Opinion | Here’s the problem with Brad Pitt’s skirt

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Trey Burnette is a California-based writer and photographer who has contributed to NBC News, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other journals.

In 1993, I was nominated for a homecoming queen at my high school in a conservative Southern California city. It wasn’t meant to be a political act. One of my girlfriends had suggested, “Nominate Trey — he’ll do it,” after the girls had agreed none of them wanted to parade around in a rayon dress from Windsor Fashions while being judged.

I was used to this. While most of my peers spent weekends at football games and rodeos, I slipped into black high heels and Russian Red lipstick and drove to Los Angeles, where I snuck into the clubs with my fake ID and innocent smile. That was just me being me.

So I found it off-putting when I saw CNN tease: “Brad Pitt’s linen skirt is drawing attention.” And the fashion editor Merle Ginsberg’s Facebook post: “When Brad Pitt took to the Berlin red carpet for the [premiere] of Bullet Train, he out-styled Harry Styles — by wearing a skirt suit. It’s a thing, people.”

People: There are those who have known, throughout history, that men in skirts “is a thing.”

Here’s another thing: Brad is Brad, and Harry is Harry — rich, famous, untouchable White men. They’re shielded from any dangerous consequences of their expression. I was not.

Shortly after my playful nomination, my school was in an uproar. How dare Trey do something meant for girls? Reporters sped to campus before I could leave, to report on the boy who’d caused a “royal fuss.”

So maybe it’s fun to see famous people from things out of the mainstream norm. And I’m sure the flashy appearances by Pitt et al. give conservatives plenty of meat to chew on. (We don’t even know what a man is anymore!)

But what about the people who can’t go back to safety? What about the little boy who will be thrown into the dirt tomorrow because he’s a tad too fey? Or the butch girl whose breast will be pinched by someone who wants to see if she’s really a girl?

I’m not offended by Pitt and his skirt — which, frankly, wasn’t that interesting or attractive. Slay, girl. Try something “new.”

I’m far more concerned with the treatment of Pitt’s skirt as clickbait and queerbait (the marketing practice used to gain the attention of LGBTQ people by pretending a subject is queer). British GQ came under fire for this after a recent cover shot showing Brad “all dolled up and looking like a freshly-deceased gay elder,” as one critic put it. Styles, who is in a heteronormative relationship, was hailed as “revolutionary” for wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue but won’t commit to a queer label.

Queerness is innate and permanent. It’s not “brave” to put it on for publicity and then donate the clothes to Goodwill.

More than 7 percent of US adults self-identify as “something other than heterosexual,” according to Gallup. After surveying nearly 35,000 queer people ages 13 to 24 last year, the Trevor Project concluded that “the majority of LGBTQ youth (52%) who were enrolled in middle or high school reported being bullied either in person or electronically in the past year.” It also found that 42 percent had “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.”

As a kid, I was thrilled by what society had deemed feminine. I played with GI Joe but also had a Barbie. I was sassy and mannered. I got called “gay,” “fag” and “sissy” — before the fifth grade. I was pushed and hit and, after my homecoming nomination, received death threats, all for transgressing gender boundaries.

At 17, I attempted suicide. I was tired of being harassed and harmed, and my home life was unsafe. My mom had died when I was 16. My father had been absent since I was 3. I lived with a Christian grandmother and a homophobic aunt who were struggling to come to terms with my homosexuality. And no, I couldn’t retreat to the security of a mansion.

Today, I’m a 45-year-old man. I no longer do drag or wear feminine clothing. I’m fit and have facial hair. But I’m still not safe.

Roughly 240 bills targeting the rights of LGBTQ people were proposed by state lawmakers in the first three months of this year, according to an NBC News analysis, and about 670 anti-LGBTQ bills had been filed since 2018. On July 19, the House passed a bill protecting federally recognized same-sex marriage; it’s now with the Senate. Will Pitt’s skirt move senators to vote yes, so President Biden can sign the bill into law?

I’m 100 percent in favor of free and artistic expression. But it’s not daring for a celebrity to take it off and then return to his lush life. Millions of people have broken heteronormative standards, forever, without the safety of a stage or a red carpet. And those people are very much under attack.

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