Ending weeks of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, one of the biggest state secrets of the Trump administration looks ready to be unveiled. According to Women’s Wear Daily and other news outlets, Melania Trump has chosen a dynamic duo to create her inaugural wardrobe: fashion legends Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld. It’s a bold move by the designers, as other top dressmakers have just said no to the incoming first lady — setting off a political and social-media firestorm.
Last month, after designers Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, and others, said that they would refuse to dress Melania, Bryan Fischer, the uber-conservative host of the show “Focal Point” on American Family Radio, added to the social-media controversy when he tweeted what appeared to be a simple question: “If a baker can be forced to bake a cake for homosexuals, can a dressmaker be forced to make a dress for Melania?”
On the face of it, this may seem like a reasonable question. If it’s wrong to say that you won’t bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, why isn’t it also wrong to announce that you refuse to make a dress for Mrs. Trump? She has rights, too, doesn’t she? Or maybe this is one of the “extra rights” that Ben Carson, the nominee for secretary of housing and urban development, claimed at his confirmation hearing last week that LGBT people seek. For the record, I — and every gay person I know — seek equal, not extra, rights.
Fischer’s tweet came in response to an unprecedented reaction by certain A-list designers who announced that they would not dress the new first lady. Sophie Theallet proved to be the most vocal — and political — when she tweeted: “I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady,” calling out the rhetoric of “racism, sexism, and xenophobia” in Donald Trump’s campaign. She then called on all designers to join her in refusing any such assignment — a fashion boycott, if you will.
Theallet’s use of fashion as a form of political protest earned her praise from some, which apparently infuriated Fischer, who not surprisingly doesn’t see her as a hero.
Fischer claims that it’s hypocritical of Theallet to refuse to dress the incoming first lady, which he conceded would “violate [her] own conscience and compromise [her] values,” because that is exactly what Aaron and Melissa Klein, co-owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Ore., faced when they refused to provide a cake for a same-sex (or in his words, “sodomy-based”) wedding in 2013. Cakes crafted by the Kleins, Fischer wrote, “represented their artistic talent and communicated a message about their own values.”
But Fischer draws a false equivalency between the bakers and the dressmakers, for two reasons. One is purely legal: The Kleins broke the law. A lesbian couple sued them under Oregon’s Unlawful Discrimination in Public Accommodations law, which protects same-sex couples from discrimination, and won a $135,000 judgment.
No designer is breaking any law by declining Melania Trump’s business (or refusing to do her a favor in return for the publicity). As Joe Jervis, a popular LGBT blogger, wrote, “Political affiliation is not a protected class in any state.”
There’s another reason that the equivalency Fischer makes is off-base — and it’s not about law but about civility. We’re all allowed our personal likes and dislikes, and the designers who demurred are no exception. Designers and their celebrity clients tend to hand-pick one another based on mutual need and desire, and may politely decline to dress or be dressed by anyone. “She’s not necessarily my image,” Ford said of Melania on “The View.” Derek Lam explained to Women’s Wear Daily, “I find it challenging to be personally involved in dressing the new first lady.”
Had the Kleins simply disliked their would-be lesbian customers based on rude or disruptive behavior, they would have been within their rights to send them packing, just as any store owner may eject troublemakers. (Managing to refuse or eject every black, Jewish, or Muslim customer for poor behavior would, of course, arouse suspicion.) But by all accounts, the brides are lovely people. They’re just gay.
Personal preferences (“He’s a creep” or “She doesn’t pay her bills”) are very different from refusing to provide services to an entire class of people under the guise of religious freedom. Notably, the dissenting designers haven’t said that they won’t dress Ms. Trump because of her religion (“She’s an Episcopalian!”), her race (“She’s white!”) or her national origin (“She’s from Slovenia!”). That would be illegal and discriminatory, and I’d say lock ’em up — or fine them.
And that’s the lesson for the rest of us. We’re free to shun whomever we choose based on who they are or their politics — but not on what group they belong to. In many cases, such behavior is illegal; in all cases, it’s odious.
Agree or disagree with my perspective? Let me know in the comments section below.
Email questions to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach the author on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Jan. 24 at 1 p.m.