The gender binary is oppressive. There’s more or less some consensus on this among people who have observed the ways in which nearly all of humanity has been split down the middle, with women on one side, and men on the other. The split has meant that most of us are programmed to gender everything – not just people, but types of literature, movies, drinks, heck even pickles get gendered. And while we can all have a good laugh about the unnecessarily masculinization of skincare and other products, the truth is the gender binary isn’t a laughing matter for anyone who must face violence on discrimination because of it. But as with so many oppressive systems, gender isn’t about to go scot-free. New York based androgynous model Rain Dove has made it their mission to hit the system where it really hurts – by refusing to participate in this charade. “I definitely don’t fit into the standards of how someone with a vagina is perceived to have to live their life,” says Dove, who worked as a firefighter before modelling.
Cake caught up with them over Skype while they were walking both men’s and women’s shows in Stockholm. They told us how they’d been paired up with a woman at their hotel room who had seemed very uncomfortable at first until Dove had explained what their gender was (her roommate still asked to separate the beds but then warmed up to them soon after.) “The bathroom is filled with her beauty products. She has two suitcases, and I’ve got like one backpack with some rose water for my face,” laughs Dove. So we got talking about their journey in fashion, their activism and more.
Shambhavi Saxena (SS): Have you ever had to ‘come out’ or explain this to people close to you?
Rain Dove (RD): Yeah, absolutely. When I was firefighting, I was actually doing it under a male persona. It happened by accident – they assumed I was a guy. And I saw how they were treating the women, and I was like this is not how I wanna be treated, and I had to come out to them at the end of my firefighting stint, because I ended up getting injured unfortunately. And they found out that I was a woman and they were confused and they were like “is this person transgender? Are they hermaphrodite? What’s going on here?” And I had to sit them down and be like “Alright, let me talk to you guys about who I am and how I identify.” This whole process, just being in the public eye has been kind of like a coming out. It’s been really difficult because at the very beginning of my career I felt very pressured to know how to explain how I identify with myself and the people around me. But I didn’t feel like I was born with a language to do that in the most efficient way. And I made a lot of mistakes and it was really difficult. Sometimes you say something like “Well you know I put on a suit and my vagina doesn’t fall off, therefore its women’s wear even though it’s designed for men,” and people would be like “that’s really offensive to the trans community,” and I was like “Damn it,” so it took a while a while to really get the language and it’s constantly upgrading and trying to find a new way to explain my sexuality, explain my body.
The best way that I can really describe that to people is that I don’t feel like I am my body, I don’t think anyone is. I think that we’re something bigger. Our hearts can be replaced with a plastic pump, and the blood in our veins can be replaced with an IV drip, and all of our genitals and organs and even our sight and our smell – everything can be replaced and we won’t lose this bigger experience and awareness that’s us. So I see our bodies as a tool to help us access our awareness, but it isn’t specific to what we’re supposed to do with that awareness. But it took a long time to come up with that explanation! The world is in so much chaos right now that a lot of people are afraid to leave any system of organization, any shred of something that will help us be in something predictable that we have left.
SS: A group of trans activists in India have started a modelling agency specifically for trans people. The idea has been to improve visibility of certain non-normative bodies, through fashion. Can you tell us about your own experience of how fashion solidifies certain gendered notions of beauty, as well as disrupts them?
RD: Once upon a time, I became part of this thing called fashion, that I did not want to become part of. I think it’s really important to recognize that true fashion has always been extremely controversial – it’s done some of the things that’s pissed off society, in ways that are bigger than some political moves.
It’s not always fashion that is conservative, it’s advertising of the fashion. And the construction of the garments can be very limiting as far as size goes, just because there’s a difference science in construction to different sizes of cloth, and clothing and how it hangs. I do find that we are diversifying a lot more, because the advertising world is realizing that people want to have a real feel to their marketing campaigns, they want to be marketed to by people who are not so unrealistic or unrelatable.
