/The pain, the politics and the enlightenment of fashion for an LGBTQ+ person

The pain, the politics and the enlightenment of fashion for an LGBTQ+ person

“I’d never be caught dead in that” said my osteopathologist, who I’ll call Teddy for the purposes of this article, grinning as he scrolled through Alok’s Instagram.

“Confident isn’t he” he says, with his eyes pursuing the vibrant, bold patterns and prints, artfully worn by Alok – often transcending gender and the very culture that surrounds it in their choice of garments. “Yeah. They wear what they’re comfortable in,” I grinningly replied, working hard to convey Alok’s preferred gender-neutral pronouns – they, them and their, through emphasis.

Teddy, childlike in his joy and engagement with this new person had missed my emphasis or most likely, wasn’t aware to be on the lookout for pronoun usage. “Yeah, I’d just never feel confident to wear what he’s wearing” he beamed at me. I smiled back, shrugging it off. Criticise me if you well dear LGBTQ+ friends and alleys, but it was not the time to launch into a full education program on pronouns. In that moment what struck me more was the divide between my vision of Alok, and Teddy’s. Having been surrounded by friends and also having experienced my own experimentation with less-mainstream fashion choices for men, I have become accustomed to differing fashion expression, and desensitised to just how different this form of expression may appear to others. Teddy’s reaction, someone who I considered to be quite open-minded, reminded me how unusual such forms of fashion choices may be to the mainstream world out there.  

Bet let’s wind this back and unpack this a bit.

Fashion is important, even in terms of how it affects our view and confidence in ourselves! (Enclothed Cognition by Halo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky looks into this.) I have not always been so ready to admit this, but in recent years I have given this notion greater credence as my own engagement and dalliances with external self-expression has changed and evolved. Does this mean I think fashion should be important? Well, is it as simple as we thought it would be?

At a fundamental level, I can comfortably state that I think fashion should be unequivocally unimportant in relation to attaining and recognising each individual’s rights and needs as humans, our capabilities and skills as humans, and certainly shouldn’t be utilised as a model in which to categorise,favour or treat others with either certain distain or privilege. However I’d say that often in reality this is in large extent the opposite.  We live in a society that strives for the ideals of ‘mateship’ – meaning we politely ignore the social hierarchy, class and the various economic backgrounds we are each from in order to greet out fellow Australians with warmth and acceptance. In part, from my own experiences I’d say we have achieved this ideal. Certainly, our socio-economic backgrounds are nowhere near as prevalent, nor terse in daily interactions as it is in comparison to India: with its caste system and this social web’s complex issues. What is clear to me however, is that there is still a measure of divide. Because we are, after all, still arguably hardwired to judge others based upon appearances.

To begin with a straight forward example, one can point towards the fashion found in the aspect of employability. One couldn’t just rock up to an interview with some flip-flops, shorts and a t-shirt and hope to cultivate that oh-so-important positive, first 30-second-impression – which I learnt so much about last year before interviews. But that’s all at the very formal, workforce aspects of life, which while I think it’s all a bit absurd in its own right, it’s at least useful psychologically maybe? You could say it helps to cultivate a serious and focused attitude towards whatever profession you may be interviewing for. Instead, the potential judgement and concerns that has dominated my mind and life for the past four years is the noticeable impact and interwoven structure of gender in fashion.

Transitioning from female to male, in the first stages of which I like to dub the ‘social transition’ for me was made hardest thanks to our still fairly rigorous gender binary, which is quite clearly displayed in clothing. Moments of heart pounding fear as I attempted to proffer an air of non-committal, blasé interest as I perused men’s clothing. All the while my mind running in frantic circles: do those people over there know? Can they tell that I’m transgender?

These fears compounded in a country town, where at any moment it could be someone I recognised. What if they asked questions? What if they wanted to know why I was buying men’s clothes? The terror underlying these fears exacerbated, as I genuinely did not know how people would react to me being transgender. Social rejection, derogatory language and even violence, all swimming at the forefront of my mind as being possible reactions from people. But: I am lucky. Raised in a left-wing family and smack bang between Bendigo, which favoured same-sex marriage by 65%, and Melbourne by 78%, my transition has been bumpy, but safe (not that I am saying that this necessarily means my home region of the Macedon Ranges is entirely accepting, nor supportive of LGBTQ+ members, particularly Transgender people. But I do believe my area to be a bit more progressive and more aware and understanding than other regions in both Victoria and Australia in general.)  And as this incremental feeling of safety built up over the years, it allowed me to experiment and find a form of expression that works for me.

Yes, it’s true in the early days of my transition I bundled up all my old, beloved, very feminine clothes, in a bag, in sacrifice and in search of being called ‘he’. Donning stereotypically masculine clothes including checkered shirts, baggy jeans, oversized tops to hide my curves and hide my flattened, perpetually annoying breasts. And boy, did I feel good that first time that I pushed through my fears in op-shops and subsequently bought and snuck home with shirts and ties, formal black vests and put them on all in the secrecy of my room. I was repulsed at first because I thought I looked akin to Justin Bieber in the photos I took. But thrilled at the same time because I looked like Justin Bieber! A man! I was however ultimately always reluctant to let go of my feminine clothes. One day, I thought, one day I’ll be man enough to wear them again. But it was not so straightforward.

