Fluidity – Micha Frazer-Carroll and Travis Alabanza
Micha Frazer-Carroll 11/12/2018
MICHA FRAZER-CARROLL So we’re chatting about fluidity, but you might agree that “fluidity”, in many ways is a broad term that’s open to interpretation – what does it mean to you?
TRAVIS ALABANZA I kind of cringe when “fluidity” is written about now, because I think people have started to place it solely on trans and gender nonconforming people, whereas really, fluidity is the most natural concept ever. We’re constantly flowing in and out of our emotions, in and out of states – like I was tired yesterday, and I’m not today – “fluid” isn’t this new concept. To me, fluidity is just a basic human thing. We are constantly shifting and changing, and with regards to gender, for me it’s kind of just what I see as the natural state of our gender anyway. But what’s happening is we’re told that we have to be constrained, so then “fluid” means a new thing. But I think it’s the O.G.
MFC Do you think fluidity is political?
TA I guess around gender, I think it shouldn’t be. But to be fluid in your presentation of gender, to let gender flow from something that’s not stagnant and be something that’s constantly shifting, unfortunately it is political – or perhaps rather, politicized. I think the way that gender continues to succeed as something that’s reinforcing capitalism, reinforcing racism and reinforcing patriarchy, is that it makes us say we’re the same every day and makes us stay still, as a way to continue to keep us down. So thus, to say “fuck that, I’m not this”, is a political act.
MFC Do you think fluidity is becoming more important for upcoming generations?
TA Obviously, we have had this boom of visibility towards it, recognition towards it and there are more examples of fluidity. But you know me, I’m a bit cynical of it all, because I just think it’s always existed, it’s always been here. Just because the west, and even this kind of media report, are suddenly recognising fluidity, doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been here. And actually, I’m trying to reshift my idea of acceptance away from whether or not, say, Condé Nast (a reference to Vogue, who recently ran a video on trans visibility) and those people are accepting me. We were accepted in lots of different ways before, it’s just that now the mainstream west and pop culture are “accepting” us.
But you know me, I’m always critical of it all, I think it’s still a certain type of fluidity that is accepted. And if you take away the campaigns, take away the perfume bottles, going out on the street, if you are expressing gender-fluidity you’re going to get bashed, you’re going to get hurt, you’re going to get shouted at, you’re going to be stopped by violence.
MFC What would you say to people who believe gender fluidity is a concept only accessible to specific, privileged groups, e.g. just people who are middle class or educated at university?
TA It’s a tactic of oppression that everyone always uses. But whenever people say that about me, I’m like “girl, I don’t have a fucking university degree”. Sure, this is language that we’re using for these concepts now, but the ideas and the people have always existed. All you need to do is watch Paris is Burningto see that this black, working class, vogue ballthing is long-established. No, they’re not using the word “non-binary”, but language changes.
I do think that what happens is we think something is new when whiteness accepts it. Like it’s new because white people are suddenly giving money to it. When actually, if you take the US as an example, when white people came over and found native people who were expressing their genders in fluid and nonconforming ways, white people killed that off. Now suddenly, hundreds of years later, they’re like “this new thing that we have got!” It’s bullshit.
I think something doesn’t have to be new for it to still be seen as amazing. I feel like we’re creating a strange narrative, where every piece of media coverage on gender fluidity starts with a tagline like: “(Mock TV presenter) Caitlyn Jenner, 2017/18, gender has exploded into the mainstream”. I’m like, something doesn’t have to be “exploding into the mainstream” for it to be valid.
MFC And do you think this makes people think gender fluidity is an exclusively “young”, millennial or Gen Z thing, limited to young people who “don’t know the ways of the world” yet?
TA Yes. It’s painted as a fad, it’s painted as this trendy thing. But doing Tranz Talksand Burgerzfor the last month, I met lots of older people, like 60+, and if you looked at them on the street you would say they were gender conforming. But then, if you actually speak to them, they say “I used to dress like you, and then I got exhausted from how hard it was, and now I conform.” And I feel like that demonstrates how much we lack nuance in talking about fluidity – a lot of people would choose to be more fluid in their gender expression if the world was safe for them to do so. We can’t always judge the visuals to tell us how many people are gender-fluid. And we don’t necessarily know what a gender-fluid person looks like, because it’s not safe to be gender fluid at the moment.
And then people minimize the conversation, and flatten it out to make it look like we’re talking about this one thing. If they make us look like we’re obsessing over a pronoun and nothing else, then we become this fantasy of a group of what they think we look like. When actually, we’re not just talking about those things. For me, I don’t even just use the word ‘non-binary’, being gender nonconforming. The reality is that, most of the day what is causing me violence isn’t the issue that they’re calling “snowflake” issues, like pronouns or bathrooms, which are really violent issues too. What’s causing me violence is having shit thrown at me, and being shouted at and my friends being hurt. And they don’t ever want to talk about or link how these choices go beyond just an identity for a lot of us. It actually translates into a real systematic expression of violence against us.
