The world makes you something that you’re not, but you know inside what you are, and that question burns in your heart: How will you become that? I may be somewhat unique in this, but I am not alone, not alone at all. So when I became a fashion model, I felt that I’d finally achieved the dream that I’d always wanted since I was a young child. My outside self finally matched my inner truth, my inner self. For complicated reasons which I’ll get to later, when I look at this picture, at that time I felt like, Geena, you’ve done it, you’ve made it, you have arrived. But this past October, I realized that I’m only just beginning. All of us are put in boxes by our family, by our religion, by our society, our moment in history, even our own bodies. Some people have the courage to break free, not to accept the limitations imposed by the color of their skin or by the beliefs of those that surround them. Those people are always the threat to the status quo, to what is considered acceptable.
In my case, for the last nine years, some of my neighbors, some of my friends, colleagues, even my agent, did not know about my history. I think, in mystery, this is called the reveal. Here is mine.
I was assigned boy at birth based on the appearance of my genitalia. I remember when I was five years old in the Philippines walking around our house, I would always wear this t-shirt on my head. And my mom asked me, “How come you always wear that t-shirt on your head?” I said, “Mom, this is my hair. I’m a girl.” I knew then how to self-identify.
Gender has always been considered a fact, immutable, but we now know it’s actually more fluid, complex and mysterious. Because of my success, I never had the courage to share my story, not because I thought what I am is wrong, but because of how the world treats those of us who wish to break free. Every day, I am so grateful because I am a woman. I have a mom and dad and family who accepted me for who I am. Many are not so fortunate.
There’s a long tradition in Asian culture that celebrates the fluid mystery of gender. There is a Buddhist goddess of compassion. There is a Hindu goddess, hijra goddess. So when I was eight years old, I was at a fiesta in the Philippines celebrating these mysteries. I was in front of the stage, and I remember, out comes this beautiful woman right in front of me, and I remember that moment something hit me: That is the kind of woman I would like to be. So when I was 15 years old, still dressing as a boy, I met this woman named T.L. She is a transgender beauty pageant manager. That night she asked me, “How come you are not joining the beauty pageant?” She convinced me that if I joined that she would take care of the registration fee and the garments, and that night, I won best in swimsuit and best in long gown and placed second runner up among 40-plus candidates. That moment changed my life. All of a sudden, I was introduced to the world of beauty pageants. Not a lot of people could say that your first job is a pageant queen for transgender women, but I’ll take it.
So from 15 to 17 years old, I joined the most prestigious pageant to the pageant where it’s at the back of the truck, literally, or sometimes it would be a pavement next to a rice field, and when it rains — it rains a lot in the Philippines — the organizers would have to move it inside someone’s house. I also experienced the goodness of strangers, especially when we would travel in remote provinces in the Philippines. But most importantly, I met some of my best friends in that community.
In 2001, my mom, who had moved to San Francisco, called me and told me that my green card petition came through, that I could now move to the United States. I resisted it. I told my mom, “Mom, I’m having fun. I’m here with my friends, I love traveling, being a beauty pageant queen.” But then two weeks later she called me, she said, “Did you know that if you move to the United States you could change your name and gender marker?” That was all I needed to hear. My mom also told me to put two E’s in the spelling of my name. She also came with me when I had my surgery in Thailand at 19 years old. It’s interesting, in some of the most rural cities in Thailand, they perform some of the most prestigious, safe and sophisticated surgery. At that time in the United States, you needed to have surgery before you could change your name and gender marker. So in 2001, I moved to San Francisco, and I remember looking at my California driver’s license with the name Geena and gender marker F. That was a powerful moment. For some people, their I.D. is their license to drive or even to get a drink, but for me, that was my license to live, to feel dignified. All of a sudden, my fears were minimized. I felt that I could conquer my dream and move to New York and be a model.
Many are not so fortunate. I think of this woman named Islan Nettles. She’s from New York, she’s a young woman who was courageously living her truth, but hatred ended her life. For most of my community, this is the reality in which we live. Our suicide rate is nine times higher than that of the general population. Every November 20, we have a global vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance. I’m here at this stage because it’s a long history of people who fought and stood up for injustice. This is Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Today, this very moment, is my real coming out. I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror. I am here, exposed, so that one day there will never be a need for a November 20 vigil.
My deepest truth allowed me to accept who I am. Will you?
Thank you very much.
(Applause) Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)
Kathryn Schulz: Geena, one quick question for you. I’m wondering what you would say, especially to parents, but in a more broad way, to friends, to family, to anyone who finds themselves encountering a child or a person who is struggling with and uncomfortable with a gender that’s being assigned them, what might you say to the family members of that person to help them become good and caring and kind family members to them?
Geena Rocero: Sure. Well, first, really, I’m so blessed. The support system, with my mom especially, and my family, that in itself is just so powerful. I remember every time I would coach young trans women, I would mentor them, and sometimes when they would call me and tell me that their parents can’t accept it, I would pick up that phone call and tell my mom, “Mom, can you call this woman?” And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, so — But it’s just, gender identity is in the core of our being, right? I mean, we’re all assigned gender at birth, so what I’m trying to do is to have this conversation that sometimes that gender assignment doesn’t match, and there should be a space that would allow people to self-identify, and that’s a conversation that we should have with parents, with colleagues. The transgender movement, it’s at the very beginning, to compare to how the gay movement started. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. There should be an understanding. There should be a space of curiosity and asking questions, and I hope all of you guys will be my allies.
KS: Thank you. That was so lovely. GR: Thank you.