Geena Rocero strides through the lobby of one of Vancouver's best hotels, her long-legged beauty turning heads. Her good looks are no surprise – she is a model – but we're there to talk about something nobody can see.
Two days earlier, she had come out. Rocero is transgender: She was raised as a boy in the Philippines.
Coming out as transgender can be immensely challenging for someone who is "passing" – or living as a member of the sex they were not believed to be at birth. But tackling the disclosure when your appearance – and to some extent your sex appeal – is your currency makes it even more complicated. Further, imagine making the big reveal during a TED talk, as she did in Vancouver.
"My life is changed from here on in," she says while settling into a couch in the hotel's lounge.
Rocero targeted the high-profile conference for her coming out, wanting to make a splash and, she hopes, a difference. On March 31, the day her TED talk was released online, she officially launched her new initiative, called Gender Proud. It's an advocacy group and a global awareness campaign that seeks to ease the process for transgender people to change their names and gender-markers (the M or F on documents such as a driver's licence or health card) without having to undergo sex reassignment surgery – something she says only a handful of countries currently allow.
In Canada, regulations vary by province. In 2012, an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruling allowed name and gender-marker changes to birth certificates without gender reassignment surgery, and advocates hope that sets a precedent in other provinces. In British Columbia, amendments to the Vital Statistics Act have been introduced, and legal challenges are under way in several provinces, including B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta, pushing to remove gender from birth certificates altogether. "The consequences of having the wrong gender-marker on one's birth certificate are disastrous," says barbara findlay (she doesn't capitalize her name), a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in issues affecting LGBT communities.
"We are all assigned gender at birth. Sometimes it doesn't match," says Rocero. "And when it doesn't match, there should be a space where people could freely self-identify."
When your documents don't match your appearance, she says, you are plagued with a constant fear that you will be outed. While travelling from the U.S. to Japan, Rocero says, she was kept in an immigration holding office for hours while her identity was questioned – because her female appearance did not match the name or the "M" on her Philippine passport. "It was embarrassing and dehumanizing," she says.
Geena is not the name she was born with 30 years ago in Manila. When asked for her birth name during our interview, she declined to give it. But while she was initially raised as a boy, from the age of five she identified as a girl – wearing a T-shirt around her head as a stand-in for long hair. "I definitely felt [like] a girl," she says.
At 15, she was dressing as one. Her family was supportive – her mother, in particular, was enormously encouraging throughout her transition. "My mom is the real hero of this story," says Rocero, who enjoys talking about her personal history but always brings the interview back around to her advocacy and message.
Key to Rocero's transition was a beauty pageant she attended when she was eight – transgender pageants are popular in the Philippines. "This woman came out, one of the [contestants]. She was so beautiful. I was like, wow, I could possibly be like that," says Rocero, lighting up at the memory. "The dream ignited."
By her mid-teens, she was competing in pageants herself. Her mother was then working two jobs in the U.S. and sending money home while Geena was raised by her father. When an opportunity arose to move to the U.S. to be with her mother, she went for it. At 19, she underwent sex reassignment surgery in Thailand (she continues to take hormones).
As soon as she could, she went to the courthouse in San Francisco to have her legal documentation officially changed: "The moment I saw my name and gender-marker on my California driver's licence, it was like, this is really my chance to just hit 'refresh.'" She moved to New York to pursue a modelling career, and quickly signed with an agency. She lists Hanes, Target, Macy's and Rimmel among the companies for which she has modelled.
All the while, Rocero guarded her secret, keeping her transgender-beauty-queen past from her agent, the photographer who discovered her and people close to her. Even though others had paved the way, such as Canadian beauty pageant contestant Jenna Talackova and Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, Rocero worried that if people knew she was transgender, it would damage her career.
Unlike Talackova and Cox, being transgender was not part of Rocero's professional identity. "Constantly there was fear that someone would find out," she says. "That's the scariest thing. That terrified me."
When she turned 30 last October, though, Rocero decided that she would not only come out, but she would make transgender advocacy her life's work. Less than six months later, she was on the TED stage. "The world makes you something that you are not," she began her disclosure, looking comfortable in high heels and a figure-hugging dress. "But you know inside what you are."