Ten years ago, Karis Wilde starred in a commercial in which she struts through the city with her girls, all wearing pumps, legs smooth as can be. Her hair is long and luxuriant. Then, in the next shot, we see her bare chest. It’s flat, with no trace of breasts. In a voiceover, Karis tells us that she is a boy. Then comes the punchline: “Like all men, he’s not great with pain … so he uses a Philips Satinelle Ice Epilator.”
Watching the ad in 2018, it’s clear that Karis is gender nonconforming. But 10 years ago, the language wasn’t quite there. In communications about the ad, Karis is referred to as a “transvestite,” whose “low pain threshold” and “desire for beautiful legs” make him an epilator’s “ultimate test.” The target demographic is not trans people, but women: If this man can shave his legs with it, so can you!
These days, we have a better vocabulary, and a growing understanding that gender is a spectrum. Karis now prefers to be called “nonbinary,” implying not just a manner of dress, but a deeply held gender identity. Those who defy the “he”/“she” binary are increasingly referred to by the neutral pronoun “they,” and are regularly featured in beauty mags. Genderfluid models have become runway darlings, as Target, ASOS, and other major brands trot out “gender-neutral” collections, trying to cash in on the widening demographic of folx (a gender-inclusive group term) who aren’t just boys or girls.
Nonbinary is trending, and gender nonconformers are becoming more and more visible. Some would consider this “progress.” But does visibility make us safer or more powerful? Will representation help us achieve our most transformative dreams?
As a genderfluid person myself, I’m concerned that our normalization comes at the expense of our radical edge. In the past, those who colored outside the binary’s lines were viewed as “gender outlaws,” a status many embraced: Hard-edged words like “dyke” and “revolutionary” were vital to their self-understanding.
They were not welcome in mainstream spaces, so they created their own. And in achieving this sort of underground liberation from gender’s oppressive norms, they were inspired to work toward liberating others. In 2006, Rocko Bulldagger’s definition of “genderqueer” implied “someone who identifies with efforts to subvert oppressive power dynamics.” Like queers of all stripes, gender nonconformers have long been at the forefront of struggles against racism, trans-misogyny, and empire. But can we still claim to be part of that vanguard if we’re compromising with capitalism?
Certain of today’s nonbinary icons, like Amandla Stenberg and Alok Menon, are keeping the radical tradition alive. I owe my conception of Pride as “one big corporate parade” to Menon and their incisive poetry. Yet as nonbinary folx become more embraced, our exemplars walk a fine line. They are offered increased visibility in exchange for proximity to the capitalist mainstream. In 2017, Menon made a Pride-themed playlist for Spotify. They later became one of the faces of NYC Pride (“presented by T-Mobile”) and curated a sneaker collection for Zappos.
“This is not a movement, it’s a marketing scheme,” wrote Menon of mainstream gay activism in 2014. Even so, there is something to be said for the power of the market to change things.
Menon and other high-profile queers may be trying to scheme the schemers, parlaying success into a platform for speaking truth to power. In interviews and on Instagram, Alok continues to rail valiantly against street violence and settler colonialism. Amandla refuses to stop calling out racism, even as their star rises higher in Hollywood. Both pose radical challenges to the mainstream’s well-entrenched whiteness.
They contrast with someone like Violet Chachki, who came out as genderqueer soon after winning RuPaul’s Drag Race. In the same 2015 interview where she says she identifies with trans people, Violet praises RuPaul for becoming “palatable” and says the way for drag to “keep its edge” is through “branding and marketing.” Today, Violet continues to bask in her own visibility, without sparing a word for those who aren’t as privileged, passing, or safe from violence as she is.
As Audre Lorde told us, the master’s tools “may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The prevailing liberal mindset, which Violet endorses, says that visibility is always good. When we become visible to society at large, we can be recognized by the state, which grants us rights and protection.
But if this is true—if visibility makes us safer and more “equal”—then why is it that 2014’s “Transgender Tipping Point” (heralded by Time in their cover story on Laverne Cox) actually coincided with increased killings and legislation against trans people, an umbrella under which nonbinary and other gender nonconforming folx fall? This question inspired Trap Door, a collection of essays on trans visibility, in which legendary activist Miss Major offers one explanation: “there are more girls being murdered or beaten up because the people who want to do these harmful things can’t get to Laverne Cox … with the security that she has. Girls like me—we don’t have that security.”
Anti-trans sentiment is very much alive in a way that may be particularly dangerous for nonbinary people, who don’t necessarily ever pass as a “man” or a “woman.” The danger is compounded for folx who experience racism and other forms of oppression, as well as for low-income queers that can’t afford safe transportation. Visibility may do little or nothing to help marginalized nonbinary people access health care, housing, employment, or support from their families, especially in rural areas or religious communities.
As trans-femme Che Gossett writes in Trap Door, “visibility still doesn’t challenge the hierarchal and racialized distribution of resources and/or criminalization within the regime of racial capitalism.” In other words, it might be nice to see ourselves reflected in TV shows and Pride season campaigns, but the cis white men who invented the gender binary still own the damn mirror.
In conversation with Gossett, trans rock star Juliana Huxtable laments how “the visible markers of difference are so quickly consumed and marketed” these days. Gays once flagged sexual preferences and kinks with a hanky code; lesbians signal through an array of fierce haircuts. These aesthetics are important, as they help us find each other without tipping off the straights. It’s a language of coded visibility, learned through being in community, and it’s at its most powerful when it’s subtle and DIY. But as Huxtable points out, it’s all for sale now.
These $40 basketball shorts announce that you’re a “TOMBOI”; these $50 hoodies help you flag “BUTCH” or “FEMME.”
Nonbinary culture is being commodified right before our eyes. But we don’t have to buy in. “Radical” comes from the Latin radix, or “root.” It’s in digging down to the roots of ourselves that we discover buried genders, too wild and expansive to be summed up in a word. This is our radical essence. And it only remains radical, only threatens unjust norms, as long as we resist the urge to gaze at our reflection in the machine, which projects all kinds of images, but knows nothing of essence.
A zine distributed at NYC Pride in 1990 argued that, “being queer means leading a different sort of life. It’s not about the mainstream, profit margins, patriotism, patriarchy, or being assimilated.” For those who agree, representation on the runways of Paris or in a Condé Nast magazine will never be enough. Our power is in our queerness, which is to say, in our distance from the toxic mainstream.
Rather than accepting fame or fortune as the prizes for assimilating to this structure, nonbinary folx should double down on our alienation from it. Let’s invest in the things that make us different and strive toward forms of liberation that will never be for sale.