New York's first gender-free brand tackles discrimination facing LGBTQIA+ community

Growing up in a conservative Portuguese family in Tiverton, R.I., Preston Souza struggled to identify with a particular gender. As a child, they would often put on their mother’s shoes and throw on a bath towel, pretending the latter was a wig. Though their father was accepting of their lifestyle, their mother was less so. In fact, Souza’s relationship with their mother was so fractured that they soon started hanging with their theater friends, many of whom, fortunately, encouraged them to simply be themselves.

"Being 'other' is not usually celebrated," Souza told In The Know. "There's a lot of bullying, a lot of snickering. That's why I really put a lot of emphasis on chosen family, and I found a community out there. Within that community, there were people who really affected me, and I ended up spending a lot of my adolescence with friends, not so much with family. I kind of cultivated a small community for myself, and people who really understood me rooted me on."

As you've been reading this article, you've probably noticed something uncommon — Souza is not referred to here either as "he" or "she." Rather, the Rhode Island native prefers the pronouns "they" and "them." The shift in pronoun use may be atypical for many who identify as a man or woman, but, for a nonbinary person like Souza, "they" and "them" appropriately describe the core of their character. It's something so dear to them that they frequently have to educate their relatives on how to mention them.

"There's a lot of unlearning that needs to be done and a lot of learning," Souza said. "Even to this day, if my family is using the incorrect pronoun, I'm correcting them."

Souza is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community — a demographic that includes not only LGBT individuals but also those who are queer, questioning, intersex, asexual or allied. Souza, in particular, identifies as nonbinary, a spectrum of gender identities that is neither exclusively male nor female.

"I lived in this grey area for a quite a while, and I never really knew what it was," they said. "You start coming out as gay because you think, 'OK, well, I'm not necessarily straight. Let's try gay.' That didn't quite fit for me either, even with those black and white — again, you're gay or you're straight. Neither of those really felt like they applied to me. I moved to New York five years ago, and that's when you get introduced to people like me."

Photo: Courtesy of Preston Souza

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, while nonbinary or genderqueer people might not align with long-held definitions of gender like many transgender individuals do, the former group isn't "confused about their gender identity or following a new fad." In fact, "nonbinary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world." Last year, a study published in the journal Pediatrics even found that more U.S. teenagers are rejecting traditional gender labels. In Minnesota, for instance, approximately 3 percent of adolescents who were surveyed identified as transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC).

"I enjoy waking up every day and deciding that day how I feel and how I represent myself," Souza said. "Some days, I wake up, and I want to be very feminine and I wear high heels and I wear a dress and I'll do a full face of makeup. Other days, I'm feeling a little bit more masculine, and I wear sneakers and sweatpants, but that doesn't negate my identity as being nonbinary. That's the beauty of it all. I get to have fun with my gender identity."

Although Souza is part of an already marginalized community, nonbinary individuals like them perhaps suffer even greater abuse and discrimination than their LGBTQ peers. A survey by the National LGBTQ Task Force found that, when compared to transgender respondents, genderqueer respondents were more likely to be unemployed, suffer physical assaults, experience harassment by law enforcement and forgo healthcare treatment due to fear of discrimination.

The American Psychological Association (APA) claims that nonbinary individuals face a different stigma than the LGBTQ population. "For example, prejudicial attitudes toward non-binary people may be greater than attitudes toward other LGBTQ people, given the lack of knowledge and information that most people have about this population,” reads an APA fact sheet authored by several psychologists. "The lack of cultural visibility of non-binary identities may make the identity development process more difficult for non-binary individuals."

For Souza, the difficulties of being a nonbinary individual — even in a diverse city like New York, where they moved five years ago — are all too real.

"Even now, the worst part of my day is going to the subway," they said. "People say things. I've had death threats, I've definitely had my share of scary interactions with people here in New York City."

Last year, Souza was recruited to join the Phluid Project — a gender-free brand that sells clothing, accessories and jewelry to the LGBTQIA+ community — as a buyer. Immediately, Souza found their calling, they said.

"Living in New York, one of the most progressive cities in the world, I can't imagine what it's like for other people in places that aren't so progressive," they said. "That's why I truly believe that I'm blessed to be working for a company that I get to go be myself and be celebrated for it but also get to inspire other people to do exactly that."

Located in the heart of New York City’s shopping district in Soho, Phluid aims to "empower individuals to be themselves" by offering outfits that are in line with their customers' identities on the gender spectrum. The brand's upcoming fall and winter collection, for example, specifically addresses the problems many LGBTQIA+ individuals face while interviewing for a job or in the workplace. While most prospective or established employees are expected to wear a suit or blouse at the office, Phluid hopes to challenge conventional work attire by introducing business attire that LGBTQIA+ people feel more comfortable in. The brand's other objective is to prove that the LGBTQIA+ community consists of more than just creatives — that members of the community can also be engineers, corporate executives or lawyers.

"We created a collection of elevated designs while still keeping it accessible for the community," Souza said. 

Phluid's mission doesn't just stop there, Souza said. The brand has worked with other major companies, including Verizon Media and Sephora, to educate executives on how to accommodate LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace. It's also rolling out a job portal — an overdue and necessary resource for those who live in New York City, where TGNC people are five times more likely to be unemployed, ThinkProgress points out. According to the news site, approximately 31 percent of respondents admitted to experiencing discrimination before they could even finish their job applications because they were asked what gender they were assigned at birth — something employers are not legally allowed to ask.

"We're making sure that our community will be safe and accepted and that these companies are taking the appropriate steps toward making sure they're prepared for us," Souza said of Phluid's initiative.

Ultimately, Souza said, there needs to be greater attention paid to the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community, a demographic that has seen its rights increasingly attacked under the Trump administration. In that context, Phluid hopes to generate more authentic conversations about gender identity through its various initiatives.

"When it comes to gender fluidity, stop taking it so seriously," Souza said, when asked what message they would like to send to millennials and Gen Zers. "It doesn't necessarily have to be so black and white."

Disclaimer: Verizon Media, which owns Yahoo!, In The Know and AOL, recently announced a partnership with the Phluid Project to publicly support the transgender and non-binary community.

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