Creating Change Through Fashion

The fashion world is moving forward with its gender neutral agenda, but that doesn’t mean gender non-conforming and trans people are being celebrated. As people who don’t identify with our assigned genders, our bodies are still in danger regardless of what we see on the runway.

On Wednesday January 24, 2018, I attended the Creating Change conference,  an annual LGBTQ leadership development opportunity put on by the National LGBTQ Task Force. There, I found myself mesmerized by a forest of extravagant fashions, worn by some of the queerest, most creative people from around the country. This conference brought hundreds of people of various sexual and gender identities together in one place, allowing us a space to forge a community based in organizing, understanding, and seeing each other for who we are. The importance of gathering these queer and trans (QT) leaders together to educate one other is critical in the age of movements such as the banning of words like “transgender” from the CDC and a third of the country openly agreeing with the sentiment that “society has ‘gone too far’ in accepting transgender people.” Still, we came together in resistance to learn, to teach, to be seen, and to be heard. Our gender expressions, manifested partly in fashion, describe us in innumerable ways. Despite backlash against many cis/hetero people and their appropriation of our fashion (people are still finding out that Madonna stole Vogueing from Ball Culture, Harlem did it first), we’ve claimed our spaces in the name of our existence.

“It would be great to think of it purely in terms of self-expression, but throwing gender identity into the mix makes fashion more about an awareness of one’s safety rather than a medium for creativity.”

As someone who was designated male at birth and identifies as gender non-conforming (GNC), fashion plays a major role in my everyday life. For me, coming to this conference was a dramatic shift from the drab, daily looks of the William & Mary campus full of overpriced “tribe” gear, bland cargo shorts, and nearly identical frat boy flannel shirts. It can be hard to feel at home in a place where I have to make my own space for my gender expression. My daily fashion choices are huge determinants of this, whether I want to look more feminine, masculine, both or neither. Many trans people like me have to be conscious of our appearance for our safety, always aware of when and where we can express our genders as we see ourselves. In this sense, fashion isn’t always fun to think about. It would be great to think of it purely in terms of self-expression, but throwing gender identity into the mix makes fashion more about an awareness of one’s security rather than a medium for creativity. I often risk my own safety wearing things as simple as women’s topcoats or crop tops, both of which I’ve been catcalled for or physically hit while wearing around campus.

What’s even worse is that the style I adopt to feel most like myself is being used for profit by fashion houses for the sake of trendsetting. The everyday looks of trans and GNC people are being appropriated in the world of incorporated fashion with each new season, and no one is taking the time to understand such influences. Androgynous looks have become more and more popular in recent years, and it’s no surprise that RuPaul’s Drag Race also impacts major fashion houses. “Gender neutral” looks have found homes on runways as well as in fast fashion emporiums. However, while I can admit that haute-couture embraces a more trans-friendly take on gendered clothing, individuals like me who are not necessarily surrounded by open-minded artistic creatives, or those who embrace the unconventional, can’t take advantage of any of it.

On a cold Saturday at the tail end of January, the 2018 Creating Change conference carried on with its last full day of events. One of these events on the evening’s schedule was a fashion show put on by the Translatin@ Coalition featuring only trans and GNC models. While sitting in the transgender hospitality suite before the start of the show, I was talking to one of its organizers, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul. She asked me if I would like to model, and I responded, wondering aloud if she was serious. She laughed and asked again if I would like to model, so of course, I said yes.

“My experience in that fashion show has taught me that feeling myself means being myself.”

At this conference, I felt exponentially more liberated. Being surrounded by QT strangers made me feel more at home than I ever have in my life. Participating in a fashion show with exclusively trans and GNC models was a dream, but never a tangible dream. Looking around, I saw the designer gowns for this show were made to fit many different body sizes. Body diversity in any runway show is shocking, given the cookie-cutter (tall, thin, white) models that major fashion brands stick to using. I looked around to find the dress that would make me feel like the queen I am, reigning over the runway when it was my turn to walk out. I found a large, minimally-jeweled cloak that covered my entire body from the neck down and attached in the front with velcro straps. I put it over the outfit I was currently working: a black, long-sleeved bodysuit with a mesh, backless top, a gold choker/body chain combination, and five-inch black platform heels. When my time came, I burst out onto the runway covered completely by the designer cloak. When I got to the end of the runway, I dramatically threw off the gown to reveal my bodysuit, and in that moment, I owned the room.

The empowerment I felt in this moment goes beyond anything I’ve ever felt, and my confidence was unshakable. I picked up my cloak and strutted back to the start of the runway. My time was ending, but I felt a lasting sense of pride and accomplishment.

I modeled in a trans fashion show. I did that.

My gender is political, and my fashion is therefore also political. I don’t see the creative celebration of the runway when I walk to class or when I grab a meal. I see the boundaries that have shaped my gender expression my whole life. My experience in that fashion show has taught me that feeling myself means being myself. I know based on my engagement with other trans people that we always conceptualize our genders, but that does not mean we know or even understand ourselves. Giving trans people opportunities to thrive in our bodies is pertinent to the justice we deserve. This conference did just that for me, even if just for a moment. But because of moments such as these, I can still feel myself reaching outward, allowing my body to exist on my own terms.


Writing and photography by Andrew Uhrig

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