When Vogue Magazine released its cover of Harry Styles in a dress for the December 2020 issue, Styles received immense praise for breaking gender norms. However, claiming Styles as a pioneer of gender fluidity undermines the struggles of openly nonbinary people and creates misunderstandings around gender identities.
Styles’s Vogue December 2020 cover.
The moment Styles shared his Vogue Magazine cover on social media, people flocked to comment sections to commend him for going against traditional masculine stereotypes. Major news outlets joined the conversation as well: “In becoming the first solo man to grace the cover of US Vogue – and in a dress – the singer has cemented his place at the vanguard of the movement,” The Guardian said.
The undeniable privilege that comes with Styles being a white person who doesn’t openly align with gender-fluid identities makes it dangerous to herald him as the face of gender fluidity. Alejandra Ghersi (better known as the stage name Arca), a Venezuelan nonbinary record producer, has donned a dress on many occasions and did not receive any coverage from mainstream media outlets. While large media outlets such as CNN, New York Times, and The Guardian all covered Styles when he broke gender barriers by wearing a dress, no such media outlets mentioned Ghersi or any other public figures when they wore a dress, such as RuPaul Andre Charles, a Black drag queen, and Alok Vaid-Menon, an Indian gender non-comforming artist. Recognizing Styles as the first to break gender norms, is a prime example of the double standards prevalent in society, as the only intrinsic difference between Styles and Ghersi is the color of their skin and their gender identity.
Ghersi, RuPaul, Vaid-Menon, and others like them aren’t palatable enough to society due to them being people of color and not being heterosexual. By contrast, Styles, a white man who has not adopted a gender-fluid identity, is celebrated. Is that Styles’ fault? No. It’s the fault of transphobia, homophobia, and racism.
Beyond being called the face of gender fluidity, Styles has also been praised as a pioneer in challenging gender norms around clothing. Though Styles is acting as an effective ally, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sam Smith, Jonathan Van Ness, and Troye Sivan, all of whom are queer or nonbinary, have experimented with gender-fluid fashion, sporting dresses and heels as early as 2018. In deeming Styles a pioneer and failing to recognize past efforts, the narratives of openly queer and nonbinary people are erased. From being reprimanded at work to facing physical or verbal abuse on a daily basis, openly nonbinary or queer individuals receive extremely negative reactions to how they identify themselves. The Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the US — reported that in 2020 alone, 41 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed due to their identity, with the majority consisting of Black and Latinx transgender women.
As a white and not openly nonbinary male, Styles undoubtedly has a privilege to safely wear feminine clothing, but this experience is not representative of people in the gender-fluid community. Therefore, with Styles leading this conversation, people may also believe that gender fluidity is limited to clothing — but it is more than that; it is an identity that must be respected.
Some may argue that Styles’ association with this movement was critical. Without him, it would have been more challenging for a conversation about gender fluidity to become so widespread in mainstream media outlets.
However, when fans and media outlets come to support gender fluidity, do they really understand the message behind the movement, or are they only there for Styles? Styles has an extremely loyal fanbase, who often idolize him. The nature of his fans makes them quick to blindly support the look on Styles rather than the identity that comes with it.
While Styles does deserve praise given to him for his willingness to support gender fluidity, he does not deserve the title of pioneer. Our knowledge and support for the genderqueer community should not start and end with Styles. We can praise the unprecedented moment of a man in a dress on the cover of Vogue Magazine while also remembering that this was only possible due to the path that the members of the genderqueer community paved beforehand. We must celebrate their progress, understand their stories, use their preferred pronouns, and not make assumptions on their identity. In doing so, we can make progress towards a world with an accepting environment for every nonbinary and queer person — even those who aren’t white celebrities.
Cover image by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani