There wasn’t a dry eye in the house today when online sensations Jonathan Van Ness and ALOK joined together at South by Southwest (SXSW) to tell powerful stories of the experience of beauty as gender non-conforming people.
There was also no lack of whoops and hollers as the panel advocated for radical overhauls of the fashion and beauty sectors and took shots at Texas politicians for their anti-trans policies.
Jonathan Van Ness is the lead hairstylist of the popular television makeover show Queer Eye, and is also an author, podcaster, and founder of JVN beauty—a haircare line with a mission to challenge norms in the beauty industry. Van Ness is a fierce advocate for the LGBTQI+ community, and has worked with nonprofit organizations like Planned Parenthood and The Trevor Project.
ALOK is a mixed-media influencer, writer, and speaker, who often explores trauma, community, and LGBTQI+ advocacy in their work. Recently, they have spearheaded the #DeGenderFashion movement to completely degender the fashion and beauty industries.
The panel was timely in the wake of Republican attacks on the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people in Texas.
Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott placed an order decreeing that gender-affirming medical care for children is “child abuse”. His order stated that anyone who fails to report gender-affirming medical care for minors to the police may be subject to criminal penalties.
“Yet again Republicans are scapegoating trans and gender non-conforming people and essentially lying to the entire public about a threat on tradition that has never existed and the existence of a gender binary that has never been historically accurate,” Van Ness said at the panel.
Van Ness and ALOK discussed at length how political cheapshots at trans people are purposely distracting from the dire threats of the pandemic, the Texas power grid failure, climate change, the housing crisis, and more.
“You’re more concerned about things that have no real bearing on your life than things that do. And this is an organized strategy that conservatives have been doing for a long time, and we know how dangerous it is to scapegoat minorities,” ALOK said at the panel.
“I worry that there are a lot of people who are disillusioned with the way the last two years have been and we have to really show up and show out so hard this year,” Van Ness told the audience, “because there’s been a consistent and coordinated attack from state legislatures across the country.”
ALOK agreed, and spoke to the pain to live as an openly gender non-conforming person and face both political hypervisibility and invisibility.
“That’s the paradox I think of being a trans public figure. While we have visibility, we’re still not seen. People don’t understand how difficult it is for us to be.”
ALOK spoke to the fact that although gender non-conforming people have always been trendsetting in the fashion and beauty communities, they have largely been on the sidelines.
“Our aesthetics make it. Our ideas make it. We’re the hairstylists on the set. But we’re never seen as the actual beauty. So our labor goes into creating beauty that everyone else gets access to but we’re told that we’re ugly,” ALOK explained.
Van Ness also described traversing public life as a gender non-conforming person as a paradox. On one hand, Van Ness said he has overcome so much and defied the odds. Yet on the other, their existence is constantly under attack.
ALOK also spoke to the experience of being subjected to consistent aggression: “So much of the ire we experience is people projecting their self-hatred onto us. I have this saying, being gender non-conforming is like being a weather reporter: today’s forecast, projection honey.”
Van Ness and ALOK spoke to the ways they see the fashion and beauty industries failing trans and gender non-conforming people: limited shoe and clothing sizes, restrictive store lay-outs, and beauty lines dedicated to one gender only.
“Women’s clothes are people clothes, men’s clothes are people clothes. These are these false categories we put onto things that don’t need to be here. However we can strip those back as quickly as possible is really important,” Van Ness said.
ALOK responded: “We need the complete degendering of fashion and beauty industries. It shouldn’t be seen as controversial that a random article of clothing does not have a gender…people are saying gender non-conforming fashion or non-binary fashion—but all fashion is actually gender fluid.”
ALOK continued: “What we need is a systemic overhaul, not just a photo op. What we need is not just a runway, but a revolution.”