It took Geena Rocero nearly a decade to come out publicly as transgender from the time she moved to New York to become a model. But when she did, she came out to an audience of 2 million and counting in a TED talk on March 31, the International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Rocero, 30, grew up in Manila and entered and won her first beauty pageant at the age of 15. She originally intended to follow her transgender friends to Japan, but she changed her plans when she found out she could change her gender marker in California – and in doing so change her life.
Rocero moved to San Francisco at 17, signed with Next Models in New York at 21 and has spent much of the last tens years flying between the fashion capitals.
In the months since coming out, Rocero has launched trans advocacy group Gender Proud in three countries and is still traveling the world – but this time as an activist.
At a recent UN gender identity summit in Hong Kong, Rocero told GSN why she is gender proud:
I started Gender Proud because of my personal experience. In 2005 I was traveling from New York to Tokyo. My Philippine passport had a male name and male gender marker but my California driver’s license had a female name – so there was a mismatch. When I was going through immigration, I got flagged and I was asked all these dehumanizing questions – but it also allowed me to envision what I could do.
The gender marker is very important for me because it changed my life. When I moved to New York in 2005 there was no way for me to be the model I am if my documentation did not match. When you present your ID when you’re applying for a job, if there’s a mismatch the first thing you’re going to be asked about is your gender identity. So how can you confidently apply for a job?
Gender Proud is an advocacy platform and we’re specifically advocating for gender recognition laws. We’re focused on three countries: Brazil, Hong Kong and the Philippines. These are the three countries that we think have momentum.
Argentina has the model law. The simple election law allows trans people and gender-nonconforming people to change their gender marker without being forced to going through surgery. It is the most progressive law in LGBT rights.
There’s a conversation that needs to be had regarding the murder of transgender women of color. When Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time magazine, in that span of a month there were four transgender people of color that were killed. This is my community; I am a transgender woman of color.
I don’t like being called a tranny. With my friends we joke about it but certainly if I’m walking down the street and a cisgender person calls me that, it’s not cool. It’s very nuanced; there’s no black-and-white answer on the whole tranny thing.
It was certainly magnified when that conversation was happening and I think we all know where it led to – it just didn’t do any good for our community. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and we’re talking about a word.
I want to take a global stage; I am taking a global stage. I have global experience. I was born and raised in the Philippines where there is a cultural celebration of being trans but it’s not politically recognized. But when I moved to the United States, there was a more rigid understanding of gender. There’s not so much of a cultural celebration but somehow it’s politically recognized – so it’s a paradox.
What I’m trying to do is merge the two together – it should be both culturally celebrated and politically recognized.
My big coming out was a big risk for me so it has to mean something. Gender Proud is my gift to the transgender community that has honored, loved and celebrated me from such a young age.
Coming out has definitely been great for my career. I think people see the courage it took. Who comes out on a TED talk?! I freed myself.
I will always be an activist. I’m certainly an accidental activist but I will always speak out. The work is never going to be done. I’m in it for the long haul. You’ll be hearing about Gender Proud and Geena for a long time to come.
Watch Geena’s coming out video below: