Written by Pete Forester (@pete_forester)
I’m a sneakerhead by choice. I’ve always liked sneakers, been particular in my shoe choices, and I knew I liked sneakers way before I knew I was gay.
The gay community doesn’t really have to accept you—if you’re gay, you’re in. For me, it was easier to be a part of the gay community than it was to join the sneaker community. Sneakerheads are a wide and diverse group. But, it’s still small enough that there isn’t a subgroup of dedicated gay, half-hypebeasts (which is how I describe my style).
It was easier to be a part of the gay community than it was to join the sneaker community.
If there’s one thing you need to know about being gay—before “how do two guys have sex?”—it’s that being gay is dangerous. It’s a physical risk. This is one reason why guys have a hard time coming out. The story of Matthew Shepard casts a dark shadow over every episode of Modern Family. Sure, when you think of “that gay guy you know,” you might picture the lacquered smile of Neil Patrick Harris or Jeremy Scott’s extreme designs. What you don’t see are the threats we’ve all gotten that are so routine that they’re barely worth keeping track anymore. You don’t hear about them because people don’t talk about it.
Sneaker culture is deeply entrenched in hip-hop and sports. These outside cues empower negative ideals in the sneaker community. Sure, Jay Z sat down with CNN in 2012 and said he supported marriage equality, but more sneakerheads are listening to his verses than watching his CNN interviews.
The tide is changing. Seventeen states now recognize marriage equality, and the Federal Government is on board—along with most of the electorate. The NBA and NCAA Basketball both have active gay players, with the NFL to follow shortly (hopefully). Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, Jeremy Scott, and Riccardo Tisci are getting mainstream attention without their sexuality being a liability, but there’s still quite a distance to travel.
I wear Air Jordans, Mitchell & Ness hats, and Golden Bear varsities, and I’ve been threatened with fists, bats, and cars. Those experiences don’t leave. As a kid who was interested in reading, theater and shunned all sports, being called a “faggot” was a daily occurrence. No one calls me a faggot to my face anymore because I won’t stand for it, but it does happen around me. It doesn’t make me mad, it does makes me lose respect and faith in people. It’s disappointing. That’s why I avoid sneaker camp outs or sneaker events open to the public, because I won’t play audience to that kind of casual ignorance.
Not everyone is gay the same way, just like not everyone is a sneakerhead the same way. There are many subgroups, but I just don’t fit neatly into them in either community. I am not the stereotypical gay guy. My style alone scans as a straight guy to most gays, which makes it tough when I’m trying to pick up a dude. But in the sneaker world, I’m the token gay guy.
To most dudes I know, I’m their only gay friend, and I censor myself constantly to avoid making people uncomfortable. I can only bring about 90 percent of myself for fear of making the situation awkward. I only talk about my weekend conquests with plenty of advanced warning. It’s like flipping a switch. Playing to the room.
I still think about the comment from more than a year ago that someone wrote on a blog post of mine. They said, “This reads like an episode of Girls,” which was half funny. But it’s the same casual “you’re not really a man” ethos that informs why people say, "stop being such a faggot." If Freddie Mercury is measured as less of a man than Justin Bieber because of his sexual orientation, our rubric is fucked.
Most of my experience with homophobia in sneaker culture happens online. Of course, behind the veil of anonymity, everyone is a tough guy. So it’s easy to call someone a "faggot" for his or her sneaker choices. But, that’s the most dangerous kind of homophobia: the shadowy, “I didn’t mean it that way,” and “it was a joke” kind. Those are the comments that burn the hottest and dig the deepest. The notion that words only have the value that the listener gives them and that the speaker has no responsibility is bullshit.
That’s why I avoid sneaker camp outs or sneaker events open to the public.
Periodically, I’ll get to know someone in the sneaker community, and they’ll tell me that they feel like they have to walk on eggshells when it comes to asking questions about what it’s like to be gay. It's saddening. Embarrassment is natural, but the pursuit of shrinking one’s own ignorance is a courageous thing.
I know I am not the only gay sneakerhead, but I wish I knew more. I don’t have any in-person friendships with any gay sneakerheads. I wish I did. The problem isn’t that these two communities need to come together. The problem is that they already are together, but no one has the balls to talk about it.
We all need to stop being silent. Campaigns like Nike’s "Be True" are fun and exciting for gay sneakerheads, but most of us aren’t going to spare our dollars if there’s a dope retro coming out that same week. We want the same releases and wear them the same way. Both groups only have something to gain from a little more bravery, from being a little more uncomfortable.
But until sneakerheads lose the veiled homophobia, until the fringe lets go of some of the violence, and the other gay guys stop being so scared, the risk will seem to outweigh the reward.