But there’s definitely a lot of things that are still the same. So when I’m working as a ‘male’, anything I do is okay, I could pose and be like [makes a face] and they’ll be like “That’s brilliant, that’s beautiful, keep doing that! You’re a dolphin, you’re a dolphin!” They get really into it, you know? But when I model women’s wear, it’s like “Ugh, man you should’ve lost weight before you came here,” or “Get the angle!” or “What’s that face? Can you give us a sexier face?” or “You’re not being femme enough.” I get that a lot, and I’m like, “I don’t think you hired me to be what you consider to be femme. I don’t know if you’ve looked at my pictures, but I don’t think I’m going to fit your Cinderella story, buddy!”
Casting directors will be really direct with me if they know I’m a woman. They’ll tell me I’m ugly, they’ll tell me I’m too big, they’ll tell me I walk like I have a dick between my legs, when I’m in heels (I do find it hard to walk in heels) They’re really important to walk in the industry, but I’m like “These oppressive, evil, body-breaking fucking shoes!” It’s like dating someone you’re not into. You can’t date this person just because you feel bad for them. But they’re really direct with women.
The size expectations for men are a lot different. There’s a pretty thin margin for pants – so I actually had to gain a size to model men’s wear. I’m a US Size 6 in men’s sizes, and I’m out here in Sweden doing a women’s job right now and I have to go to a fitting in an hour, and I already know I’m not going to fit. So it causes a little bit of anxiety because you have to keep in mind that it’s not your failure, it’s the failure of the system to be able to diversify size.
Women have a lot more diversity as far as fashion goes, though they have to suffer more for the art. We have a really famous H&M store in Times Square, it’s the largest one in the US and it’s six stories tall. Out of the six storeys, five are women’s clothing. Men’s clothing is only one storey, and it’s split with the baby section. And it’s acceptable for a woman to go shop in the men’s section – it’s considered empowering. But for a man to go shop in the women’s section, people will be like “Oh you’re shopping for your girlfriend?” It’s hard to imagine that they would be shopping for themselves and oftentimes would be ridiculed.
Makeup is a huge thing too. In a way makeup is advocated to women as a mistake-corrector, as if they need to be perfect, and it’s also marketed as a creative element. But for men, they don’t get that option. Guys, in one way, are taught to be comfortable in the skin that they’re in but they’re also not given any options to deal with things that give them a lot of anxiety like acne. Even eyeliner! Eyeliner has to be “in” in order for them to wear it.
As far as my identity exploration goes, before fashion, I just ran into a bunch of hard knocks, and I grew up thinking I was just an ugly woman. And I was like I’m not meant to be the girl next door. I’m meant to be the person who survives the apocalypse – with my German Shephard and my shotgun and motorcycle. But fashion surprised me. As much as I hated getting involved with the fashion industry – falling into it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen, I did not want to go to that casting.
Fashion is the first job I’ve ever worked in where it’s my job to take care of myself – to wake up every morning and treat myself the best I can possibly treat myself. I take care of my skin and my body. Sometimes I have to I walk into an editorial, I have to be wearing things or makeup styles that I would not necessarily choose myself (and I wouldn’t recommend to myself if I want to go out there and get laid, you know?) but it’s one of the things that’s helped me realize our bodies are a tool, a vessel. I’ve been able to explore other sides of myself that I wouldn’t normally do. And it’s almost like fashion has pushed me into this space of complete freedom.
It’s also been very uncomfortable, but that’s helped me boost up my ability to be a better activist and communicator. It allows me to better understand what I’m dealing with. It forces me to try lifestyles and products that I really want to fight against as being ‘the go-to.’ It helps me, also, to understand why some people like those things, why some people can’t walk out of the house without makeup on. I’m really grateful for this and I feel like I’m in a boot camp for better understanding.
SS: A few months ago, you released a video in response to the extremely transphobic House Bill 2, which if enforced would mean trans people could only use public restrooms of the gender they were assigned at birth. How have you been involved in the fight against HB2?
RD: So, I’m still fighting against HB2, because it wasn’t overturned. I was in London when I found out that it had happened. I stopped everything I was doing and flew to North Carolina immediately. You can’t just do one event, you have to tackle it from multiple sides, so we did a couple of different things.
One, I gathered a group of people to gather more people in North Carolina and we did a lock-in in the bathrooms of a legislative building where we did ‘Bathroom Stall Confessionals’ and live-streamed it to the world. People talked about their own experiences while sitting on a toilet – that was pretty intense. It was highly illegal, and it was epic. I did a tonne of research for it, I was up for like four or five days straight pacing back and forth. We penny-locked the door, like you do in jail when you take coins and stuff them in the corners of all the doors and jam it shut. We had power banks and the whole thing was super well-orchestrated. Then we did our own series of videos, one of them went crazy viral with a hundred million views on the Facebook platform for Elite Daily (which is massive in our country.)
So we’re breaking a federal law – and I might go to jail for this. Does that make the news? A little bit. Guess what makes the news – me pulling around a toilet all day.
SS: You were also in Dove’s #MyBeautyMySay commercial recently. What about the ad campaign made you want to be a part of it?
RD: I had to really think about working with Dove, because they haven’t always been the most ethical brand. They test on animals and I’m really against that. They also have skin whitening products in certain countries. I had to think about what it means when I join this campaign, and whether I’m still supporting something ethical. I talked to Dove, and they were like “We hear those concerns. We want to work with you, and if you work with us, we’ll give you space to talk to some people in our advertising board and our product development board.” And I think it’s really important to be able to talk to these people. And they’re probably in a pretty protected and safe bubble against activists. So I traded off, and they don’t test on animals anymore, which is good. But they still have those skin whitening products, and I get to talk to them about that, and bring in some friends who have been affected by those products, and hopefully, they’ll stop selling them. I think it would be a good move for them, even though it’s very profitable (which sucks.)
Working with Dove was really great because they didn’t pick me as a gimmick. They’ve been supporting healthy body topics for people for a long period of time – specifically people they’ve identified as being female. But they also do that with men too. They’ve been supporting age and size variances , lifestyle differences and sexuality differences for the last decade, even back when it wasn’t popular. I just felt really proud to be a part of that. If nothing else, they’re advertising in a way that’s responsible and says “I know you may not like our products and you may not buy them, but you should at least know that this lifestyle is marketable and acceptable.” And just doing that could change a lot of lives. People might not buy Dove soap, but when they see these women and men – these vessels – that are so real and honest in their campaigns and billboards, they realise that you don’t need to change yourself to be successful or to be loved or worthy of praise.
SS: You call yourself a “Gender Capitalist.” Can you explain the term, and how it helps you negotiate the rigidness of the gender binary?
RD: My entire life I grew up thinking I was a very ugly woman. I saw myself in a line – a line of what society deemed to be a ‘woman’. I did a poll that asked on a scale of one to ten how attractive a person was – how much money do you think this person has, how many resources would they have, would you hire this person. And I did it comparatively to a bunch of other people and I realised that I’m a six out of ten. Which means that if all the women in the world were lined up, I would be almost in the middle of the pack. I’d have to be way back in the pack before I can acquire food, shelter, and resources. So here I am standing in this line, six out of ten, and I discovered that when I had my hair really short, and carried myself a certain way and wear certain things, people think I am what they consider to be a male. Not just a male – a white male. A tall, thin, American white male. And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are and how you think) that means that I’m given a lot of privilege. I go from being a six out of ten to a ten out of ten. I get to cut the whole line and have better access to food, water, shelter and physical safety. And I found this really fascinating. When people think I’m a ‘male,’ they give me more respect, higher pay, they listen, they don’t hold onto feelings, they’re just like “alright bro,” and conflict is easier to resolve. People just have a better sense of security that I’m capable of doing my job. But being a person with that much privilege comes with a lot of responsibility. You’re expected to make more money. You’re expected to lay down your life first. I always joke that if I was on the Titanic, I would’ve gone as a ‘male’ sailor or cabin boy and made some money, and then the minute the ship was sinking I’d be ripping open my shirt, like “Women and children first!”
