I See a Red Nail and I want to Paint it Black:

Gender and the Goth Subculture


The following article originally appeared in The Monarch: Canada's Transgender Reader Spring 1997 Issue # 45. The Monarch is the quarterly publication for the southern-Ontario transgender group, Xpressions.


Oh, the angst! Oh, the despair! I'm painting my fingernails black, and my face white. I'm going out to a goth club, and I'm trying desperately to look undead.

Maybe I should back up a bit. You see, several months ago, a close friend of mine introduced me to the entire goth subculture. The goths are a music subculture, partially a successor to the punk movement, but with a much better fashion sense. Goths have a fascination with clothing and fetish gear that at the same time sets them apart from mainstream society and yet seems oddly familiar. I decided to write this article when I noticed a lot of overlaps between the transgendered community and the goth subculture.

The Clothes Thing

The other night, I went out to the nightclub, Savage Garden, down on Queen street, and took in the sights. Queen Street West, between University and Bathurst is pretty much goth territory, and that's where you'll find the goth clubs like Velvet Underground and Sanctuary.

I was at Savage Garden with a gathering of goths from Pittsburg, and their Toronto hosts. The crowd at Savage Garden was varied and diverse. The most striking person I saw was a woman wearing a long, wine-coloured velvet swashbuckler coat over black and white striped leggings and a black bustier. Running just above the neckline of the bustier was a Celtic knotwork tattoo that ran across her breasts. Her black hair was chin-length, and her lipstick was Wet 'n Wild's Blackest Red.

Another woman wore a sleeveless, silver-PVC catsuit over black leggings. For my part, I wore a purple stretch-velour mini-dress with a black, tight-fitting bodice accented by spider-web patterned panty-hose. The fashion isn't just something the women take part in; one of the Pittsburg guys was wearing a new pair of patent leather pants that he'd just picked up at Northbound that day, a tight, gauzy black shirt and wrist cuffs. Another wore a black ruffled pirate shirt and black jeans. And almost everyone in the room is wearing black nair polish. There's something about the extravagance, the aloofness, and the street-smart savvy of the crowd that reminds me of drag. There's more fishnets and corsets than your average cross-dresser convention. The only differences are that goths have more facial piercings, and cross-dressers wear heels instead of combat boots.

But there's also a really interesting element of gender transgression going on in the goth community. At an earlier party, I met Ryan and Reverend Moses. Ryan showed up wearing a black T-shirt and jacket with a short black mini-skirt and black tights. He'd applied liberal amounts of white powder to his face, and highlighted his eyes with dark grey liner. Reverend Moses wore black stirrup pants under his long wool skirt. His orange-dyed hair came down to mid-back. Interestingly, neither of them were trying to look or act like women; they were two guys hanging out at a goth party in skirts, and nobody there saw anything strange about that.

I occasionally hang around DalNet's #transgendered IRC channel using the nickname gothgrrrl

Heck, when I showed up at Savage Garden dressed as a stereo-typical gothgrrrl, the Pittsburg folks (who'd never seen me in drag before) didn't even bat an eye. Nothing fazes that bunch.

Freak Like Me


What I admire about the goth community is the attitude. Stealing a cue from the punk movement, the goth subculture embraced the word "freak" and made it their own. I recently heard that the reason punks shaved their heads was to look like the Nazi concentration camp prisoners. It was a political message really; they were saying "if your 'normal' culture is so great, then why did the Holocaust happen? And if it's not so great, then why should I be 'normal'?"

Similarly the goths see nothing desirable about being normal. It's characteristic of the Generation X, I'll-choose-my-own-labels-Thank-You-very-much, mindset that predominates the subculture -- most goths are in their late teens/early twenties. And when you've learned to love being a freak, people can't use it as a weapon against you. Imagine this conversation:

"You're just a bunch of social misfits," someone spits out

"Yes, and your point being...?" the goths reply.

What I've noticed in the transgender community is a move to redefine 'normal' in a way that includes transgender behaviour. Transgender theory is replete with historical anecdotes to show that "we've" always existed, and pop-biology reports like Moir and Jessel's BrainSex demonstrate how we're "born that way", and therefore, we've got nature on our side. Part of me thinks that maybe 'being normal' isn't worth it. I mean, suppose T-people were completely accepted by society and still nothing was right with the world.

Can you imagine this conversation?

"You're wearing a dress," a bewildered co-worker says.

"Yeah, isn't it stylish?" you reply.

Copyright © 1997 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated August 5th, 1997.
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