On this episode of Mic Dispatch, correspondent Serena Daniari enters the world of Connecticut high school track and field, which has recently become embroiled in controversy after the athletic success of transgender student Terry Miller.
Next, correspondent Evan Ross Katz visits Brad Callahan aka BCALLA in his Los Angeles studio. Callahan has outfitted some of the biggest names in music — from Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus to Azealia Banks. He’s also designed for drag queens Aquaria, Violet and Aja.
Bianca Stanescu, parent petitioning the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference: How could somebody be a boy one month and now compete with the girls the following month? You have to look at the body that it’s competing.
Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: In an era of increasing equality for LGBTQ people, one area is still raising a lot of questions and debate. How will sports organizations accommodate transgender athletes who want to compete? Many believe that, biologically speaking, cisgender men are physically stronger and larger than cisgender women. So is it fair for trans women to compete against cisgender women? Some parents and student athletes are saying no. But others say it’s discrimination to bar people from competing with the gender they identify as. Correspondent Serena Daniari takes us to a town in Connecticut where this heated controversy is playing out.
Stanescu: Her expression tells you that she knows she’s got an advantage over everybody else.
Serena Daniari, correspondent (voiceover): The world of Connecticut high school athletics has erupted into a heated debate over the recent athletic success of two transgender students.
Terry Miller, sophomore, Bulkeley High School: I love running because that’s my place to like be peaceful.
[Fan, in video clip: Let’s go Terry! Let’s go Terry! Push it, push it, push it! Woo!]
Miller: I’m not treated like everyone else and that will motivate me. And I’ll just run my heart out.
Daniari (voiceover): One of the athletes, Terry Miller, is a rising junior at Bulkeley High School. She placed first at this year’s Connecticut track and field State Open finals in the 100- and 200-meter dash.
Daniari: Girl, you have hella awards. What about all of these medals? Do you feel like one day this whole wall is going to be covered?
Miller: I might have to cover the whole room.
Daniari (voiceover): The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which is in charge of high school sports, allows students to compete as the gender they identify. But some are petitioning to change that — like Bianca Stanescu, a parent to a high school athlete who lost to Miller in competition.
Stanescu: How could somebody be a boy one month and now compete with the girls the following month?
Daniari (voiceover): Although Stanescu believes people like Terry should be allowed to live as female, she wants trans athletes’ scores to be counted against their male counterparts.
Daniari: But do you think for a transgender person, for them to hear that their score will not reflect amongst the team that aligns with their gender identity... For them, they might take that to mean that their gender identity is not valid. Do you see the competition aspect as a priority, or do you more so see the mental and emotional well-being of, you know, transgender people who are, you know, historically a very marginalized community of people as a priority?
Stanescu: In the athletics, you have to look at the body that it’s competing. Athletics supposed to be about a competition and only the competition.
Daniari (voiceover): Earlier this year, Terry started using hormone replacement therapy. Studies show this often decreases muscle mass.
Daniari: Some parents feel like because you are trans, you have an unfair advantage to the cisgender girls and that you shouldn’t be allowed to compete with them.
Miller: If you look nationally, there are people that can beat me. I have been beaten by the girls I’ve ran against before. So it’s like, it’s not like, “Oh, I beat every single person.”
Daniari (voiceover): The CIAC will continue to allow Terry to compete. They told us: “To treat any portion of a group of students — who are all legally identified as a particular gender — different from the rest of the group because they are transgender would be discriminatory.” We spoke with Andrea Guerin at New York University to ask about whether sports can ever be a level playing field.
Guerin: When, you know, a transgender athlete isn’t getting first place or isn’t beating the cisgender athletes, people say, “Oh, that’s great, that’s fine. We’ll be inclusive.” But when someone wins, that tends to change things. Just because someone is born a specific sex does not inherently give them advantages. There are a lot of other factors involved. It could be, you know, your height. Some athletes naturally have higher testosterone levels than others and, you know, there are a lot of other factors as well. Access to training facilities, access to really good coaches. So there’s never going to be a fully level playing field.
Daniari: How are controversies like Terry Miller, and other transgender athletes who are going through a similar situation as her, changing the sports world?
Guerin: Ever since sports have existed, there have been examples of discrimination and, if we think back, you know, there was a time when women weren’t allowed to compete. There was a time when, you know, people of differing races weren’t allowed to compete with each other. And so I think this is kind of the next big thing that sports has to overcome and I think that sport has the opportunity to actually set a standard that society can hopefully follow.
Daniari (voiceover): Despite all of the scrutiny and criticism, Terry is pushing forward as an everyday high school student working hard to achieve her goals.
Daniari: Talk to me about how you balance, you know, being a top athlete, also being great in academics and managing your transition.
Miller: How I balance my life with school, transitioning and track. I just go by the flow. It’s hard sometimes, but it feels good to know you can do all three at once.
Daniari (voiceover): Amidst the national attention and a busy high school life, running remains a solace for Terry.
Miller: It’s like nerve-racking at first, but when you finish — cross the finish line and you see you come first, especially when you see your time, it just brings me happiness.
Del Toro: Today on the show, we’re profiling Brad Callahan aka BCALLA, whose made a name for himself with his distinctive and fantastical style that transcends the boundaries of gender. Our correspondent Evan Ross Katz sits down for an interview with the designer in his LA studio to explore Callahan’s unexpected influences, his ascendance in fashion and the power of designing for diverse gender expressions.
