Assigned boy at birth and raised in the Philippines, when did you start changing your self-identification?
I expressed my femininity at a young age, and my family has always been supportive. When I was 15, I started entering [transgender] beauty pageants. I was discovered by a woman who took me in and became my other mom. That was a big moment, when I realized I was going to live like this 24/7. This is who I am, and I’ve got to just be myself. That was my first job, as a beauty queen. You make money and travel all over the Philippines. When I was 17, I moved to the United States. Initially, I didn’t want to move, but the main catalyst was when my mom told me there’s a law in California where I could change my name and gender marker on my driver’s license.
What’s the biggest difference being transgender in the Philippines versus the U.S.?
In the Philippines, I had a culture of visibility of being trans, but there’s no political recognition. When I moved to the U.S., there’s no visibility, but there is a degree of political recognition.
What was it like to begin a career as a fashion model in New York City?
I was there by myself; I took the chance. Here’s the crazy thing, when I moved to New York, I went back to the closet again in a way. When I started modeling, I made a conscious choice to not share my trans history with my modeling agent. Modeling in the city and working—that was my dream. But I was hyper-paranoid. I would be scared. What if I get outed? It was very stressful.
You came out in 2014 during a TED Talk. What prompted it?
I wanted to free myself, because I was finally ready to own my story, and I’ve been thinking about it for so long. But at the same time, [I was thinking] if I’m going to do this, I want it to mean something. It has to stand not just for myself. I have to use this opportunity to shed light on my community and the need to speak about my experience, the difficulties and the process of what people are going through. I knew I wanted to harness as much as I could at the moment. Nobody knew what was going to happen at TED Talk. That TED Talk could have gone in so many different directions.
What are the goals of your advocacy organization, Gender Proud?
I [want to] focus on personal storytelling and visibility, and on a specific policy called gender recognition law, [which will allow] transgender people to change their name and their gender marker without being forced to go through surgeries. Gender Proud collaborates with people and serves communities. We know we have the power in the media, so we want to consult with the communities that we serve [and learn] their needs.
How is the perception of the transgender community changing?
It’s not changing enough. Visibility is [just] one component of it. But it has to translate to policy; it has to translate to actually changing culture. You can’t look at transgender rights if you’re not looking at the intersections of identity that plays into it. Caitlyn Jenner has this moment because she is a privileged person. She’s a white person. This is not the experience of 99 percent of transgender people, especially if you are a person of color. We’re just at the very beginning.
What would you like to see happen next for the transgender community?
I would love to see a federal law for gender recognition. Right now it’s state-by-state basis. I would like to see the gender non-discrimination bill pass in Congress.
I want people to look at diversity as a whole. What is diversity? We have been led to believe and been told that gender is binary, and it’s not. Gender is a social construction, and we see that as more people express themselves. I’m not talking about [just] being transgender; I’m talking about gender identity, gender expectations, gender roles—those things are not binary. Those are fluid; it doesn’t have to be just one or the other. That applies to everybody—a straight person, a bi person, a man, a woman, trans people, gender nonconformity people. This is diversity.