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Five LGBTQ people on what makeup means to them

Artists and influencers discuss their relationship to the beauty industry, and how it can better include them

Makeup can mean different things for different people. For some, a dash of foundation or lipstick is a shield; for others it's a form of political self-expression. But for a long time, this experience has been one that’s only expected of, and marketed to, femme women. In 2018, the beauty industry is slowly being liberated from old-fashioned, patriarchal standards, and makeup is getting a broader, more expansive definition. This is thanks to influencers in the LGBTQ community, who are challenging cultural expectations and gender norms, as well as a few companies who are fostering a more inclusive image of beauty.

In recent years, some bigger name brands have dipped a toe into producing genderless campaigns. In 2016, genderfluid model Ruby Rose was named the face of Urban Decay, while CoverGirl named YouTuber James Charles its first cover boy. MAC Cosmetics, which has long been recognised for making makeup for all races and sexes, has also upped its ante. In 2017, the brand released a docuseries on the lives of seven transgender people, and in 2018, it announced the sale of MAC products on ASOS with a corresponding genderless campaign.

A group of emerging brands are taking inclusivity one step further. In 2017, Milk Makeup teamed up with Very Good Light on a inclusive campaign called “Blur the Lines”, with a corresponding video in which LGBTQ models discuss their gender identities and how that shapes their fashion choices. In March 2018, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty placed a queer black man, who goes by the Instagram handle BlameItOnKway, in a campaign video. Then there’s Fluide, the brainchild of Isabella Giancarlo and Laura Kraber, which launched in early 2018. With products for all skin tones and gender expressions, its campaigns celebrate queer beauty, the brand also donates five percent of profits to organizations that support the health and legal rights of queer people.

What’s next for the beauty industry? To find out how brands can authentically represent the LGBTQ community, we spoke to a group of influencers about what genderless makeup means to them. Alok is a trans writer and performer; Grey is a genderfluid artist and musician; Jacob Tobia is a writer and gender nonconforming activist; Luke Meagher is a fashion student and YouTuber, and Fran Tirado is an activist, writer, and Executive Editor for Hello Mr. magazine.

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What does beauty mean to you?

Alok: I believe beauty is people unapologetically expressing themselves on their own terms, so there cannot be one static definition of beauty. True beauty disrupts.

Grey: Beauty is my way of really introducing myself. The way I look and the way I make people feel means a lot to me because it's about as honest and as funny and as vulnerable as I can be at the moment.

Makeup is transformative. But do you think makeup has the power to change lives? If so, how?

Grey: When I started using makeup I found that I could sort through my shit with an eyeshadow palette and lipstick. It gave me a way to navigate through the world when I was at my weakest point, and I realized through makeup that I could be whatever character I needed to be in order to make it through; in order to be myself.

Jacob Tobia: Makeup has certainly changed my life. For me, makeup has been a tool through which I've been able to reconnect with my femininity in a world that has often shamed it. It has been a way to make my identity visible. When it comes down to it, it's a source of power in my life. In moments when I feel most empowered, self-actualised, and defiant, I'm almost always wearing a bold lip.

That being said, I wouldn't go so far as to say that makeup is universally empowering. For every male-assigned kid who yearns to experiment with makeup, there is a female-assigned kid who yearns with equal intensity to simply take their makeup off. Like everything, makeup is about consent. It's sexy and powerful if you want it, if you desire it, if you consent to wearing it.

Why is makeup important to you?

Alok: As an artist, I am always thinking about how to communicate the intangible. Makeup has been part of that composite – a means of articulating who I am beyond language.

Grey: Makeup is important to me at this point in my life because it's helped me find my people. New York can be a lonely town, and when I first started going out it was hard to make friends because most of the people I'd run into were cisheteronormative art students who didn't know Divine from Diana Ross. They treated me like their personal clown, their source of entertainment. Slowly but surely I started coming across people who got me. My makeup looks sift through society for me, and steer me clear of all the people who would treat me like shit. I was bullied a lot growing up, even had to leave school because of it, so I'd rather not waste my time trying to act normal in order for people to like me.

Fran Tirado: In today's cultural climate, I seek any opportunity I get to make a statement, to appear boldly and politically in a faggy earring, a deep red nail polish, or pink highlighter. The more the general public sees men or masculine-of-centre folks wearing makeup in their everyday, the closer we get to blurring the lines of gender in this oppressed culture we live in.

“A lot of companies express lip service to marginalised communities, but few are willing to actually work with us” – Alok

Are there any brands that are positively representing or bolstering the LGBTQ community right now?

Grey: Fluide is, they’re my favourite! (The founders) have really good intentions, like no bullshit good intentions, and I respect that. They just really get what inclusive means, and they are automatically that. A makeup brand for everyone... about damn time!

Fran Tirado: I think Milk does an incredible job creating content for men and trans/non-binary bodies. Their tutorials and social content feels incredibly proactive in that regard. All those makeup brands like Sugarpill that represent famous drag queens so proudly — I adore that. That bold and unapologetic endorsement is the way to go.

Jacob Tobia: I'm really inspired by what's happening in the retail environment right now when it comes to gender. For the first time in a while, we're seeing independent retail brands – brands like Fluide and stores like New York's The Phluid Project – offer clothing and cosmetics free of any gender labels whatsoever. A lipstick can just be a lipstick. A dress can just be a dress.

How can companies ensure they're not tokenising underrepresented people?

Alok: The beauty industry is by and large silent on the real issues facing LGBTQ people, and especially trans and gender non-conforming people. Worldwide we are seeing an increase in brutality and persecution of trans people with little to no mainstream outcry. Trans people, and especially trans PoC, are particularly susceptible to being targeted and scapegoated. It's not enough to celebrate LGBTQ people, you also have to fight for us.

A lot of companies express lip service to marginalised communities, but few are willing to actually work with us. For me, this looks like actually compensating underrepresented people for their images, ideas, and labor. Not just hiring different models, but making sure that difference is addressed at all levels: writers, producers, decision makers. It's also about taking a stance on the issues facing marginalised communities, and supporting community organisations that advocate on behalf of us. I see a lot of brands aestheticising gender non-conformity, but very few speaking out against the onslaught of anti-trans legislation being introduced all across the US.

Luke Meagher: Representing queer people is needed, but it doesn’t solve all the problems that LGBTQ people face on a daily basis. With housing, jobs, and hate crimes still being such an issue especially for the LGBTQ community members of colour, it’s important that brands stick behind queer people not just financially and socially, but politically as well.

Fran Tirado: Brands don't want to talk to us. They just want to slap a rainbow on one week of campaigning and call it a day. When brands include queer/trans voices in the conversation 365 days a year, when they actually ask them what they want, when they donate to queer organisations all — that's when they're no longer tokenising.

What does a genderless beauty brand like Fluide mean for you personally, and the larger community?

Alok: I believe that all beauty brands are already genderless, because they are already being used by people of all genders, and because we shouldn't be arbitrarily gendering inanimate objects! So what Fluide represents is a precedent – moving beyond gender binaries is not just the right thing to do, it's so aesthetically pleasing!

Fran Tirado: It's progress, but it's way overdue. Brands are sleeping on the opportunity of a genderless offering, which means less money in their pockets in addition to feeling very old-world. I can't wait until the day that every makeup brand markets to all genders, because that is the future.