Last week, Vogue broke the internet in all the wrong ways. When the magazine published their August cover story titled “Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik Are Part of a New Generation Embracing Gender Fluidity,” people started having some questions. The couple, who identify as straight and have never spoken about gender-fluidity before equate swapping clothes to being gender non-conforming. In fact, Hadid said that it’s not about gender at all—it’s about shapes.
— drunk at vogue (@jersing) July 13, 2017
Clam down, Vogue – Gigi is just in a SUIT??????? She’s Katherine Hepburning it and you call it gender fluid pic.twitter.com/1cKzePfW2O
— bittah (@hellogoodbritt) July 13, 2017
Though Vogue has now issued a public apology for this misstep in their coverage, we believe it’s important to give space for nonbinary people to define their identity for themselves. When not identifying within the binary becomes “on trend” for major fashion houses and celebrities alike, it denounces the very real work gender-fluid people have been doing for decades. It’s because of the advocacy of trans and gender nonconforming people that states like Oregon have recently added a third gender option to their driver license form.
The truth is, Gigi and Zayn sound like they’re very accepting of gender-fluidity and the movement to get rid of labels. But we can’t mistake gender expression for gender identity. Expressing your gender as a cisgender woman who sometimes wears boyfriend-fit jeans doesn’t mean you understand the reality of gender non-binary people. Genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia wrote a scathing piece in response to Vogue, where they explain what it really feels like to identify as non-binary in a very binary society:
Unlike how this new Vogue cover shoot presents it, the lived experience of being gender-nonconforming is rarely that fun and glamorous. Quite frankly, it can be a harrowing experience. It looks like being spit on in public, or like being terrified to leave the house because the night before, someone on the subway yelled that you should be set on fire. On an average walk through New York City in a dress, I will receive anywhere between 10 and 20 slurs. They are hurled at me with impunity, with complete disregard for my personhood, let alone my feelings. From “What is that?” to “Hey tranny!” and “What the fuck?” to “Oh my god, look at that faggot.” And for many trans and gender-nonconforming people, it looks like being physically assaulted or worse.
For Vogue to not touch on this heartbreaking reality for trans and gender-nonconforming people is everything that’s wrong with equating gender identity to a fashion trend. “There’s a difference between exploring gender through fashion and being ‘playful’ with how you look, and how you identify as a human being,” Arla Berman told GO in response to this issue. “I feel like it’s really important to stress that because for myself, a big part of my struggles with gender identity are related to how I present and how I am ‘read.’ This story made no distinction between that inside-out process of expressing gender identity through fashion and the outside-in (and historically problematic tendency) for people to assume gender identity based on outward appearance.”
Another activist Eli Denby Wood has some suggestions for the fashion industry if they want to appeal to nonbinary people. “They may want to move away from ‘boys wearing girls clothes, and girls wearing boys clothes’ paradigm and focus more on us, who are people wearing people clothes,” Wood said. Wood goes on to tell me that having their identity referred to as a “trend” by a major publication is completely invalidating. The next time the fashion world wants to make a splash with transgressing the gender binary, we suggest they call up people like Wood or Berman. Allowing communities to represent their very real lived experiences is empowering and the only way to honestly reflect our identities.