Callahan: Azealia Banks was a fun client, but she would send you weird things. They would be like, “I want to look like a mouse in a teacup.” And you’re like, “OK, how do I — like what do you mean?”
Katz: Hey guys, what’s up? It’s Evan Ross Katz, senior style editor at Mic. We are here in downtown Los Angeles at the studio of prolific fashion designer Brad Callahan, aka BCALLA. Brad has designed for many a familiar face, including Lady Gaga, Azealia Banks and Miley Cyrus, just to name a few. He’s also designed for many drag queens who our viewers know and love, including Violet Chachki, Pearl and Aja. When did fashion become something that you were like, “I want to pursue this?”
Callahan: I mean, always — ever since I was a little kid. My older brother was really into comic books, and we would draw a lot of comic books together, and I would design all the costumes for the characters and he would draw them into storylines.
Katz: What were some of your other reference points, whether it be film and television or whether it be other designers?
Callahan: Anime. Anime. Big anime fan and a big comic book fan. Like my brother got me really into comic books, and it was a lot of female-fronted stuff, so like Witchblade and Kabuki and Lady Death, and it was all of these kind of like hypersexualized women in these really kind of crazy skimpy costumes, which I kind of learned about later that you’re like, “Oh, these comic book artists are referencing fashion designers of the time.” They’re referencing Mugler, they’re referencing Gaultier. So it’s really funny because it’s like these straight men were kind of drawing these hypersexualized women that this gay boy was seeing and getting inspired by. And that’s kind of how we ended up here.
Katz: So you come to New York and you sort of made a name for yourself pretty quickly in nightlife.
Callahan: Before I even went into college, there was a website called the Blitz Kids, which I worshipped. And it was all — It had chronicled all of the club kids’ looks from all over the world from like to current time. So I would obsessively try and like look at these — also with FRUiTS [magazine] and things like that, the Japanese fashion magazine. So when moving to New York, I already knew who like Susanne Bartsch was and Kenny Kenny and Andre J. and like all of these, you know, nightlife personalities. My boyfriend at the time was a performance artist, still is. And he started a drag house and I was making clothes for him and a lot of his contemporaries, just because these were the people that were allowing me to make what I wanted to make and wearing it and putting it onstage.
Katz: Was your specialty womenswear or menswear or both?
Callahan: Kind of both. I was — I still am an avid Galliano fan and like the Egyptian collection he did in 2004 is like the reason I’m a fashion designer really. My teachers were like, “Well, this is obviously menswear, you’re obviously designing for drag queens,” which I thought was really funny because that wasn’t really my thought process. I was like, “OK, if everyone is seeing this in my work then I need to understand it a little better.” And that’s when I started going to the library and getting books on gender theory and queer theory and trying to figure out what that connection is and what my connection personally with clothes and gender is.
Katz: How do you feel about the term “drag queen designer”?
Callahan: That’s not really how I label myself, because I design for a lot of people who aren’t just drag queens. For drag, it’s an idea of being bigger and it’s more about proportion and more about presence. In terms of the presence of the fabric and what color it is and how shiny it is and all of these kinds of things go into drag clothes. But in general, I don’t know if there’s that much difference between a performance costume and a drag performance costume.
Katz: So how did Azealia Banks come on your radar or vice versa?
Callahan: Azealia was already, you know, pretty big. “212” had hit, and then “Licorice” came out, which was styled by Nicola Formichetti, which I loved. And I was like a really big fan of that, and my friend Contessa was styling her and just asked to pull some stuff and then she did and I didn’t really hear anything from Azealia until about a year later. And I get this email being like, “I love your stuff, will you design my tour?” And then that’s kind of how it all started. Azealia was a fun client, but she would send you weird things. They would be like I want to look like a teacup — or a mouse in a teacup. And you’re like, “OK, how do I — like what do you mean?” Azealia was no longer touring when I got the call from Miley Cyrus. I mean, it was a really crazy moment. I think for me the craziest part was like it being the VMAs. MTV was such an important thing to me growing up — music videos — that it was so nice to be there and kind of have that moment in pop culture. It’s funny when people talk about queer fashion because if you look at what we grew up in, that was queer fashion. You had the top players were Galliano, Gaultier, Mugler. It was all drag, they were all super gay. The only difference was that these were shown on cis women, or what people perceived as cis women, and when I first moved to New York, I was interning a lot with fashion brands, and a lot of even gay brands would get very nervous around how their branding was positioned, and they didn’t want to use the trans model, or didn’t want the drag queen to pull it because they didn’t want to become one of “those brands.” What has really helped me with my personal brand is that I see you as a good model or as a good performer. I don’t see you as some sort of tokenized situation. It’s open to all. I think that people are beginning to style themselves a lot more freer and I think that that is a good way of where things are going. Now that it’s become — the pink dollar has become more relevant to a lot of change of tune in a lot of brands. I’m definitely gay and definitely queer, and my clothing is, I think, an extension of me, but I don’t label it as queer clothing, per se.
Del Toro: And that’s it for this episode of Mic Dispatch. Follow our show page, and see you next time.
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