As a ‘woman’ you’re given more security. People are more delicate and gentle around you in certain ways. And you have a lot more freedom to express yourself creatively and express your emotions than ‘males’ do. But the judgements are far greater – you’re treated with delicacy because people think you’re not capable; if you don’t fit a very slim beauty standard, you’re treated as not sexually desirable, not even desirable as a friend.
I just don’t have time for all that shit. I’m here to help people acquire their basic human universal truths and rights – everyone deserves water, basic sustenance and shelter.
I could stand in line and be a six out of ten. But I don’t want to. When people get in my way with this bullshit half-and-half “sexpectation” mentality, they get in the way of all the good I could offer. And they’re being selfish. I tried to just be non-binary and do my thing, but people treat you more as a minority because “Oh, you’re gay,” “Oh, you’re queer,” and then you get oppressed even more.
So I decided I’m just going to play to people’s weaknesses. I studied how people treat other people who look a certain way. If I dress the way society deems a ‘male’ should be dressed, I’ll do it because I think I’m going to get the best out of the society that I’m in. If I have to wear a dress and high heels in order to get the most out of a situation, I’ll do it. And I’m gonna piss people off. They’re going to be like “you’re not helping the system! You’re exploiting the system!” And the reason I’m exploiting the system is because I want you to realise how much you’re missing out on – a whole half of your life, and incredible opportunities. And the only reason you’re mad at what I’m doing is because what I do gives me a privilege and an access to things that you may never have. And that’s not fair – you need to stand up. It’s not going to be my job to change the gender binary – that’s all of our jobs. I want people to realize they’re missing out on half their life right now. Even just saying “he” or “she” in a sentence divides your imagination of what you may be capable of. We need new language, a new system and a new way of life that allows us to just be truly free and just be our awareness and our personal capabilities, not just bodies.
I try to tell people I’m not modeling as a ‘man.’ But a lot of people peg me as a ‘male model.’ I’m doing this as a free expression of myself and just showing off one way that my body can be used. This is the way I live my life every day. It’s not a gimmick, I’m not just cutting my hair short to be a male model, this is just how I look. And it’s one of the greatest forms of Gender Capitalism I’ve done yet. People mistake me for one thing, and if I can make money off of it, and do good things with the exposure and the money to make the world a better place than what I grew up in, then fuck yeah I’m gonna do it.
SS: Even though the fashion industry is thought to be dominated by women, there is still a large number of men working in modelling. Can you tell us about your experience as a “male model”?
RD: ‘Men’ don’t get paid half as much as ‘women’, typically. Modelling is one of the only industries where a white male will make less than a black female any day of the week. Because of this, it’s also not as competitive for ‘men’ – they also sometimes have secondary prospects – they’re going to school, getting degrees, they have other things they wanna do with their life. Whereas with ‘women,’ they’re banking their entire life on fashion so if they don’t get the casting it’s devastating.
I think also men can model a lot longer – until they’re 70 years old if they want to – as long as they have clear skin and what we consider to be a ‘good body.’ So my career, just by modeling as a ‘male’ means I can model ten extra years. Because women haven’t broken that age barrier yet. What’s interesting though is that in the male modelling world, it’s actually still kinda taboo to be gay – which is messed up but that’s where the industry is at.
We were on the airplane yesterday and I was sitting with the group of male models (cause they booked me as ‘male’ here) and guys were just slapping each other on the back and laughing and ordering wine and watching football. Whereas when I sat with the women on the bus (I’m paired up with a woman at the hotel because of my body) we were really quiet and really intense – it was ridiculous.
