Trinity Fashion Soc’s gender faux pas

The aim of Trinity Fashion Society’s recent annual charity fashion show was to “celebrate and commemorate historical minority groups under the theme of ‘Insubordination’”. It opened with a speech from Wendy Williams, spokeswoman from this year’s charity, Samaritans, who outlined their mission to “alleviate emotional distress and reduce the incidence of suicidal feelings and behaviour”. Williams explained: “We do this simply by listening, which can be an extremely powerful thing. […] We are completely non-judgemental, and we recognise that everyone is their own expert on their life, so we give them a safe place to explore those options.” Williams’ speech served to further emphasise the problems with the fashion show, and it was a jarring transition from her thoughtful speech to the blatant insensitivity of the show itself.

The programme read: “From the androgyny of women’s suits, to the boho flower-power movement, from gothic & grunge to transgender & misfits, we will revel in the bravery and rigour shown by those once-marginalised people in society.” The show was divided into two parts, the first consisting of “Colour block”, “Transgender”, and “Military”. In grouping these sections together, Fashion Soc revealed their complete ignorance about trans identities. The entire show seemed to be an attempt to piggyback on topical issues by using the pretense of social justice to appear subversive. Similarly, the inclusion of a “military” section is completely inexplicable as anything other than a reference to last year’s most tired trend. Not only can the military not be categorised as a minority group, but they have also been actively used to control and carry out the marginalisation and oppression of certain groups. Military aesthetics have most commonly entered the fashion world as a trend in punk subculture, when punks appropriated camouflage prints and combat boots as a critique of systemic oppression. However, in this show, the looks were not styled as punk fashion, and instead the military were presented as the marginalised group.

Demeaning trans individuals

As a society committed to an inclusive college, it was disappointing to see Fashion Soc exploiting “transgender” identities as spectacle, particularly when the causes they support (the Samaritans and Movember) do so much good. Although they later said in an apology on their Facebook page that the novelty moustaches were used to promote the Movember raffle during the show’s interval, the society’s PR officer told Trinity News after the show that the moustaches, as well as the “ill-fitting coats”, were styling choices intended to evoke an “androgynous, transgender” look, as he quite alarmingly asked, “Did you spot the transgender on the runway?” Fashion Soc claim they didn’t mean to cause offence, but by naming a section of their show “transgender”, they effectively reduced the lived experiences of trans individuals to an aesthetic or trend they believed could be recreated merely by putting a male-presenting model in a kilt (a glaring tartan one, exposing the model’s leg hair, to avoid anyone thinking he is truly “cross-dressing” in a skirt!) or a female-presenting model in a tailored suit and moustache sticker. Similarly, the excuse that they misunderstood the meaning of the term and confused “transgender” with “androgyny” falls apart when you consider that Fashion Soc decorated their pre-party area with iconography of trans* symbols and rainbow flags, hanging alongside images of military officers.

Following a flood of tweets from outraged students, Fashion Soc issued an apology the next day: “We meant absolutely no offense by naming our section as such, rather we felt it was fitting within our theme of minority groups who defy odds and stand proud in society. We used the mustaches on both genders not to create a false stereotype but to promote our raffle in aid of Movember, however we have come to understand that such a use of the term and depiction could be construed as offensive to those of the Transgender community, and for that Trinity Fashion Society would like to deeply apologize for causing any upset.”

Apology does not add up

Such an apology, which refers to groups who “defy odds”, doesn’t address the fact they described them in the programme as “once-marginalised” minority groups, implying that transphobia is a thing of the past. Damien McClean, LGBT rights officer for TCDSU, told Trinity News that he was “severely disappointed at the representation of transgender” in the show. “Trans people fight stigma, prejudgement and stereotypes on a daily basis and a big issue faced is how to present oneself. The community in Ireland are not recognised by the state, so be under no illusion: they are still marginalised and recognised as not only second class citizens but, in fact, not as citizens.” He went on to explain: “I understand that trans and gender issues are complicated but as a Trinity society, which according to CSC guidelines of following the college’s equality policy, all societies are to treat all students with dignity and respect. By using trans as a spectacle to be edgy and distinct, they are effectively excluding trans people and trans allies from participating fully in their events. From their apology, their aim was to represent transgender people as people who ‘stand proud in society’. If TFS were unable to represent the trans community in a respectable manner, they should not have tried to do so and I feel that they should invest a lot of effort in rectifying their mistakes.”

This incident indicates a clear lack of awareness about gender identity, and signals a greater need for Trinity and especially the CSC to educate students and society committees about issues of identity. “A big step in rectifying said mistakes would be raising awareness of trans and educating societies,” McClean said. “S2S and TCDSU run workshops during their training of mentors/class reps to inform people on the basics of gender identity and trans. There are many services and societies in college who provide information on gender and trans which I hope students would avail of more. It is disappointing to see the lack of knowledge surrounding trans and gender, especially in a university which prides itself on diversity and acceptance. There are organisations who provide these services (such as TENI and ITSA), who focus heavily on lifting the stigma of the community and I would hope to see the CSC educate their societies on these issues in the future.”

Oliver O’Connor, secretary for Q Soc, had a different take on it. “In the last two years there has been a referendum, a number of awareness campaigns and the gender recognition policy is coming into force soon,” he pointed out. “Short of sitting down the entire college at various points in their educational career – people have to take some degree of responsibility for educating themselves, especially those who want to use these terms in relation to large events or as has often been the case, in relation to articles in newspapers etc.” He explained that “rather than getting the CSC to provide training, what we would like is to impress upon people that if you’re not sure of something — ask someone who is. If you’ve never engaged in any sort of work/discussion relating to trans issues before, you probably shouldn’t be naming events transgender without double checking first. Ask QSoc — we’re more than happy to educate and answer questions for other bodies in college be they societies or anything else.”