Despite my desire to be a gender-bending, boundary pushing, innovative fashion super star, I am to a large extent influenced by how the clothes make me feel. In the past two years of experimentation I’ve come to see my ultimate comfortable spot in clothing choice as being somewhere between 70% of my fashion being influenced by masculine styles, and 30% of feminine fashion styles. This percentage varies somewhat daily, but largely remains stable. But I have to ask myself: what does that masculine/feminine fashion style difference mean anyway?

Working in Cotton On for the past year and a half has helped to solidify my perception of what one could classify as feminine vs. masculine. It’s in the cut of the clothes for one. Sleeves are shorter on women’s clothes, necklines plunge deeper, pants are tighter, most often tailored towards curves and of course pockets are so often remiss or so small they’re essentially useless. Then there’s the detailing – straps, ties, rips, frills, diamantes, florals, more colours, styles and patterns than men’s clothes would ever have seen with a wider variety of basics, from loose, to tight, to buttoned and to not. Mens clothing is so often more regimented. Plain, straight cuts with limited options in styles, some rips, some variations, some extra colours, but so plain and functional. Women’s fashion is the reactionary post-modern architecture to mens more austere modernism.

But this is what the consumer wants! Isn’t it? I know that items go to sale with greater speed at Cotton On when the customer isn’t buying them. In womens, it is often the least functional and in my opinion, unpopular items that go to sale first. But comparatively in mens, it’s the bolder, more interesting, new, yet still within the formulaic men’s style of fashion, that go to sale first (good for me as I can buy what I consider to be the better side of Cotton On’s fashion: cheap.) But what does this mean at a societal level? Are we the consumers, dictating what these big brands and fashion labels roll out for their new seasonal lines, based upon our buying patterns? Or is it that we’ve been impressed upon by these companies, the media, the world about us, with what a man or a woman should look like, dress like, since we were young, that now we are hardwired to go for these particular styles? Do pants truly equal man? Why no dresses, boys?

Historically I’d say not. For one, considering the incredible change in women’s fashion and the now normalisation of women wearing pants pushed for and developed for women, by women, over the last century, has shown us how societal understandings of gender and fashion do shift and change. And trust me I’m no expert, but all you’ve got to do is look around the globe (Kilts in Scotland; Dhotis in South India) and peak your nose into a history book (the famous Toga in Ancient Rome) to see the diverse possibilities and ultimately ongoing shifting evolution and nature of fashion.

Do I think that the fashion in our modern society is bad? Well yes, but more so because of the fast fashion industry and materialism based problems, and the toll the system is currently taking on the environment. But that’s another story in itself folks. Fashion for fashion’s sake, not so much. Honestly, I appreciate and admire fashion a lot, and it has become a vital part of my life and self-expression. But, I do personally see some pretty heavy limitations with where we are fashion wise. These limitations in my mind stick most strongly to men, being so shockingly limited to such a stringent range of styles. Which for a man like Teddy, who is happy and content and comfortable to remain in his jeans and plain T-shirts is fine – and I say, go Teddy! You do you. (Mark Zuckerberg prefers good old jeans and t-shirt also to work in and in order to simplify his daily schedule, and bring in some more brain space!) But to those men out there, like myself and some of my friends, who feel that their masculinity is not connected nor ruled by the clothes we wear, it becomes very challenging, risky and frankly dangerous to branch outside of our societies current clothed gender binary.

Personally, every time I wear a skirt I feel a measure of unease. And I’d say I’m not even straying particularly far from the prescribed dress code. Feeling most myself in a skirt, plain tee and a snapback- arguably a quintessential bad boy accessory, no? But for those like Alok who are still perceived to be men, despite their understanding of themselves as gender nonconforming. And even transgender women who are still in the early stages of transition, or have chosen not to undergo transition – being perceived as a masculine figure wearing feminine clothes brings with it true consequences. Alok details and describes the pain, judgement, violence and derogatory speech they face regularly in their Instagram posts:

“I want you to think about what happens to people like me inbetween the snapshots you see — how we are hunted, ridiculed and put on exhibition for cis enjoyment. How I manage to still look so good despite being harassed, stalked, shoved, spat on and knowing that few people will defend me because I am not cis or white.”

And here is where I wish fashion were not important. That there was no societal importance placed on fashion, and that ultimately appearances counted for nothing. But this is not the case, obviously – when racism, bigotry and sexism are still pervasive and prevalent. These troubling societal approaches to appearances, ultimately show the judgements we lay strongly upon others based upon what they chose to wear.

One can only hope that in future years, people will loosen their judgements and allow themselves to see the vast range and diversity of the human experience and how all of this can equally be accepted and displayed through the medium of fashion. But for now, it’s a fraught world out there for those traversing outside the gender binary.  

Words by Emeil Baegull