Gender ambiguous self-expression raises risks for people of color

GRAPHIC BY MILLY TEJEDA/GRAPHICS CENTER

White men are praised for breaking the gender binary even though people of color — especially in the queer community — have been breaking these boundaries for decades. White, straight celebrities have every right to dress ambiguously as well, but we need to recognize how they symbolize the privilege to express themselves safely, while queer people of color face repercussions. 

In December 2020, Vogue’s cover featured Harry Styles in a Gucci dress. Although Styles faced criticism from conservatives, the public response to his cover was overwhelmingly positive. Major publications like the Los Angeles Times called Styles “groundbreaking.” 

However, in an interview with The Sunday Times, “Pose” star and queer icon Billy Porter questioned the buzz around Styles’ cover. “I created the conversation [about nonbinary fashion] and yet Vogue still put Harry Styles, a straight white man, in a dress on their cover for the first time,” he said. “I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars. All [Styles] has to do is be white and straight.”

The unequal treatment that queer people of color experience when they express themselves through fashion extends far beyond the world of celebrities. According to the U.S. Office for Victims of Crime, the clothes trans and gender-nonconforming people wear play a role in self expression and dealing with gender dysphoria. Gender-nonconforming people constantly contend with fears of gender-based violence, which can limit their willingness to express themselves through fashion. 

According to the Human Rights Campaign, Black transgender women “comprise 66% of all victims of fatal violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people.” Although this data does not specify the reasons for violence, many of these people may have been killed for the way they presented. 

In 2019, ABC reported on Muhlaysia Booker, a Black transgender woman who was assaulted after being recognized as a transgender person on many occasions. After a fender bender, Booker was attacked by multiple men outside of an apartment complex, and a crowd formed to cheer her assailants on. Booker was asked to speak out about the attack, where she stated that she felt lucky to be alive. Within a few weeks of speaking about the horrific attack, she was shot to death. 

Everyday queer people of color do not have fame to protect them from violence, so they must choose between suffering through presenting in a way that misaligns with identity, or the fear of being harassed or killed for presenting how they want.

As a nonbinary individual, fashion was one of the first aspects of my life where I felt able to express myself, but I was intimidated to do so in public spaces. The only gender ambiguity I saw in the media was from tall and skinny white people and I did not feel I fit that standard. As I felt more comfortable with my identity, fashion that reflected my gender-nonconformity was easier to work into my daily life. 

People continue to break the binary, both white celebrities and people of color. Despite this, the experiences are drastically different between the two. On their website, Indian and Malaysian nonbinary activist Alok discusses the complexity of navigating the fashion world when their cultural expectations starkly contrast with their personal expression. 

Alok’s poem, “Man In A Dress,” said, “i might be a man in a dress, / but i am also a woman in pants.” The poem is up for interpretation, but as a half-Mexican nonbinary individual who embraces fluidity in my fashion, I take away the importance of finding room for both femininity and masculinity in my appearance as I navigate different cultural environments. Although this does not look the same for everyone, understanding aspects from multiple gendered categories that are unique to you will make many people more accepting of others’ (and their own) fluidity.

The New York Times article “The End of Gender” calls fashion “the first language of an evolving culture.” Culture is evolving to allow more people to express themselves freely, but there is still progress to be made. White male celebrities should not be the only ones allowed to do this without fear for their lives or career, and they need to relay these messages of injustices to their wider audiences. 

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