Coming out as trans* is nerve-wracking for many. So is public speaking. Put them together, and you've got an experience likely to terrify even the most poised and polished among us — even, for example, a gorgeous, highly successful fashion model. Even, for example, Geena Rocero.
Now 30 years old, Geena was born in Manila with the gender assignment of "boy." She's careful to clarify that she was not born a boy: "I was born, and I was assigned 'boy,'" she explains. "Gender and your genitalia are two completely different things." On March 19, Geena publicly revealed her trans* identity for the first time — onstage, in front of over 1,000 audience members and anyone with an Internet connection, at the TED2014 conference in Vancouver. At last count, her talk had been viewed 2,211,382 times; it has now been translated into 28 languages.
Geena shared her gender identity long before her TED Talk, though — first with her mother, when Geena was five years old. With the support of her family, Geena entered her first beauty pageant at age 15. "Joining that beauty pageant allowed me to be in tune [with] my femininity, with who I really [was]," she enthuses. Geena competed in pageants until she moved from the Philippines to San Francisco in 2001 to join her mother, who had already emigrated there; soon after, she realized her dream of undergoing sex reassignment surgery. In 2005, she moved to New York City to pursue another goal: modeling.
Geena's talk tells the story of a child who was called a boy but knew she was a girl — the story of a young woman who went on to become a high-profile lingerie, fashion, and beauty model in New York City. Geena was signed by NEXT Models Management, and over the course of her 12-year career to date, she has worked with Rimmel, Hanes, and Macy's, to name a few. Until her talk, she kept her past a secret from her management, her clients, and her social circles — from all but a few trusted confidantes.
Geena knew that when she came out, her life would change irrevocably. "Once you come out," she reflects, recalling how she felt the morning of her TED Talk, "you open up that box — and there's no way to close it." But, living as an out trans* person was a box Geena was ready to open. So was assuming her role in the fight for gender justice and equality as leader of her own organization, Gender Proud — which works towards a future when "every sovereign nation recognizes the right to legally change one’s name and gender marker, without being forced to undergo physical alteration." We spoke with the activist and model just before Fashion Week about her coming-out journey, her advocacy work, and that TEDTalk heard 'round the world — and came away convinced: If anyone can juggle a flourishing modeling career and a global human rights campaign, it's Geena. Read on for the full interview, and her stunning pics.