DESPITE THE POPULARIZATION OF DRAG AND LGBTQ2IA+ aesthetics, glam looks can be a dangerous identifier for queer, trans and non-binary people
Photography by Eli Savage, Jes Mason and Jimmy Kwan
Art direction by Pernia Jamshed
Words by Nabeeha BaigG
etting ready to meet his friends for dinner on a cool fall evening, 24-year-old Ryerson fashion design alumnus Cameron Vindua checks the weather to see if he can get away with wearing a crop top. Fresh out of the shower, he eyes the three outfits laid out on his bed before deciding on a pair of jeans, a dress shirt tied in a knot at the bottom and his go-to Chelsea boots.
Depending on where the function is and if Vindua has to commute alone, he’ll opt for an outfit more “public-friendly.” But if he’s with a friend or partner, he’ll choose a bolder outfit, probably consisting of fishnet tights, booty shorts and a halter top. The former makes him feel safe, but the latter makes him feel comfortable—and encourages his friends to do the same.
“I always assess the risk. I think to myself, ‘We’ll be fine, solidarity in numbers, and we’re going to an okay neighbourhood,’ so I just need to make sure I can stay safe,” he says.
For many LGBTQ2IA+ individuals, the simple act of picking an outfit also means bracing yourself for the potential harassment that comes with wearing it. An Ontario-based CAMH study from 2013 found that 34 per cent of transgender people were subjected to verbal threats and harassment, while 20 per cent had experienced physical or sexual assault because of their identity. Statistics Canada also released information from the 2014 General Social Survey showing that for every 1,000 Canadians, 142 gay and lesbian and 267 bisexual Canadians experienced violent victimization—including sexual assault, physical assault or robbery. It also stated that Canadians who identified as homosexual or bisexual had a rate of sexual assault that was six times higher than those who identified as heterosexual.
Throughout history, the community has developed dress practices to create a sense of group identity, advocate for pride and identify each other for romantic encounters, according to an academic article published by the Ryerson Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change. These dress practices were also to “resist homophobia by passing in a heterosexual society.”
Queer fashion and aesthetics have bled into mainstream culture, with the popularization of television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Euphoria, and dapperQ hosting a gender-fluid runway show at New York Fashion Week this past September. Beloved queer influencers like Rickey Thompson have landed modelling gigs with brands like H&M and Calvin Klein. But despite the strides that the LGBTQ2IA+ community has made in the public eye, there’s still a lot of work to be done, such as clothing affordability and representation of queer designers in the industry.
Vindua founded Fashion Your Identity (FYI) in 2019, an organization that runs queer-oriented events focusing on queer accessibility in the fashion industry. The events and workshops are not only for educational purposes but also to provide fashion-related resources for queer individuals who don’t have access to them.
ne common problem among LGBTQ2IA+ people is finding proper fitting and good quality clothing at an affordable price, according to Vindua. A report from The Canadian Coalition Against LGBTQ+ Poverty says that 25 to 40 per cent of youth experiencing homelessness in Canada identify as LGBTQ+. A study from the Trans PULSE Project—one of the only studies that looks exclusively at statistics on trans experiences across Ontario—surveyed 433 trans people aged 16 and over. It found that the respondents’ median income was only $15,000, less than Canada’s poverty line income of $16,436. “We have to pay for fast fashion because that’s all we can afford, but our clothes fall apart quicker,” Vindua says.
According to The Body Image Therapy Center, body image issues and eating disorders also impact queer individuals at disproportionate rates. The National Eating Disorder Association writes that possible reasons for this may include discrimination due to one’s gender identity and/or their sexual orientation, being a victim of bullying and internalized negative messages about oneself due to non-normative gender expressions. “Fit is especially tricky if you have body dysmorphia or dysphoria, so if you have clothes that you want to repair or alter, [FYI] can show you how.”
FYI offers services like sewing classes, makeup tutorials, presentations on topics such as “Gender 101” and a marketplace featuring products from queer creators.
The conversation about proper fit within “men’s” or “women’s” clothing is often up for debate in the LGBTQ2IA+ community and whether or not it is possible for clothing to be completely genderless, according to Ryerson fashion design alumnus and queer-identifying designer Alysia Myette.
Myette, also a lecturer at the School of Fashion, recently released a collection called METTLE, consisting of pieces designed with inclusivity and unisex clothing in mind. Tired of seeing “genderless” clothing comprised of oversized or boxy silhouettes, Myette created seven garments that aim to ditch the notion of “removing gender from the equation,” and rather, cater to all genders and identities.
“My focus is to push that queer bodies do not have any specific look or style and that non-binary, genderqueer and agender bodies are all around us and can present anywhere from high femme, to masculine and in between.” Her line embraces these looks by describing them as for all bodies and the inclusivity in her shows and shoots help to communicate that.
“I draw a lot from my personal experience and what I’m not seeing or what I wish I was seeing when I’m shopping for myself…I wish I saw more good representation and less appropriation and tokenism in fashion. It isn’t necessarily that there is no representation, but rather the quality of [it] is lacking.”
