Take just the past 30 days, for instance: Transgender model Carmen Carrera walked the runway at Chromat’s New York Fashion Week show, YouTube star and fashion icon Gigi Gorgeous released a new documentary, and Cox has been rocking the awards-show red carpet—as well as the press circuit for her new CBS drama Doubt—in an array of stunning dresses and gowns, like the remarkable one-shoulder chain-link get-up that she wore to the Grammys.
But wait, there’s more: French Vogue announced its first transgender cover model Valentina Sampaio, model Anjali Lama became the first transgender woman to model at India’s Lakmé Fashion Week, and teenage transgender TV star Jazz Jennings got her very own doll sporting a white beret and a tiered tulle skirt.
Transgender glamour is clearly having a moment. But what does that mean when transgender rights are imperiled? The Justice Department has already dropped the Obama administration’s defense of transgender students, state legislatures are continuing to propose vicious “bathroom bills,”and the Trump administration reportedly scrapped a discriminatory executive order but is still stacked with figures who have anti-LGBT track records.
How important could fashion and style be at a time like this? The answer is very.
Transgender modeling and performance are, in and of themselves, courageous acts in a world that still sees transgender people as ugly, inhuman monsters.
“Trans is Beautiful”—which Cox still posts as a hashtag on several of her Instagram posts—is not just a statement of fact; it’s a slogan that swims upstream against a current of bile and hatred.
This follows a tried-and-true pattern in the LGBT community, too: lifting each other up through style and fashion, both high and low.
As British supermodel Naomi Campbell said in praise of Carmen Carrera at the 2014 GLAAD Media Awards, “The truth is LGBT culture and fashion go hand in hand. They flourish in light of making bold and brave statements.”
But aside from that important cultural work, the arenas of fashion, beauty, and performance have given transgender people an important political platform.
As it turns out, when glamorous transgender people gain entrée into elite circles, they tend not to forget the struggles their less-famous peers are facing. Look no further than Cox, who has spent the past few days amplifying the story of transgender teenager Gavin Grimm—whose potentially precedent-setting Supreme Court case goes into oral arguments next month—from every microphone she’s been put in front of.
Cox told everyone to Google Gavin at the Grammys in an unscripted moment Sunday, explained the case to Stephen Colbert on Monday, and then woke up bright and early Tuesday morning to talk about Gavin and “bathroom bills” some more on CBS.
“These bills are not about bathrooms. They’re about whether transgender people have the right to exist in public space,” Cox said. “If we can’t access public bathrooms, we can’t go to school, we can’t work, we can’t go to health-care facilities.”
And then she seamlessly pivoted into talking about Doubt and meeting Beyoncé and other morning talk-show niceties, all while wearing dangly earrings that were even more hypnotic than the Lana Jewelry hoops she wore at the Grammys.
But it’s not as if Cox is Trojan-horsing her activism into these venues; she’s simply refusing to be anyone but herself no matter how much success she attains.
Her insistence on using her public platform to do good isn’t the exception to the rule, either. Two examples: Carmen Carrera advocates for transgender people in the United States as well as in Latin America, and Anjali Lama—as Mic reported—got her start with the Blue Diamond Society, a Nepalese LGBT rights organization.
“I’m honored to be a part of this moment,” Jenner said in a statement at the time, “and to give back to the community to whom I owe so much.” But no good deed on behalf of transgender people goes unpunished, and these glamorous transgender women have drawn their share of critics for participating in feminine fashion while doing activism.
Shortly after Jenner’s groundbreaking Vanity Fair cover, The New York Times published an opinion piece by journalist Elinor Burkett criticizing what she interpreted as “Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara, and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup.”
Laverne Cox drew similar ire after posing nude in a breathtaking shoot for Allure. These critiques tend to come from a strain of feminism that perceives feminine beauty and political empowerment as incompatible, and that places a unique onus on transgender women to undo longstanding norms and conventions.
There’s a hypocritical reason why Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox get more blame for upholding the feminine ideal than Sofia Vergara, who preceded Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, or Blake Lively, who appeared on the cover of Allure when Cox did her spread: The criticism of transgender femininity isn’t about femininity in the abstract, but rather a loosely veiled discomfort with transgender women themselves.
Nor do these critics stop to consider the radical potential of something like Cox’s Allure shoot for transgender women of color, many of whom lose their lives to violent transphobia.
As Cox herself told the magazine, “Black women are not often told that we’re beautiful unless we align with certain standards. Trans women certainly are not told we’re beautiful. Seeing a black transgender woman embracing and loving everything about herself might be inspiring to some other folks.”
A more valid concern—with fewer ulterior motives—comes from within the transgender community itself, namely that the image-drenched industries in which Jenner and others participate implicitly tells transgender people that they must be conventionally beautiful in order to be valued—or even to be seen as deserving of basic human dignity.
After Jenner came out, for example, transgender writer Meredith Talusan expressed concern in a Guardian column that much of the reaction to the Vanity Fair cover boiled down to “how beautiful [Jenner] looks.”
But rather than dismissing the value of these compliments outright, Talusan simply called for more balance and nuance in our discussions of transgender beauty.
“Sure we can notice, and even praise, the elegance of her cheekbones or her resemblance to Jessica Lange,” she wrote. “But let’s also notice how we may be thinking of her as ‘more’ of a woman because she presents herself now according to conventional standards of beauty—and thinking of her as more of a woman because she’s more conventionally feminine on the outside excludes the many trans women who don’t have the money to make themselves look like she does.”
These beauty standards can affect all women, cisgender and transgender alike, as trans blogger and activist Annika Penélope discovered when she started to transition.
As she recalled in a blog post for the queer women’s site Autostraddle, Penélope told her girlfriend that she couldn’t wait to see a “pretty girl staring back at me” from the mirror, to which her girlfriend replied: “You realize that’s never going to happen, right? You’re going to look at your reflection and feel unsatisfied—just like every other woman.”
But as Talusan pointed out, transgender women aren’t just seen as “ugly” when they fail to conform to often-impossible standards of appearance and comportment—they’re seen as not really women. Even Laverne Cox has haters who refuse to acknowledge her womanhood, sprinkled in between the legions of adoring followers who urge her to “slay” and “werk.”
Crucially, though, Cox has been vocal about how the praise she receives for her appearance—even when it comes from other transgender people—depends on her proximity to beauty standards defined by cisgender people.
In a June 2015 Tumblr post, she wrote that when she was called “drop dead gorgeous” by fans, “what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards.”
She went on to acknowledge that “many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access… will never be able to embody these standards.” Cox doesn’t want only those transgender people who can look as good as she does to be seen as beautiful; she wants a society that doesn’t automatically punish transgender bodies for being noticeable as such.
Cox made that clear when she explained the meaning behind the phrase “Trans is Beautiful” at the 2015 Fashion Media Awards: “All the things that make me uniquely and beautifully trans—my big hands, my big feet, my wide shoulders, my deep voice—all of these things are beautiful. I’m not beautiful despite these things. I’m beautiful because of them.”
“Trans is Beautiful” doesn’t mean that transgender people can be beautiful if they have facial surgery or a good stylist or the right body shape. “Trans is Beautiful” means that transness itself is beautiful.
That’s the revolutionary notion that Cox, Carrera, and others are spreading every time they walk a runway or a red carpet. When transgender acceptance seems to be predicated on beauty, the solution isn’t to dispense with the beauty world altogether—a fool’s errand that would sacrifice the cultural and political importance of fashion for the marginalized—it’s to build a world in which we can see the beauty in everyone.
In that world, “Trans is Beautiful”would no longer be a radical statement. It would be an accepted truth.