Among throngs of tourists spilling clumsily off the freshly docked ferry at Liberty Island, Hayden Graye slithers unbothered through the crowd. Today, they’re wearing a head-to-toe Versace look from the brand’s throwback Pre-Fall ‘19 collection. “I love these looks,” they say, fierce brown eyes peaking over dark black frames. “My first fashion editorial shoot was with Versace in Miami, so it’s full circle.”
They certainly look more suited to the catwalk than an overcrowded boat plank, but Hayden’s stoic confidence deters anyone from so much as batting an eyelash. This is where they belong, and their aura of total self-containment is palpable. Hayden knows something you don’t.
“I don’t need a label, because I want to do it all. My gender is fluid. My sexuality is fluid. I am not sticking to one identity.”
Self-containment is a form of armor for the 21-year old, who grew up feeling like an outsider from a young age in their native Tennessee and subsequently South Carolina. It was during high school that Hayden realized they were non-binary, identifying neither as exclusively masculine or feminine, instead existing outside of the gender binary. “I was always a really nervous kid; I always wanted to fit in. But freshman year of high school I was like, nahhhh, I can’t do it.”
So, Hayden turned to the internet to find community. “I was raised on Tumblr. It meant I had access to everywhere, like New York and L.A. I saw this world of fashion and I was like, ‘I want to dress like that!’ But fashion wasn’t accessible where I was at the time.” Finally, after graduating high school, they took a chance and moved to New York to pursue a modeling career. Around the same time, they made the decision to change their female-coded birth name (self-referred to now as their “dead name”) to the more agendered and ambiguous Hayden.
After wrapping the Versace shoot, Hayden—cozy in an oversized hoodie and jeans—melts into a couch on set declaring, “I’m an open book.” Their journey, while only in its starting chapters, highlights an important lesson: Who you were yesterday is not who you have to be today.
Anna Deutsch: What was it like growing up in the South? When did you identify the fact that you felt different?
Hayden Graye: I didn’t feel accepted from a young age. I look different down in the South. Up here, there’re so many people who look similar to me – like the aesthetic, or whatever. I started to realize I was an outsider in 7th or 8th grade, around the time I started having my own personality and being myself. By high school I stopped fighting it.
“It’s been difficult with old heads and fragile men. They’re like, so what are you—trans? And I’m like, bro, can you like do your research? Google is right there on your phone next to Instagram.”
Were modeling and fashion always on your radar?
I started modeling informally in North Carolina because there were a lot of film photographers down there that amped me up. They told me I should try. But at the same time, I felt that I was too short and could never get signed. When I came to New York to visit a few years ago, I knew I needed to stay.
I’m sure the fact that the modeling world craves authenticity now put you in a good position.
It’s changed so much. It was like a lot harder even three years ago when I was trying to get signed. Having your own brand and your own aesthetic mean that height and size don’t matter—it’s no longer just about your hip to waist ratio. Instagram has made things so crazy. I already had a bit of a following since I was such an Internet kid when I came to New York. Having my own thing going on… it really helped.
You became big in the Tumblr community—what were you posting about?
My internet persona would change like every two months. I had a Lady Gaga fan account, then I went grunge. I went through a hipster phase and skater phase. I was just trying to figure things out. Now I feel like my aesthetic has been pretty consistent, so I don’t have to keep on going through all of these weird phases anymore.
Being Gen Z means you grew up online. Do you think that shaped who you are? How do you think your generation is different than the one before?
I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on older generations because they grew up with the mindset of having to conform more. But Generation Z—we’re a bunch of trolls, like no one gives a fuck! I feel like other generations aren’t as open. Growing up online made me so much more open minded. I was never really a judgmental person, because I knew of all these other communities and backgrounds and was able to communicate with people from so far away – people that I would never be able to meet in person. I think there are insecurities with other generations sometimes because they didn’t have that access growing up.
When and how did you discover that you were non-binary?
I self-discovered that I was non-binary in high school. I guess I’ve always felt like I go back in forth fluidly between gender expression. I go through phases and moods where I feel really boyish or when I feel more feminine, and maybe channel that by wearing dresses.
Did you feel relieved when you read about it?
I felt relieved that other people feel the same way, because it’s really frustrating feeling like I had to pick a certain aesthetic or person I need to represent. But I found communities online. I learned that I can dress however I feel and however I want. I go back and forth all the time now.
It’s interesting you mention how you dress being an important part—how does fashion fit in?
Yeah, fashion is an expression of an inner feeling, and I always dress how I feel. I would go really fem for months and then really masculine. Everyone was always telling me that I needed to pick a side. Are you feminine or are you a tomboy? Or are you trying to be a dyke? I always got labeled that growing up. I definitely use fashion to represent these moods I feel. Some people don’t understand it and tell me dressing like a boy doesn’t make me masculine, but there’s so much more to it—this is an important expression of my feelings and my moods.
“I don’t want to profit off being non-binary. I want to be open about it, but I want to be organic. I don’t want to be a passing trend.”
It’s amazing how uncomfortable some people feel when they can’t label someone.
I don’t need a label, because I want to do it all. My gender is fluid. My sexuality is fluid. I am not sticking to one identity.
Were your parents and friends supportive?
At first, nah. I came out with my sexuality first, and then my gender identity because that is a little bit more confusing for people. No one ever tells you about gender identity—it’s always about sexuality. But I started researching about gender identity and gender fluidity and being non-binary, and I recognized that’s what I was through my research online.
What does masculinity mean to you?
There are so, so many different ways to interpret masculinity. Femininity is so much easier to pin for people, like wearing lipstick. For me, masculinity is a safer net, because it makes me feel tough and strong. I go through these insecure phases, and it makes me want to dress more masculine. I need to be more confident in my femininity as well. It’s confusing to go back in forth in my head about these things! But I feel like a lot of non-binary people feel the same way.
Has it been challenging introducing yourself to the world as non-binary and with a different name than you were born with?
It’s been difficult with old heads and fragile men. They’re like, so what are you—trans? And I’m like, bro, can you like do your research? Google is right there on your phone next to Instagram. It’s frustrating with romantic partners as well, because they’re always trying to put me in a box. If you’re going to be with somebody who doesn’t identify with one of two identities, you have to do your part because it’s offensive as fuck when they try to tell me who I am. Everyone surrounding me now tries their best with pronouns. My best friend, he’s such a grammar-head, so it’s really hard for him. But it’s okay because he’s trying.
How has it affected your work as a model?
Some people have told me to make it more marketable. I don’t want to profit off being non-binary. I want to be open about it, but I want to be organic. I don’t want to be a passing trend.