This Trans* Model Will Inspire You To Rethink Gender

Photographed By Aliya Naumoff.
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.
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Photographed By Aliya Naumoff.
You mention in your talk that you knew you identified as female from a very young age.

"I knew I was born a girl at three years old. I had that conversation with my mom when I was five. I was like, 'Mom, I’m a girl!'... Most trans* people know [at a young age], so it's just important to have the basic conversations about how we are born with assigned gender and sometimes that gender doesn’t match [genitalia], so people should be allowed to match gender to how they feel inside. I wanted to have surgery done; that was my personal decision, [but] it's not for everybody, and that’s [what] we're advocating with Gender Proud... People should be allowed to change their names and gender markers on their legal documents without being forced to go through surgeries and other barriers. Argentina is the model... They passed a law saying that trans* people could change their names and gender markers and after that...there [were] about 3,500 trans* people who [did]."
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Photographed By Aliya Naumoff.
The process of deciding to come out was a long one for you. Are there any specific tipping-points you recall?

"I’ve always been aware that one day I wanted to give back to the trans* community. I had no idea what, how, and when…but on my 30th birthday last year, I was in Mexico with my ex-boyfriend. We were both dancing on the beach...and he asked me, 'So, Gee, what does turning 30 years old mean to you?' I [replied] with the knee-jerk reaction, 'I don’t give a damn anymore. I’m ready to talk about [my] whole journey as a woman.' Literally the next day I started emailing friends I [thought] could help me...tell the story about gender recognition — why it’s important for IDs and legal documentations to acknowledge [a trans woman] as a woman, to have a proper documentation that represents your truth."

Why the emphasis on documentation?

"I became a U.S. citizen in 2006, which allowed me to change my name and gender marker. In December 2005, I was traveling from New York to Tokyo with my Philippines passport, which had my male name and gender marker — but in 2003, I [had changed] my California driver's license [to have] my female name and female gender marker, so [in] Tokyo, there was a mismatch on my documentation. They flagged me and put me in an immigration holding office... I kept explaining to them, 'I am a transgender woman. There is no law in the Philippines that you can change [your documentation to reflect your gender]; that’s why my passport has a male name and a male gender marker.' [They asked] all of these very personal questions. It was dehumanizing, it was embarrassing, and it really raised my consciousness... Gender Proud is focusing on three countries in our advocacy: Hong Kong, Brazil, and the Philippines. [We're pushing for] gender recognition law and anti-discrimination bills; that’s [the] advocacy piece. The awareness piece is creating and telling new and empowering stories for the trans* community, releasing photo projects or collaborating with storytellers."

Valentina Kova Trench Dress; Cesare Paciotti Heels.
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Photographed By Aliya Naumoff.
How do attitudes toward trans* people in the Philippines differ from attitudes in the U.S.?

"In the Philippines, being trans* is culturally celebrated, but not politically recognized... It's part of our culture. There are trans* beauty pageants on national television... Gender fluidity has been part of civilization for thousands of years... It existed in Native American cultures, it existed in the Amazon culture, the Mayan culture, the Polynesian culture...when I moved to the United States, it was definitely less a part of the culture...but somehow there was a law that was progressive enough [to] allow me to change my name and gender marker. So...there's just that paradox...[being trans* in the U.S. is] a little less culturally celebrated but somehow there's political recognition. I think that it should be both." Valentina Kova Dress.
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Photographed By Aliya Naumoff.
Take me back to the day of that now-famous TEDTalk — how did you feel, going into it?

"It was one of the scariest things I’ve done. It’s one of those things where you’re so aware of what you’re about to do and it’s something that’s irreversible...and that was the first time [I’d] publicly come out. But, the purpose of doing that talk was much bigger than the fear, so...I know that there [was] a powerful message… Going through the journey, from the girl who lived in an alley in the Philippines to being a model in New York, I [wanted] trans* people to know it's possible to have a dream and pursue it."

Why had you kept your past a secret over your modeling career?

"I wasn’t sure how my agent would react, or the clients I work with…and I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I just wanted to be the best model that I [could be]."

Some hold the view that trans* people have a sort of larger responsibility to come out — that by staying silent, people do the community a disservice. Where do you fall on that issue?

"Respect for privacy is the most important thing. Nobody’s forcing anybody to be an activist, you know. There’s safety components, there’s people who have no access to proper information when they’re living in places besides New York, besides the major cities — it’s much as NYC is a friendly and accepting place for trans* people, violence still happens."

Ivy Row Sweater; Vintage Skirt; Ivy Kirzhner Heels.
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Photographed By Aliya Naumoff.
You've spoken of the support and love you've received from family — what would you say to trans* people who haven't received that?

"It saddens me [when people's] family, especially blood family, just cannot understand or would kick someone out of the house [for coming out as trans*]. There's a fear component...when you're operating under fear, that leads to misunderstanding and suffering. My mom fully supported my journey, my sister fully supported my journey, and my dad. My mom just said 'This is your dream, pursue it — whatever it takes.' A support system is important. Especially when you’re going through this...but need to find a 'family' support system that’s not your family, that will encourage you and want you to be successful and live your truth and be yourself. [It] could be your sports team or [fellow] artists... You need to honor [the] journey that you’re going through, and sometimes it can be very difficult. Sometimes, you just need one person. One person who will truly understand you and love you and want you to be the person that you are. You have to find that."