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Hold your horses, Vogue: Words have meaning, and these in particular — gender fluidity — don't mean quite what you think they do. We need to talk about the authoritatively presented misinformation in the article accompanying the August cover story about real-life super-couple Gigi Hadid and Zayn. Initially, many readers were likely excited to read the title; was the celebrity couple breaking huge barriers by coming out with non-binary gender identities (like myself)? One only has to read about a paragraph in to find that this is not the case. The word "genderfluid" has been diluted down to describe a formless, thoughtless new fad among millennials; a fashion trend accented by the (admittedly lovely) photos of Hadid and Zayn wearing colorful, slightly unconventional fashions by Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Prada and more. While there is truth to the idea that young people are leading the movement towards free and natural self-expression, it is extremely important to recognize the huge pieces missing from this explaining-away of an already widely misunderstood set of identities.
On their own, the photos are really cool to see, rejecting some gendered conventions for the sake of a freer self-expression. We see Zayn dressed in floral prints and pearlescent accents, while Hadid models a plainer set of plaids and solid colors. It would have been an excellent opportunity to talk about how fashion is changing — even to talk about the couple's own feelings about navigating gender norms. Instead, in a series of increasingly vague quotes about "blasé" attitudes, misplaced Virginia Woolf references and wildly inaccurate interpretations of what being genderfluid actually means — all made by people who do not identify as genderfluid themselves — the piece manages to erase and dismiss an entire group of people. Here's an example of a conversation from the piece, in which Zayn and Hadid discuss "shopping" each other's closets:
"'Yeah,' Malik says. 'I like that [Anna Sui] shirt. And if it's tight on me, so what? It doesn't matter if it was made for a girl.' Hadid nods vigorously. 'Totally. It's not about gender. It's about, like, shapes. And what feels good on you that day. And anyway, it's fun to experiment. . . .'"
So, let's think about this: What is missing from the mainstream conversation about gender? Why are transgender and gender nonconforming identities still widely misrepresented and misunderstood in our cultural outlets, despite how readily our cultural contributions are commodified? For starters, it has become increasingly apparent that too many media outlets are content with allowing entire swathes of the population to be explained and represented by people who do not belong to or understand the identities in question. The ways we use these words have the power to affect people's lives in tremendous ways. So when genderfluidity, and non-binary transgender identities as a whole, are so casually diminished by individuals of wealth and influence, the effect can be felt keenly in all parts of society.
What is the reality behind the "genderquake" as we've seen it so pithily described? The truth is, there is a gender revolution in motion. Though these identities are far from new, large groups of people who have been historically marginalized and excluded from social acceptance have finally become visible as they self-advocate for rights and recognition. "Genderfluid" is one of many words used to describe a person who identifies outside of the binary "boy or girl" — a distinct and important way of being human, not a term to describe a casually donned social garment that can be tossed aside as easily as an incredibly expensive blazer.
While transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic are gaining notoriety, our culture still shies away from understanding identities that exist outside the accepted gender binary structure. People who are open and vocal about identifying as someone other than a man or woman are routinely dismissed as silly, frivolous and inconsequential. But these people are real; they are bravely posing the questions "what is gender, and why," as well as answering them by living authentic and robust lives outside of the socially prescribed strictures of what we have been taught.
To cisgender people (defined as people who identify with the gender they were declared at birth), transgender identities and culture can seem mystifying. Non-binary people are crafting an exciting wave of culture that focuses on liberation and self-acceptance, defying gender roles and finding highly individualistic ways of expressing gender. Yes, it is true that a huge part of this expression means overhauling the fashions we've been told are appropriate for our assigned genders. Yes, part of this means that there are more AMAB (assigned male at birth) people wearing makeup and more AFAB (assigned female at birth) people wearing suits. However, it is imperative to distinguish the difference between a person's presentation and their gender identity.
The way a person dresses can say a lot about them, but it does not encapsulate their entire identity. Similarly, non-binary people may be leading the charge in defying fashion's gender conventions, but our incredibly cool styles are not the end of what it means to be genderfluid. This active reversal of the many ways in which gender roles are forced on us is not a result of some flower-power, laissez-faire, devil-may-care millennial faux-losophy but is a byproduct of generations of people struggling to be recognized and self-defined, despite what others might think. Genderfluid and other non-binary identities continuously face miscategorization and erasure, making their few appearances in mainstream discussion all the more important. When marginalized genders are used as a buzzword, as meaningless filler to tack on to a cool tracksuit, real harm is done.
Here's why it is harmful: Imagine that you, after a lifetime of confusion and self reflection, have finally found a word — and its attached community and history — that describes who you are. This word points toward a community, toward safety and acceptance. It can certainly create freedom to challenge and break gender norms through your behavior and presentation, but it is so much more about identifying the person inside and how they move through the world. Words like "genderfluid" can be a lifeline to some of the most underrepresented people in our culture. Imagine, after working hard every day to be seen as you are and to change the damaging legacy that gender roles have created in many parts of society, you find that your identity has been co-opted, stripped down and trivialized into an accessory that barely reflects the truth of your identity. The word that helped you build all those wonderful things is now being broadcast as no more significant than a handbag.
The work that transgender people have done to improve the way we all interact with gender roles is invaluable, and the results are for everyone. It's important to remember that the clothes we wear are only the least of what has been affected. Transgender communities have strived to change the ways that social norms are imposed internally too, creating space for assertiveness, strength, confidence, nurturing, softness and intuition to be traits that any person can have.
Instead of unwittingly consuming the most superficial elements of the gender revolution, here's what you can do: find out about transgender identities, listen to the ways we talk about ourselves, amplify the voices and images of those people's experiences. When talking about transgender identities, the best thing to do is to honestly and accurately present the full scope of who we are and what it means to be us. What happens next is a good look for everyone.
UPDATE, July 14, 3:41 p.m.: A Vogue spokeswoman has provided the following statement to Fashionista:
The story was intended to highlight the impact the gender-fluid, non-binary communities have had on fashion and culture. We are very sorry the story did not correctly reflect that spirit — we missed the mark. We do look forward to continuing the conversation with greater sensitivity.