It's easy to feel skeptical about yesterday's announcement by high-end retailer Barneys New York that its spring ad campaign will focus almost exclusively on transgender models. The headline at indie fashion fave Bullett magazine, "Trans Is Trending," speaks volumes about how problematic this kind of exercise can be.
A person's relationship with their gender identity is, after all, a deeply personal and complex thing. Attempts to capture it in an image or summarize it in a soundbite can, and often do, go horribly wrong--news outlets identifying transgender women victimized in hate crimes by male pronouns or as "cross-dressed males," for example. Even the most seasoned media pros can veer quickly into the irrelevant, as Katie Couric did recently with transgender actresses Carmen Carerra and Laverne Cox, and miss the point altogether.
So we're to be forgiven for our concern that, instead of furthering acceptance and understanding, the Barneys campaign will reduce the identities of its transgender subjects to a curiosity or a fashion statement. But there's something new happening here, and it isn't the fact that Barneys is putting trans people in couture and in front of the camera. It's been four years since Givenchy gave transgender Brazilian model Lea T a leading role in its ad campaign, after all, and six since Isis King came out to her competitors on America's Next Top Model. What's really cutting edge about the Barneys campaign is how they've done it.
For starters, the people we'll be seeing in Barneys' ads and windows this spring aren't all professional models. The 17 transgender subjects are people from all walks of life. The first ad to launch, for example, features Katie Hill and Arin Andrews, the transgender teen couple from Oklahoma featured on ABC's 20/20 last year. And they represent not only the wide racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of the transgender community, but also the diversity of the transgender experience. The team behind this campaign really did their homework here, reaching out to advocates at the National Center for Transgender Equality and the LGBT Community Center of New York early and often for their expertise. Barneys also plans to donate 10% of its sales on February 11 to the two organizations.
Photo: Bruce Weber for Barneys
Another important difference: Rather than placing the models in some exotic setting or among the usual bizarre trappings of fashion photography, photographer Bruce Weber chose to show them surrounded by their family and friends, the people who have stood by them and supported them through the long and often painful process of embracing themselves. And we're not asked to interpret these images without context, a challenge even the most effective transgender allies are often poorly equipped to undertake. Barneys tapped longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Patricia Bosworth to interview each subject, giving them the opportunity to tell us their own stories. The interviews will appear alongside the photographs as an integral part of the campaign.
During her keynote last night at the opening plenary of the 2014 Creating Change conference in Houston, transgender actress and advocate Laverne Cox -- fresh off her first season on the critically acclaimed Orange Is the New Black and feeling her power after taking Katie Couric to the gender schoolhouse -- identified succinctly the problem with most media representations of transgender people. "There is a system in place that seeks to make trans people, and especially trans people of color, disappear," she preached to a packed house, "part of a larger culture that assumes trans people are fake." Barneys' campaign, which it calls "Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters," might just help change that system. By going to such great pains to portray the humanity and realness of its transgender subjects, Barneys is flipping an industry that's all about objectification on its head and setting a new standard, not just for fashion, but for all types of media.
Allyson Robinson is principal of Warrior Poet Strategies, advising select clients in organizational design, diversity management, and movement entrepreneurship. She was the first out transgender person hired by the Human Rights Campaign and, later, the first to lead a national LGBT organization as executive director of OutServe-SLDN. She's also served as an Army officer and Baptist pastor, studied at West Point and Oxford University, and earned degrees in physics and theology. Follow Allyson Robinson on Twitter.