Earlier this season, at the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, we caught up with Geena Rocero, trans supermodel, activist, creator and—we don’t use this term loosely—icon. What was meant to be an in-person interview in downtown Manhattan turned into a long phone call. Our writer, at his apartment, sheltering in place in Manhattan, and Rocero, at a home with friends in the Hamptons, doing the same. Rocero talked about efforts to secure hand sanitizer for her mother and to fundraise on behalf of a friend’s restaurant in New York City, by cooking live on Instagram.
We chatted about her pioneering career (Rocero was one of the first openly transgender models to appear on the cover of an edition of Harper’s Bazaar, in 2016 and the first openly transgender Asian-Pacific Islander model to pose for Playboy, in 2019), her now-legendary TED talk in which she came out on stage, and her passion for the work that must continue in order to support and secure the lives of transgender and genderqueer people everywhere.
Listen in on our call ...
Okay, you there?
Yes, I’m here.
I just rewatched your TED Talk and I need to know how that came about.
Sure. So, I was born and raised in the Philippines, and I first moved to San Francisco with my family. And then I moved to New York City, to pursue modeling, in 2005. It was such a different context back then. There was not an out trans person in the fashion industry.
There was always some hush-hush of like, some girls are—they're making it—but certainly, it was not allowed. And so, when I decided to move to New York City, I also was also making the decision to not share my story that I'm trans. Even my model agents did not know that I was trans up until the point of the TED Talk. About eight years of being in the closet—which is amazing in its own way because I was just like working and I was doing jobs. I was working. I was a working model. Yet, all this time I would come into a casting and feel paranoid that somebody would say something.
And the biggest anxiety isn’t will you book this job or not but will your entire life change from being exposed?
Of course, I was very familiar with the history of the trans models that had come before me. The women who paved the way. Women, like Caroline Cossey. She was this English model in the 80s, and she had a little cameo in one of the James Bond movies
For sure. And you didn’t want to live in that anxiety anymore?
I did a Rimmel lip gloss commercial. That's one of those moments when as a mode, you’re like, hang on a second, this is a mark of, you’ve made it. But a moment that should have been a celebration … I went home when that thing came out, and I was just so paranoid. I was just waiting to be exposed. The bigger the job, the bigger the worry. It took a toll emotionally. I had eczema from the stress.
You couldn’t live the secret anymore?
I was like, I am just going to have to deal with this. And on my 30th birthday, I decided what a better gift for myself that on this new decade, I’m going to tell my story. I reached out to some friends who were involved in social entrepreneurship. I said I am ready to tell my story and I want to share it with Ted. A friend connected me and a week later, I get an email that says, we’ve heard your story and let’s get on a call.
And you’re like, “Oh, god. It's happening”?
It's really happening. On the call, they said they wanted me to tell my story on the TED stage. They gave me a month of personal speech coaching because I had never given a public speech before. I was like if I am going to do this, let’s go big or go home,
Did you give anyone a heads up?
Yeah, a few weeks before, I called up my agent and I was like, I'm actually giving a talk. I'm coming out. And I remember him just saying, "Coming out as a lesbian?" It was the most nerve-wracking thing.
How did he respond?
It was probably the longest three seconds of my life. He was just like, "We love you. I'm proud of you. I will support you. We'll figure this out." I couldn’t have heard a better response.
You talk about your mom and your family—and it seems that you have been fortunate to have a really positive, supportive network along your journey and through your career. Has that always been the case?
Obviously growing up in the Philippines, it's a very, very, very, very different contextI grew up exposed to a culture of beauty pageants. Beauty pageants are basically a national sport in the Philippines. And we have a version of that with trans women that join the pageants. So they're exposed as part of that mainstream culture, and there is a certain level of mainstream visibility. Growing up, every time, I would tell my mom and my family, I could pinpoint to like, the visible trans person that I want to be. It was a part of our media culture—that does not necessarily mean it was accepted, but it was something everyone could see.
These were mainstream beauty pageants with some trans women contestants, or these were pageants specifically for trans women to enter?
Both. The weirdest thing is that trans pageant in the Philippines happens during Fiesta. It's like a week-long celebration, like Mardi Gras.
Like a big party in someone's house, there's like a host, there's like the rich people hosting, you know, the foods ... that you could, you go to different houses each time. In the lead up to the Sunday of that celebration, there's usually dance contests, singing contests. And the big draw is the trans beauty pageants. So, you know, you have that contradiction of trans pageant happening during the most conservative Catholic tradition.
Was there also trans visibility and support?
