Break the Binary, Please

Team USA Can Do Better Than Gendered Uniforms

It’s rough out there for trans athletes right now. Conversations about our right to compete have dominated headlines from high school gymnasiums to the largest and most visible stadiums in the world, and as we become more common, the microscope only tightens around our perceived place within the sports we love. 

That’s why it’s such a joy to see trans and nonbinary athletes at the Olympic level daring to compete authentically as themselves. Of the 224 athletes representing the United States at the winter games this year, only one is nonbinary: Timothy LeDuc, who will be competing as a figure skater alongside their partner Ashley Cain-Gribble. LeDuc might not be the first nonbinary athlete to represent the US at the Olympic games (that spot is held by skateboarder Alana Smith who competed in the summer 2020 games in Tokyo,) and won’t be the first nonbinary athlete to medal if they make the podium (Soccer superstar Quinn was awarded gold with the Canadian team last summer), but they are the first to compete in a winter sport. Soon, hopefully, our community will run out of firsts. It’s obvious that even with our many critics, the field of trans and nonbinary athletes is going to continue to grow.

It’s for this reason that Team USA should be a little embarrassed of the uniforms we fielded during the opening ceremony this year.

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Olympic opening ceremony outfits might seem like a silly and trivial hill to die on in the vast ocean of discrimination trans and nonbinary people face globally, but it does matter. Ralph Lauren, who has been designing for Team USA since 2008, made a decision to color-code this year’s ensembles by gender, putting women in outfits primarily dominated by blue, and men in white. This is the first time there has been an obvious gender divide in opening ceremony fashion for the US since the summer 2012 games, when women wore white pleated skirts beside crisp white pants worn by men. 

2022 seems like a strange year to be making a fashion statement like this one. And, regardless of the intent of the designer, it is a statement. The Olympics are a world stage, and countries use this moment to say something about who they are. Consider the flag bearer from American Samoa, who braved below freezing temperatures oiled up and bare-chested, or the beautiful (and a little spooky) sugar skulls emblazoned on the puffy snow jackets of Team Mexico. Most countries went gende- neutral with their looks, choosing instead to highlight their nation’s flag (like the teams from Italy and France,) or national colors (like Jamaica’s daring day-glo pants.)

This is the first time there has been an obvious gender divide in opening ceremony fashion for the US since the summer 2012 games

If the choice made by Team USA isn’t an intentional statement, and Ralph Lauren really just thought it would be cute to have girls colors and boys colors like they do at the most backwards and tragic high school graduations, it’s at least a missed moment. The fact that no one on his design team raised their hand and suggested that drawing a stark divide across gender lines would look old-fashioned at best and intentionally exclusionary at worst, means that there are likely gaps at the table. The look, though not the worst outfit fielded on this platform by the designer, has definitely earned a sigh and an eye roll from a fashion world that has been leaning more and more toward gender neutrality. 

If the choice made by Team USA isn’t an intentional statement, and Ralph Lauren really just thought it would be cute to have girls colors and boys colors, it’s at least a missed moment.

Regardless of your position on trans and nonbinary people in the world of sports, we can all agree that the Olympics are meant to be unifying. The opening ceremony especially is a time for all of the competing athletes of a nation to come together and show that regardless of whether they are competing against or beside one another, they all represent the same country. And winter fashion generally lends itself to a genderless, unifying silouette: lumpy-but-insulating. Adding gender as a factor really just takes MORE work, at the cost of the unification that should be the goal.

I can’t help but picture what I would do, or what the hundreds of thousands of other nonbinary athletes in this country would do, if we were put in Timothy LeDuc’s position. Would we be given an option, or handed an outfit that stuck us right back into the binary we’d escaped from? Would we boycott, risking our position on our team, alienating us from our fellow athletes, and likely painting us as fussy and impossible to please?

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know whether LeDuc felt any of this when they were putting on their uniform (they marched in white while their skating partner marched in blue.) Like many trans and nonbinary athletes, they may have to be careful of the criticisms they offer as they might jeopardize the spot they’ve worked so hard to earn. There might be more of us now than ever before, but we are still woefully outnumbered and underrepresented, and there are those who will find any excuse to squeeze us back out again. 

It is also possible that LeDuc didn’t mind at all, and that the uniform was just a blip in a crowning achievement that they will, hopefully and rightfully, brag about for the rest of their life.♦

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