Speak No Evil
While her story might be extraordinary,
transgender model Geena Rocero’s journey of becoming
is just like any of ours
Written by Meryll Yan
"You are going to hell," shoot some conservatives – but then Geena Rocero always knew that there would be repercussions.
For the past decade, Geena was already living her dream life. She had made it in New York City, working as a successful fashion model. But she bore a secret that racked her with fear. And it was only when she turned 30 that she found the courage to make the admission that would validate her own and many other lives.
See no evil
When Geena Rocero walks into a room, what you see is not what you get.
At first glance, she is the consummate fashion model. Against a roll call of similarly tall, perfectly symmetric and high-cheekboned mannequins, she does not strike one as peculiar.
The audio and video seem to lock. Visually, Geena is the epitome of the ideal female—voluptuous and slim in the right places. When you look at her, you see a woman. When you listen, her voice laced with honey, you hear woman. No one is playing tricks with your mind. No one need have known her secret.
Geena says, "I was very afraid. My modeling agency did not know. I kept it a secret because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed."
But turning 30 changed all of that. In an article in Huffington Post, she revealed that her then-boyfriend asked what turning 30 meant to her. To which she replied, "'It means letting go. It means no more secrets."
When she speaks, you realize that you’re not with someone who fits in a box.
March 19, 2014
In less than 10 minutes, Geena finishes delivering a speech that will blow the hinges off her carefully constructed life.
TED talks feature the stories of our time – delivered by either experts in their fields or people with extraordinary lives. No one goes on that stage with merely a confession.
Listening carefully to Geena, one can hear the audience gasp when she reveals a photo of herself, dressed in traditional Filipino costume –but the image is that of a boy.
She admits, “For a long time, I let my FEAR paralyze me. Fear of what people would say, fear of being rejected, fear of ‘I am not enough,’ fear of the many "what ifs" that led to procrastination. I had a moment of realization that having fear is totally normal, and to acknowledge that. So when I had that clarity, it gave me absolute freedom to do things that are aligned with my truth and purpose.”
Geena was given the gender assignment of “male” when she was born. Her TED talk, in its 9:47 time frame, succinctly but honestly describes Geena’s journey – how she was discovered by TL, her transgender “fairy godmother,” how she hit the pageant circuit, how she had surgery in Thailand at 19 and how it led to her biggest milestone: seeing “F” as her gender marker when she moved to the United States.
Her talk, now with more than 2 million views, has since lit a fuse that will lead her to the White House, to Colombia, to Hong Kong, another series all over the US, and, back home to Manila. Geena describes the whirlwind that has ensued: “I have met so many inspiring communities and trans individuals. [Because of me,] they are full of hope and they have become resilient in making sure their voices are heard. All the work that the trans activists are doing is for the next generation. We are hoping that their lives will be better than ours.”
Hear no evil
Adversity supposedly builds character. While Geena focuses on the more positive aspects of her journey, two experiences come to mind. They are not uplifting as much as they are defining.
On a 2005 trip from New York to Japan, Geena was detained because her Philippine passport still carried a gender marker of Male. She shares with Huffington Post, "I was held there for a couple hours, being questioned about who I am. I was eventually let go, but not before suffering what felt like deep humiliation and embarrassment."
To us, Geena recounts an experience from home, "I remember when I was young, walking around our neighborhood especially my usual route from the elementary school to our house, tricycle drivers would scream 'Baklaaaaaa!' (derogatory when screamed that way, equivalent to "faggot") as they passed me. I was so scared all the time and worried, 'What if they scream while I'm with my family?' I would feel embarrassed if that happened, and it did happen."
But even at the tender age of 5, Geena already knew what she was. In her TED talk, she revealed,"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."
Geena says, "After many instances, I chose to be strong and not let that unfortunate situation define how I view myself. Now I realized, those tricycle drivers are even calling me the wrong term, I am not bakla, I am a transwoman. Bakla means gay, I'm just simply a woman."
Speak no evil
With our cultural canon defined by trending Twitter topics and Facebook posts, it is refreshing to have someone play the same game, but for a purpose more meaningful than projecting an aspirational image. Followers are important to Geena, but that is because it is necessary to her advocacy.
