Changing a Mind, One Suit at a Time

“I’m black, I’m gay, I’m a woman, and I’m an immigrant.” Best friends Sara Geffrard and Debbie Lemonte are on a year-long mission to share their story across the United States. Using their platform, A Dapper Chick, the duo has brought to light misconceptions about LGBQT individuals as well as provide styling options to queer, androgynous, and non-binary individuals. One of the team’s safe spaces was Bloomington, and PATTERN traveled South to discuss queer-friendly spaces, homophobia, and gender-neutral fashion.

Aubrey Smith:  You’re currently on a year-long journey across America to find safe spaces that cater and embrace the LGBTQ community and individuals. How do you define a safe space?

Debbie Lemonte: A safe space is a place where I can be my authentic self and live my authentic life without the fear of dying or losing everything because of who I am. I shouldn’t have to look over my shoulder or wonder if I’m going to lose this job or health insurance because I’m queer. I need to be in a space where I can be me without fear.

Sara Geffrard: A safe place is where I can be comfortable with myself and not worry about what other people think or how they will react to how I present myself. It’s also for the town or city to be open minded to different individuals. If I can be myself when I walk free in the streets or in a restaurant and no one really cares, then I feel safe.

AS: So that’s the reaction you’re looking for. For people to continue to go about their day.

SG: Right. Exactly.

DL: Like it’s not a big deal. Not like, ‘oh my God, there’s a queer girl sitting over by table five.’ It shouldn’t be like that. At the end of the day, we’re all humans, and on the inside we look the same. The behaviors shouldn’t change.

AS: In general do people go about their day, or do you see people reacting in uncomfortable ways?

SG: Surprisingly, the places that we’ve been so far are very open. People seem like they don’t care. I think this is great. This is really the reaction I’m looking for.

DL: It’s been, ‘OK, cool, you’re masculine-presenting. Big deal.’ They just sit down and talk to you, and they don’t see what you’re wearing. They actually don’t see anything but a person.

SG: What makes it even more special for me is that people usually assume from the way I dress that I’m queer. I never deny it or acknowledge it. But it’s really special for me when I see a queer couple, and they’re freely enjoying themselves. And there’s no pointing fingers or any discrimination.

DL: There’s no side eyes. There’s no one across the street like, ‘take that home; nobody wants to see that!’

At the end of the day, we’re all humans, and on the inside we look the same. The behaviors shouldn’t change.

SG: The first step is being open to having the conversation in the first place. You have to be willing to sit down with the person. It’s also important to use the media, and that is why we’re doing this. When I was trying to find safe spaces, I really couldn’t find articles about cities from a queer woman’s perspective of what it’s like to be in those places. So using the media, whether it’s a campaign or inviting to see people what it’s like so they can tell the story, is a step to let people know [safe cities] exist. Because if we don’t know they exist, we’re not going to go there.

AS: What can be done in places which aren’t currently ‘safe’ by your definition?

DL: Progress comes from listening. Not listening to react, but listening to understand. Let’s say we don’t know each other. Based on my presentation, you may think you automatically know me or my story. But you don’t. Or you come across someone in the LGBTQ community, and you’re not someone 

who’s been in that space where you understand them. The only way you’re going to understand them is to have a conversation. So the first step is to listen to understand. In understanding, you can open yourself up. Because you’re not going to open yourself to something you don’t know or understand.

AS: What about those people who believe themselves to be open-minded, yet have been taught all their lives that people who identify LGBTQ are ‘wrong’? 

DL: I’ve been there before because I grew up in church all my life. I didn’t just attend every Sunday; I was in the dance ministry, I was in the choir, I was the pastor’s assistant, I was the church’s secretary, I was an event planner for their conference every year. [laughs] When I was younger, the mindset was ‘this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.’

You’re always going to have your preconceived notions of what other are like based on what you were taught when you were young. In order for you to understand, you have to open to having difficult conversations, not to try and change someone, or convince them they are wrong, but again, simply to get a different perspective. For a long time, I couldn’t understand transgendered individuals. My idea was, if God made you this way, why would you want to change? It’s not until I had that conversation with others who are transgender that I got it. It took a while, but now I get it.

SG: You should allow yourself to have that experience. Similar to her, I grew up in a church environment. I did all the motions that Catholicism requires. But I was told to be homophobic. I came here when I was 15. I went to school and would see people who were [queer], and it confused me.

At the time, I didn’t realize I was the same way. My mind was changed when I allowed myself to be friends with [queer] people to see what they’re like. I joined the soccer team, which 90 percent of the team was gay. At first, it almost stopped me from joining. But I really wanted to play soccer. So the more I was hanging out with them, the more I realized that they were just like me. They were just regular people. I realized I was exactly like them.

I was reading an article about this guy who grew up taught a certain way. He had never been exposed to other cultures. The minute he stepped away from his family and went to college and starting experiencing other cultures, his perspective changed. It was because he had never been exposed to it.

