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Body art: a history and analysis of queer body modification

The relationship between queer identity and body modifications has a long history.

Everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover, but when you meet someone with tattoos, piercings, and a colourful undercut, you are probably going to assume something about their identity. In fact, you are probably meant to. The queer community is incredibly diverse in appearance, but certain styles stand out: lesbians in flannel shirts; gays in glitter; and a whole variety of tattoos, piercings, and alternative hairstyles. Why are body modifications so common in the queer community? Speaking to queer lovers of body modification reveals they hold a range of meanings to different people.

Tattoos and piercings have existed since before recorded history. Many Indigenous cultures use them as marks of status and respect, while ancient Romans used tattoos to mark criminals and piercings as sexual aids. To Christian Western cultures, they have always been a sign of deviance; God made your body in His image, and to modify it is to defile it and to defy Him. For most of Western European history, tattoos and piercings were only seen on sailors, sex workers, and heathens. Piercings were performed by friends or on oneself, and body modifications came with high risk of infection and social ostracisation. 

In the 1970s, Jim Ward established America’s first piercing shop in California. Ward was a gay man who had learned to pierce as part of the BDSM and leather community, and when his shop opened, that same community formed the largest part of his customers and employees. Along with two other gay men, he developed and popularised many types of piercing, inspired by kink and Indigenous cultures (which has led to critiques about the fetishisation of cultural practices). At a time when gay sex was criminalised and gender noncomformity pathologised, queer people were asserting their right to bodily autonomy; to do what they wanted to and with their bodies, without shame or persecution. Kinky gays founded the modern piercing industry, and eventually, through punks and other subcultures, brought it to mainstream popularity.

Body modifications are still a staple of queer culture, but queer rights and bodies are still publicly debated, restricted, and demonised. Transgender people are often subjected to familial pressures and invasive personal questions about their anatomy. By law, trans people are still required to seek at least one referral from a mental health professional before undergoing gender affirmation surgeries. This, especially if combined with gender dysphoria, might lead trans people to feel a lack of agency and connection with their bodies. 

One trans man I spoke to explained that he put art on his body not to make it feel more masculine, but to make it feel more his own: “It’s just so cool to be able to use art to feel more at home in a body that can sometimes feel not right to me.” Another person described masc-typical piercings as a subtle way to affirm his gender without alerting the people to whom he is not out. He got the piercings to celebrate his legal name change, and described them as a way of taking ownership over his body, saying that in the face of fear and dysphoria “at times, my piercings and hair are the only things I like about my body.” 

To be able to change one’s appearance in a significant and permanent way shows that we have agency over our own bodies, and can decrease feelings of mind-body disconnect and gender dysphoria. 

While trans people might use body modifications to affirm their gender, queer body modifications are also subversive of traditional gender image. Heavy sleeve tattoos and buzz cuts are traditionally the domain of burly masculine men, but no gay bar is complete without a densely decorated queer woman. Earrings (or one earring — but which one?) are a classic fashion statement for queer men. Non-binary and gender non-conforming queers construct their own gender presentation to defy or simply ignore the gender binary, and body modifications are a striking way to do it. 

Many people I spoke to about this topic immediately thought of signalling, using cues in your appearance to signal your identity to other queers. In the 1950s, some lesbians would tattoo a star on their wrist, concealed under a watch band until they decided to subtly reveal it to inform another woman that they were in the know. Today, a lesbian considering whether to hit on someone might consider undercuts, tattoos, or septum piercings a sign that they should shoot their shot. 

This signalling is equally important in finding friends as it is in finding hookups. A queer person might use these aesthetic indicators to decide whether it is safe to come out to someone, or to identify potential queer friends. One individual said that piercings felt like a subtle way to express his identity to queer people while he is not able to come out to his family or colleagues. A lesbian told me that when she cut her long hair into a buzz cut, she felt that her exterior now reflected her interior, her queerness. She hated the idea of being perceived as straight, and when her hair grew out, she missed the signposting that her short hair had provided. Having recognisable aesthetics helps many queer people feel part of the community, and committing to a body modification or haircut can be a symbol of accepting your queer identity and committing to it. 

This signalling can work in the opposite direction as well. One person I spoke to described it as a “physical representation of otherness.” By using these rebellious and marginal forms of expression, queer people can deliberately set themselves apart from cis-heteronormative society and ward off those who would be hostile. These people stand in defiance of the hate to which visibly queer people have been subjected. A tattoo of an upside down pink triangle, the symbol queer people were forced to wear by Nazis before they were sent to concentration camps, has become common in the queer community. But now, instead of being outed against their will, they brand themselves, reclaiming the symbol. 

There are, of course, plenty of associated risks. Many people are not able to express themselves through tattoos and piercings for fear of discrimination and even violence, and are forced to conform for their own safety, or to express their identity in more subtle and secretive ways. I spoke to a person who felt that hiding their body modifications from her family paralleled her family’s lack of acceptance of her queer relationship. They told me that “both are elements of my personality that I’ve had to keep somewhat reserved so that my conservative family maintains a relationship with me, but the person that I am is someone who would be more than willing to get a full sleeve and marry my girlfriend.” To them, tattoos and piercings are an exploration of independence, of self expression outside the boundaries within which she grew up. But in order to be accepted by conservative society, both her body modifications, and the queerness they reflect, had to be concealed. 

The relationship between queer identity and body modifications has a long history. It is both social and personal. It is dangerous and it is a tool for keeping us safe. It is a relationship of defiance, of power and reclamation. Body modifications mean many different things to different queer people. The words I felt most expressed the power of body modifications, for queer people and indeed for anyone, were right at the end of a beautiful statement I received: “I’m making my body into a place I want to live in.”