On Monday, model Geena Rocero gave a TED talk about her journey as a transgender woman. Given the size of that platform, viewers might be surprised to learn that as of December 2013, most people in Rocero’s life didn’t know her story. Rocero began identifying as a woman at the age of 6, and at 15 started presenting as one. At 17 she moved to the U.S., where she could finally legally identify as a woman. In 2005 she began modeling professionally.
Now the 30-year-old , who returned to modeling in 2010, is launching Gender Proud, an organization dedicated to empowerment and raising awareness of transgender issues. “I knew I had a bigger purpose,” she says. “It was a disservice to my own community if I didn’t do anything.”
The Cut spoke to Rocero about coming out, dominating the Philippine pageant scene, and the future of Gender Proud.
You came out in December. Why then?
I’ve been afraid of telling my story for a long time. I’ve always had this conditioning in my head — like, “Oh, I’ll be ready to talk about this when I have $5 million in my bank account, just in case there’s a backlash.” But about two years ago, I started becoming politically aware of the condition of the transgender community. Last year, on my 30th birthday, my boyfriend at the time asked, “G, what does 30 mean to you?” And I said, “I don’t give a fuck. I’m ready to talk about this. I’m ready to do something.” So the next day I started calling friends, close friends, and said, “I think I’m ready to start talking about this.”
What was that like?
It wasn’t like Please accept me for who I am; it was This is my truth. What do you think? I’ve certainly had asshole boyfriends. I’ve experienced many, many rejections. I’ve come to the point where it’s not my problem — this is my journey that’s made me who I am. I’ve tried relationships where I first didn’t tell the guy, and that’s something I can’t do anymore.
And then you decided to do something for the community?
I still didn’t know what to focus on. Is it transgender health? Is it transgender economic empowerment? There are so many different layers. I just went back to my personal experience: There’s nothing more powerful than speaking from your own personal experience. I know that when I changed my name and gender marker on my documents, that’s what empowered me. Literally looking at my name as “Geena” and “Female,” I felt like, This is the new me. I can conquer the world. You ask any transgender person that you know. Ask them: What was that moment when you saw your ID with your preferred name and your gender marker? It’s so powerful, that moment. It changes so much.
I moved to San Francisco in 2001 but didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 2006. I remember, in 2005, I was traveling from the U.S. to Tokyo — I was not a citizen yet, so I still had my Philippine passport with my male name and my male gender marker. I was going through immigration and the next thing I knew, I was being taken to the immigration office, and being questioned for hours and hours because I presented as a woman. It was embarrassing, it was dehumanizing, and I have friends still going through that.
So was legally identifying as a woman on your passport the most crucial moment for you?
That is one of the crucial moments, but everything was a journey. When I was 15, I was discovered by this woman named T.L., and she convinced me to join the beauty pageants. She taught me everything: how to dress, how to speak. That was so powerful because I was still dressing as a boy, and all of a sudden, I became this huge transgender beauty-pageant queen in the Philippines. I won the most prestigious pageant at such a young age; I know that’s something that empowered me.
Where I come from, it’s celebrated: the fluidity of gender. I’ve always been conscious of that blessing that a lot of transgender people don’t have. My mother and my family were always supportive. But while it’s part of the culture, it’s not politically recognized. There are no laws. When I moved to the United States, I observed a more rigid observation of the gender binary, and yet they had the laws that allowed me to change my name and gender marker? It was a big paradox.
When you moved to the States, did you feel as free to identify as transgender?
I was really ingrained with the transgender community in San Francisco; but in 2005, when I moved to New York to start modeling, I felt I wanted to start anew. I didn’t want people to know about the journey. It was definitely a survival thing. I just wanted to completely forget about that past and be understood for the who I was at that very moment. I wouldn’t even accept friends of mine from the past on Facebook. But I realized, Crap, that’s the community that first gave me that first opportunity. Why am I doing this to them? Part of Gender Proud is for them; this is what I can do.
Will Gender Proud work internationally?
Absolutely. All Out is our first big partner, so the next phase of the campaign is to identify countries that are at potential tipping points with their legislation. We’re forming partnerships with activists and trans-justice LGBT underground organizations all over the world. Eventually, I want to be the first transgender ambassador of the U.N.
You’re still modeling. Did you worry that this would affect your career?
When I told my agent, he said, “I fully support this.”
And he didn’t know previously?
No, he didn’t know until this past December. Some people probably had an idea, but they didn’t know. I wasn’t promoted as such. So when I told him, he said, “This is great. I fully support this; let’s continue working.” Listen, I know I probably won’t be working in Middle America, but now I’m in the position to be promoted as a model with a cause.
There are more opportunities now for transgender models than ever, though. I’m sure you’re aware of the Barneys campaign?
Yes! It made me wish I’d come out earlier. [Laughs.] They did a casting for that in October; I came out in December. So close! I went to its screening at the Guggenheim, and that was so, so powerful. Very powerful moment. It shows the humanity of it, especially the support system — it doesn’t have to be blood family; it’s your friends, your support system.
How has your support system grown? Who else are you working with?
Just this past weekend I was in Chicago celebrating Trans 100. It’s a listing of 100 trans and gender-variant people all over the United States doing amazing work. Jen Richards, my dear girlfriend, is a founder, and we were staying at her place — she has a roommate named Angelica Ross, a fabulous woman. Janet Mock and Laverene Cox were there; we had a big slumber party at her place. I was like, “Do not touch that kitchen; I’ll be cooking.” I cooked pancakes in the morning. I really can’t imagine going through this by myself. It’s a sisterhood.