"When You're Ready to Tell Your Story, Nobody Can Stop You" — Geena Rocero
Since coming out as trans in a moving 2014 TED Talk, supermodel Geena Rocero has wholeheartedly embraced her role as an advocate for the trans community. She's since started her own production company by the name Gender Proud Productions, collaborated with media companies like Logo and Fusion to get trans people's stories in front of nationwide audiences, and even worked with the United Nations to set standards of conduct for businesses when it comes to LGBTQIA issues.
I recently caught up with Rocero to chat about her life in the years after coming out as trans in anticipation of Transgender Awareness Week. As if her long list of credentials (see above) wasn't a clear enough indication, after only minutes of speaking with her, it's obvious that she's dedicated to using her platform to advocate for equality for the trans community. Soon, I'd learn more about her passion for storytelling, her take on what it means to be "culturally competent," and her dedication to the economic empowerment of trans people. Scroll on to read all this and more in Rocero's own words.
On Voicing Out
Geena Rocero: I did my TED Talk in 2014, and little did I know, there was something bubbling in terms of the bigger conversations about trans people, trans issues, and who we are [in pop culture]. A lot of things have happened, from Orange Is the New Black to Transparent, and as much as what's happening is something to celebrate, it still is far from what's happening on the ground.
Hence why every November 20 we have [the Day of Remembrance] to acknowledge the violence because all these celebrations are far from the reality of what a trans person is going through every day in their struggle. So the importance of [the Day of Remembrance] is twofold: The first is to remember [the violence], but the second is to [remember] why it's so important that we need to voice out about what is happening. Because we need more people to learn more about what's happening.
To tell these stories of the experiences of trans, trans people of color, and gender-nonconforming people from our perspective so it's not from this very cisgender gaze is important.
I never thought that I would ever be a producer or the one to produce stories on what it means to be trans because, for the longest time, trans people are the ones being asked questions. When I first did the Ted Talk, I was the one being asked questions, but to be in the position to tell these stories of the experiences of trans, trans people of color, and gender-nonconforming people from our perspective so it's not from this very cisgender gaze is important. Yes, it's important for us to know the specifics—to know the numbers and to make sure we're speaking about these big numbers and what [they] mean—but I think what's most important for me as a storyteller and as an artist is that we need to humanize those specifics. There are people actually experiencing those horrible statistics that we know of, especially trans people of color, and I want to tell their stories through an intersectional lens. So that's also why I started Gender Proud Productions.
Literally just knowing the statistics of what trans kids are going through, we created a web series and a television special with Logo TV to simply ask trans kids, "What does beautiful as I want to be mean for you?" And there were some kids that we interviewed who told us, "I've never been asked that question," and that's a horrible thing to hear. In that project, we selected four young kids and literally asked them to tell us about their dream. Then we partnered them with a mentor for them to know that there's a pathway to be what they're dreaming about—these are the people that have done it. And maybe knowing that other people have done it, gives these kids hope and the possibility for them to envision a life for themselves in this career or in this field and know that they're not alone.
On Striving for Economic Empowerment
I want to center voices of the most marginalized in their community, which is trans people of color.
I think the most important thing is to fully recognize the humanity of trans people. That we have dreams, that we want the same things that anybody would want to have in their lives, like a career, and most importantly, a job that we could be happy about. An important focus that I'm passionate about is really the economic empowerment of trans people and being able to access jobs.
Specifically, in this one series we did with Fusion, we documented the stories of three trans women of color in New York City and their experiences finding jobs. What happens if a newly transitioned trans person is applying for a job? With her own new identity, her own new presentation, and then her documents still do not match her name and gender marker, what happens when you go through that job process? Only 11% of trans people in the United States have their documents match who they are, their name, and their gender marker because there are many factors around that. In many places, it's expensive, and in some states, you can't even do that at all. So when you're applying for a job with an ID that doesn't match who you are, usually the questions will be about that part of it instead of having a whole conversation about your merits and being able to do that job.
