casil mcarthur on finding his voice as the first trans male supermodel
Talking to the 18-year-old about his path to self-actualization and his desire to “start an organization that pays for people’s transgender reconstruction surgeries.”
Donald Trump's inauguration was on Casil McArthur's 18th birthday. He was home in Estes Park, Colorado, wishing he could be out on the streets protesting. "Denver was fucking amazing," he remembers. "Just peaceful protesting, and it was wonderful. I really wanted to be involved but I couldn't do it because of my top surgery." It's very Casil to see the unexpectedly bright side of that turbulent political moment. When we chat a few weeks later in New York, the young model is bursting with enthusiasms and obsessions: cosplay, fashion, the environment, and most of all, transgender activism.
"I want to help make progressive statements to try and change the world, change society," he tells me, playing with the hem of his pink t-shirt. "So, yes, it sucks being labeled a 'trans male model,' but at the same time if I wasn't, how would kids my age and younger or people older than me find me?"
Finding Casil is becoming a whole lot easier. Although he has understandably conflicted feelings about labels, he is fast becoming the first trans male supermodel (trans women like Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic are already well established). During fashion week in New York, he walked the Marc Jacobs runway in a powerful red tracksuit, and he has been captured by legendary photographers including Steven Meisel and Collier Schorr. Meisel spotted him and put him on a six-month exclusive, the fashion industry's equivalent of a Supreme Court clerkship. Guaranteed success.
"I still hear a girl's voice in my head, it's weird," says Casil. For an aspiring rock star who has studied music for years, he's paying special attention to the changes in his voice. He began his transition in December 2015 at 16 years old. He's still navigating its complexities, and the effects of testosterone. Along with an Adam's apple, broader shoulders, and muscle definition, a new voice is one of the major effects of hormone therapy. "Of course with transitioning, I lost my voice completely," he says. "I went tone deaf and lost years of vocal training, out the window, so I'm kind of dying on the inside right now, but it's getting better since I'm able to hear my voice, this new voice, and retrain myself, but it takes time."
Every 18-year-old is finding their voice in some way or another. The fact that Casil is literally finding his is part of his poignant story. Collier Schorr (one of our most important chroniclers of gender) has shot him at ages 16, 17, and now 18. Of the experience, she says, "First as a girl who had decided to really articulate his gender, through his beginning to take testosterone and growing taller and more masculine, to Casil as a new man with a new voice and a new chest and a softening of what it means to express one's own total unique vision of oneself." It's a remarkable photographic relationship, and one that means a lot to Casil. He wrote an ode to her on his Instagram page: "Collier is a giant support of courage in my life and I'm thankful she's with me to watch every part of this transition."
In a country that is becoming increasingly driven by absolutes and walls, fashion can be an artistic haven for teenagers who question gender constructs. Collier's photos of Casil for Re-Edition magazine are a perfect expression of seeming dichotomies: traditionally boyish crew-neck t-shirts and denim jackets are paired with heavy, 80s-style makeup and dark vampish lipstick.
Growing up in Estes Park, a town best known for being home to the hotel from The Shining, Casil had a close-knit group of friends that was, as he says, "gay as fuck." Scouted as a child, Casil modeled as a woman throughout his teens while experiencing increasingly intense depression from gender dysmorphia ("It was killing me"). He dodged the stress of attending the local public school by being home-schooled.
And outside of modeling, acting, and singing, the imaginary wonderland of cosplay became his sanctuary, as it is for many trans kids. Casil always felt more comfortable cosplaying males. At one convention, he dressed as Dave Strider from the webcomic Homestuck, and was approached by a deaf woman who said, Holy crap, you are the most beautiful man I have ever seen in my life. When Casil tells me this story, he tears up. "Something changed for me," he says. "I had never gotten a compliment like that before, and to be perceived as a beautiful stunning man -- I didn't realize that was the one thing I wanted in life."
Transitioning as a teen can be brutally difficult. Transitioning with a job that is so intrinsically linked to appearance and identity can be even more so. Casil's first test shoot as a man brought him to his current "mother agent," Greg Chan at Soul. As Greg says today, "I was quite enamored by Casil's beauty as a girl knowing him since he was born, but when he made the decision to transition I became even more intrigued by the person that was trying to get out. So it became less about the face than his identity. The truth is it wasn't easy for me at first, but when I saw that first test I realized there was something special there and with it came this voice he didn't have before." Soul's willingness to take him on as a trans male model was pivotal. As Casil says, "The only way I was ever going to transition was to become a successful male model."
Professionally and personally, he came into his own around this time. Collier Schorr observes, "Seeing it from his perspective it was only after announcing a masculine pronoun and name and moving through binding and top surgery [that] he felt free to escape conventional made postures and celebrate what can only really be a blend of instincts and impulses and references."
Casil's coming-of-age is completely linked to his gender actualization. As he says, "While I was going places as a female model, I would never have been doing things like this interview today if I had continued doing what everyone told me to do." Today, he's triumphant: "The only way in my opinion that you can succeed in really, truly, finding your path, is when you drop everything and risk everything to be who you are."
We spoke before the Trump administration tragically rolled back protections for trans youth, allowing them to use the bathrooms of their true gender. The topic is one Casil knows intimately. "I still can't comfortably use public restrooms," he says. "I'm afraid. What if somebody notices something's different?" He wants his challenges to be known to the next generation of young people in his position. "I want it to be easier for trans kids to be recognized. The hardest thing is to be a child and be transgender. That is the hardest thing because everyone's like, You're not old enough to know."
His ultimate goal, bigger than modeling, bigger even than music, is helping these trans kids. "I'm going to start an organization that pays for people's transgender reconstruction surgeries," he says. (In America these procedures are typically not covered by insurance.) "Top surgeries, bottom surgeries, hormone therapies...Because how awesome would it have been if somebody came to me two years ago and was like, Here is your top surgery." He ended up paying for his top surgery with the money from his first campaign, for Milk Makeup.
Casil speaks candidly about how his mental health stabilized on testosterone. He lost a few friends in the process, who didn't understand the changes. There were six months or so of what he calls "mental transition." And from that came a kind of radical, bi-gender empathy. "It's pretty weird but it's nice because you get to experience both sides," he explains. "You know how both sexes continuously fight about who has it worse all of the time? You can see why they just can't get along because they can just never understand or sympathize. And until you've actually experienced having estrogen or testosterone in your body you're never going to sympathize."
We've been talking for hours but it's hard to say goodbye. Casil excitedly bounces in his chair as he tells me about his plight to spread awareness about the seven species of endangered honeybees. He's brimming with tangents and ideas: about LGBT rights, about Steven Hawking's predictions for the future, about Mike Pence.But it all comes back to speaking your truth. "People don't want carbon cutouts," he tells me.
Text Rory Satran
Photography Lia Clay