Alicia Keys sounds off on why she dressed like a tomboy and how it spawned gay rumors

Lesbian rumors have surrounded Alicia Keys for years, which the singer/songwriter attributes to her tomboy style of dress in the past. In new blog post promoting her single “28,000 Days,” Alicia details a recent embracing her real self. She writes:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve hidden myself. It might have started in school when I realized that I caught on to things a little quicker, and teachers started to show slight favor to me, or use me as an example. I remember feeling like my friends would make fun of me or look at me as if I was different from them and so… I started hiding. Not intentionally, I didn’t mean to, but I did. Little pieces at a time.

I definitely started hiding when I got old enough to walk down my NY streets alone. I started to notice a drastic difference in how men would relate to me if I had on jeans, or if I had on a skirt, or if my hair was done pretty. I could tell the difference, I could feel the animal instinct in them and it scared me. I didn’t want to be talked to in that way, looked at in that way, whistled after, followed. And so I started hiding. I chose the baggy jeans and timbs, I chose the ponytail and hat, I chose no makeup, no bright color lipstick or pretty dresses. I chose to hide. Pieces at a time. Less trouble that way.

I remember feeling that same way when I first started to get recognized as an artist. I had the baggy/braided/tough NY tomboy thing mastered, that was who I was (or who I chose to be) and I felt good there. Then, because of the way I spoke or carried myself, people started calling me gay and hard and I wasn’t gay, but I was hard and although I felt comfortable there, it made me uncomfortable that people were judging me and so slowly I hid that side of myself. I put on dresses and didn’t braid my whole head up, so people could see more of the “real” me, even though at that point I’m sure I was more confused then ever of what the real me was.

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When I first saw this story this morning, it was on Good Morning America with the headline “Alicia Keys on Her ‘Tomboy’ Style: ‘I Chose to Hide.‘” As Alicia’s honesty about why she’s been hiding comes out, I can’t help but be nervous about how the story can be spun. There are so many people who choose to dress androgynously or in a genderless fashion, or even what is considered more of a hybrid of feminine/masculine that culminates in what’s often called “tomboy.” And because how we present ourselves has a lot to do with who we are, our sexual and gender identities are sometimes related to our choices in fashion. (For the record, Alicia has denied gay rumors many times, and frequently attributes them to the way she presents herself.) Even if Alicia Keys feels like choosing clothes in which she could “hide,” that is not the case for many people (including many queer women). Instead the choice of wearing suits versus dresses or even binders versus bras is one made in effort to not hide oneself; it is to be visible as the person they want to be, despite the amount of negative attention they might inevitably receive because of it. 

Dressing as a tomboy does not desexualize you, and it doesn’t hide you, unless it’s not who you are. I believe Alicia Keys feels like she wasn’t fully comfortable with herself and, at the beginning of her career, did not want to draw any kind of sexual attention to her being a musician, especially considering she came out with her first single during the height of hyper-sexualized pop princesses like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. (Can we just all agree this era was generally a terrible time for fashion?)

Alicia Keys, 2001The 42nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Arista Records Pre-GRAMMY Party

I hope that fans of Alicia’s and others who hear about her revelation can see that her individual truth is not a universal one; that the specifics involved in what she calls hiding and wearing things that are “less trouble” are not one in the same. Women and others who continue to choose sneakers, baggy jeans and going make-up free are and should be just as visible as anyone who prefers cosmetics and high heels. Individual expression has hopefully evolved enough to the point where how someone dresses may have everything or something or absolutely nothing to do with who they sleep with, or that they are “asking for it” when it comes to unwanted attention from men.

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I had a few years in my early twenties when I first came out and thought I needed to dress a certain way, but I quickly realized it didn’t make me happy. I am a femme, and as soon as I realized it was okay to be a lesbian and also not have to adhere to a stereotypical ideal of “what a lesbian looks like,” I felt much more myself. And that’s a fantastic and freeing feeling. You might have had that happen for you, too. It might have been when you realized you didn’t have to dress feminine; that you COULD wear something totally stereotypically lesbian. You could chop your hair off and donate all of your church skirts to Goodwill and never even consider pantyhose ever again. And I bet it felt amazing. 

Alicia Keys is undoubtedly a talented artist and a woman that people of all kinds look up to. (In fact, I bet a lot of queer women do look up to her because she has been somewhat of a style icon to them.) Her personal post could be taken out of context, but her new song inspired by the same idea is much more clear:

If you had 28 thousand days
Who would you love? Where would you go?
What would you celebrate?
I’m telling you that life’s too short to just throw it away
So have the time of your life, so have the time of your life