Right ear, right queer?

David Babby explores the mystical and idiosyncratic world of piercing etiquette.

On a particularly grey, drizzly Saturday morning my friend set off to get her ear pierced. The decision had been made the night before amidst several other similarly serious lifestyle alterations.

The money had been counted out. Support had been garnered. After much intense discussion, the prettier nostril was identified and noted.

I was a bit late and arrived just as my friend was being lead in to a back room. The woman in charge of her had a good few piercings, which was reassuring, and there was a crumpled bag of Meanies in the bin which showed that this was a fun place to work.

“So,” I said, leaning against the door, “Which nostril is the gay nostril?” To be honest, I thought I’d been post-gay hilarious, but piercing lady was not much impressed. “There is none,” she said drily and reached for her marker.

What I had not realised at the time was that my friend’s sister had already asked the same question before I’d got there and got a considerably terser response along the lines of: “That is ignorance. There is no gay nostril. If you are gay, your whole nose is gay. Having one side of your nose pierced does not mean a lesbian is suddenly going to mow you down in the street.”

I’d like to briefly dwell on the first part of that statement: “There is no gay nostril. If you are gay, your whole nose is gay.” This just isn’t true. Surely the nose is the least sexual part of the whole body (possibly after elbows), though, on a side note, I have always believed myself that is the body part upon which one’s beauty most depends.

I can understand that cool piercing lady could be a bit fed up with coarse lad-types asking which ear or eyebrow is the gay one with the express intention of saving their hard man reputation. But what if my friend had wanted a piercing specifically to get mowed down by lesbians?

To deny the link between piercings and sexuality is silly and unconvincing. I don’t just call to my defence the nudie girls plastered with tattoos and bristling with imaginative piercings who bend and wink from the magazines under the counter in that very salon – but the general idea behind piercings, at least in their purpose as social markers, which rather seems to be that of saying something obvious in an interesting way.

I don’t mean to demean the act here, nor to lend it too much significance – my friend just wanted to get her nose pierced all of a sudden – but it is at least one of the reasons people do it. John is alternative but nobody knows. He’ll get a piercing to show he is alternative. Mary likes women and wants to shout it from the rooftops – maybe she wants to get the gay side pierced.

My friend, for aesthetic reasons, got her left nostril pierced. This, in Ireland at least, is the straight side. As far as I know, it applies to all facial piercings: ears, eyebrows, sides of the lip. Perhaps if anyone is looking at the piercings below your chin, it is safe to say they have already successfully ascertained your sexuality.

Everybody knows the left-side rule. I can remember a boy at school who got his right eyebrow pierced and everyone called him Pepes – the name of the gay bar in Derry at the time – until he took it out.

Only the other week a male friend was moaning about the sheep-like bubble-gum gay decorum of his boyfriend, the crowning offence being that his right ear was pierced.

I went to two other piercing places in the city centre and asked three questions: how much is it to get a simple ear piercing, which side is the gay side, and if people asked that question often. A straight-talking chap at a stall offering silver hoops or studs for €6 said “right” without blinking, and said if he wasn’t asked, he would ask himself.

At a salon that doubles as a tattoo parlour a stone’s throw away, earrings start at €15 and the man behind the counter is at pains to stress that this is no longer a thing. “Maybe ten years ago people asked this.”

So nobody asks anymore? “Very rarely. Sometimes. Two or three a year.” A thought occurs to me. “Are people more likely to ask if they want to identify as gay?”

“I don’t know,” he replies, “I don’t ask them.” “Well which side do they get done after asking?” He forgets. He’s a mine of information, though – says this the-right-side-is-the-gay-side malarkey started in San Francisco (where else?), that the rules differ all over the place; it’s the reverse in Edinburgh for instance.

He’s as reliable as the internet, which offers much conflicting advice, but at least confirming two facts – that the rules do indeed widely differ, and that it is still a subject of some anxiety.

People who pierce people are not the kind to give a shit about someone’s sexuality. The ones I talked to who don’t like the right-side-gay-side decree don’t like it because, for the most part, they consider it a bit naff (a funny word to come to mind here due to its etymology – it’s a term assimilated from British underground gay slang Polari, originally meaning boring or heterosexual – but it is the only one I can use here).

The contemporary gay conundrum is stumbled upon: how to live in a post-gay world where one is not defined by one’s sexuality, while being defined enough to get one’s hole?