MFC I loved your tweet about blue lipstick. I feel like it perfectly encapsulated this misguided conception that being gender nonconforming is some sort of funky new fashion statement.
TA There are so many blogs on Mumsnet– Munroe Bergdorfis talked about in horrible ways too. There is a lot of oversexualization. But then for me, they will be like, “this weirdo with the blue lipstick!” I’m like “girl, let me move on from my fashion choices”. I did used to wear blue lipstick all the time. They’ll be like “this non-binary manthinks that they’re non-binary because they bought a blue lipstick” and I’m like “no girl, I just love the lip”.
MFC And beyond the media, do you feel you see the concept of fluidity being commercialized by brands?
TA Yes, it has already happened. But it’s not as simple as just saying all of this commercialization is bad. I think that celebrities, people in the public eye, can play around, and I think that’s what gets lost in conversations where people say that all media coverage of this is bad and commercial. Because actually, in my world, everyone would be allowed to say they’re gender fluid and play in and play out, and it wouldn’t be a huge deal.
But what I do think is happening is, unfortunately we’re still basing our ideas of gender nonconformity on our standards of who we find attractive, who’s pretty and who we want to sleep with. It’s still falling into those categories, so they’re mostly white, or they’re going to be light-skinned, they’re going to have muscles...it’s interesting to see that the assigned male at birthnon-binary people who are lifted to model status still have a six pack, still have tattoos, still appease desirability. And that is not their fault. Their gender is still valid, it doesn’t cross them off – it’s just that I wish we could move away from only lifting people up if we desire them.
MFC And only lifting up people who are seen to be “successfully” performing a certain gender.
TA And that means that fat people, dark-skinned people, disabled people are left behind. I play into it too, and sometimes I wonder what would happen if I wasn’t dressing in a certain way. I know that people are interested in my clothes. But would people be as interested in my queerness otherwise? I’m not sexualized, but I have to be fashionable. I had the most interesting conversation in my own head two years ago when I realized, like “oh, my fashion is what’s getting people’s attention” – which is still linked up to desire.
And that means that the people that are really fucked up in the street, who are getting fucked up because of what it means to be gender nonconforming, aren’t being lifted up, aren’t being given 2 grand to do a makeup campaign or something. I don’t think these campaigns are going to kill us. I’m not going to hang anyone who has done one out to dry (I have done one too), but I just think that I’m over it as well. We should ask for more, it’s not enough that these media places say “look how good we are, we’ve hired a non-binary person”. This isn’t badass anymore – I want to ask, “are you actually contributing to their income, their growth and structural changes?”
MFC Are you seeing any brands that are doing allyship well? Lush Cosmetics often gets mentioned.
TA Lush is cool, because they’re hiring the girls too (what I mean by “the girls” is non-binary people, the femmes, the gender nonconforming people – the girls). They’re giving them money and they’re giving them creative control. They’re not just going to have you for one session when it’s “in”, they’re actually implementing us into their business model.
Stonewall are also really importantto note, because four years ago they didn’t have a good rep for trans shit, they weren’t doing a lot to support trans people and they knowhow I felt. But I’m really proud that I was so vocal about that, because now I can be vocal and say Stonewall are doing really great. It’s really cool to see that they have grown and taken responsibility. What they’re now choosing to do is not just giving the non-binary and gender fluid stories that are easy, they’re saying that this community, like any other community, is varied, is nuanced, has people that are messy and they’re showing the nuances of that.
I also think theVoguethingwas iconic. I’m not just saying that because I’m in it. I’m saying it because they didn’t just choose one type of trans person, and I think that’s what can be dangerous at the moment – that we are consistently shown in one type of way. But the Voguevideo said fuck that, I’m bringing in lots of different types of ways to be trans and non-binary, to show that we’re varied.
MFC What do you think is the most important thing for us to remember when talking about fluidity?
TA We have to link it to the structural violence that is happening – including how gender nonconforming people experience rape and sexual assault, how we’re treated in prison, those who have mental health issues because they can’t be gender nonconforming in their everyday life. The conversation shouldn’t just stay at “Travis put on some lipstick, isn’t it good that they can be free”, it needs to go further. We need to decenter media narratives and look at what it means to be gender nonconforming in everyday life
Follow Travis Alabanza here: @travisalabanza
We are one of 30 global youth platform partners in the launch of an initiative by @ChimeForChange (CHIME FOR CHANGE) and @weareirregular (Irregular Labs) to explore gender and our fluid future.