Editor's Note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA Foundation, City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“Who said a dress was only meant for women and who said pants were only meant for men?” asks Deana Spencer, 52, co-founder of Battle Creek Pride, a nonprofit that provides education, support groups, community outreach programs, referrals, and social activities for persons in the LGBTQ+ community.
“And who decided certain hairstyles were only to be worn by certain people? And pink was for girls, and blue was for boys? And who made those rules? And what are these rules based on, exactly?”
These insightful questions beg for answers. One common answer is that modern society is responsible for creating these rules. Society has decided that only women should wear dresses and like pink, that only men can have short hair and like blue. But Spencer makes clear that those decisions are based on convention, not on absolute truths.
Gender identity is different than gender expression
Many people do not know the difference between gender identity and gender expression and often confuse them. The distinction is important because most people tend to “say what they see,” but their eyes can deceive them. An example of this would be if someone identified as male and used he/him pronouns, but, in contrast to this, was wearing a dress or a skirt and had on makeup, which are often thought of as feminine things, one might mistake their pronouns or even their entire gender identity, assuming that person is a woman, even if that person identified as a man.
Gender identity is a personal sense of one’s own gender, while “gender expression“ and "gender presentation” are the way someone presents gender through mannerisms, interests, and appearance. Because the two are often equivocated, it is even more important for people to not make assumptions and to understand and learn about the differences in order to not do personal harm toward others.
There are many ways people’s gender identities differ from their gender expression. One way might be as simple as in the clothing they wear, but there are less observable ways related to things like gender roles and people’s bodies themselves. There are many ways characteristics like appearance, interests, and even certain colors seem to play into gender roles set by society.
Marz Carahaly is a 17-year-old student at Gull Lake High School. When asked how he usually presents, he says it depends. “It depends on how I’m feeling, ‘cause sometimes I dress masculinely, sometimes I dress feminine. Or androgynous. I think that I don’t know how society really views me, um, but, uh, yeah. I’m genderfluid. So it’s not a set, ‘oh I present masculinely, I present androgynously,’ (how I dress) changes.”
It’s interesting how some people can present in one way all the time, and others change how they present frequently, depending on how they’re feeling. Many people enjoy how a lot of gender-fluid people present gender-wise because it challenges their own notions of gender and cultural stereotypes.
There’s a lot of diversity in the ways people will present their gender, whether that be according to their gender identity or not. A common occurrence for people who present differently than they identify is the confusion or questions they receive from others. Many people get confused when they see a person identifying and presenting in a way that doesn't conform to cultural standards and they may make assumptions.
Deana Spencer, co-founder of BC Pride.
“I think when we are making judgment calls – because we all make them, some maybe more often and more harshly than others – then I think we need to give people grace that if somebody wants to wear pants or a dress or makeup or not or have pink hair or have pink shoes or whatever," says Spencer. "Is it really that big of a deal?”
Marz shares that there are people who get confused about their gender identity versus how they present. “There’s definitely people who get confused about it, but not like, day-by-day pronouns, ‘cause I use any of those three (He/Him, They/Them, Ey/Eem) at any point, no matter how I’m presenting, because the way I present myself and my gender expression isn’t like, equal to my gender identity. So, I know some-most people get confused about that, like, you’re dressed like, feminine today, but you’re not a feminine gender, what’s up with that? So yeah, people do get confused.”
While people being confused about gender identity isn’t unusual, what we can do if we are not sure is to ask the person in question. Simply say, ‘Hey, what pronouns do you use?’ In most cases, people will not be offended, Marz and Spencer agree.
There are things that many people dislike or like about presenting differently than they identify, and when Marz was asked what they like or dislike, he says, "I like being able to like, explore myself and my identity and really be able to understand myself more. Also, just being able to say, ‘screw you’ to society’s norms,” Marz adds. “I like being able to go against societal norms and expectations.”
When asked what he dislikes, he says: “I dislike a lot of things, from like (being misgendered) to seeing my deadname
in different sorts of media or in school. I’ll be scrolling through Instagram or TikTok and I’ll come across a video that’s like, really transphobic and I’m like, ‘Mm! That’s not that great.’”
Marz shares a good thing that happened was that he got to change his name in eir
school’s Google account, so, therefore, doesn’t have to see his dead name around school as much. Ey were also the first person at their school to do that without a legal name change.
Inclusivity is needed in the clothing industry
The fashion industry and marketplace have yet to catch up with transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid needs of today. Spencer was asked if there should be more inclusivity in clothing stores and fashion in general. She responds with a definitive, “Yes.”
“Because I know of a person that identifies as a trans female who came out way, way late in life, and this person still has a lot of masculine features and mannerisms. That being said, I know that she found a handful of stores that she was comfortable going into, but she’s also got a very, very bold personality just by nature, and I often wonder if they were just humoring her because of her personality, you know?
