Interview with an icon: Benji Carlisle’s gender nonconforming style

Benji Carlisle
Benji Carlisle dressed for Carnival in Trinidad. — photo via Instagram, courtesy of Benji Carlisle

“I cut my hair off and bought a button down, and discovered the power I have when I walk with my shoulders back,” Kate Hawbaker-Krohn said in an interview for my article “Fitting In,” published in the mid-June issue of Little Village. The simple act of dressing to fit her gender helped her to feel “powerful, connected and left-of-center.” But how does one get to the place where you know how you wish to dress?

As a high-femme, cisgendered woman who spent parts of her adolescence presenting in a much more masculine way, I turn to style icons. I’ve been obsessed with Amber Rose’s personal assistant, since this winter, when I saw a picture of him dressed for Carnival in Trinidad, just slaying in a waist-length, stick-straight weave, heels and a stunning turquoise costume designed to be worn by “women.” For feminine-of-center young men of color with access to Instagram, the very public and unapologetic emergence of Benji Carlisle, a 25-year-old from Pensacola, Florida, is probably giving them aesthetic life right now, too.

Perhaps it’s not only that Carlisle is stunning and charismatic, but also that “mainstream” people are ready to embrace male-identified style icons who routinely blur the boundaries of gender without needing to create a separate “drag” persona. There are thousands of Instagram posts that use or reference Carlisle’s #TomgirlsWeExist. That assertion, coupled with the supportive platform provided him by Rose, is helping tomgirls of color gain increased visibility for themselves.

In your interview with (possibly NSFW), you describe your aesthetic as “soft and glamorous,” and mention that discovering thrift stores was crucial in allowing you to fully be yourself without having to spend a lot of money. I love that you spoke so frankly about socioeconomic status — which is a very real issue for many queer and trans kids, especially QTPOC. Can you remember the first garment you found at the thrift store that really thrilled you and made you feel glamorous?

The first garment I found at a thrift store was a white and gold beaded, sequined blouse that I got almost seven years ago. I still haven’t worn it yet [he laughs]. It’s in my closet waiting for the right fashion moment for me to wear it.

Now that you have access to a wider variety of brands at different price points, how has the experience of shopping changed for you? Do you shop primarily online or in stores? Are there stores that you absolutely adore visiting because the staff treats you well? Are there stores/brands that you avoid because of past experiences with discrimination? Do you still do a lot of thrifting?

My shopping experience hasn’t changed for me at all. The only difference is that I have [added] a few designer pieces to my wardrobe. I shop primarily in stores. I love, love, love, love, love, love, love shopping in thrift stores. I’m a solo shopper. I don’t usually need customer [service] assistance, and I have never experienced customer discrimination. I mean, there have been times when I feel like I haven’t gotten as much help as I may [have] wanted or needed, but I usually don’t seek help. I go in with my music and my headphones, I pick out the garments I want, I take those to the fitting room, I try them on, I have my own little party, I buy my items and I go.

Iowa City is a college town with a huge student population. Any advice for young adults struggling with how to make their wardrobes fit their identities?

My advice is to go in front your mirror at home and try on many different looks in your closet — things that you wouldn’t even imagine putting together! Play with your wardrobe, by yourself. Whatever you feel comfortable in standing in front of the mirror, wear it wherever you want, and wear it without a worry.

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