Hari Nef, Andreja Pejić, Valentina Sampaio – today, a handful of openly transgender supermodels walk the catwalks of international fashion weeks, snag deals as the faces of big beauty brands, and grace the covers of the fashion industry’s most coveted magazines. This past month, Vogue Paris debuted its first trans cover star, 22-year-old Brazilian-born Sampaio; the March issue is the first magazine in French history to put a trans person on its cover (though its November 2007 cover with androgynous model Andre J. alongside Carolyn Murphy was as forward-thinking and groundbreaking). "Beyond her evident physical qualities and her sparkling personality,” editor-in-chief Emmanuelle Alt writes in her editor's letter, “[Sampaio] embodies...a long and painful fight against being perceived as a 'gender exile’.” The headline reads: “Transgender Beauty: How They’re Shaking Up The World.”
It’s been a long road to this level of inclusivity for trans models in the fashion industry, though. Pejić, a Bosnian-born model, fled to Serbia, and later, Australia, both times as a refugee, was discovered in 2007 at the age of 16 at a Melbourne McDonald's; by 2011, she was walking Paris Fashion Week for Jean-Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs, and was one of the first trans people to become an in-demand industry name. That same year, Brazilian trans model Lea T covered LOVE magazine, kissing Kate Moss. A few seasons later, photographer Bruce Weber shot 17 transgender models for a Barneys New York campaign. And last year, Caitlyn Jenner landed a campaign for H&M. In fact, if 2016 felt like it belonged to any one model, it was 24-year-old, Philadelphia-born Hari Nef, who fronted Elle, Wonderland, and LOVE.
To look back over the last decade and call this representation progressive, however, might be to speak too soon, especially considering the most popular trans names in fashion are white and cis femme appearing. And that the drip-down effect of media representation – from something as glamorous as a high-fashion magazine shoot to how trans people are treated at street level – isn't black-and-white. Then, of course, there is the question of how sincere a gesture it is to put a trans model on the cover of your magazine, or in your latest campaign, or on your runway, when, in 2017, it seems that many brands or designers don't realize that casting one trans person isn't inclusivity, its tokenism. So how do we circumvent a situation where trans people are treated like outsiders, to ensure that they receive a permanent spot in a more inclusive industry?
“Most trans people are not trying to 'shake up the world',” Shon Faye, a British journalist and commentator on trans issues, tells Refinery29 when asked about her reaction to the Vogue Paris cover. Shon points out that, although kinder than the coverage of a few years ago, it’s still a “sensational representation” of trans people. “Being trans is not a political statement designed to make everyone rethink gender,” she says. “It may have that effect sometimes, which is good, but we are not a style aesthetic. ‘Shaking up the world’ is not always positive for trans people. Shaking people up often means they won’t give you a job, or that they throw you out on the street, or that they rape you."
Unfortunately, Transphobia is more rife than ever. Just last week, President Donald J. Trump revoked protections introduced by President Obama that allowed trans students to use the bathroom of their choosing. Earlier this month in the UK, a boy shot an 11-year-old transgender girl at school with a BB gun, the culmination of weeks of bullying. LGBT rights charity Stonewall estimates that around half of young trans people have attempted suicide. "The fashion industry could do with being a little less self-regarding about using trans people's bodies without knowing the brutal rift between those bodies and the world that trans people emerge from," Shon says.
Talking to trans people with modeling experience, Shon’s words ring true. 24-year-old London-based Tschan Andrews recently quit the industry after six years, because her identity too often “felt questioned or disrespected." The biggest disrespect of all, she says, was getting pigeonholed as androgynous. “That’s incredibly disrespectful for a transgender model, it will cause dysphoria” she explains, detailing experiences where she was sent home from shoots for famous fashion magazines for questioning why she was being asked to dress more "masculine" or play the role of both male and female (though it's worth nothing some trans models feel safer remaining androgynous, which can double as a state of protective limbo).
Reflecting on those experiences now, Anders says: “It’s like fracturing your mind – you being yourself and someone saying no – it triggers negative thought processes you have had to break down over years to be yourself.” She's since realized that she’s just not comfortable “foregoing [her] identity for a picture.”
When Thai trans model Pêche Di moved to New York in 2008, she had a similar experience. She snagged a few token high-profile modeling gigs specifically for trans people, but couldn’t get signed to an agent. Instead, she took the initiative to set up her own agency, dedicated to working with trans models. Now, Transmodels agency represents 19 people, and recently worked on the landmark National Geographic issue on trans identity.
Di, however, makes the point that when trans models “get to be on covers," as she puts it, they’re still, as mentioned earlier, usually Caucasian. “I want to see trans women of color getting to be on covers,” she says. “The beauty contracts trans people get signed to are all Caucasian trans women, too; Caitlyn Jenner got a contract with MAC, and Andreja Pejić Make Up For Ever...most trans women approved by the industry are white trans women. I want to see the changes to our media include those people.”
If there’s a notable lack of trans women of color in the fashion industry, there’s also a glaring lack of male trans bodies (Laith Ashley, who starred in Weber's Barneys campaign, is the exception). Curator E.J. Scott thinks this is because “the idea that a trans man can be an attractive, authentic man is even more of a threat to patriarchal heteronormative society” than the idea that a trans woman can be beautiful.
Scott points out that, as long as fashion “perpetuates the notion that successful trans people are people who look like cisgender people – specifically white cisgendered copies – and doesn’t celebrate the diversity of trans people,” the impact on the trans community will be minimal.
“In the last five years, violence towards trans people has doubled,” Scott says, citing high levels of targeted crime. “Of course we need Hari Nef on covers – she is beautiful and inspirational. But I care about the trans women who go to the shop, too, the one who doesn’t have passing privilege. Trans people on the front of magazines doesn’t stop the non-beautiful trans person from being harassed. [The fashion industry] perpetuates gender normativity: men’s fashion week, women’s fashion week, men’s changing rooms, women’s changing rooms. It needs to be behind the gender revolution, to respect the full gender spectrum. Not just a couple of trans models or talk of agender clothing.”
For Shon, the fashion industry needs to take a wider look at catering for trans people’s bodies. “Forcing a trans woman model into a dress designed for a cis model's ribcage to send her down a runway constrained and breathless is kind of the perfect metaphor,” she says. “When it comes to clothes, we are being bent into shape by the old standards, still forced in every way to live in a cisgender world. Nothing is being created for us. There is still no material acknowledgement that we exist."
As such, both Andrews and Scott find subheads like “Trans Beauty” wholly unnecessary. “It would be nice to have the person’s name rather than having to have the word ‘trans’ in the headline,” the former says, nothing that, in the 1980s, trans models like former Bond girl Caroline Cossey were shot for Playboy, or did beauty campaigns; no one knew they were trans, except maybe the photographer. “It wasn’t because she was trans that she was shot, it was because she was beautiful.”