Model - Michael Griffin
Stylist - Zachary Roland
Photographer - Zachary Roland
Michael Griffin is a UNO student in the Sociology department. He works at Nebraska Aids Project, and is involved in the local activism community. I met Michael at 13th Street Coffee in the Old Market on a Sunday afternoon. After a short interview, we spent some time exploring downtown.
So I’ll start off with a basic question. Could you give me a little bit of info about yourself? What do you do? What kind of things are important to you?
Yeah, so I’m a student at UNO. I study Sociology, and I also work at Nebraska Aids Project (NAP). So, I guess those two things together really tie in to the passion that I have for activism and advocacy work.
And you’re also involved in the DIY community, right?
Yeah, yeah. I’m also really involved in art, and music, and dance. I think there are a lot of common misconceptions that these are separate, compartmentalized areas, but the more experience I’m getting, the more I’m realizing that everything’s connected. I think it’s really cool, especially when you bring clothing into the equation.
So, how would you describe your style?
I think I would describe my style as a manifestation of my essence. I would describe my style as an act of resistance. You know, my style is pretty flamboyant. I’m non-binary and trans, and I’m also black. So when you have those identities and ideas together, I really feel like there are certain expectations for people that are assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) that are black with how they portray themselves. Whether it be to show their sexuality, or masculinity, etc. For me, the simple act of “looking gay” or “looking trans” is really validating to who I am. It’s important because in this society, especially with the current political climate, there are feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty. But, clothing is a tangible object that you have control over. So that’s what fashion means to me.
I think it’s super interesting how we express gender identity through fashion. It’s interesting to see how that works in Omaha, in a smaller community. I love that you have a very distinct style, and you’re not afraid to be flamboyant. You’re not afraid to be who you are, and express that through how you dress.
Thanks, I appreciate it. But really I am afraid. It’s sketchy sometimes, you know? But I’m not afraid to fight through that fear. I feel like that’s significant when you talk about clothing and dress. It’s interesting because fashion fluctuates depending on the culture or the context. For me personally, if I’m hanging out with like hipsters or people in the art scene, people think I’m fashionable or I’m badass. But if I’m hanging in a bro-y, cis (cis-gender) dude scene, then people just think I’m gay and they say weird shit. So it’s interesting how it changes depending on the context.
Yeah, I guess that’s something I don’t necessarily have to think about as much as a cis-gender man when I dress and how I express myself through my clothing. It’s really adding an entire new layer to things. Or, maybe it’s just acknowledging a layer that I don’t have to due to my privilege.
So what got you interested in fashion initially? Is it something you’ve always cared about?
I have no idea actually. To me it kind of seems like I just went from wearing bro-tanks and shorts everyday to wearing the kinds of stuff I wear now. I don’t know. I think just having a willingness to embrace femininity within myself. And then to take the next step and to have my physical appearance match my internalized self, and try to have congruence with that.
"My thing is having my cleavage out at all times. And that’s because it’s reclamation for me."
Photo by Zachary Roland
In previous interviews, I’ve asked if your sense of style is an outward projection of yourself or your identity. Obviously you’ve already said that.
Mhm. Also, it was a total game-changer when I started wearing women’s clothes. I’m like 5’ 4”, and I have a big ass and thick thighs. So as far as pants go, women’s clothing is way better for me.
It’s always funny how people get so hung up on what side of the store they’re buying their clothes in.
I don’t really pay attention to that anymore. I wear some of my partner’s clothes sometimes, and she wears some of my clothes sometimes. It seems to me like if that clothing fits better on your body, or you just like it, then why would you not wear it?
The first time I bought a women’s shirt at Goodwill, it was pretty scary. Goodwill has a lot of christian connotations and I was just like “Oh, I wonder if you’re gonna say shit?” That was like two years ago.
Has anyone ever said anything to you?
No, people who do say things usually just walk right up to me and say, “So you’re gay, right?”
It’s like, “Well firstly, hi...”
Yeah like, “Hey, I’m Michael.”
Yeah, and then when I tell people that I’m not into guys, they tell me that I’m so courageous to dress like this. I feel like wouldn’t it be more courageous for someone to dress flamboyantly if they were into men? Doesn’t that take more courage than to be the “cool, straight guy?”
Yeah, because if you’re a “cool, straight guy” that’s dressing flamboyantly then you’re protected by that privilege. It’s like having a straight card or something.
So before I saw myself as trans, I saw myself as the cool, hip, cis guy who’s not afraid to do whatever. It’s really interesting - the difference between being edgy with how you dress, and actually representing who you are with how you dress. That was something that was pretty impactful for me to realize.
"It was a total game-changer when I started wearing women’s clothes."
Photo by Zachary Roland
So then how has your style evolved over time? You mentioned earlier you used to just wear bro-tanks, etc. Has that sort of evolved as you’ve realized your identity?
I think it’s a combination of that. Also, I used to wear baggy pants, but I’m like two feet tall. So if you’re short and you wear baggy pants you look like a baby. I lost a ton of weight when I was in highschool, and ever since then I’ve been more open to wearing tighter clothing.
That’s so funny, because in my personal experience, and in other people’s that I’ve talked to, losing weight seems to be a huge instigator for getting into different styles and fashions.
It sucks that it takes losing weight for someone to feel the confidence to do that. But it totally makes sense, especially if you’re a teen.
