"Even in the M.A.C. world, while you are embraced for who you are, I found that I had more wiggle room as a gay man," M.A.C. makeup artist Gizelle Messina explains. "The more masculine I was, the more opportunity presented itself — and I skyrocketed."
Messina is sitting at a conference room table in a shared workspace in Los Angeles. Wearing all black, her long, wavy hair is loose and her pristine makeup is an undeniable giveaway of her industry experience. "I had just gotten my own counter, a staff of eight, a promotion, a condo, and a brand new car, but when I got home and looked in the mirror I would just cry because I didn’t recognize myself."
Her hands become tense and her eyes dim retelling the moment when she couldn't take it anymore — it was finally time to tell her boss.
Coming out as transgender is the task of a lifetime; and coming out to your boss, even in 2017, can still feel like a career-killer. "I know the stories about people like me who out themselves in the workplace," Messina continues, "This is when companies utilize policy and procedure to manage you out without saying that it’s because you’re different. I was hiding so brilliantly, that I felt like this person I had created, if I abandoned it, I would lose everything."
To celebrate Pride Month, Messina is joining six other trans individuals from around the country to share their stories in a documentary film by Transparent director Silas Howard. More Than T premieres tonight on ShowTime, but we sat down with Messina to learn more about her specific journey, ahead.
Working Her Way Up
As you're likely gathering, Messina did not get fired after she told her boss at M.A.C. she was transgender. She didn't get fired when she transitioned either. Quite the contrary: She'll be celebrating her 17th year at M.A.C. soon. Instead, her supervisor asked what she should call Messina, made a Ru Paul quip to lighten the mood (he's one of the company's original spokespeople), and that was about it. "It was then that I truly understood who I worked for," Messina says.
This isn't an experience that every trans or genderqueer individual receives — far from it. According to the National Center For Transgender Equality, 75% of transgender individuals have suffered from discrimination at work, while more than 25% have lost a job due to bias. A 2015 survey found 30% having reported a job loss or loss of a promotion due to their gender expression. What's more, this study found that 77% took steps to hide their gender expression in the workplace for fear of being terminated or harassed. Messina calls herself "very privileged" for both her professional coming out story and how supported she's been in her adult years since.
Of course, this was when things took a turn for the better. But everything up until this moment sadly followed a more-common trans experience growing up in Central California. "Everyone is pointing out that you’re different, and you’re just trying to play on the jungle gym," she remembers. Hers is a story that many trans kids can unfortunately relate to: By 13-years-old she was kicked out of her dad's house and she was parenting herself on the streets by 15-years old. She'd been raped and physically assaulted numerous times by 18, and the regular verbal harassment was incessant in the years following.
“By 18 it was just so hard to exist — to go to the grocery store, to go get something to eat with my mom, it was just was too much,” she says. "At that age, you almost feel like you want to give up, but there was something telling me to push through."
For Messina, finding a safe haven at work changed everything. She landed a job at the Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento at 18-years-old doing makeup at Glamour Shots; she then worked her way up to the Benefit counter, then eventually landed at M.A.C.
Her new job coincided with a romantic relationship that would temporarily cut off her feminine expression completely. "He said 'I love you and I think you're beautiful, but I want to be with a man'," she recalls. "I embraced a new voice, a new stance, and a new definition of who I was." This was when Messina observed her privilege starting to change. "I noticed that the more masculine I was, the more society accepted me, which was a huge mindfuck, because I had existed completely feminine my entire life," she says. Things were going so well that she kept up the facade long after the two had split. But she knew it wasn't who she truly was.
Finding Her Safe Haven
When Messina came out as transgender in the workplace, she credits her employer for making it a positive experience. "I do think that the beauty industry is a place that’s going to be a more welcoming workforce for someone who is non-gender conforming or transgender to exist," she says, "And I feel that M.A.C. is leading it."
Messina's been with M.A.C. for over 16 years now, and works in one of the most liberal cities in the country: Los Angeles. But even here, work is a sanctuary.
"Within the four walls of M.A.C. — that’s where life is so unique for me," she says. "I’m not Gizelle the trans person; I’m an artist, a leader, someone with tenure. I'm someone who is very well respected. People make a B-line for me to do their makeup, but as soon as I leave those walls I get the trans experience. I could be three feet out of my work and I'm knocked back to reality with, 'That's a man!' or, 'Fag!'"
But M.A.C.'s contributions don't stop at Gizelle's individual experience. "We celebrate diversity and inclusion," an official company statement reads. "M.A.C. has made it its mission to be a safe place for LGBT and gender-non conforming people and have put funds towards that very mission, giving over $450 million to initiatives that are working to end HIV/AIDS and end the stigma for those living with it."
What's more, More Than T was made possible thanks to the M.A.C. AIDS Fund — and it seeks to rewrite the trans narrative with Howard at the helm, who is also transgender. The goal: Move past the headlines, the coming out stories, the isolation, and the struggles, and highlight the actual, multidimensional lives of the individuals.
The marked change in how trans individuals are portrayed in the media isn’t lost on Messina. She remembers seeing trans women on TV growing up — always with a cartoonish deep voice or maybe caught standing to pee for comic relief. "And the ones on CSI were always the prostitute," she says, "But we’re slowly getting there. Laverne Cox has a prime time television show! What a reward to see a trans person portrayed as an attorney."
Opening her life up to the public eye wasn't easy for Messina, but she's glad she did it — and she's feeling optimistic about the future for more trans and gender nonconforming individuals to find steady employment, representation, and a safe haven inside and outside the beauty world.
"I know not every cosmetics company is like M.A.C., but I know that eventually they will be, because it’s the right thing to do," she says. "I look forward to a time where what exists within the four walls of M.A.C. is everywhere.”
Want to get involved? Every cent from M.A.C.'s $17 Viva Glam Lipstick goes to the M.A.C. AIDS Fund. More Than T premieres on Showtime Friday June 23rd and is available to stream on Showtime On Demand now.