Recently, Levi’s launched a range of ‘gender neutral’ clothing named after the gay activist and politician, Harvey Milk. Stephanie Farnsworth and Karen Pollock discuss whether this is a step forward for mainstream recognition or shameless bandwagon-jumping.
Is there anything to celebrate about the Levi’s range?
Karen: I think how far recognition of non-binary identities has come in a few short years has to be positive. I suppose, in personalising this, I remember what it was like growing up and not knowing that anything other than ‘Lesbian and Gay’ existed. Not belonging to either of those boxes as a teenager caused me a lot of distress. When I first heard the word ‘bisexual’, it was such a relief. So when a large, global company produces clothing which will be distributed in mainstream outlets, it may mean people for the first time realise they are not alone. That can be a life-changing moment.
That said, I don’t think it could have a worse name. Harvey Milk was an important activist in his day, but he was a cis gay man; it’s the old ‘Gay inc.’ thing again, and the fact that white cis gay men are far too often used to represent ‘LGBTQ+’ can be the reason that people feel isolated in the first place.
Stephanie: While fashion lines appear to be taking more of an interest in making strides with gender equality, I have to wonder how sincere this commitment is when the content is still so poor. The major problem with Levi’s’ decision is that it seems confused as to its own purpose. It may be touted as gender neutral but the clothes all seem like Pride merchandise in honour of one (cis) gay activist. Simply saying that a line of clothes is gender neutral is very different from making gender neutral clothing. The line seems somewhat limited; most of the items are the kind of thing you could pick up at your local Pride, just with a much cheaper brand label. Zara made a similar mistake; it tried to launch a major line of genderless clothes but this simply meant clothes that were leaning towards andro/masculine style and designed with skinny white people in mind.
Milk was an important activist, but he wasn’t the only activist and the pronounced focus on him (particularly when it comes to gender expression and gender in general) is erasive to the many trans activists. Milk largely worked to break down stigma with regards to sexuality, and so it would be much more appropriate to honour one of the many trans activists instead. It also would be preferable if the fashion industry started paying attention to all trans people (whether non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender etc.) if they really want to start breaking down the enforced gender binary when it comes to clothes. Right now, it seems they’re only listening to cis gay activists and trying to figure out a way to make a profit by seeming inclusive rather than being inclusive.
Is the real reason behind the fashion industry producing these so called gender neutral ranges the fact that they fit with their slim, white, quite androgynous ideals?
Karen: In some ways, the wider issues this raises about beauty standards, the pressure on people to be a certain weight, age, acceptable in very limited ways, concerns me far more than whether gender neutral clothing is available on the high street. For one thing, surely the very idea of being non-binary contains within it a rejection of the norms of how someone ‘should’ look? I’m not saying you have leave the house every day queered to the nines (whatever that means) but the first time you say ‘I am non-binary, or genderfluid, or genderqueer’, you are saying ‘how you perceive me, and how I perceive myself may not match up’. To produce a range of gender neutral clothing seems to contradict that, instead just turning me into another cookie cut-out product of capitalism.
Stephanie: I think part of the reason is definitely an opening in the market, such as Jaden Smith and the Louis Vuitton campaign and the fact that we seem to be living in a slightly more liberal era if recent surveys on attitudes towards sexuality and gender are to be believed. If sincerity really were the issue, then there would be far more engagement with the trans community and much wider work that goes beyond these very limited ideas of what gender neutral clothing means. Stores would change their layouts, there wouldn’t be such narrow ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ zones in shops (which can immediately make many trans people feel out of place and intimidated), all retail staff would receive thorough training regarding gender and gender expression and the gender neutral clothing lines would have more than outfits modelled on andro people who are white and slim.
Right now, they aren’t really doing anything to break narrow gender binaries. They’re merely making slight (often exclusive) changes to boost their profits. It just comes off as a purely cynical move designed to allow only their stores to capitalise, rather than to make their customers feel better. Sadly, many queer people can only rely on online stores because brick stores are just too intimidating or because the clothes on offer are far too narrow in style and shape. Seeking out appropriate styles can be hugely costly too and the changes that are being made aren’t really tackling this. Hopefully though, these campaigns and new lines are just the start and further change will come… and soon.
Karen: I think you have gone to the heart of the issue. Bringing out a range of clothes which are basically masculine/androgynous, and claiming some form of LGBTQ+ allyship is an easy way to avoid doing real work, implementing real change for designers, manufacturers and retailers. Whilst we have to be careful not to press for all gender distinctions to be removed, as that would disadvantage binary people, cis and trans, there is so much pointless gendering of items. I could envisage something like the ‘Let toys be toys’ campaign being applied to so many of the things which are marketed to us along gender lines. From a feminist perspective, it’s also worth pointing out that far too often, the moment something is coded as ‘female’, it’s price is increased, be it trainers or razors. Rather than gender neutral, might the solution be to de-gender clothes where this is possible?
What do ranges like Harvey Milk tell us about wider attitudes to non-traditional expressions of gender?
Karen: In some ways, whilst I am quite positive about the idea of anything which raises the profile of ways of being outside of the gender binary, my heart sinks at yet another reification of the nb = androgynous trope. Femme people seem to be constantly excluded from any discussion or depiction and I believe this can lead to a feeling of being an imposter. Someone may feel they cannot be non-binary or trans or both because they are also femme. There is enough gatekeeping as it is, and society seems determined to impose a depiction of non-binary people which has been devised by cishet people.
Stephanie: Femme identities and presentation really is still getting the boot. It’s quite telling that all of these new ranges tend to focus on andro styles. It isn’t just evasive – it’s also downright saying that femme is somehow tainted or unacceptable. It’s an attitude that’s as pernicious in LGBTQ+ spaces as it is in cishet oneunfortunately, as it’s viewed as a style and way to keep women oppressed in gender roles. It’s also used against any trans person to somehow invalidate their gender. Until we embrace a much wider idea of how people can present and express themselves then we aren’t really making progress.
In my opinion, the Milk range doesn’t suggest that there have been any great changes in attitudes either. It’s a small step; very small selections of clothing, all very much the same, yet somehow, by sticking a rainbow on it, it’s more ‘inclusive’. It can’t be that they are just trying to bring in some money by the association with Pride, can it?. It’s all very lacklustre and there’s no real effort or commitment so this isn’t really doing anything to suggest or reflect a change in wider attitudes towards gender.