What would you say about a sweater that was made entirely of human hair? If your reflex is to say “that’s gay,” then you would, perhaps for the first time in your probably long history of using that phrase inappropriately, be correct. Because the sweater in question is made entirely of the donated hair of over 250 queer people.
“Throughout the year we’re in schools across the country giving presentations about homophobia, transphobia and bullying. We’ve been talking about these issues for a decade now, and still today we walk into a school and hear comments like ‘that’s so gay’ and ‘you’re such a fag,’” says Jeremy Dias, director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD). “We’ve seen such amazing improvements, but we still hear comments like ‘that door is so gay,’ ‘that test is so gay,’ ‘that outfit’s so gay,’ and ‘that sweater’s so gay.’”
A couple of years ago, the folks at the CCGSD started to talk to each other about what it means to call a thing “gay.” How offensive it is. How absurd it is. How cute it’d be if two sweaters hooked up with each other. “Then someone said: why don’t we literalize it? ” Dias says. “And we decided to try to make an actual gay sweater — the only sweater or object you could actually call ‘gay.’”
Like mad, Frankensteinian scientists, they hatched a plot to bring the sweater to life. How could a sweater be gay? It must be made out of something from actual homosexuals, they decided. Queer people’s hair! They won’t need that. And thus, The Gay Sweater Project was born. “It started off as a joke, and before you know it, we’re talking our friends into cutting off their hair so we can spin it into yarn and weave it into a sweater, ” Dias says. “I stopped cutting my hair for about nine months for it.”
The goal was to create something that mirrors the absurdity of people calling objects gay. “[The sweater’s] not just gay. It’s lesbian, it’s bi, it’s trans, it’s queer,” Dias says.
Of course, the CCGSD could just go around to schools and tell people not to use the word “gay” in that way, pointing out how nonsensical it is, but kids already know that. And they’re more likely to pay attention to, and be impacted by, seeing and feeling an actual, ridiculous, hairy cardigan with rainbow-coloured buttons — the genuinely gay object of which all of their callous remarks were progenitor.
In addition to better making this point, Dias argues that, in a general sense, having a physical object to engage with can have a greater impact than some tired admonition. “We’re not going up to people and lecturing them about something. We’re just trying to get them to see things from a different perspective,” he says. “Forty-six years ago, when homosexuality was decriminalized, we were trying to legislate respect. But with the sweater, we’re encouraging people to feel . . . the cool thing about the sweater is that you try it on, you smell it, you feel it, you hate it or your love it, and however you react, that’s not something that was forced on you; it’s your feeling about it.
“We’ve engaged lots of people with the sweater so far. People’s reactions have been great. They want to touch it. It’s hilarious. They think about it. They’re excited or disgusted or whatever. At least they’re reacting, and it’s exciting,” Dias says.
The Gay Sweater will make its official debut in Toronto as part of Fashion Week. Amid the rest of the festivities in David Pecaut Square, people will be encouraged to feel it, try it on (thankfully, it being a cardigan, you don’t need to pull all that hair down over your face), take selfies with it and ask why such a thing was made. This coincides with the launch of a website with promotional materials and resources that schools, community organizations and businesses can use if they want to educate people using the sweater.
What does the future hold for The Gay Sweater? The sky’s the limit. “We’re super excited, because we’re in schools and communities all the time, giving customized presentations, and we’re hoping to bring the sweater everywhere with us, and maybe loan it out,” Dias says. “We’re not limiting the sweater’s opportunities.”
The Gay Sweater debuts Tues, March 24, 4–9pm, at David Pecaut Square, 215 King St W, Toronto. thegaysweater.ccgsd-ccdgs.org