I am a model. I model men’s clothes. The biological roulette made me female. I was the first woman to be signed to the men’s board at Ford Models.
I was invited earlier this week to speak at a conference for business executives at a “trend school” – the topic: gender. I declined – not for lack of desire to share my experience, strength and hope in some helpful way. But I was rather offended by the notion of being so removed from reality as to require a school for trends, and repulsed at the blatant attempt to co-opt and commodify culture for business profit over participation and engagement with it. I also knew that there would be no room for me to break the news: this is not about gender.
So, corporate America, this article is for you.
The contemporary cultural landscape supports a larger interpretation than the one we currently have, of female-masculinity and masculine-femininity. To believe otherwise is to be deceived by a myopic view which is influenced by capitalist gain and profit.
The first thing I want to get out of the way is to ask you to look at this list: Gertrude Stein, Greta Garbo, Jenny Shimizu, Tilda Swinton, Jack Halberstam, Stella Tennant, Judith Butler, Erika Linder … it goes on. If you do not know who everyone on the list is, go look them up, your life will be larger for it. You should, after that, realise that this is not a question of “trend”. There is a historical tradition you should know about and it is certainly not about gender. It is about being fierce.
The cultural context further supports this wider angled discourse on the acceptance of difference (or lack thereof) beyond the specifics of female-masculinity and masculine-feminity and posits the isolated focus on gender as incorrect. Russia, Edith Windsor and Bethann Hardison are three examples – the first being a terrifying contemporary example of institutionalised homophobia and homogeneity; the second, our own attempt here in the US to de-institutionalise homophobia via gay marriage; and the last being a fashion legend calling into question the enduring racism within fashion. The fashion industry is on its way to being the better for it.
We are only too familiar with the mainstream’s difficulty in celebrating difference (when it’s not being entirely destructive to it). Corporations and the traditional media have not yet learned how to resolve this: in the public discourse the celebration is often sanitised and white-washed (sometimes literally) for profit – and by this I do mean corporate profit.
And why should you care about this? Because we have in our societies children and teenagers and we are responsible for their wellbeing. This is on us. And why do I specifically care about this? Why am I bothering to write this? Because I’m gay. I’m butch. I’m a woman. I’m queer. I’m 36. I’m 6ft 2in. And caring for “otherness” matters to me. Gay youth is still terrorised for being different in some parts of the world – Russia is a horrifying example of this. But look, too, at what still happens here in the US. Children are made to feel shame, they are made to feel ugly, they are ostracised and bullied, or worse – and here in New York I see them on the streets – 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQI identified.
If images of me out there in the world make it that much easier for another kid, and the kids around them or their parents, to get on with the more important business of figuring out who they are and how they can uniquely contribute to the stream of life, then my job is done. The clincher: while unique in my contribution, I am not alone in expanding the landscape – Brittney Griner, JD Samson, Venus X, A$AP Rocky, OFWGKTA – are all examples of non-conformity and also of excellence.
This is about making space, making room and making things better. To limit this conversation to the (albeit salacious) red herring of gender is dangerous, careless and nothing short of ignorant – it takes for granted the intelligence and wellbeing of our communities (offering only an uneducated, uninteresting and sensationalist conversation to boot). It shames those who are gender-conformative and perpetuates a construct of homogeneity and belonging that is nothing short of destructive for our youth. It offers a false sense of privilege and ignorance to those who “fit” the norm (or trend) while potentially destroying those who don’t and ignoring those who are able to survive outside of it.
I will not let this become just the other side to the same coin of oppression, a false emancipation at the cost of others.
This is too important and deserves closer examination and care. Lives depend on it.