Is the Fashion Industry Embracing Trans Models?

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Transgender rights have been on the forefront of the sociopolitical movement for past few years. Between Trump attempting to ban transgender people from serving in the military to politicians and state legislators passing bathroom bills in some states forcing some transgenders to use the bathroom of their birth gender, there has been no shortage of attention to the cultural and political issues trans people face. On the heels of the transgender social and political movement, transgenders are beginning to have more representation in media and entertainment, including the fashion industry.Though the fashion industry purports to have become more democratic and diverse, embracing diversity in all its many forms and variations, where transgender models were getting some traction in the industry a couple years back, that traction has stalled. Where is the breakout transgender supermodel Andreja Pejic? Where are the transgender models walking in major fashion shows? Why the retreat, what’s happened?

Carmen Carrera in Victoria’s Secret 2013 campaign image courtesy of

The transgender stars making headlines in recent years are coming form the worlds of film and television. Carmen Carrera, a former contestant of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” has been enjoying a burgeoning acting career with guest spots on “Jane the Virgin” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.” And who could forget Laverne Cox, who has received an Emmy nomination for her role on Netflix’s hit series “Orange is the New Black.” Still, that is the entertainment industry, not fashion.Amanda Lepore, a darling of the New York nightlife scene, is considered the first trans supermodel, having been a muse for designers Richie Rich and Traver Rains at Heatherette. Models like Gigi Gorgeous are also regarded as transgender model icons. However, models that had had gender reassignment go back to the 1970s and1980s, not revealing that they had been born male. Such a revelation would have marked an end to their careers. So, those who could pass as female fashion models never revealed their truth.

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In the past decade, there’s no question the fashion industry has at least evolved on that issue. Model Buckangel, signed with Kavyon Zand’s Zandwagon agency, has become one of the most recognizable faces among trans male models. He gives the industry a mark for much improved since he first started out modeling as a trans man in 2002. “It was very rough [at first],” he said. “People said horrible things to me, even death threats, all because I chose to expose my body and show the world that being a trans man is beautiful and that our unique bodies are just that! It’s most definitely better today, and visibility has helped with this. Back in the day there were, if any trans men out showing their bodies to the world.”Buckangel recently shot a big fashion spread where the photographer wanted him nude for the layout. “That to me shows a ton of advancement as representation. They are reaching out to all types including myself who happens to be 56 years old. That in itself is diverse representation!”

However, he doesn’t deny that trans models have been treated like a trend within the industry. “Any marginalized group that has started to become represented on some level is a trend,” he said. “Right now transgender is the new hot topic and buzzword. That said I think its amazing all the exposure, But I am also aware that they are not just doing it to help our community they are also reaping the benefits financially. Its how business works. And fashion is a business.”

One of the most sensitive topics among the transgender community is also the issue of “passing.” Those who have transitioned that have an easier time passing for cisgender men and women often have an easier time getting work. Buckangel’s fellow Zandwagon model Lexie Bean, who is not passing has had her own share of struggles with this. “One of two things usually happens to me because I don’t pass, I am either not believed or I will be welcomed on paper in a breakdown or casting call, but will be immediately misgendered upon entering a space,” Bean said. He added that, “The gap between what is said and claimed to be celebrated and the reality can be painful, can make me feel caught in my head. As in any working environment, standing up for yourself in any capacity can lead to losing the job.  Another issue that is unique to assigned female at birth trans folks is that most people assume I am a trans woman when I come out to them. The lack of visibility and representation of us, especially pre-medicalization, is complete erasure.”

                              Ted Quinlivan image courtesy of

Passing privilege is all too real in the greater society and the fashion industry at large. In 2017, model Teddy Quinlivan revealed her gender identity on CNN Style, and knew that it would shift the way she was viewed in the industry. “I think the fact that I’m transgender isn’t what makes me successful, but it is what makes me special and unique,” she said to CNN Style. “Is it the most important thing about me? No. But is it a part of me? Yes. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say, ‘Oh, well you just got that show because you’re trans.’ I wanted to make sure that nobody could say that about me or use that against me because your genitals do not play a factor in how successful you can be as a model.”Quinlivan has walked for top designers in Milan, including Versace and Prada, without ever revealing her gender identity. It became no secret that she was able to amass much of her success due to her ability to pass as a cisgender woman. (Cisgender denotes or relates to a personal identify and gender that corresponds to the birth gender.)

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In the 1980s and `90s, the transgender fashion models that had the most successful careers were all known for passing privilege. Top models like Caroline Cossey and April Ashley were well known for being able to pass, with Ashley even appearing in the pages of British Vogue without her birth identity being revealed. April Ashley wasn’t unknown to have been male bodied until her husband filed for divorced and the government declared her legally male. (This was years prior to the U.K.’s Gender Recognition Act of 2004.)After experiencing difficulty booking modeling jobs or finding agency representation in New York or Bangkok, her birthplace, even though she had posed for a Barney’s campaign photographed by iconic photographer Bruce Weber, trans-female model Peche Di founded Trans Models. “[Agencies] would accept a photo [of me], but nothing would happen after,” she said in a New York Times article. “I realized what the community needed was employment. I figured why not create a space for them?”

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Still, it was the top models of the 1970s and `80s, trans and cisgender alike, that would influence the ballroom culture now celebrated in television programs like the recent FX hit “Pose.” While some transgender models that came out of the gay ballroom culture attempted to have a career as fashion models, for the most part, those who could not pass as gender female, the opportunities were few and far between.Like many things in fashion, this current movement to embrace transgender models could just be window dressing. Still, the time has come for the fashion industry to move beyond lip service and genuinely reflect a cultural shift that is gaining global momentum.

—Kristopher Fraser

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