In many ways, I am well reflected in the sewing community. I have advantages in accessing and participating in sewing. Advantages that mean I can share here in relative safety.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months wondering how each one of us – queer and straight- navigates presenting ourselves with respect to our gender and sexual identities. Gender and sexuality are complex and nuanced. But we’re all surrounded by cultural systems with specific ideas about gender, sexuality, all the time. How does all that impact how each of us gets dressed every day?
I’ve been pondering that question on a personal level, too. The more I want to explore beyond the norms, the more I’m confronted by how challenging that is. It’s hard to explore expression of gender and orientation for yourself when it’s hard to see a full range of possibilities. We all get ideas about what it means to be x gender and y sexuality from looking at other people. We all get ideas about what the options even are from each other and cultural narratives. It took me a long time to self-identify as bi and fluid because I saw so little modeling of bi-ness and no discussion of fluidity for most of my life, that I wasn’t able to see myself reflected and realize, oh, that’s me. Now that I am self-identified, I’m still figuring out: what does it mean to be bi? What does that look like for me? And, even more so, if all my ideas of how to be a woman were rooted in being a straight woman, what does it now mean a woman who isn’t straight?
Sewing is a phenomenal opportunity to go explore that, but I bump into limitations, too.
Representation is far and away the biggest challenge. For years, I literally didn’t know of any other bisexual people in the sewing community. I haven’t seen or heard bisexuality discussed as a central topic of conversation. I’ve web searched for “bisexual sewing blog,” more than one time, with no success. I suspect this speaks more to the reality of bi (and queer) people in sewing than to me potentially not being clued in to some secret underground bi sewist network (although if that is a thing, I want in). It shouldn’t be that hard to know or find other bisexual (and queer) people who also like sewing. I’m absolutely not the only one.
All this time, being completely stymied at even spotting another bi+ sewist, I may as well have been the only one. Feeling alone in any part of your identity is isolating. I’d bet all of us have shared that feeling at one time or other, be it about sexual orientation or something else. I’d bet we can all relate to how much it stinks to feel you are alone and how bad it is for your well being and mental health.
I love seeing many examples in sewing of what gender looks like. There’s so much range, and it transcends the range of options presented in media and culture. Seeing all of you has helped me figure out elements of how I want to go about my own gender expression, and I really value that. At the same time, I often feel alienated by gender visibility and norms in the sewing community, which are mainly dominated by or rooted in straightness. It’s really hard to pinpoint this in words, but I can best describe it as sometimes feeling intangibly out of sync and uncomfortable: so close, but not quite right.
I love seeing people sharing what they’ve made for their partners of all genders, in part because it models different relationship possibilities, but here’s another subtle way bisexuality is not readily visible. Any of these relationships could include bi people, but you’d never know it just by looking.
There-in lies the rub: Orientation, especially bisexuality, can be tricky to spot, for straight and queer people alike. Often, you can’t see bisexuality just by looking. There’s no one way of looking bi+ (#whatbilookslike). You can’t tell by who we are dating or partnered with (if we are dating or partnered at all). People who are bi are definitely around, but often rendered invisible. Bi-ness is a catch-22: Even if it’s really no one else’s business, if I don’t make it known, I will never fully be seen.
Another challenge is patterns. I am at an advantage being a cis-woman, but I bump on sewing patterns being largely based on the assumption that the person sewing them will be straight, cis, and gender normative. Many patterns have little to do with what is useful to my life or my personal agenda for how I want to feel in my clothes. Sometimes what I want to make for myself is just hard to come by, especially when factoring in a desire to explore nonconforming gender expression. Noninclusive sizing especially compounds the issue of what my options are. I’m in-between straight and plus-sized. Frequently when I do find a pattern or company with an aesthetic I like, I’m outside the size range.
For example, I have a love of classic men’s tailoring. My dream wardrobe for ages was literally custom tailored suits, with the pocket squares and the cuff links and the colorful socks. The visual language of menswear is a dream to me: it speaks to me as a way to convey power and confidence and coolness, exactly what I want in how I look. Unfortunately actual men’s RTW clothing mostly looks horrific on my particular body because curves. So this is place were sewing has a lot of potential but also limits. My dream sewing project is a immaculately tailored classic tuxedo. The current market suggests there’s not many options for people (of any gender) looking for classic tux patterns. I hope by the time I’m technically ready for that, there’s more patterns and resources available, for all genders and bodies and sizes (and with cup sizes, please!!!).