Obviously, systemic oppression is so intertwined with this, whether it's transphobia interlaying homophobia interlaying racism and classism, so it's also really important to look at all of these things through an intersectional lens. As a storyteller and as a producer myself, when I'm thinking about what I would like to produce, whether it's a series that I would like to do or a documentary that I would like to do, I want to center voices of the most marginalized in their community, which is trans people of color.
On Being "Culturally Competent"
I think there's a lot to learn when you're actually hearing trans people's stories from them rather than from someone speaking for them.
Corporate environments will say things like, "We need to be more diverse!" "We need to be more inclusive!" But what does that really mean? Does that mean you're making sure that your HR person or the person who's interviewing candidates is culturally competent? Whether it's in handling a trans person who does not have the documents that match who they are or whether it's the simple act of addressing them by the pronoun that they want. It's important to make sure that the bigger conversation is not just for the sake of diversity in numbers but really looking into the systems and how companies and organizations are addressing these things.
In the job market, I think you need to work with trans people themselves. For example, I recently worked with the UN for its launch of a standard of conduct for businesses globally on why they should adhere and support LGBTQIA rights. The cultural competency component happens on working with local trans organizations, hearing their stories from them in these local organizations and local environments where the experiences are localized. I think there's a lot to learn when you're actually hearing trans people's stories from them rather than from someone speaking for them. There's nothing better than hearing people's firsthand accounts of what their needs are and starting there. It's a community-based approach to learning about the needs of trans people.
I mean, even making sure that corporations, organizations, or whatever type of entities that claim to be culturally competent offer insurance that actually supports trans health-related coverage. Obviously, going through a transition, wherever a trans person is in their life, is not a cosmetic surgery, as it's vital to their health and their well-being. So making sure that [claims of cultural competency are] backed up by policies in a corporate environment. I can't believe we just went all corporate here.
I'm in touch with my authenticity, and I can actually share with the world and the people I'm working with the fullness of my talents.
In my own career, first and foremost, I'll go back to making that decision in giving that TED Talk and making that big risk of a decision and the career that I'd built for almost a decade. There was no guarantee if there was going to be a backlash or what was going to happen because many people who had come before me, trans people who got outed at that time in their career, whether it's Tracey "Africa" Norman or Lauren Foster, these trans women who paved the way for me, when they got outed, their career suffered. I think making that decision was a big risk.
Obviously, I couldn't ask for a better reception, but it's also helped me to get in touch with other things that I would like to do in my career and in my life. Being my most authentic self, I could be completely honest with myself and my experiences and I think I've become more whole. Because for 10 years, I couldn't fully give myself to the job because a part of myself I felt that I was hiding and I was living through the shame of who I was.
So once I uncovered that I think it allowed me to expand other visions that I have in my career and the things that I want to do, whether it's producing more, whether it's hosting a television series with HLN called ASPIREist, which we just had in season two, because I’m whole. I'm in touch with my authenticity, and I could actually share with the world and the people I'm working with the fullness of my talents.
On Telling Your Story
When you are so in your power and ready to tell your story, nobody can stop you.
The power of storytelling is realizing the ownership of the totality of your human experience, even the parts of your experience you've been shamed about and the parts of your experience that you've been made to feel bad about. The moment that you start owning that and forgiving yourself, that's when you step into your power.
The storytelling component, whether you'll be a speaker, a documentarian, a poet, or an artist, comes in many different forms. The moment somebody goes through that process of ownership of their own full humanity, that's when people have the power of realizing the things that they envision for themselves because once you step into your power, you allow other people to do the same.
Do it on your own time. I couldn't imagine giving my TED Talk a year before I decided to do it. But when you're ready, when you are so in your power and ready to tell your story, nobody can stop you. Surrounding yourself with a support system that will encourage you to be your most authentic self, I think, is the most important thing. Everybody will do it in their own time, so don't rush into it.