As a Queer Person, Fancy Candles Help Me Take Up Space

published Nov 24, 2020
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Boy Smells Candle
Credit: Boy Smells

I can’t pinpoint when my obsession with fancy candles began, but I do remember the exact moment I realized it was common knowledge. For my birthday this past May, not one, not two, but three of my friends and family gifted me beautiful, luxuriously scented candles. My girlfriend selected a particularly personal one emblazoned with my birth date. I was touched but surprised. “You’re the only queer person I know who doesn’t burn candles 24/7,” I told her.

It was a joke, but as I lay in bed a few nights later with my new candle flickering on my bedside table, I couldn’t stop thinking about the truth in what I’d said: So many LGBTQ+ people I know love fancy candles. We burn them; we recommend them; we make them. They adorn our walls and workspaces, round out our self-care rituals. We’re drawn to them like, well, moths to a flame.

To me, burning a candle is a tangible form of taking up space, something I’ve had to teach myself how to do as a queer woman navigating a sexist, heteronormative world. It’s no wonder candles are key fixtures in many religious rituals or solo spiritual practices: When I strike a match and light a candle of my choosing, the scent permeates my surroundings and helps ground me in that moment. I’m exercising agency over whatever space I’m in, literally and energetically. I believe the kids these days call it “creating a vibe.”

Fran Tirado, a queer writer and organizer based in Los Angeles, can relate. “As someone who is in the activist space and in the media space and feels a day-to-day emotional tax on my psyche, it is hard to maintain a vibe and to get excited to go to work every day at my desk,” they tell Apartment Therapy. Enter fancy candles, which Tirado collects and burns to help create a work-living space that feels comfortable, relaxing, and aesthetically pleasing. (They’re a Taurus, shocking absolutely no one.)

Part of the reason I can collect fancy candles is their accessibility. Barring luxury home-fragrance brands like Diptyque, many fancy candles are priced in the $20–$40 range, which feels extravagant, but isn’t prohibitively expensive. It’s a “treat yourself” purchase I can afford with the added bonus of enhancing my home. Tirado agrees: “The really nice ones can feel like a splurge, but I’ve started to take that into account as a necessary part of [creating a space] I find enjoyable,” they note.

Now that my home is also my workplace due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fashioning it into a beautiful, inspiring space I actually enjoy inhabiting is more important than ever. My fancy candles encourage me to proudly, fully inhabit whatever space I’m in.

This sense of personal power isn’t something I take for granted. Historically, queer people have been shamed or ostracized for being out. Relegated to the shadows, we congregated away from mainstream society in spaces like gay bars or concealed our authentic selves entirely. Being able to channel my queer sensibilities into my physical surroundings—and share that with people who visit my home or see pictures of my space on social media—is a privilege, and a form of power. By firmly establishing a sense of space, I’m reinforcing that I don’t have to hide what (or whom) I love, my sage-scented Stevie Nicks votive included.

Matthew Herman of the popular home-fragrance brand Boy Smells—which he co-founded with his real-life partner, David Kien, in 2016—also views candles as more than just decor. “I went to art school, so that level of creativity and how it manifests in objects you use every day has always been something I was super interested in,” he tells Apartment Therapy.

Herman personally enjoys burning different candles for shorter durations throughout the day as a way of creating natural stops and starts, and adding a little variety. This approach, which he calls “chaptering,” is fun and playful, but for Herman—who loves a good pair of “super f*cking high platform boots”—it also parallels a larger cultural shift in how people are conceptualizing gender, gender presentation, and sexuality. He recalls attending high-pressure meetings at his previous job and spritzing on La Tulipe by Byredo, a perfume traditionally coded as being “feminine,” for an instant boost of confidence. Meanwhile, the women in his office would wear more “masculine” scents (think Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather) for that same boost. 

“Everyone was feeling more powerful by olfactorily taking up more space in a way that is also gender-expansive,” he remembers. That freedom to explore can extend to home fragrances, too, as LGBTQ people decorate their spaces in ways that celebrate and affirm every part of them.

Though plenty of queer people still grapple with the pressures of society’s ultra-gendered norms, many queer circles celebrate and affirm fluidity and self-expression. Whether through clothes, perfumes, home fragrances, or something else entirely, this freedom is dependent on a sense of security, both in oneself and in one’s literal surroundings. This is a relatively new phenomenon, Herman explains: “I feel like for a long time, queerness was about sanctuary from the rest of the world. There is just the right amount of breathing room [now] for discovery, embracing new things, and expressing them back into the world. Queer people don’t have to arrive fully armored.”

There’s also the aesthetic appeal of home fragrance, which ties into what Tirado notes is a mainstream stereotype that queer people, and particularly cisgender gay men, have a propensity for interior design à la “Queer Eye”’s Bobby Berk. Does this mean every LGBTQ+ person out there is predisposed to hoard shiny, fancy candles, or that someone’s identity is less-than for not ticking every box imposed on us? Of course not. But Tirado thinks there is some “sociocultural truth” in the stereotype. In fact, doing what we want and claiming space in ways that feel true to us, with no regard to stereotypes, is fundamental to debunking them.

“I think it’s just a fact that gay people and queer people have better taste in general,” Tirado adds with a laugh. “And that includes candles.”