The Queer Straight Alliance and Beauty Beyond Color recently hosted a “genderf**k” fashion show that I participated in as a last-minute addition. The show featured both cisgender and queer models. According to the event’s Facebook page, the show aspired to “help open the conversation of beauty beyond the gender binary and to create a space where all gender and racial identities are honored.” While I concede that the fashion show did indeed inspire discourse about beauty beyond the gender binary, I believe that we failed to do that beauty justice by producing a convoluted caricature of it rather than representing the true aesthetic itself.
Breaking the gender binary is an ongoing battle that only a handful of people are brave enough to actively engage in on a daily basis. These students deserve to be represented, respected and included in any mass organization or event aspiring to achieve the goal of disrupting the gender binary. These students are soldiers who make themselves vulnerable everyday to the lashings of the norm, and they should not be ignored or forgotten about on the rare occasions that other students decided they want to partake in the battle as well.
Before I critiqued the show, I decided to speak with its director, Myell, to learn the origin and goal of the event. Myell explained that the fashion show was a spinoff from the similarly-themed dance that used to take place on campus. He said the dance was usually distasteful, over-sexualized and rife with covert homophobia and transphobia. Myell found it more appropriate and productive to instead host a fashion show to break the binary.
Myell explained that the point of the show was not to represent trans-identifying people or those who practice non-binary gender expression. He said those running the fashion show felt it would be problematic to ask models to represent an identity or culture with which they themselves do not identify. While he did not find it appropriate to ask cisgendered people to fashion a queer-gendered aesthetic, he still felt that including cisgender people in the fashion show was necessary. He explained that challenging cisgender people to think critically about how they perpetuate or contest the norm is necessary to successfully break the gender binary.
While the intention and efforts were all there, these messages were not clearly transmitted to the audience. This is especially important given the audience was almost completely composed of cisgender students, whom the fashion was supposed to challenge. The more effective, appropriate and dynamic way to challenge these students would have been to focus the show on representing and valuing the popular aesthetic of queer-gender peoples. Since they ultimately took an alternative approach, the show transformed into a handful of cisgender students playing dress-up in ridiculous outfits to some jazzy tunes. This exaggerated and unrealistic representation of non-binary fashion as entertainment for and by cisgender students makes the show closely resemble minstrelsy. I feel that a genuine attempt to represent the queer-gender identity and cultural aesthetic would have provided less room for this interpretation. As a queer-gender person participating in the show, I felt that the idea of beauty that people like myself value was ignored during the show, in favor of unrealistic mash-ups of mix-match gendered clothing.
Myell’s defense to this was simply that QSA and BBC “were not trying to represent anybody.” This does not excuse the fact that the show manifested mockery. I believe that if a culture and identity that already disrupts norms exists, representing that identity or culture is more valuable and appropriate than tactlessly mocking it. I am aware that many would argue that this approach would be a form of cisgender appropriation of queer culture. However, this can be easily handled. If QSA or BBC were invited into the culture by a queer-gender student, and had the event been organized by a queer-gender student, the appropriation would have been impossible. This is what we saw last semester in the the Runway Africa fashion show, in which non-African students were invited into the culture by African students. If there is a mutually respected invitation into the culture, then it is an acceptable representation without appropriation.
In the future, I hope the QSA, BBC and all other cultural clubs will respect, reach out to and represent identities and cultures that work towards the same goals that they do. Collaboration among marginalized identities is necessary to create and maintain a safe, comfortable and diverse space for all students. I encourage you all to think about the norms you would like to disrupt, and then think if there is any identity, culture, or group that already disrupts or is trying to disrupt that same norm. Reach out to them. Learn about them. Learn from them. Respect them.