You can always tell that a young man doesn’t belong in Belfast when he has green and pink flower tattoos up his arms, a light brown moustache and shrink-wrapped skinny jeans. You can tell where he does belong – Shoreditch – which was why I wasn’t surprised that the only time I saw a man dressed like this in Northern Ireland was when I was waiting to board the plane back to London. Clearly the young man was a hipster.
Described by Time Out as “zombies” who must be “buried for cool to be reborn” and by Adbusters as “a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion” that “represents the end of western civilisation” – hipsters aren’t the most feted of subcultures. Blogs abound on the subject of just how annoying they are. Well, a Guardian writer defended hipsters back in 2008, and I think it’s time to do it again.
As the young man shuffled his vintage sports-branded hand luggage down the security queue, I was reminded why I’m always glad to see hipsters – even in east London, where you can hardly leave the house without tripping over one. Hipsters make me happy, because I see them as agents of social change. As a young British homosexual, I can only be grateful to them – because they make it cool to be gay. I know people have been making gay cool since Marlene Dietrich, but the effect on the streets has been negligible.
That sort of culture pillaging, however, is exactly what so annoys Christian Lorentzen in Time Out: he says that they “devour gay style” and the marks of other minority cultures and that “these aesthetics are assimilated – cannibalized – into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod”.
Well, cannibalised or not, let me tell you one thing. It means you can run around large swaths of London being as gay as you want. And while outside the East End bubble it’s still reckless to hold hands with your partner or look in any way physically attracted to someone of the same sex, you can at least mooch about in skinny jeans, hoodies and some form of sneaker and instead of classing you as a threatening gender-defying dyke, people will just assume you’re a hipster. In that case, take more of my subculture, please!
True, fashion references don’t make for automatic tolerance. But it’s not just the clothes. Hipster places are places where it’s fine to be gay. It’s almost, dare I breathe it, a positive thing. You can take your straight friends to gay hipster nights, and your gay friends to straight hipster nights. And it’s cool – everyone’s fine about the whole thing. And that, God damn it, is exactly what we’ve been longing for since gay sex got decriminalised in 1967. Sure, I wouldn’t trust some yawning graphic designer with a pencil moustache to have my back if there was some kind of violent homophobic uprising – but at least you know they’re not the ones who are going to be throwing the rocks.
For all the fetishisation of punk and hip-hop as genuine movements by the lead hipster-bashers, I don’t imagine either of those testosterone-soaked cultures provided as relaxed an atmosphere for a young gay person. So don’t just take the hipster’s can’t-see-past-the-end-of-my-rollie shrug for simple apathy. There’s a certain tolerance in just hanging around, being cool with it. Those are social statements.
I know Chloë Sevigny isn’t Martin Luther King. And I know many people are left behind by the hipster movement. And no, I don’t think that Stonewall should stop fighting for equal rights legislation because a bunch of people right now are wearing American Apparel. The tide will turn and skinny jeans will be swept out of fashion, but hipsters will have brought gay to the mainstream, and made it part of our cultural vocabulary.
The adoption of black culture in the 60s – music, slang and attitude – paved the way for the more racially equal society that America has today. This may be a grandiose parallel, but I’d like to think that hipster culture is the movement that turned acceptance of gay people for the better.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010