Clothing retail veteran Rob Smith says he has been on a mission for the past few years to break down fashion.
His widely acclaimed endeavors – the fashion brand The Phluid Project; a company training program billed “Get Phluid;” and recently his non-profit The Phluid Phoundation – is meant to come to something that laws can not always touch: the norms in reality of LGBTQ people are truly embraced and valued within a business and not just included as a sign of representation.
“This idea of clothing is so binary, and society basically tells us how to act and present ourselves – it’s a social construction that’s outdated,” said Smith, who has previously played roles in major retail brands, including Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. .
“And I think it’s time to tackle it through fashion and clothing – to let people be who they want to be, to let them express themselves, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation,” he said. “Binary constructions hurt us all.”
From a heteronormative lens, conventional clothing categories in department stores may not seem like the most obvious front for social justice struggles. But cultural expectations around gendered attire, especially in the workplace, still carry enormous weight in the perception and acceptance of people with alternative gender expressions and gender-differing presentation, Smith said.
In fact, many dress codes in the workplace and expectations of professional behavior, even if kept out of paper, are often based on traditional gender norms around clothing and expression. The link between dress and civil rights for LGBTQ employees has also been permeated both in a number of local regulations protecting employees, including in New York City, and from last summer at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The High Court’s milestone decision last June in the Bostock cases had essentially established that federal employment protection under Section VII of the Civil Rights Act also applies to LGBTQ workers. This decision effectively meant that federal law could prevent workplace policies, including dress codes, that discriminate against gays or transgender people. It’s a message President Joe Biden’s White House and the federal agency Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have since sought to codify in official legislative policies.
“I think it was a real marker of how far we have come, which is very far in terms of broad public support for workplace equality for LGBTQ people,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“And the impact of this decision was enormous – as a result of this decision, it is crystal clear that LGBTQ employees across the country are protected from discrimination in the workplace,” he said.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of anti-trans bills at the state and local levels around the United States has sought to target students, particularly to prevent transgender students from playing sports on teams that match their gender identities.
While the Bostock cases specifically addressed employees and workplaces, courts could still use the Supreme Court’s reasoning in these cases to help invalidate laws that discriminate against LGBTQ students and people in other contexts, Minter said.
“Right now we are dealing with state legislators who pass some very hostile laws,” he said. “But against this, these are very strong, and now thanks to Bostock very clear and very well-established federal protections.”
But that does not mean that workplaces – even in the fashion industry, where companies proclaim their LGBTQ designers and commercials and Pride-months merchandise and special collections – have always caught on.
While regulations and litigation in the courtroom have sought to address whether it is legal for companies to introduce strict gender dress codes and carry out expectations for employees, Smith from the Phluid project says he has sought to address these issues from a cultural perspective.
The “Get Phluid” training platform provides training to companies on inclusive language and the wording of workplace policies, including those on dress code, he said. The program currently has about 30 participants, and nearly half of them include companies in the fashion industry, he said.
“I think it’s time for all of us to work harder to break down these massive infrastructures built on ‘man’ and ‘woman’, whether it’s a purchasing team, a design team, how the floor is marketed, and is starting to make room for all people, ”said Smith, also a former board chairman of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which provides services aimed at LGBTQ youth.
The fashion industry’s opposition to more expansive acceptance of LGBTQ employees was also documented through a UN initiative in 2017 that addresses discriminatory corporate practices.
The Group’s standards state that companies must eradicate discrimination in their hiring and hiring practices and “provide a positive, affirming environment so that [LGBTQ+] employees can work with dignity and without stigma. ”
Fabrice Houdart, CEO of Global Initiatives at Out Leadership, who had previously worked at the UN Human Rights Office, noted the reluctance of fashion companies to sign the UN standards of conduct that he had helped the author. Aside from some notable exceptions, including LVMH, Kering, H&M and Zara, many fashion companies did not participate as signatories, he said.
“You can see that this is a pretty conservative industry globally,” Houdart said of the fashion industry in general.
“The reason we evolved [these standards of conduct] when I was in the UN, was because many companies understand that they have responsibility when it comes to [issues like] child labor or human trafficking, but they did not really understand LGBTQ rights were in fact also a human rights issue that was as valid as the other issues, ”he said.
“They felt that LGBTQ issues were different – that it was about being good, or it was a matter of culture,” he added. “They did not really see it as a human rights issue. The UN therefore felt the need to clarify the human rights responsibility of the private sector. ”
The fashion industry’s own recent efforts for introspection confirm Houdart’s observations. CFDA and PVH Corp. said in their joint report from February on “State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Fashion” that approx. 18 percent of LGBTQ employees said they would not recommend working in the fashion industry and that many considered it discriminatory towards them.
Asked what initiatives the trade group pursued to address inequalities affecting LGBTQ staff in a way, the CFDA leader pointed to the group’s DEI commitment, including the production of such reports.
“There is a perception that the fashion industry is very inclusive of LGBTQ + members without bias,” CFDA CEO Steven Kolb said in a statement. “While it may be better than other industries, there are still challenges.”