Transgender Model Geena Rocero On The Gender Acceptance Paradox, And How Fashion Still Gets It Wrong

An interview with Geena Rocero on gender acceptance, the fashion industry and being a new face of Marriott's LGBT-friendly #LoveTravels campaign.

Marriott couldn’t have known transgender acceptance was going to be such a turbulent issue in the week surrounding the launch of their latest campaign. First there was Laverne Cox’s TIME cover, which explicitly told us we had reached the “transgender tipping point.” But the triumph was short-lived, as just the following day a violent, dehumanizing attack against two transgender women on the Atlanta MARTA reminded us transphobia is still very present. Even (sadly but unsurprisingly) amongst those of us very plugged in to current media conversations.

So when Marriott released the LGBT-friendly #LoveTravels yesterday, the timing couldn’t have been any better. The campaign takes the form of a provocative portrait series, shot by Braden Summers and featuring LGBT notables including model, activist, and veritable babe Geena Rocero. Rocero is an out-and-proud transgender woman who has been modeling in New York for nearly a decade. She began identifying as a woman at age 6 in her native Philippines, and legally at age 17 after immigrating to the United States. But she only made her story known to the public at a TED talk three months ago.

Since her very public coming out, Geena has put fashion on the back burner and used her visibility to launch GenderProud, an initiative dedicated to transgender awareness and empowerment. We spoke to her about what she’s achieved with the organization so far, what she hopes to achieve with #LoveTravels, and how even fashion, which has always been one of the LGBT community’s greatest advocates, still sometimes gets it wrong.

How did you come to be cast in the Marriott campaign?

I met Braden Summers at an event in November 2013 -- one of the first events where I publicly shared that I’m a transgender woman and my plan on coming out and creating change. Shortly after, I gave a TED Talk in March 2014 where I came out. Braden and the Marriott Team then invited me to help to showcase LGBT Individuals to celebrate inclusion and diversity, promoting Marriott’s warm welcome for everyone.

That was so recently. Do you think you still would have found success as a model if you had decided to identify as transgender when moving to New York to model in 2005?

I am not sure. I certainly know that I wasn’t ready to talk about that fact that I am a transgender woman at that time.

Tell us about your decision to launch GenderProud.

In 2005, I was traveling from New York to Tokyo with my Filipino passport, with my male name and gender marker. In the Philippines, there still isn’t a law that would allow transgender and intersex people to change name and gender marker on documents. Next thing I knew, two immigration officers took me to the Immigration Holding office. It was an embarrassing and dehumanizing moment. That raised my consciousness of injustice -- no individual should go through that.

What has been your own proudest moment since launching?

Mostly receiving messages from people all over the world about how much my TED Talk had inspired them. People would stop me on the street and share their stories — not just about gender identity, but stories of courage, loss, dreams, passion and disappointments. The human connection in those moments reminds me how grateful I am to be advocating for transgender rights globally.

Where do you think the United States currently stands in relation to other countries in terms of transgender acceptance?

I came from a part of the world where gender fluidity has been part of thousands of years of civilization; there’s Guan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion who’s transgender, Hijras in India and many more. In Asia, the LGBT community is culturally celebrated but not politically recognized; in the US, the understanding of gender binary is more rigid, yet there’s a law that allowed me to change my name and gender marker on documents. So it’s a paradox that we at GenderProud are trying to merge — it should be both culturally celebrated and politically recognized. Laverne’s Cox TIME Magazine Cover is historic in that it allows LGBT people all over the world to dream and know that it’s possible to be someone. At the same time, two transgender women in Atlanta were attacked on the train, and striped of their clothes while people on the train applaud.

The fashion industry has always been one of the most supportive of the LGBT community, and in the last few years there has been such a huge focus on the “T.” But there are still those who perceive transgender models as a dicey issue. How do you interpret comments from people such as Tim Gunn, who said models like Andrej Pejic make the waif standard all the more unattainable to cisgender women because “anatomically, women and men have different shapes”?

Fashion, and the arts in general, has always been a great platform to celebrate diversity in expression. Tim Gunn’s opinion is coming from the wrong perspective. You can’t specifically say that Andrej Peijic to be a representation that would cause women to be waif. Andrej should be celebrated, it’s that simple.

What do you hope to achieve next with the Marriott campaign and Gender Proud?

Marriott’s #LoveTravels allows LGBT individuals to be represented in a dignified way. Braden Summers’ work is truly inspirational and his images for the campaign will make an impact with how LGBT individuals are seen authentically in media and society. With GenderProud, I aim to travel the world, meet people of different cultures, and have a conversation with as many people about what it means to be human and transgender.

Reprinted with permission from Styleite. Want more?

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