Where's the Line Between Trans Visibility and Media Sensationalism?
The July cover of 'Glamour Spain' features model Andreja Pejic without reference to her gender identity. Is that progress?
Andreja Pejic, in a still from a Glamour España video about her cover for the magazine
This July, Andreja Pejic, a transgender model from Yugoslavia and Australia, will land two career firsts. The first is becoming increasingly common among fashion magazine heavyweights: With the current issue of Harper's Bazaar Serbia, Pejic will become the first transgender model to appear on the cover of any edition of Harper's Bazaar.
The second, however, crystallizes a growing debate within the trans community over the merits and costs of visibility: Perhaps more remarkably, Pejic's cover of Glamour Spain will make no overt reference to her sexual identity, simply labeling her "La Balleza Valiente" (the Brave Beauty) instead.
It's a decision Pejic herself chose to celebrate. "I really want to give Glamour Spain a big thumbs up for not feeling the need to slap my gender or medical history across the cover in order to sell more copies," she wrote on Instagram. "Can I get an amen?"
Considering the long, sordid history of trans sensationalism in the media, and the frequent editorial tendency to focus so much on subjects' gender identity that their individuality is lost, the subtlety of Glamour Spain's cover is both notable and refreshing. And though it is not the first fashion cover to feature a trans model, those that have frequently make reference to their gender identity.
But herein lies the paradox: The process by which transgender individuals become "just like everyone else" requires less attention paid to the fact that they are transgender. And that comes at a time when transgender visibility also seems more important than ever, to give voice and power to a community that is still demonized, misunderstood, and caricatured in the media almost every day.
Striking the right balance between equality and visibility is something most every transgender person in the spotlight has had to struggle with. And as the broader LGBTQ community wrestles with the impossible dialectic between assimilation and resistance to mainstream values, Pejic's Glamour Spain cover serves as a watermark for where the trans community stands three years on from the "transgender tipping point."
Several prominent trans models, celebrities, and activists joined Pejic in embracing the Glamour Spain cover as a sign of progress.
"Brands doesn't always have to lead with our gender history, but instead with our talent," model Geena Rocero told me. "Andreja is a model that's been very public about her journey. Glamour Spain's decision to not include her trans identity does not in any way minimize her transness. The world knows who she is."
RuPaul's Drag Race season nine runner-up Peppermint concurred. "While I do think it's important to highlight the accomplishments of our LBGTQ groundbreakers, maybe the most revolutionary gesture society can make during our struggle for equality is to treat us like true equals," she said. "Featuring [Pejic] the same way as any other gorgeous, beautiful, qualified cover model shows that we are making strides."
As it turns out, Pejic herself said she had no input in the decision. "I've been very open about my experience, and I'm completely happy to highlight that," she told me. "It's just that if you're the model on the cover, you're not gonna put someone's race on the cover, or any sort of personal details. I just felt like I'm a good model, and I can produce a good picture like any other successful model.
"But I'm not at the point where I'm like you can't do that," she continued. "Because I don't think you can force people into that kind of progress—you just hope that it happens naturally in time. So it was just a pleasant surprise that when I saw it, I googled the title, the translation was 'The Brave Beauty'—I was like I can deal with that."
"It's beautiful and rewarding when you can be recognized for either your work or your authentic existence," said recording artist Mila Jam. "We're inundated with labels and boxes and sometimes it's refreshing to just be seen in a light that reflects your version of you. I'd say most trans women just want to be seen as 'women,' without the adjective."
Trans youth advocate Aidan Key also hopes that Pejic's cover is a sign that the media, and perhaps society, are moving in the right direction. "It's a hopeful light at the end of a long tunnel that says we can move on… and recognize that we are just people living our lives," he said, going on to note the cover reflects efforts from some within the trans community to "desensitize the general public to something that has been sensationalized for so long."
That sensationalistic approach to covering trans issues and media figures, however, may be why trans visibility and activism are needed now more than ever. The year 2016 was the most violent one on record for transgender people. The trans community faces alarmingly high rates of suicide and poverty, especially among transgender people of color, higher rates of intimate partner violence, and rampant discrimination in the penal system. The Trump administration has only made matters worse.
But it's important to note, as Key did with me, that activism can assume several faces, and not everyone is suited to be a political spokesperson. "It's really difficult to be a spokesperson representing the community," he said. "Any of us who have gone through a gender transition know that bumpy terrain as we try to find our own way while being put in that very public role. We learn as we go. We learn to stop taking our personal stories and projecting them to a general trans audience. Our experiences are so vastly different that it's kind of like asking a single human being to speak for the generalized experience of humanity."
While emphasizing his desire for increased visibility (and diversity in that visibility), Key stressed that becoming an activist for one's community is "an individual decision, and I think it's really important to respect that aspect of it. I want, as a trans community and members of the trans community, to have a choice. Many of us have never had that choice, we were forced into it."
The hope of the Glamour Spain cover is that it represents a world in which trans individuals decide for themselves how to define visibility and activism, free to express who they are and how they want to interact with the world-at-large. If we reach that, there could be no surer sign of progress.
"Assimilation is a major part of the fabric of who we all think we are," Jam told me. "I believe in celebrating the authentic woman & female spirit I've always carried inside and allowing peers around me to embrace their own journey. Let people be themselves! I just say, listen to your heart and lead with love in whatever you do."
"I'm not speaking for the whole community, I'm speaking for myself," Pejic told me. "I'm not an activist, I'm not a politician. I'm a model. I'm a political citizen of the world, but I have no desire to be a politician. And for me, equality and equal rights are so much more important than feeling special or different. We're not at a point where we have equal treatment, equal respect, equal rights, equal opportunities. And that's what I would like to push for and I would like to see."