Geena Rocero, a transgender fashion model and activist, shared her experiences growing up in the Philippines as a young trans girl and what led her to become a trans activist at a speaking event hosted in the Memorial Union Strafford Room in honor of National Coming Out Week.
“It’s important to understand that trans people did not just exist three years, that we’ve been here since the beginning of time,” Rocero said as she explained the prominent place trans people once had in the governments of the Philippines archipelago before Spanish colonization.
The cultural history of the Philippines and Catholicism brought by the Spanish colonizers meet during the fiesta celebrations, Rocero explained. While these celebrations are usually held in honor of Catholic saints, a transgender beauty pageant also stood out among the festivities when Rocero was a child.
Rocero recounted attending one of these pageants when she was 7 years old and the sense of connection she felt with the contestants.
“To feel, for the first time, this sense of recognition of who you are at such a young age really made an impact in my life,” she said.
However, just because trans people were visible in the Philippines, didn’t mean they were politically recognized or accepted. The same beauty pageant where a 7-year-old Rocero realized her identity as a trans girl was later interrupted by fundamentalist protesters. Rocero described the incident as a “perfect metaphor.”
“Every time I would express my feminine self to the world in my neighborhood, where I grew up in the Philippines, the world was always ready to tell me that I’m not the woman that I am, or that I’m not the girl that I am, that I’m a boy,” Rocero said.
Rocero eventually found her community in the transgender beauty pageant circuit where she spent the majority of her teenage years. Rocero described the culture shock of immigrating from the Philippines, where she was the star of the transgender beauty pageant world, to America where transgender people did have some political rights, but were culturally invisible. The absence of mainstream representation inspired Rocero to found Gender Proud, a production company that focuses on telling the story of trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, as well as advocating for trans rights all over the world.
Not long after moving to America, Rocero decided to move to pursue a career in modeling. Rocero described to attendees how, despite having seemingly achieved her dream, the fear of being outed hung over her modeling career.
“Trans women that were in fashion business…when they got outed their careers disappeared,” Rocero said. “There [was] always this moment of maybe after this job… maybe there would be a tabloid about me, that ‘Geena’s trans,’ and my career would be over.” The stress began to take a mental and physical toll.
Rocero decided to come out in 2014 during her TedTalk on International Transgender Day of Visibility. Her talk has since been viewed more than 4 million times and translated into 32 languages.
Since coming out, Rocero has continued her advocacy work with her founding of Gender Proud and plans to speak at the upcoming Oct. 8 Supreme Court hearing, in which the U.S Supreme Court will hear arguments whether the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to cases of anti-LGBT discrimination, and thus prevents employees from being fired for being LGBT.
Junior psychology and English major Olivia Ucci described Rocero’s lecture as “super moving” and emphasized the importance of having diverse perspectives on campus.
“I think that as far as campuses go, UNH is not super diverse, so I think having that visibility here is all the more important to show that these people exist and are valid,” she said.
At the end of the presentation, an audience member asked Rocero how she had remained driven despite all of the backlash she had received during her journey.
“I realized that people’s ignorance cannot be my reality,” Rocero replied.