“I wonder if it was someone like Kim (Langbridge
, co-president of Battle Creek Pride) who has a much softer personality, if they would’ve been as welcoming and as accepting of her.
This trans woman dress was designed by Lila McCarthy to fit different body types.
"So, I think if someone’s a little bit more passive like Kim is, one, she [the friend] went in and just um, took ownership of the store. Kim would never do that. She’s just not made that way, whereas this other person that I know is. And I just wonder if the acceptance was more of just her personality type kind of taking over the situation instead of them just being really accepting.”
Spencer is pointing out that inclusivity within clothing stores needs to be available to all, regardless of their personality or gender presentation.
Spencer also says she wonders about the fashion products themselves.
“Think of trans men, who, you know, many times their frames are smaller, they’re shorter, their shoulders are more narrow, their hips are more narrow, which means finding masculine clothing could be a challenge. Right? Because we had this idea in our society of what men are built like if we make clothing according to those, which is not all bad, other than it doesn't do anything for our trans community," she says.
"And trans women! Trans women are taller, with broader shoulders and bigger feet. And sometimes, y’know, their weight is different, which means there’s a lot of clothing that they also can’t wear because it is made to accommodate a body like mine that was born um, female, a cisgender person is what I’m saying.
"So they don’t have the waist that I'm gonna have. They just don’t because that’s not how they're shaped. And so I think the clothing themselves could be much broader for sure. Oh, and there could even be clothing lines specifically for trans folx!”
After sharing her thoughts on fashion inclusivity Spencer adds “I was a designer and I wish I had a million dollars, because designing a clothing line specifically for trans people is something I would do.”
Another idea: Organize clothing by size and style
Marz has a different idea regarding how stores could be more trans and gender-fluid friendly. Marz says stores should organize their clothes by size and by style instead of by gender.
“First of all, women's sizing changes brand by brand. LIke, please just have a universal size chart! And secondly, I shop in both sections, and I don’t like walking in between them!”
Take note, clothing store owners.
Clothing needs for transgender and gender-fluid folx are different in many ways than the clothing that is commonly offered in standard clothing chains. It’s important that more people start asking about people’s pronouns before labeling a person, because sometimes, people’s appearances can be different from how they identify.
This trans man dress was designed by Lila McCarthy to fit different body types.
“Those that are struggling with the clothing or the presentation that we all make to society, to the public: these are ideas. As far as what we should wear and what we shouldn’t wear,” says. Spencer. “These are ideas that have been put over by society somewhere, some kind of way, over the generations and the centuries for conformity.
“I think back to centuries before us, and men wore wigs, and they wore makeup, and they wore dresses,” she continues. “I think of my great grandfather, and I have a picture of him hanging in my house of him as a little boy, and what is he wearing? He’s wearing a dress. Because that’s what they wore when he was a little child. The little boys wore dresses just like the little girls.
"It might not have been lace and pearls, but it was still a dress. Because that's what they wore. And if it was okay then, why is it not okay today? So, I think when we are making judgment calls, because we all make them, some maybe more often and more harshly than others, then I think we need to give people grace that if somebody wants to wear pants or a dress or makeup or not or have pink hair or have pink shoes or whatever, is it really that big of a deal? What matters is who you are underneath.”
Not what pronoun you use or how you dress, but who you are
It’s important that more people start asking about people’s pronouns before labeling a person, because sometimes, people’s appearances can be different from how they identify. What is even more important, says Spencer, is not what gender that you present or identify as or what pronouns you use, but who you are.
“Are you a good person, are you kind? Are you a hard worker? Do you take care of the people around you? Do you contribute to society and pay your bills? Are you a decent human being? That’s what matters! That’s what matters. And it’s just really sad and frustrating to me that people can’t see that. They just simply can’t see that. And I just think that’s really sad.
“There’s a guy that works with me at my regular job (in banking) and I personally have never met him, I’ve seen him on our teams’ meeting calls and things like that, he actually is from the Coldwater area, he’s just been up in the Battle Creek area a few times actually, and he’s got a full beard, and long hair, and wears skirts to work.”
Spencer says she is inspired.
“My company allows it, and that he’s brave enough to do it and there’s been very very very little, thank God, backlash from our customers who see him in different attire than what they think they should see him in. And I think that’s great.
"I think it’s wonderful that I work for a company that allows – well I don't know if I should say ‘allows.’ I don’t think that’s the right word, but that 'supports' that, I guess, and that he can show up to work as his authentic self with zero backlash. And I just really appreciate that, and I think there should be a whole lot more of that.”
Lila McCarthy, pronouns phe/faer, she/her, and he/him, is 13 years old, in 9th grade, and homeschooled. Phe likes music, writing (mainly fiction, but the occasional article like this one is also really fun), drawing, and theater! She really liked doing this project, and she's glad he can share his voice and others' voices with all of faer readers.