The word trans did not exist. There's no access for hormones. And there's none of that very technical, formal, support system. But just the love of my mom and even my dad … I remember even my dad telling me, as long as you're nice, and a good person and you're not doing harm to people … just keep being you.
How are things today in the Philippines?
It has gotten a little better. Being trans in the Philippines is culturally visible, but not politically recognized. Meaning there are no rights for trans women. There are no anti-discrimination protections. There is still no access for hormones that's funded by the government. You can't change your name and gender marker in the Philippines.
Yes, even today. Even if you've had surgery, you still can't. When I moved to the U.S., and California specifically—at the time—it was the other way around. There was no culture of visibility. There were no trans people in pageants on TV, nothing. But, there was a degree of political recognition. I was able to change my name and gender marker on my driver's license and my documents. It was a weird contradiction.
And what needs to exist is both. In your talk, you discuss how the trans movement is in its beginning stages. Six years later, what has improved and where are there still major deficits?
When that talk came out, I also launched an advocacy campaign called Gender Proud. The focus has been advocating for trans policies all over the world. I started working with the UN and with President Obama's State Department, talking about my story and then about the policy. What has happened since 2014 though is that the level of visibility is so much bigger. A lot more trans people entering pop culture, and in politics. And that level of visibility, in a way, grants a certain power of taking control of our narrative. But there is another side, and that is definitely, the backlash that has happened politically. It’s a reversal of how things had been
And where do things stand in terms of visibility? What are the next priorities?
We're just scratching the very early surface of a certain level of visibility and representation and of telling our own stories. Because for so long it, "Well, that's not the way." When I first moved to the U.S., it was the Jerry Springers of the world, right? That was the first early visibility that I saw of trans people, was Jerry Springer, a trans woman, and at this, the most dehumanizing moment. A person, not given a level of dignity. So dehumanizing, what I saw. So that has changed some. And today, I work a lot with trans youth. And I think of them and what we are facing. Just the other day, legislation is being passed in Ohio, making it illegal for doctors to treat and to take care of trans youth. There are so many anti-trans bills being put forth.
Where is the mission most critical—where should the community and its allies be focused today? What do you want people to understand, to know?
There are so many areas, right? I'd just say, I think my belief system is, at the core of it, at the core of all of the backlash is basically that trans people are not being believed as the person that we are. That who we are, when we say who we are, believe us. This is who we are. You don’t need to debate our lived experience. Love us, deal with us, treat us as we say we are.
And visibility helps with awareness and awareness helps with understanding, right?
I understand the context of people that are not exposed to this, but in a way, in this age, at this moment, how could you not be exposed? It's mental laziness to not be aware.
And arrogance—when people come at this from a position of gender is immutable and therefore resist the trans lived experience.
The idea that gender is this and always this, that’s in the Western context of understanding gender. Because the Philippines—I come from obviously, a country that's been colonized multiple times over—and before colonization in the Philippines, gender's not considered binary. And in every single pre-colonized culture even today, in their language and in the main language … we have like seventy-something languages in the Philippines, but the main language, Tagalog, there's no ‘he’ or ‘she’ in our language. We're part of this language family called the Austronesian language family, that's spoken by close to 400 million people. And in most of those dialects, there's no ‘he’ or ‘she’, it's gender-neutral.
Why did you decide you wanted to become a producer, to educate and entertain further?
I would often find myself in situations where I'm the only trans person in the room and in a room of people making decisions about the lives of trans people. So I said, "What better way to do this than tell stories." So let me be a producer. I wanted to produce stories, from the perspective of a trans person. That's when I started a production company and began working with VH1 and MTV and others. The most powerful way to change hearts and minds is to tell our story from the perspective of the person that you're telling the story about, whether it’s about trans people or genderqueer people.
Audre Lorde famously wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” What does self-care look like for you, someone who is both an activist and a beauty role model?
Well, I always live In the gratitude of where I grew up. I grew up not having a lot. We grew up working-class poor in the Philippines. And I think about that journey and where I've been. I really always come to everything from a space of gratitude because of the journey that I've gone through, of the layers of trauma, the layers of nonacceptance.
And do you have any practices you abide by?
In terms of actual self-care, I love cooking my own food. I love eating something where it's actual food. My philosophy is that I want to eat something that came as close as possible with no interruption from the soil, from the roots. I make my own ginger root tea. In the Philippines, when I was growing up, my grandma and my mom would always make sure we had ginger root in our bag. I also love doing Pilates, and when I will be able again, I love going to music festivals and dancing like crazy, just disappearing with friends. It’s like pressing a refresh button.