The Spectrum Of Tolerance: Why Do We Still Have Social Hang Ups On Non-Binary Identities?

Staff writer Anelia Thomas explores the repercussions of gender obscurity in the fashion industry. 

The fashion industry’s dalliance with gender obscurity has proven to be something that is staunchly unwavering and heavy influential in stimulating a mass revolution – or is that revelation – within our society and is increasingly embraced by our generation.

ziggystardust-723x1024Our re-appropriation with gender has been heavily influenced from the the androgynous culture of 70’s and 80’s – think David Bowie’s sexualised alter ego, Ziggy Stardust in neon glitter and body hugging body suits and Jimi Hendrix with his silk red kimono  – over the past few seasons, designers have tried to reimagine the past and create  something provocative and contemporary in an attempt to reflect the gradual unfettering of gendered stereotypes and the move into a cultural phase which openly embraces fashion as a gender-neutral identity.

With an enduring endorsement of the gender trend, the industry has become saturated with pro gender fluid imagery – Imagine Alessandro’s Michele bohemian assortment for Gucci AW16 which flowered the trend for romantic androgyny. Or Louis Vuitton’s recent campaign featuring Jaden Smith. Shot by Bruce Weber, the AW16 campaign reimagines gender identities, with Smith fronting a metal embroidered skirt as he clasps onto a series of handbags from the recent collection. Whilst this celebration of difference within the industry might not be labeled as fashion activism, it is trying to challenge the blank space between genders. But how will this message filter out of the fashion bubble and into the real world. And do we think that society is ready to accept the change in attitudes to gender queerness?

It’s a complex issue to digest and in a society that adopts a very patriarchal machismo attitude and it’s this that often festers intolerance. Making it hard to understand and find common ground with people who feel absolved of gender binaries. Which explains why a man whose choses to wear a skirt or women who fleets between both her male and female identities is still considered in some circles as abhorrent and complexing. What’s worse is that it is these types of people who control the narrative and propagate laws which don’t offer gender fluid people the niceties and protection afforded to Cis people.

Taking a look at recent survey conducted in the UK – figures reveal that nearly 50% of young people identify with being non binary, and 63% of Cis – heterosexuals ‘accept the idea that sexual orientation exists along a continuum rather than a binary choice’. So why then – if a significant percentage of the population identify or support non binary identities – do we still live in a society non binary people are exposed to prejudices and inequality in all its forms?

This flaw was illuminated in April 2016, during an audience with President Barack Obama at London’s Royal Horticultural Society, when Maria Munir courageously came out to identify herself as a non binary during an emotional exchange with the US President –

‘I’m about to do something which is terrifying which is that I’m coming out as non binary person which means I don’t fit. Why do we still have to deal with the assumption that being different means that your triangle, trying to fit into societies square peg hole?’

– a feeling that undoubtedly resonates heavily with many other fluid people. Maybe it’s because there is still a conscious effort to socially extradite those who do not fit. A sentiment that seems to only be amplified by the lack of social recognition and protection from the legislation. A horrifying fact that was brought to the forefront when Munir forced the audience to confront the fact that ‘non-binary people in the UK are not recognised and have no rights.


This is not what our cultural landscape is meant to look like. We live in a democratic global society that’s growing diverse by way of sexuality, race and religion. When you think about it, aren’t we encouraged to believe that we live in a society where equality and freedom are the defining features of our civilization? Weren’t we told that it was the premise of recent wars that have been fought by the so-called “free thinking’ progressive “West”? Yet when it comes to eradicating inequality we conceded to our outdated hypocritical values.

In the land of the US, the attitudes toward non-conformists can be described as precarious and delicate, with violence and fear being an element that goes hand in hand with being gender queer. Since the beginning of this year there have been several attacks on the LGBT community, to many of which escalated to murder.

When you listen to the story of, Kedarie/Kandicee Johnson – a black gender fluid teen from Iowa – it reminds you that being different within the black community can present impossible challenges of its own. In a culture where bravado and queerness are not openly tolerated, Johnson was a vulnerable target. He was open about his gender, expressing both his feminine and masculine attributes. On 2nd March, Johnson’s discarded body was trans-youth-of-color-killed-in-iowa-x750discovered with multiple gunshot wounds,
and, following his murder, his mother had mentioned that she felt the murder was an aggravated attack motivated by transphobia. With a lack of social protection how many more will be put at risk for just being themselves?

Whether you look at the issues in the UK or the US, the trouble is non conformists are not only at risk of aggravated violence, but also at risk of marginalization and isolation. Writer Alex-Quan Pham – who has self described themselves as ‘Gender non-conforming femme warrior’-  explains that ‘gender non-conforming people are pathologised for daring to exist’. According to them, some do not seek healthcare for fear of discrimination’.

Again In the UK, CQC published a report in January 2016 which revealed some have to wait several years to access medical treatment for gender related issues. Add this to the recent controversy surrounding the North Carolina bathroom bill – which stipulates that transgendered/non-conformists will have to use toilet facilities based on their biological sex. This has also drawn attention to the rights of the LGBT community, and as much as we’d like to think that were progressive and pioneering, we still can’t or perhaps won’t is a better word shake off our prejudices.

Ironic then given the fact that “the fashion industry” has always acted as a looking glass, reflecting contemporary society.

Maybe then the flurried emergence gender fluid designs that capitalise on the “dissolution” of gender binaries reflect a world we wish existed – a kind of utopia that can only exist in the creative bubble of the industry, where self expression it’s boldest form is accepted. Maybe it’s a generational conflict.

In comparison to the baby boomers, Generation Z is considered to be the most open minded and liberal generation currently in existence with over 50% claiming to be gender queer. As this generation matures and their ideals and values with them, we will see a dissolution of gender and a new social norm which encompasses the rights and freedoms of everyone. With time, change will come, but this does not negate the fact we need change now to determine a place where gender fluid people can live within and not outside of our society.

Taking action is simple and we all have a social responsibility to do so. So however you chose to do this, do it wholeheartedly and with the point of view to enforce change.

Words: Anelia Thomas

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