It’s especially interesting because the people that I’ve talked to about it have mostly been guys. And it seems like women have a lot more pressure to look a certain way. Clothes are targeted towards a certain body type. Like, the average women’s size today would be considered plus-sized in most brands.
I think it’s way, way worse for people that are assigned female at birth (AFAB). But I feel that, in general, fatphobia is huge in our society and I think that transcends all genders and races, etc.
Every time we hang out, it seems like you’re wearing something completely different. Do you have a go-to outfit? Or are you just constantly mixing it up?
I have a solid eight shirts that I recycle, and like three or four pants that I recycle. But as far as I know, I don’t have a specific go-to. I definitely have a go-to pair of boots, though. I have a lot of leather boots, and there’s one pair that’s definitely my favorite. They’re falling apart, so I don’t wear them as much as I used to.
What is it about them that makes you like them so much?
I just feel badass, man. I like walking and hearing my feet click on the ground! It’s like you’re strutting. It also makes me feel like I’m a Lenny Kravitz background dancer or something.
I have a giant scarf and I always feel like Lenny Kravitz when I’m wearing it.
If I had to say my fashion mantra, it would be “flamboyant Lenny Kravitz.”
"I would describe my style as a manifestation of my essence. I would describe my style as an act of resistance."
Photo by Zachary Roland
I was just about to ask if you had any fashion inspirations. So Lenny Kravitz. Anyone else? Any brands you like?
I don’t know brands, most of my shopping is at Goodwill. I really look up to a lot of trans artists. Alok Vaid-Menon. Travis Alabanza. What I love about it, is that to me it’s like the epitome of fashion. They’re trans people of color, and that alone means that they’re life is at stake every moment of every day. But as opposed to wearing gray polos and slacks, they’re fucking wearing the most mismatched, bright colors. It’s like saying, “I am here.” And I feel like there’s nothing more validating than that. So that’s what I strive for. Not so much in a sense of emulating articles of clothing, like with Lenny Kravitz, but just emulating the liberation of walking how the fuck you want to walk, knowing that your liberation could lead to your death. There’s nothing more inspirational to me. I think it’s something we should all strive for.
So we’ve been talking about breaking down all these fashion barriers. Do you feel like there are any fashion faux-pas or mistakes that you’ve made? Or maybe a fashion rule that you break on purpose?
Well, for the audience at home that doesn’t know me, my thing is having my cleavage out at all times. And that’s because it’s reclamation for me. When I was younger I got teased a lot for having “man boobs” or whatever the fuck that means. Also I feel like it’s pretty taboo for people that are AMAB to expose their body. It’s interesting. If I was AFAB exposing my body would be hyper sexualized and all that stuff. But in the context of being AMAB it’s kind of like reclaiming my femininity in a public environment. And, it’s really interesting how different types of bodies can be engaging in the same actions but have completely different connotations. So I feel like that’s something that I break. I wear a lot of mesh shirts, so people see my nips a lot.
That’s such a weird thing in America, that you can’t show your nipples. You’ll see pictures of people in Europe walking around and they’ll be wearing a mesh shirt and you can see their nipples and no one cares.
I also feel like I should say that’s a byproduct of my male privilege. I’m quite sure if I was AFAB and I walked around college and people could see my nipples as easily, my experience would be different.
So I’m doing this blog specifically to highlight people in Omaha. I just wanted to ask for your feelings and thoughts on our community in general. Are there things you like about Omaha or things you think we could improve on?
I think we all know that Omaha is really segregated. Like, horribly. I think that when we talk about fashion and clothing, that’s really shows through policy work. I know that at fun-plex two summers ago, there was a dress code something like no baggy clothes, no hats with stickers on them. Who do you think that’s applying to? Obviously black people. So I think it’s important to remember that fashion, like everything else, is political. Especially when we mention cultural appropriation and things of that nature.
For me, I think it’s interesting how different scenes have very clear fashions. For instance, I’m kind of in the punk side of the DIY scene, and a year ago I had no idea that I would have like four leather jackets. It’s weird how just being in that scene has made me not only subconsciously start wearing leather stuff, but actually like it. But in that regard, I like omaha quite a bit. I think I’ve been surrounding myself with more like-minded people lately, and that’s really changed my perspective on Omaha. And my brief interaction with Omaha Fashion Week was super fun.
Do you think that living here in Omaha has influenced your style at all?
Fashion is interesting. Sometimes I wonder if I’m fashionable or if Omaha is just really boring. Like if I was to move to NYC would people just be like, “okay another mesh shirt. Whatever. Leather boots. Everyone’s like that here.” I didn’t realize how much pride I felt in being fashionable until I felt upstaged. So I would say that being in Omaha makes me feel more special in certain ways. At the same time, I’m not sure if Omaha is boring or if I’m just cool.
I don’t think that people here are less fashionable than people in major metropolitan areas and fashion centers like New York or LA. I just think the concentration of people that care about fashion is a lot less. I think there are people here who are pushing the boundaries. I think you push the boundaries, and you would still stand out walking down the street in New York.
Aw, cool. Thanks!
So is there anything else you were hoping to talk about that we haven’t touched on?
I just think it’s important to remember the social and political contexts of fashion. I think that an interesting thing about fashion is that it’s kind of a paradox. It’s something that you always want, but as soon as you have it it’s time to get the newer thing. I think it’s an endless cycle. So for me it’s really interesting having that contrast with my gender. Because with my gender, it’s like I’m in control and I want it to always be this way. Whereas no one’s in control of what’s fashionable. So it’s interesting to have those two worlds collide, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.