Why Bigoted Reactions to Harry Styles in a Dress Are Disgusting, but Not Surprising

Backlash against gender nonconformity hurts transgender and non-binary people in particular

A picture of Harry Styles in a light blue dress from his Vogue photoshoot
Image: Vogue Magazine. Photographed by Tyler Mitchell

In case you somehow missed it: a Vogue cover story recently featured a photoshoot of British pop singer and former One Direction member Harry Styles wearing a dress. It didn’t take long for the Internet to rear its ugly head and unleash a deluge of insulting comments, some from notable right-wing online celebrities. For transgender and non-binary people, especially those assigned male at birth, these reactions are deeply harmful — but also all too familiar.

The Backlash

One need only take a quick glance at some of the replies to the original Vogue Twitter post. The consensus between commenters seems to be that men in dresses are unattractive, repulsive, and embarrassing. Further, these commenters fear that too many men wearing dresses would somehow contribute to the downfall of western society. The alleged reason for this is that any functional society needs men who are strong. Disgust expressed by users here can be understood as a disguist at perceived weakness. (Why you can’t be strong in a dress remains unexplained.)

These sentiments are echoed by prominent conservative figures Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro. In a Twitter post, Owens describes the “feminization of men” as “Marxism” and calls it “outright attack” on society itself. Shapiro adds that he saw Styles’ “floofy dress[…]” as a “referendum on masculinity.” The irony of this obvious Red Scare tactic is not lost on me. Weren’t individualism and free expression supposed to be what set the land of the free apart from the Soviets? Also, what exactly do gender nonconforming celebrities have to do with seizing the means of production?

The irony goes further. As Angela Nagle explores in her book “Kill All Normies,” the online subcultures that contributed to Donald Trump’s success do not embody the conservatism of old. In fact, such subcultures rely on the provocative breaking of social norms. In the Trumpian age, the political right rewards transgressive “trolling” behavior, but only as long as it’s irreverent, hostile or even borderline sociopathic. Meanwhile, transgressions that challenge dominant notions of gender are still seen as the actual offenses.

Take Milo Yiannopoulos. Before the eventual demise of his alt-right career over his defense of child sexual abuse, he made his bread by bullying transgender people on college campuses. Figures like him give insight into one of the biggest appeals of Trumpian conservatism. Namely, it is a reactionary response to the “political correctness” and gender fluidity of those on the left. Vote for Trump so you too can “own the libs!” In moments like this, the disgust towards trans people and effeminate men is most transparent.

And while Biden’s recent election has some left-leaning folks getting high on hopium (indeed the mention of transgender people in his nomination acceptance speech was refreshing to see), these sentiments really aren’t going anywhere. Commentators like Van Badham are probably correct when they argue that the right is slowly losing this culture war. After all, Styles has received great praise for his cover story. But the restrictive norms that have caused the disgust and disorientation around his photos are not exclusively a problem of the Trump era. And disentangling ourselves from them will take a lot more time and courage.

A Non-Binary Perspective

This is something AMAB (“Assigned Male at Birth”) non-binary people like me often painfully come to realize. When I started wearing skirts earlier this year, I could barely leave the house without noticing the intense stares of strangers every few minutes. What I saw in their faces was confusion, disbelief, and (again) disgust. All of a sudden, wearing pants — something I’d done my entire life — felt like putting on some sort of protective gear. It became less difficult to believe, then, that many people genuinely see us as freakish and our openness as societal decline.

And this is in no way limited to those on the political right. It took many months and strenuous conversations before my liberal parents and grandma would warm towards the idea of me wearing a skirt. Even other queer people I know have expressed discomfort with the idea of “a man in a skirt” — which is what AMAB transgender and non-binary people still are to a lot of people. Perhaps this is why the verbal abuse Styles received for his experimentation with style and gender presentation hits so close to home. For trans and non-binary people, this is about free expression of gender identity.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) men and women often take this expression for granted. The fight for gender equality must emphasize the toll that such constant mockery and dehumanization takes on transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people just for being themselves. And this toll is measurable. While the topic is understudied, more and more evidence suggests that discrimination based on gender expression has important public health implications, leading to depression, anxiety and more.

Being unattractive to women or just being a freakish man are fears I have had before. And so is the sense of failing at being something I have no interest in being in the first place but that society nevertheless demands. When right-wingers and others choose to stoke up fear about Styles’ fashion choices in order to defend arbitrary and socially constructed gender norms, they directly stand in the way of equality.

But What About Masculinity?

Of course, it’s not only transgender and non-binary people whom this backlash affects. The American Psychological Association labels traditional masculinity as “psychologically harmful” because of the way it urges “boys and men to suppress their emotions.” There must be a serious conversation about how such narrow visions of what men can be affects their mental health. Surely, International Men’s Day would have been a great opportunity to have that conversation. To see this right-wing vitriol happen around the same time is a particularly depressing spectacle.

All of this is reason to believe that conservatives are fatally wrong in their assessment of masculinity. Western society doesn’t need “stronger” men. It needs a more inclusive concept of manhood. We need more willingness to experiment with gender and sexual expression, not less. This would help men in general, feminine or not, as well as the marginalized groups caught in the crossfire of these discourses.

It is still worth pointing out, as Indian-American transfeminine writer and artist Alok Vaid-Menon has in their recent Instagram post, that a white cisgender man like Styles should not receive this much credit for the popularization of gender ambiguity in fashion. Especially when, as they argue, “trans femmes of color [do not] receive praise for doing the same thing every day.” On the plus side, however, there is the hope that his Vogue cover story opens up the possibility of more androgynous or feminine AMAB people in the spotlight. Because contrary to what Owens and Shapiro argue, their narrow view of the role of men is not saving society. It’s demonstrably damaging it.

Non-Binary English/philosophy student, writer and comics enthusiast from Germany. they/them; he/him.

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