Thanks to the current explosion of transgender voices in fashion, music and pop culture, a greater respect and understanding of transgender people is now going global...
Is it just me or are there a helluva lot more transgender people around these days? When I was a kid in the 90s, growing up in an insular ex-mining town in Nottinghamshire, my knowledge of transgender issues was, like most people’s, somewhere between low and very low. You just didn’t meet trans people. You didn’t see trans people. You didn’t even talk about trans people. The thought of passing a transgender person in the street… well, you’d have had more chance of bumping into the Spice Girls, which, despite my daily prayers, was never going to happen either. In terms of gender diversity, my childhood, much like yours I suspect, was a total desert.
There were, however, little oases from time to time. I remember there being an awful lot of fuss – not to mention piss taking – when the papers revealed that Israel’s Eurovision entry for 1998 would be avibrant transgender woman by the name of Dana International. She seemed impossibly glamorous and exotic to me as a child. Especially when she won, suggesting the revolutionary idea that ‘transgender’ could mean something aspirational. Although I wasn’t old enough to fully understand why, I felt a bizarre connection with Dana. I was a little boy you see – or at least that’s what I was told I was. I felt like a girl. I had a willy. Talk about confusing.
Thank goodness things have changed since then – and I don’t just mean in my own little universe. I don’t think it is hyperbole to describe the current explosion of transgender voices in public life as a revolution. When was the last time you read an article, watched a show or looked at a picture featuring a transgender person? Chances are, the answer is ‘not that long ago’. Trans people are leading a cultural shift – and nowhere is this more evident than in fashion.
The first signs of change came in 2010. Riccardo Tisci, Creative Director of Givenchy, took his beautiful transgender friend and longtime assistant Lea T and transformed her into an international icon. She was touted as the “world’s first transgender supermodel”, though it wasn’t strictly true. Amanda Lepore, transsexual Barbie and owner of “the world’s most expensive body” was inspiring photographers like David LaChapelle as far back as the 80s. And the legendary April Ashley, one of the first Britons to undergo genital reconstruction surgery, had a successful modeling career in the 50s – even gracing the pages of Vogue. When she was outed as trans in the 60s by a tabloid newspaper, however, her modeling career died instantly. She never worked in fashion again.
Even I’m surprised at the gorgeous faces I’ve started to see on catwalks and magazine covers – and why wouldn’t I be? When you’re raised to believe that ‘transgender’ means ‘inferior’, or ‘ugly’, that being trans is something to be laughed at, why wouldn’t you be blown away when the glorious truth is revealed?
So yes, there were transgender models long before Lea T was even born. The difference is, they usually had to hide. Lea T was the world’s first openly trans model, who wasn’t shunned, sexualized or treated like a gimmick. And it wasn’t long before we were introduced to many more examples of gender diverse beauty. Even I was surprised at the gorgeous faces I started to see on catwalks and magazine covers – and why wouldn’t I be? When you’re raised to believe that ‘transgender’ means ‘inferior’, or ‘ugly’, that being trans is something to be laughed at, why wouldn’t you be blown away when the glorious truth is revealed?
If you were at the Paris fashion shows in January 2011, you very likely would have seen an ethereal blonde floating down the catwalk, which doesn’t sound particularly remarkable given the setting. Till you consider that this particular blonde modelled both men’s and womenswear – I’m talking, of course, about Andrej Pejic. If ever there were proof that beauty exists outside binary notions of gender, Pejic is it. As i-D goes to press, Pejic has revealed that she is a trans woman and has known since she was 13. She’s softened her name to Andreja. I wish her all the best. I’m also looking forward to seeing her in Sofia Coppola’s upcoming Little Mermaid movie. Not every trans person is lucky enough to look like Pejic, of course, and fashion is always going to celebrate the rarest beauty in any demographic, but her career is sure progress.
So what’s different about being a trans model in 2014? Carmen Carrera should know – she shot to fame after appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race and going through a very public transition from male to female. Since then she’s worked “extra hard, to prove [her]self” while modelling for the likes of Stephen Meisel. “When Amanda Lepore came out and she was working with all these amazing people, I think they were going for this culture shock,” Carrera tells i-D. “It was like, ‘Who is this woman who looks like Barbie?’ Fast forward to 2014, and we have Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine She was the first openly trans person to do so, accompanied by the words, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier”. Laverne is charming and eloquent and her success particularly matters because she is one of the most high profile trans women of colour in the world. Cox describes the situation for many trans people as an “emergency” and, with both high suicide rates and risk of family rejection, job discrimination and even violence and murder, especially for trans women of colour, she is right. There’s a gap between increasing public celebration of trans people and the everyday ridicule and danger many of us still struggle with in our daily lives. As Carrera neatly observes, “There are real people out there that are in really dark places that shouldn’t be, just because society is a jerk.”
Laverne and many others are helping to shine light into the darkness. Over the past few years I’ve been working with an innovative campaign called All About Trans, which invites media professionals to meet, lunch and empathise with groups of young trans people. Over the past year we’ve met over 150 media professionals, ranging from BBC comedy execs to decision makers at the Sun and Daily Mail – many of whom had never knowingly met a trans person before. Looking into a trans person’s eyes can have a profound effect on the way someone regards the transgender community and, as a result, how they might treat that community going forward.
Looking into a trans person’s eyes can have a profound effect on the way someone regards the transgender community and, as a result, how they might treat that community going forward.
The movement for greater respect and understanding of transgender people is global. Geena Rocero worked for more than a decade as an international swimwear model before coming out as trans during an impressive TED speech earlier this year. She’s now focusing her efforts on Gender Proud, an initiative to promote the human rights of trans people worldwide. “When Time magazine says it’s the next civil rights frontier, you need to put in the technological context. Shared information spreads so rapidly,” she tells i-D, rather aptly, from New York via Facetime. “Let’s say a person in Malaysia is listening to a Facebook message, a trans woman in the United States talking about all their rights. Something deeper in your core is questioning, ‘How come I can’t have those rights?’ To be able to fully self identify, to fully be able to express ourselves as human beings, whether that means to express your passion at work, to express your creativity, it goes beyond just beyond the transgender issue. This is a human rights issue.”
Geena points out that the fashion industry is already welcoming of gay people, so embracing trans people is a natural progression: “Artistic platforms like the fashion industry have always been receptive to cultural diversity because as creative people this is the first thing that you do, to find ways to express something that is different from a visual standpoint… People are starting to see that there are more ways to be beautiful, that there’s another side to gender that we should celebrate, and I can’t think of another industry that would do that.”
I follow the work and lives of trans people like Geena, of author and advocate Janet Mock, rock star Laura Jane Grace – even R. Kelly’s son Jay, who recently came out as trans at the tender age of 14 – but it’s getting increasingly hard to keep up with everything that’s going on at the moment. It feels like a race. A relay – one that trans people around the world will win, together, because we must. When Conchita Wurst, the bearded drag queen who won this year’s Eurovision, walked down the catwalk wearing a couture Jean Paul Gautier wedding dress last June, she joined countless other trans people racing towards a kinder world.
“I feel that now is our time for us,” says Carrera, “there are girls and women out there and we’re on the same page now – we want to have that fight for respect and we want to set the record straight. Everyone has worked so hard to get themselves platforms where they can finally speak the truth. It’s taken us a while, but we have everyone’s attention.”
2014 is a million miles away from the world I grew up in, and we can only wait and see what effect this increasing awareness will have on today’s children and teenagers who feel, as I once did, that there is something different about them. The long-term impact of today’s gender pioneers won’t be fully appreciated for years to come, but there’s no doubt now that the new gender revolution has begun. Viva la révolution!