AS: Do you believe that the struggle to end the divide between the LGBTQ community and the homophobic society is in the near future?

SG: To be honest, I don’t think that will ever fully happen. It’s because of fear. When people are afraid of something, they don’t give it a try. There will always be people that have very negative associations linked to the LGBTQ community. Again, it goes back to if they would allow themselves to hang out and be friends with me. They would realize that I’m just like any other person. I think that’s when it would happen, but that would be utopia, and that’s just not possible.

DL: It really would be utopia. Even in our community itself, we are dealing with our own struggles and neaunces. We’re still struggling with sources for inspiration to be more inclusive of other people in the community. Until that is resolved, which would take a while, everyone else is going to have their idea of what we are like. So I don’t think it’s going to change in the near future.

AS: Are you hoping that your journey will at least bring us one step closer to ‘utopia’? Or is it really more about self discovery?

SG: It’s a little bit of both.

DL: A part of me is praying that this entire expedition will open the eyes of a lot of people. I’m aware that going to certain places [laughs] I’m going to be scared as f*ck. And I might end up in some places where I wonder to myself if should have come with a gun for self protection. But the idea of this openness remains. 

SG: I will say this. If it changes one person’s mind…

DL: …we’ve done what we set out to do.

SG: I’d like to believe that we have. We met someone earlier today. She had no idea about our writing platform. She found us out through a creative agency. She reached out to us today. Her mind was so blown. She had no idea that

we existed or that we were doing this work. I was like, ‘this is why.’

AS: Those one-on-one connections really do make the most powerful impact. How do you personally unite people from varying upbringings and still shine a positive light on your community?

DL: Damn, that’s a good one. I tend to invade spaces. I shoot a lot of events for GQ, which entails a lot of men or masculine-presenting folks. It’s not much of a room for women to be in. You just see a lot of whiskey bourbons and suits. So I start conversations that have nothing to do with sports or news. I’ll connect a topic with the LGBTQ community, and before you know it, we’re having a conversation about equal rights.

SG: I’m more of an introvert, and I really don’t like confrontations., so I use my digital platform to bring light to the issues, whether I’m working with a brand or creating personal content. Even being a woman in the space I’m in and by the way I dress, these conversations start by themselves. I don’t ignore it. If a discussion does occur, I make sure I’m very cognizant that it’s going on, that I’m taking part in it, and that I’m answering questions. Unless they’re being very rude – that’s another story. But I try to answer as many questions as I can through my platform.

Not having opportunities presented to me forced me to create my own path.

AS: Is being a ‘quadruple minority’ a hinderance or an advantage?

SG: Not too long ago, I was working with a company that’s usually perceived as an ‘older white men’ company. Their goal was to change that image. Knowing that I’m able to reach all of these communities, we were able to sit down and have a conversation.

DL: Working at GQ is a great opportunity because they work with older white male photographers. I am the only black woman on their list of event photographers. Just by me being in that space, I am able to secure partnerships, like with the New York Public Library. Again, I’m the only black woman on their photographer’s list. I don’t necessarily see my minority traits as hindrances or play the victim card. I actually look at it as an open door. So if you need that diversity cookie, I will be that diversity cookie.

SG: Now that I think about it, it makes me special. I can do four different things. Whereas my competitor can only do one. 

DL: That’s a really cool question because I’ve never looked at it as a hindrance. Before I got a work permit, I thought my education was being hindered because I don’t have the required paperwork. Even after I got the paperwork, it was hard to get a job, but I found a way to make it work. So that’s my approach in general – find a way, make it work.

SG: It’s forces me to be more creative. If I had all the opportunities that others had, I would not be where I am. Sometimes our biggest opportunities come disguised as challenges.

AS: What is one of the most rewarding memories that you have from this journey thus far?

SG: I have so many rewarding memories. We’re meeting a lot of great people. Like I mentioned, I’m very introverted and have a hard time opening up and being myself. But yesterday at the bar when we were talking to people…

DL: You just bloomed!

SG: Yeah, meeting great people gives me a different perspectives and opens my eyes to things I wouldn’t usually be looking at.

DL: I’m opening my mind a little more. Sometimes I have preconceived notions about what the next place we go will be like. When I get there, it’s the complete opposite. So far, it’s going somewhere new with an actual open mind; an empty platter ready to be filled.

AS: It sounds like you guys believe that open-mindedness is a two way street – you encourage others to keep an open mind, and you’re also learning to be more open minded.

DL: Yeah, when I went to North Carolina, I was like, ‘oh sh*t. People are going to hate me because I’m queer.’ But our Uber guy was so nice! Everyone at our hotel was so friendly. Immediately I realized that not everyone is North Carolina is a d*ck.

AS: Let’s talk about your style. How did you discover yours?