Another example: What does it take to get a boxer brief pattern that is gender inclusive? I could drown in classically feminine underwear patterns, but struggled for ages to find options that affirm my preference for the superior comfort and versatility of the boxer brief. I gave up and sprang for RTW. (Bruce is an option, though).
Another challenge is language. Jasika and Shannon went into more depth on this, so I’ll just share one of my personal least favorite examples: Personal style discussions posited as “dressing for men” or “dressing for other women.” The implication here is that you are a straight woman, that dressing for men means dressing to be attractive and seductive, and that dressing for other women means looking chic and cool. It completely erases that a woman could be dressing for other women because they are attracted to other women. Or that someone could be attracted to men and/or women and/or all genders and/or no one. Or that you could be dressing for yourself and not anyone else. Or any other number of permutations and scenarios.
Challenges aside, when it comes to sewing and dressing, it’s hard (impossible? pointless?) for me to sort out the lines between bisexuality, gender expression, and being a feminist with a low tolerance for bullshit. The one commonality, though, is desire. Recognizing my sexuality is about owning my desire. Eschewing gender roles that don’t work for me is about centering my own desire. Being a feminist is about honoring my desire and supporting the rights of everyone to get a fair shake at doing so, too. Sewing my own clothes is about listening to my own desire. Women and queer people in particular, but not only, are often socialized to minimize their desires. I say to hell with that. I’ll follow my own compass, thanks very much. Sewing is one particular, tangible strategy to do so.
Sometimes, staying true to my desires is easier said than done. Sometimes, having to make a choice about, or even acknowledge what I really want, or advocating for myself and others, is exhausting and overwhelming. Sewing is a way to take a break. To practice hearing my desire with lower stakes decisions. Asking myself what do I want to make? is a gift. Choosing to say, sew comfy knits in a pretty color and be cozy while I figure stuff out, is a gift.
There’s interesting conversations to be had about gender and sexual identity in relation to making clothes and getting dressed. How do we use straight or queer visual signifiers? How do we get dressed to accurately have our orientation read? Is that possible for everyone? How does your gender and orientation intersect with other elements of who you are? What’s the relationship between orientation and gender expression when getting dressed? How do bi and queer people in particular navigate all this?
Those are big questions — way beyond the scope of what I can answer here by myself. But hearing stories from people living those questions is valuable for growth, understanding, and inclusion for bi and queer people and otherwise oriented individuals alike. We need space to hold those stories with empathy and respect, we need to include room for them in our conversations about making clothing, and we need to make the barrier for sharing them less intimidating. That’s built on an atmosphere of trust, where people feel safe and seen. We could perhaps all use a reminder that people of all genders and orientations are part of the sewing community.
It’s awesome to see self-fashioned, everyday clothes on cool, smart, skillful people across a spectrum of backgrounds and personal presentations. What’s been deeply missing is the pieces of the conversation representative of bi+ people, the whole range of gender expressions, identities, and roles, and diverse expressions of queerness and sexual identity. Let’s keep changing that.
To bi and queer sewists: Hi! Let’s connect and keep building a network. I’m @darkroomlove, which is a reference to my love of photography.
To lgtbqia+ allies: Let’s also connect! And, here’s what you can do to be awesome.
- Follow queer sewists. Make sure you are seeing a range of gender expressions, gender identities, and orientations. Check out #sewqueer and @sewqueer.
- Let your favorite pattern and sewing companies know you want to see marketing, language, and designs inclusive of LGBTQIA+ sewists and other communities that are not well represented by the industry.
- Give positive feedback when pattern and sewing companies get it right!
- Support queer and queer inclusive/friendly designers, sewists, blogs, shops etc.
- Remember we all have different backgrounds and lived experiences. Be respectful and kind.
- Make and respect spaces grounded in empathy where people can share their stories.
- Bi+ Specific:
- Recognize and acknowledge that bisexuality+ exists.
- Assume bi+ people are participating in the sewing community.
- Remind yourself that other people’s orientation is Unknown To You Until Told Otherwise. Bi+ people in particular can be hard to read by presentation or partners alone. Be cautious in making assumptions and don’t assume straightness as the default option.
- If you want to go the extra mile, learn more about bisexuality!
- What else?
Thank you: Gillian and the Sewcialist team for organizing and hosting; LGBTQIA+ “Who We Are” Contributors, #sewqueer, the thoughtful, amazing Sewcialist community. You all set examples that helped me work up the courage to share.
P.S: “Hey, what does the plus sign (+) after bi, bisexual, or bisexuality mean?” Bisexuality is being used as an umbrella term that is inclusive of a variety of orientations / labels.
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