One of the things about being an activist within an erased minority is that I've spent a lot of time thinking about visibility and labelling. I've designed logos, slogans for t-shirts and symbols to let other people know how a person identifies, or just to let others who share the label spot each other.
Furthermore, because of the way I interact with the world, I always see myself as being in some costume or other. I dress with part of my mind occupied by what messages I'm giving off. What does this belt tell people? How will they interpret these shoes? Am I dressed as me? After all the theatre adage is "Wear the right costume and the part plays itself" and sometimes it can be useful to have some momentum.
Yes, it sounds like a personality disorder, doesn't it? I think it might well be, but in a way it's a very useful one when thinking about visibility, signifiers and signs.
At BiCon, for example, I have a sort of uniform - t-shirt and jeans and then some sort of purple over-shirt on top, probably spangly. It's a "dressing up as Marcus" outfit. I feel like me when I'm wearing it.
But at work I wear a shirt and tie, and a coat or jacket. Like everyone else here. How do I make it a "me" outfit?
I wear only one badge on my coat.
For years I wore an enamel red ribbon, partly for HIV awareness but also as an LGBT signifier. Red ribbons aren't supposed to be such, but the fact that so few people wear them anymore means they're often understood as such.
Then I wore a badge that said "BI" and this made things plainer. Although one day my boss at work asked what it stood for. Another time on a Pride march someone asked us about the banner "British Isles what though?" and we had to explain to them too that it wasn't initials.
The badge after that I really loved, it said "Card Carrying Bisexual" and I wore it while having one of these in my wallet. I'd gotten the card separately but then when years later I saw the badge I knew I had to have it. I lost it while in the US attending a science-fiction convention.
The next one was a metal pin. The BiCon logo - designed by me and sold as a bisexual symbol, albeit one only other attendees of the event would likely recognise. I still have that, several of them, but I stopped wearing it because it's a little too covert for me personally. Unless someone actually asks "what's that then?" it didn't sufficiently out me to anyone.
This is the thing about my clothes being my costume, I can't have too much subtext or I feel I don't have social permission to play the part.
A year and a half ago I went back to a red ribbon. A fabric one for World AIDS Day, which I then kept on my coat thoughout. It's an LGBT signifier, a cause of glances of recognition on the tube. But it's broader than I'd like. Still, it's served me well. Last November I left it on through Poppy Season which had previously been the cause of some soul-searching. Add the poppy, or swap to it, or no poppy, or white poppy, or both red and white, or poppy pin badge (and ditto re colours for this) or no badge or poppy at all?¹
Most of the social interactions I have aren't with strangers, and they're not while I'm wearing my coat. But as the weather is getting better I'm going to soon be putting my coat back in the closet, and that's when I've previously switched to wearing a light suit jacket to and from the office, and often while walking about at work too.
The switch to my summer plumage means fewer dark shirts, and a different subset of ties (I have about 30). Like I said, I'm a bit nuts about this stuff. But it also means I'd probably transfer the badge to my jacket.
I haven't always. When the badge has been a symbol without words I have and when it's been "bisexual" spelled out then I haven't - it looks out of place to me for me to wear a badge but okay to wear a pin or a ribbon.
There's a thing about wearing symbols or slogans that makes it clear you're out and accepting the noun. It's saying "I'm a bisexual person by the way" but also "I am a Bisexual" because you're inviting comments and discussion and offering to explain, I feel, by wearing your labels on the outside of your clothes. This is why it's useful to be able to take them off and give yourself a break.
It's a bit like a "Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How!" badge, but with some chance someone will ever ask you how rather than wish you'd just fuck off.
I'm writing this post because I'm considering my next badge. I've bought it. It's in my coat pocket. I'm not quite wearing it yet and this (writing the post) is helping me settle my thinking.
When I was in my early early twenties, I went to Camden and pointedly bought a leather biker jacket, and spent more than I'd ever spent before on an item of clothing. It was a significant one, I was a clean boy from Dorset and this was urban and a bit punk and non-conformist. My parents had always bought me sensible coats and body-warmers and caghouls (which should totally be spelt that way, fuck you MSWord). The first time I wore it out of the house, I had to do the first few hundred yards without my glasses on because I was still convincing myself that someone with my face could wear such a jacket and it not be some weird laughable mismatch. A few years later my hair became a bright pink mohawk (well it wasn't entirely my choice but that's a different story for another day) and felt I was out of costume if I wasn't wearing it.
The new badge is this. And the new noun is "magician". Despite people's responses to the poll I did before, it's not a noun I've accepted before. But since I started teaching myself card tricks in February I'm finding myself drawing strength from it, and I want to acknowledge it, and part of the label is wanting to show that I'm qualified to have it. This is one reason why I've joined the South London Magic Society.
A lot of people can't stand magic, I'm aware. I think this is in part due to the way they were exposed to it as teenager, by the annoying kids who'd learned one trick and would rub our faces in the way we couldn't figure out how they did it, who used it as a way of being superior. This sets up an expectation that the point of magic is for the spectator to solve a puzzle, and if they can't then haha they're stupid.
Which is a shame. I think it's okay to be mystified and entertained and not know how something is done, just as one doesn't have to crossly remind oneself that Hamlet is actually an actor, reciting memorised lines written by someone long dead if it somehow sounds heartfelt and spontaneous on stage.
For me the point isn't that I could just as easily read the script aloud from a page - it's that the actor has honed their craft to the point that it seems real. It's about suspension of disbelief - I know that's not a ghost in the film but I can still enjoy being scared as if it was.
And so it is with magic - I'm not interested in making people look stupid, but in entertaining them. I've always wanted to entertain people, after all, and I know I'm an entertaining fellow but in recent years I've noticed a growing reluctance on my part to play "myself" at parties and social events². In some ways this gives me a reason to be "on" that's acceptable.
Which brings me to the badge again, and you guys. I'm sure some of you are by now shaking your heads and wondering if this is what a midlife crisis looks like, or if I'm saying I'm stopping being a bi activist (maybe and no). And I know for a fact some of you can't stand magic.
But if you do want to, and only if you do, ask me sometime to show you some. These days I always have a pack of cards in my coat pocket, which is probably a sign it's about time I put the label on my lapel.
¹ please let's not have the ethics/etiquette of poppy wearing be the focus of the comments. Take it as read that I've considered your opinion and respect it and that I'm in no way able to be swayed from my final one - which I'm not elaborating on.
² more or less in direct correlation with the stopping getting drunk, yes.