Unsatisfied with retail and social media advertising, Myette feels that brands are still targeting a very narrow representation of the queer community. This leaves her and other queer people feeling left out of their own communities. It evokes imposter syndrome if they don’t attain the same body shape or gender appearance as the models representing them. Myette adds that content needs to be “not just for us, but with us.” “Queer people are everywhere and these companies should be hiring us and consulting with us.”
Myette intended for the name of the collection to be a play on the word “metal,” but later discovered what mettle actually means: “the ability to cope with difficulties in a resilient way.” She feels this virtue is perfectly embodied by her community. “I think queer individuals show a lot of mettle by just existing in this world—there’s such little space for everyone to be themselves without fear of failure, harassment or marginalization.”
Ben Barry, chair of Ryerson’s School of Fashion, believes “[queerness] disrupts heteronormativity and the gender binary.”
“Fashion is so visible, it’s so embodied, it’s so in your face. If you’re passing someone on the subway or you see someone in the hallway, it’s right there in front of you.”
ramped in the bathroom of a Starbucks, second-year fashion design student Taylor Bridges* stuffs a pair of baggy jeans in her duffel bag and scrambles to put on her black-heeled boots before someone knocks on the door. She initially left the house in a hoodie, jeans and sneakers to avoid stares on the subway, but upon reaching Ryerson campus, she changes into a tight red turtleneck with a cutout on the chest, a plaid A-line skirt and sheer stockings.
Bridges, who came out as trans in 2018, always takes necessary precautions when wearing a particularly “femme outfit” in public spaces. These style choices earn her confused stares and dirty looks while commuting. She tries to avoid it altogether and tends to change into her actual outfit for the day when arriving at her destination, a concept similar to participants of ballroom culture in the 1920s.
In this subculture, gay and trans Black and Latinx people would compete for trophies and prizes, expressing themselves through catwalks and voguing, at elaborate parties or “balls.” Forged by queer people of colour, it was a major part of the New York City underground scene and began as an outlet for queer folks to respond to a society that often tried to erase their presence and continually devalued them. But to attend these events, participants also had to wear a different outfit while travelling, changing into their actual looks upon arrival to avoid harassment.
“I’m still getting used to wearing more feminine looks, but the staring really gets to me. It may just be because I’m taller than average, but some people look at me like they’ve never seen a trans person before,” she says.
On nights out with friends, Bridges is likely to be more daring with her looks, usually wearing bodycon dresses with plunging necklines and glittery makeup on her eyes and cheekbones. “If I’m in a group, I get way more fun with my looks. I can basically wear whatever I want because the chances of someone attacking me are a lot slimmer if I’m with a big group of people.”
According to Barry, “the world is violent and unsafe when people visibly challenge gender norms.” They disrupt the norms of dominant culture, he says. “European thought and colonialism divided people into categories, often binaries, in order to justify hierarchy, control, dominance and violence.”
“They might be slaying a look, but they will be literally slayed for wearing it out in public.”
Currently searching for full-time employment, Bridges finds it’s increasingly difficult to embrace her gender identity while keeping potential employers happy. If she isn’t dressed in a conventionally masculine way, interviewers tend to ask offhand questions about her transition and often misgender her.
“I have to conform…if I want to get hired somewhere because so far I’ve stuck to my usual feminine-looking style and that’s gotten me nowhere,” she says with a laugh. “It’s just a part of my life at this point, and I’m probably going to have to fight through it until I officially transition.”
A 2015 report from the Trans PULSE Project found that 18 per cent of Ontarians who are trans were turned down for a job and 13 per cent were fired because of their identity. Additionally, 17 per cent declined a job offer due to lack of safety or lack of trans-positive work environment.
Bridges finds a big part of being queer also means “[watering] down your style” and presenting “a boring version of yourself” for the sake of survival.
In a fashion journalism class this fall, Barry shared his thoughts on the consequences of dressing how you want as a queer individual. “You can’t separate our clothing from the bodies we have, our identities and how that’s connected to ideas of power and privilege in society,” he said.
When Vindua first got more involved with Toronto’s queer community, he found that clothing was communal—it helped establish relationships and friendships by helping each other out and giving advice. “It’s really great to see how supportive and interwoven and connected the local queer community is when it comes to fashion.”B
ack in the summer of first year, Vindua first began exploring more femme outfits without worrying what people would think about him.“It doesn’t mean I’m a woman just because I wear what people call ‘women’s clothes,’—they’re my clothes,” he says.
He then slowly became more open to dressing according to his true sense of style, fine-tuning it with more daring pieces, and it was because of the community behind him.
He believes the world can be a better place for queer people, but only with the help of his fellow community members and allies. “There’s a lot of cultural perceptions and understandings of different communities, and we can work to overcome the systemic barriers and obstacles that are put in our way.”
Supporting your queer, trans and non-binary friends and standing up for them can go a long way for a safer, more inclusive future for the LGBTQ2IA+ community.
*Name changed for anonymity