eyes on streetwear, it has become clear how much is actually broken. Streetwear was built on community: from us, for us. And though it was formulated as a communal safe space for outsiders of all stripes, an exclusionary stripe has always persisted in skewing towards cis white straight men.
“[Homophobia] has always been there,” Babenzien confirms of this streak. “I'd say the [cultural] events leading up to these questions really just gave people an opportunity to express their views, so it may feel like a new thing. But it's not new.”
They feel that they don't have their own label. That's the danger; bringing up young men who are attracted by bigotry as a way to identify with their own group.
“If you're asking if fashion brands and artists have a role to play in sending messages of equality, then yes,” he continues. “But I think it's bigger than just brands that think of themselves as streetwear. Homophobic behavior exists deep in the core of our entire system; in all industries and every corner of our communities. We need to see people different from us as still equal to us. That is a massive behavior shift that will take time.”
Sofia Prantera argues that streetwear brands certainly have a role to play in addressing the issues that are plaguing the scene: “As a brand, you really have to be true to yourself. Otherwise you’re just embracing everything and becoming no one's, becoming nothing. It's really hard to make a difference to a lot of people, but it's very easy to make a difference to a few people. It’s super important as a brand because you can really make [that] difference.”
What Does Doing Good Even Look Like?
Perhaps a more effective vehicle of change, in a quiet way, may be by demonstrating by example.
Take Virgil Abloh, whose casting of integral queer personalities into the mix goes a long way for his audience. GHE20G0TH1K-veteran Ian Isiah sang along with Dev Hynes at his second Louis Vuitton show, and his last Louis Vuitton presentation was the epic video directed by trans director/artist Wu Tsang, collaborator of Hood by Air alum Tosh Basc (formerly Boychild) and trans model and poet Kai Isaiah Jamal (who pointedly told Highsnobiety that representation needs to be more holistic: “what we visibly put out to the world is slowly progressing, but behind it, I need to see myself reflected”) . That has a lot more impact than throwing a rainbow on a sneaker. Or look no further than this month’s Balenciaga show, where one of today’s premier hype boy brands closed a runway presentation with an homage to a queer cult classic and one of the the most iconic drag queen of all time.
If you continue to look in other areas of the community, change is happening there, too, slowly. There Skateboards is possibly the first entirely queer skateboard team and company, while the trans-led skate brand GLUE counts among their ranks Cheryl Strawberry, who was featured in Gucci Fest and works at Supreme, while the brand’s Leo Baker appeared in Nike’s all-female skate video GIZMO with Elissa Streamer, who sums up the new attitude. And it’s worth commending Supreme’s consistent showcase — whether it sells out or not — of LGBTQI+ culture and artists like Andreas Serrano, Leigh Bowery, and Nan Goldin.
Of course, more needs to be done. Doing good doesn’t just look like LGBTQI+ models and in-house designers, but hiring people from the culture and community who can lend authenticity and lived experience, not just tokenism. Brand ambassadors by brands that are more affordable/accessible for young people is also essential. So is media support: not just Highsnobiety, but Thrasher Magazine, Hypebeast, Complex, and more profiling queer artists, community leaders, and industry shakers with the same respect and diligence as their straight counterparts.
More than any of these other changes, what needs to happen (and what all of us are perfectly capable of ensuring takes place) is that homophobia in streetwear needs to be tackled with the same ardor as anti-racism or anti-misogyny in the culture. Everyone in this community is united by their love of the culture, and everyone in it deserves to be treated with the basic human dignity they deserve. If streetwear fans don't adapt to this mindset, it will very soon become a problem for them, too. They will be a polarized minority that is hijacking streetwear to project an identity that is out of touch with society. From brands to fans to publishers like this one, we all have a big part to play in re-indoctrinating the core notion that streetwear is for everyone. From every color of the rainbow. Bruh.