SG: Mine was a response to an experience I had. I used to dress urban; t-shirt, jeans, Jordans. I remember when we moved, there was a store across from our apartment. I’ll never forget the name of the store; it was called Pay/Half. My brother and I walked into the store, and I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before. Then I felt someone following me and thought it was odd. So I stopped walking, and I realized the person was deliberately following me. I tell my brother I don’t understand why she’s following me, and he turns to me and says, ‘oh, you get used to it. She thinks I’m stealing something.’ I ask, ‘why she would think that? If I want something, I’m just going to buy it.’ He says, ‘it’s because you’re black.’ From then on, I started wearing suits because I knew people would treat me better.

When I went to school for architecture, I took a class on color theory. I learned what colors work together. Slowly I started reinventing the way I dress until I felt confident. I would always dress very well. It wouldn’t matter what occasion. I would be going to the grocery store and put on a suit.

DL: I feel like I’m always asking her, ‘why are you ironing your shirt? Just go to the store!’

SG: I’m like ‘no!’ I never know who’s going to be at the store or who’s going to see me. I was also influenced by my dad and uncle always wearing a suit and tie. But it was a very conscious decision.

…he turns to me and says, ‘oh, you get used to it.’ She thinks I’m stealing something. He says, ‘it’s because you’re black.’

DL: I went through so many different phases. My expression was through my clothes and my hair. When we first met, I was really into punk. I wore bright colors and had a mohawk.

SG: I called you peacock.

DL: I was the type of person that if everyone was wearing it, I wasn’t. I wore yellow when everyone wore black. Transitioning from that, I started loving 1930s fashion. That was my dress phase. After that, I started loving my African roots. I was wearing turbans all the time to the point my friends were calling me mama Africa. Eventually, I wanted to wear what fit my body type and what I feel comfortable in. If it’s too tight or loose, I’m not leaving the house. Comfort has been my philosophy over the past four years.

SG: Yeah, to go off of that, it was all about comfort for me since at a young age. Growing up, I was always shopping the boys’ section. I felt more comfortable in loose-fitting jeans. People always ask how my parents reacted to my style at a young age. I never had the whole ‘talk’ about wearing guys’ clothes. I would just tell my mom that I liked how these jeans fit better. She wouldn’t question it. I would walk into a store and go straight to the guys’ section, and she didn’t care.

AS: What are some key fabrics, colors, silhouettes, and patterns you look for when you shop?

SG: I liked slim-fitted, elongated silhouettes. I love topcoats and trenchcoats; it makes me sleeker, and there’s a sense of elegance to it. In terms of colors, my go-to colors are burgundy and navy. My favorite patterns are windowpanes and gingham.

DL: Even though I grew up in the church and have been told to have a conservative look, a part of me wants to make it ‘conservative sexy’. I go for the pants that show off my hips or butt. Even if I’m fully covered, you still get to see my curves. My go-to color is black.

SG: I was going to answer that for you…

DL: Black all day, every day. It goes with everything. You can never go wrong. For patterns, anything that pops. I love African prints or polka dots with a hint of neon. The minute you see it, you’re drawn to it.

AS: Do you prefer boutiques, chain retail stores, pop-ups, or online when you shop?

SG: Online shopping is my go to.

DL: Once I know my measurements, there’s no reason to go into a store.

SG: Boutiques are a little intimidating to me because they are so small. It freaks me out. If you’re an introverted person…

DL: …you’re like, ‘oh crap, I have to talk.’

SG: It’s just me and three racks of clothes. Their intentions freak me out. I like to feel like I’m floating around in a sea of clothes.

AS: Part of the focus of your 52 weeks project is finding affordable clothing for persons interested in masculine-presenting appearance who are feminine-bodied. Why is that important to you?

SG: To be honest, times are hard. I feel like to be independent in the way you look, you have to live comfortably. When clothes, which are a basic necessity, are a luxury, it doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any luxury brands. I’m saying that if we can’t afford to buy them, then what’s the point. It’s important to provide these resources because a lot of young adults don’t have the means to spend high amounts of money for clothing. If they can have that option of having nice clothing and still be able to look good and afford it, we should be able to provide that to them. Before I was getting sponsored clothes, I wanted to buy a custom suit but didn’t have that kind of money.

I was working with s clothing brand and they would have events with raffles for people to win their clothes. And we came up with a campaign to offer limited fabrics at a discounted price. I’m getting it free of charge, but I know this person can’t afford it at all. So I want to provide them an option.

If they can have that option of having nice clothing and still be able to look good and afford it, we should be able to provide that to them.

AS: What is the future for gender-neutral fashion?

SG: There’s a gender-neutral trend going on right now, and I’m not sure if the people promoting have the best intentions. It’s not something new. And might be more about making money than supporting actual gender neutrality.

AS: There’s no creativity.

SG: Yeah, but at least brands are starting to provide options for people who are queer, androgynous, or non-binary. I think people want to have that conversation. Whether or not they’re educated enough to make that happen is a different story. But I would hope that they would be. Five to 10 years from now, I want to walk into a store and not see men’s/women’s or boys’/girls’. I want to see that you walk into a store and find your size.

Photography by Aubrey Smith.

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