People / Resolutions

Optical allyship vs. progress: where is the line when it comes to celebrities?


When Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue's December issue this month, the Internet had a meltdown. Long-term fans sang his praises for challenging the binary, and far-right conservatives made IGTV responses acting as though the globe had just passed a law forcing all men to wear dresses. In a moment that was close to internet breakage, amid the outrage and the excitement, writers began to pen their thoughts on a monumental moment that wasn't necessarily monumental for all. Especially those who have been dressing between the lines of the gender binary for decades.

While Harry Styles' cover wasn't exactly harmful, the general reaction left a lot of room to investigate whether or not his wearing of traditionally 'women's' clothing is particularly groundbreaking after all. This comes at a time where, despite our best efforts and snails-pace progress, the majority of LGBTQI+ and BIPOC folks - who have been blazing the trail for challenging gendered clothing for centuries - are often met with verbal and physical violence for doing so. In which case, it begs the question of the ways privilege - namely that of race, class and gender/sexual identity - can influence our receptivity to concepts and ideas that have generally been alive and well in queer spaces for generations.

Styles, among others, is the perfect example of this query. Here we see a sexually ambiguous, white, rich, male who is able to move freely and safely within queer spaces due to such ambiguity, while remaining palatable to a non-queer audience given his status. The result in covering one of the worlds largest fashion magazines and one classically known for upholding the binary, is a diet-version of progressiveness, and a true show of optical allyship.

Let me be clear in stating that Harry Styles' sexuality and gender identity is none of my business, and speculating on such or gatekeeping is not something I'm in the business of doing. I am not here to critique Styles' on his choice to explore the role of gender codes, nor would I want to. It brings me joy to see him wear whatever he pleases and encourage others to do so too. It can certainly be argued that Styles' wearing a dress could mildly contribute to the dissolution of the binds of toxic masculinity, and sure, it certainly centres and shifts the conversation of masculinity to adopt a modern lens. On one hand, I doubt that a Vogue cover is going to heavily impact the men who have most dangerously internalised toxic masculinity. On the other, it could serve as an affirming resource for those who are perhaps exploring their gender identity. However, this is not the first time we've seen cis males wearing dresses, so why is it the first time it's garnered worldwide praise?

As far as music and popular culture spans, LGBTQI+ folks and BIPOC cis men have been defying the gender binary for some time, starting in modern history with Bowie, and working forwards to those like Jaden Smith, Billy Porter, and Pharell Williams - who covered GQ in a dress just last year. A show of the way the defiance of gender codes is interpreted and received differently in the face of the intersections of identity, mainly on queer, Black, Indigenous and POC bodies. This leads us to the question of who gets to have these transgressive moments, especially when so many of the pioneers of such concepts are still not able to safely exist within their identities in public.

We see a similar story when we look to the recent pregnancy announcement from Emily Ratajkowski and her husband Sebastian Bear-Mcclard. Another example of the ways the actions of cisgender, heterosexual, and white celebrities are read differently.

Ratajkowski announced she would not reveal the gender identity of her child until her child had decided such themself. This is something seldom met with praise by the mainstream when it is through the lens of queer, trans and non-binary or gender non-conforming couples and parents. Rather, it's met with concern their child will be excluded from normalcy - and introduced to unnecessary challenges and discrimination.

The idea that queer people wish their child be reared outside the bounds of the binary is often too much for non-queers to digest. But when a white, wealthy, cishet couple announce their decision to do the same, it is received in a way that is groundbreaking - in the same way as Styles' is in a dress.

While we will never be explicitly mad at this token of 'progress', and certain facets of both of these scenarios are welcome and joyful,

it doesn't erase the ways that marginalised folks are continually left out of mainstream culture and the conversation that was built off of their backs, their suffering, and their resistance.

As Alok Vaid-Menon eloquently stated in their Instagram post, "We can both acknowledge this unprecedented moment while also remembering that it could only happen because of the resistance of trans femmes of color. We who for decades were imprisoned by cross-dressing legislation. Make no mistake: trans femmes of color started this and continue to face the backlash from it. Our aesthetics make it to the mainstream, but not our bodies. We are still dismissed as “too much” and “too queer” because we aren’t palatable enough to whiteness and heteronormativity."

This conversation is not to diminish the choices of these celebrities, who for all intents and purposes seem to have the right idea in pushing the conversation forward - and should be free to explore concepts that are synonymous with the LGBTQI+ community. But what happens when they are so celebrated for doing so, is that we inadvertently miss the part where the pioneers of these concepts get their roses, too. We need to be able to hold space for excitement in this specific scenario, while remaining cautious about how much weight it really bears for the future of transmisogyny at large.

If we are looking to propel conversations that work to decode the gender binary (which both of these examples are linked to) forward, we need to be looking at the politics of representation, and turning towards those with lived experience. While mainstream culture continues to deem queer and trans bodies 'unclickable', they are where these stories exist, and where they have always lived, despite the risks involved.

We must bear in mind that transmisogyny, homophobia, and racism still run rampant within these systems, and in the case of equity and safety, these identities need to be recognised and protected in the same breath Styles can be celebrated for his cover.

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