SS: You’ve talked about how your schoolmates had some really negative attitudes about you. Is there something that schools can do to be more supportive of queer or non-normative students?
RD: My father’s a teacher actually, so I see it from his perspective too. I think we need to do two things. Parents have a lot of responsibility, and the media has a lot of responsibility in preparing children – because these are things that greatly influence our first public and social experiences. We need to teach people to have a bit of a tougher skin, in my opinion, to feel comfortable explaining who they are, and knowing who they are, and being okay with not knowing who they are, and having the ability to own their ground. We have to educate each other, because if someone doesn’t know what’s going on with you, they’re going to be afraid. And fear breeds hatred and violence. It’s our job to be able to explain to people that we’re not something to be afraid of. A lot of people I think just immediately run for shelter or help the minute they get picked on. I’m not saying you should turn around and punch your bully in the face, but we should have a lot more propaganda as far as teaching kids to have more self-confidence and self-respect goes. And we have to teach kids that they may not be liked by other people and that’s okay. The only thing that’s not okay is physical and verbal abuse – you don’t have to take that.
The second factor is that teachers can’t be present all the time, but teachers and school officials should have better policies on verbal harassment and abuse. We should have a language class and diversity class to teach kids from a very young age about different types of people. That way it gets boring, and when something gets boring it’s no longer something to be afraid of. The only thing you should be afraid of is a guilty conscience from being hateful and ashamed and violent.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where people won’t find something to pick on. But I do believe we can get to where these types of things are no longer interesting.
SS: What do you think about the argument that we should destroy gender entirely, because viewing it as a “spectrum” is actually just creating new “boxes” to limit and confine people?
RD: I think it would be great. We should honour and love our style choices. If you have a vagina and breasts, blonde hair, blue eyes, and you love high heels and a dress, you shouldn’t be ridiculed for any of that, if that’s authentically how you wanna live your life. But I think we’d be living in a better world if people just saw bodies as just a tool. It’s not specific for sex, for employment, or anything.
I feel that language is such a powerful tool, but it’s such a powerful prison as well, and it’s very difficult to escape language. It’s been a journey with me over the past couple of years having to deal with language being like “Oh, how do I navigate these waters?” and being able to communicate better to people, and I still don’t think I have it perfect. But yeah, we definitely should do away with that.
And even when it comes to sexuality, I know what genital preference I usually have. But I don’t see anyone as “LGBTQPIAH.” I see them as “mysexual,” which means it’s my body, my life, my interests, and it might be one thing now, and it could change later, but it’s mine and it’s only specific to me. The word “mysexual” is a label, but it’s the closest label to freedom, because there’s nothing more free than just being you.
And as far sex-specific pronouns, I never understood this! Even as a kid I was like “why do they need to know that?” You say “she” but what does that even mean? In your head are you picturing tits and a vagina? That’s not specific to a “she” anymore and never really was! Why do you need to know that information? To what benefit? It’s superfluous. You think that if somebody is a “she” maybe they won’t be running as fast or maybe they’re going to be wearing pink, like what’s the picture that’s going on in your mind? There’s so much diversity that the words “he” and “she” is actually super inefficient, and is causing a lot of problem with communication, and causing a lot of anxiety. People are like “what are your gender pronouns,” and I’m like “I don’t fucking know, if you’re gonna talk about me just talk about me.” Do people need to know “Okay, we’re dealing with a vagina. So as you tell me about how Rain Dove went to Sweden I know they have a vagina.” Why!? It reminds me of how dogs, when they greet each other, they sniff each other’s private parts, and that’s how our sentence structures are. It pisses me off so much, it’s fucking upsetting. It’s awesome. You’re walking with me to get juice.
As Dove’s Skype screen cut to the juice bar at their hotel, we continued to chat about the possible future of gender in India, the USA and everywhere. And while more and more questions regarding human identity keep coming up, it’s important to have figures like Rain Dove questioning status quo the way they do.