When asked if heterosexual males and females should be afraid of her, Geena simply replies, “Visibility is important. Most people operate from a fear-based instinct and that usually leads to suffering and misunderstanding. But you can't fear what you see and understand.”
There are people and institutions who have started to help, building into a tipping point for the community. Barneys New York opened 2014 with a critically acclaimed campaign called Brothers and Sisters, featuring transgender individuals with their families.
Laverne Cox, an American actress, stars in the hit show Orange is the New Black, and has become the first transgender to be an Emmy nominee. TIME magazine featured Cox on their cover and dubbed the transgender movement as America’s next civil rights frontier. Geena herself, after making her TED debut, became the face of Marriott hotels.
Even before the TIME magazine issue came out, even before the Barneys story, we knew that something big was happening.
"Please accept me..."
In April 2014, during our first e-meeting with Geena to discuss this project, we mentioned David Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas and how every generation is defined by how it emancipates the oppressed.
Our collective human history can be chaptered according to the movements against colonialism, against slavery, against race, against being female, against homosexuality. There were visible activists from the black community, from the gay community. And now, it is the time of the transgender, with a Filipina voice leading its charge.
Geena’s request is simple: “Get to know a transgender person, TRULY get to know our dreams and journeys. We're all the same human beings going about our lives and pursuing things that are truthful to us. Yes, it takes courage to be honest with yourself, but it also makes you become a happy person.”
Her risk has paid off. At the end of her TED talk, a visibly emotional Geena is welcomed by a rousing standing ovation. Geena would receive comments of support from men and women in Cyprus, Canada, Serbia, Poland, and India. She would later be invited to Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” series, at the World Economic Forum held in Cebu, at a transgender summit in Hongkong, and next month, she will be one of the speakers in the Social Good Summit in New York and in Manila.
"We're all the same human beings going about our lives and pursuing things that are truthful to us."
This is my truth
“People are ready for this. I don’t want to be labeled. I just want to pursue my dream,” relates Geena to Rappler, during a live interview in Manila.
Geena admits that she has had it good. Her parents were supportive. She was not shunned, she was accepted and she was applauded. And that is why she wants to pay it forward, so that others may have the same opportunities.
The day of her TED Talk, Geena launched Gender Proud, an organization to promote equal rights for the transgender community. The reality is that the suicide rate among transgenders is 9 times higher than that of the general population. Even the actress Laverne Cox attempted it at the age of 11.
Geena intends to make full use of technology to ripple out her message. She explains, “Anthropology and technology go hand in hand. We live in a globalized, interconnected world where culture overlaps and is fluid. A simple tweet or FB message from the Philippines can affect a person in South Africa.
When I post on social media about my transgender rights, someone from the Philippines is realizing and questioning their own rights. Because of this they will demand from their government equal rights. Demanding human dignity should be without borders.”
To see, to listen, to believe.
Click play to watch this video portrait on Geena Rocero.
While it is easy to categorize Geena’s desire for identity under the niche of transgender individuals, it resonates with every person who wants to be accepted for who they are.
Whether you are a single mother seeking to be loved instead of viewed as someone with collateral goods, or a gay teenager still in the closet, or a woman who wants to be respected for who you are and not what you look like, everyone who wants to break free of societal expectations or perceived norms may find resonance in Geena.
Her story proves that what we tell ourselves is directly linked to who we become.
After all, it is about aligning your reality with your belief. It is of manifesting in tangible terms what you’ve always seen yourself as.
“I freed myself,” Geena says.
That is what it means to say, “This is who I am.”
Labels as Limits
We are what we call ourselves.
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind,” said Rudyard Kipling. It is up to us though, whether it will be more venom or cure.
If we are to believe the labels attached to us, then mediocrity is okay. If we are to challenge these, then maybe we can change things.
Since launching #WhipIT last year, we have found women who have defied the labels attached to them. We started a conversation.
Now, we are asking women to #ShineStrong.
What does it mean to #ShineStrong? We can answer it by way of words and by way of example. We can set the ideals that we want to become. We can act upon them so they turn into reality.
A Man Apart
Undocumented immigrant. Fil-Am. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. Film director.
Jose Antonio Vargas reveals his identity among (not despite) his many contradictions