Trans Models Speak Out Against Sexual Harassment

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 31, 2021
Originally published on February 24, 2021

Dominique Silver
Dominique Silver  (Source:Photo. Rick Day; Stylist, Joana Marquez; Hair, Kamilah G.; Andres Jimenez)

With New York, London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks all migrating online this year, did diversity also migrate to the virtual space? In many ways, it feels like one step forward, two steps back for transgender models still fighting for their place on the runway. Violence against the transgender community is at record high, and recent allegations against one of the industry's most celebrated designers shine a spotlight on the continued disparity and dangers facing often-marginalized models.

Several models came forth in late 2020 against fashion designer Alexander Wang, accusing Wang of sexually harassing, drugging, and raping male and trans models.

"There are ... allegations of victims, including several trans women, being groped or having their bodies or genitals exposed by Wang," @diet_prada posted to Instagram. "Rapper and former Wang muse Azealia Banks shared anonymous accounts she had been sent on her Instagram stories in late 2019, and while the originals have been deleted, the screenshots still circulate on Twitter. Searching Twitter in fact yields many more tweets detailing similar behavior from the designer, some dating back several years."

Wang denied the allegations, but the case is just the latest in a long history of harassment of transgender women who work as models or performers as portrayed in FX's groundbreaking LGBTQ drama "Pose."

In the series' second season, a predatory photographer commits sexual assault, coercing Angel (Indya Moore), an up-and-coming transgender model, into posing nude and performing sexual acts. The scene harrowingly depicts how a modeling job can seamlessly devolve into sexual assault. In the world of modeling, idealizing women as objects of beauty can turn into an abuse of power.

Cisgender female models have experienced such acts of harassment and assault for decades. With the rise of transgender models, sexual predators within the fashion industry have found a new target.

In 2018, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein assaults, the #MeToo movement and allegations against Terry Richardson, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, transgender model Teddy Quinlivan shared her personal accounts of sexual harassment on Instagram:

"When I became a model I knew I would be working long hours and there would be times when people would be mean or critical towards me... What I didn't expect was for a casting director my first season to force himself on me and offer to put me on the cover of magazines in exchange for sex, or the time a stylist stuck his fingers inside my underwear on a closed set and attempted to pull off my underwear without warning, or the time a photographer groped me and pinched my nipple. These were events I couldn't have been prepared for, because I didn't think it could or would ever happen to me... But it did."

A generation of transgender models is now speaking out against the entrenched patriarchal, sexist economy. Quinlivan proclaimed that she would no longer work with brands or publications that collaborated with anyone accused of assault. In the case of Wang, industry watchdog Shit Model Management called for boycotting the designer's line on its Instagram account.

Sexual predators seem to fly under the radar in a mostly unregulated industry. From the recent allegations of sex trafficking against designer Peter Nygard and model scout Jean-Luc Brunel, these abuses can go undetected for decades.

Trans Models Speak Out

Dominique Silver
Dominique Silver  (Source: Photo, Matthieu Guillot; Stylist, Izza Dungca of one ten collection.)

"I feel like no one really takes models seriously," says Dominique Silver, a transgender female model. She was attracted to the profession for travel and glamour, but its serious side, too. "I love being able to give back to my community as a good representation," says Silver, whose images project independence, strength, authenticity and feminine beauty. She says the industry needs improvement across the board, citing negative experiences.

Silver says the equality and model treatment on one of her biggest jobs to date — a major campaign — lacked professionalism. She felt as though she didn't have any rights. "I wish there were something in place that we can look to for protection as models," she reflects. "Luckily, having an agent to protect you helps. But it's a dangerous industry if left unprotected."

Modeling has been largely unregulated regarding workers' rights, safety, and standards and practices. How does a model seek redress if a client orders them to strip — or worse?

"A model union should be created and put into play with strict punishments for regulations violated," suggests Silver, who says that misdemeanors from inappropriate behavior to clients who don't pay on time need to be addressed.

The Model Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes "fair treatment, equal opportunity, and more sustainable practices in the fashion industry, from the runway to the factory floor," has made a similar call with the #TimeForRespect campaign.

"Models, let's stick together. Let's unite to find a cause to end these problems as soon as possible," says Silver.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)'s website states a "zero tolerance for unsafe environments and strongly encourage everyone in the fashion industry to report abuse in the workplace," referring "any model who feels they have been the subject of unwanted sexual attention on the job to contact The Model Alliance."

While the trickle-down theory may work for textiles (and an iconic scene from "The Devil Wears Prada"), those lofty ideals of fair treatment and equal opportunity don't always make the leap from manifesto to a casting session or photoshoot.

Ann Thomas
Ann Thomas  

Ann Thomas started Transgender Talent when she realized there was no representation for transgender actors or models run by trans folks. She says the likelihood of exploiting trans talent, misgendering and abusing them, increases exponentially if an enterprise is run by someone who is not trans. She is not above acting as a den mother.

"If we come across somebody trying to be exploitative towards trans people, I will call them out," says Thomas. "I simply won't put up with that crap out of anybody at all."

Thomas says situations can become dangerous when rising talent, under pressure to land their first big break, "makes arrangements to meet with a client on their own without us even knowing about it; that's when things can go wrong. And we've had many models tell us stories — it's the same narrative, it's the same type of aggressive behavior, something sexual, mainly. And it's so difficult for models to get going. We get contacted constantly by trans models who are looking for help. We're kind of up against the wall, just not knowing how we can help them at this point because of the way the industry is."

Thomas recalls a client who asked for a transgender female but kept rejecting the transgender talent Thomas submitted. In the end, she had to second-guess what the client wanted and sent several people on her books, including herself and her assistant Kendra Neuberger. "They ended up picking Kendra because what they were looking for was somebody who appeared transgender but was not a drag queen — and they couldn't tell the difference. They literally couldn't, in their mind, wrap their head around what a trans person was."

Emmett Preciado
Emmett Preciado  (Source: Transgender Talent)

Television may be a step ahead. One of Thomas's clients, trans actor Emmet Preciado, recently appeared in a featured role on ABC's medical drama "The Good Doctor." Preciado played a pregnant transgender man facing a medical crisis and spoke highly of both the script as well as the on-set environment, saying in an interview with Forbes, "I felt like they were honestly writing about me," Preciado said. "And I was like, how do they know all of this stuff?" But Preciado's experience may be the exception rather than the rule.

Thomas says the ignorance and confusion around transgender and gender-nonconforming people has caused her to develop training videos for clients. Big brand names can skew conservative or come out with tone deaf campaigns.

The Power of Allies

Cecilio Asuncion, Model Director at Slay Model Management.
Cecilio Asuncion, Model Director at Slay Model Management.  (Source: Hannah Dimmit)

Allyship is also important in an industry that attracts the LGBTQ community.

Cecilio Asuncion, Model Director at Slay Model Management is a gay television producer and agency owner and has educated himself and others on the subject.

He learned about transgender women from Tita Aida and Trans:Thrive, a nonprofit in San Francisco, when he directed the documentary "What's the T?" in 2013. That experience inspired him to start Slay.

"I had to do a lot of 'Trans 101' with casting directors when Slay opened. Models will always have my number ready whenever they're at a shoot. I am very proud that not only are my models gorgeous, but they know when something is not right and tell me immediately.

"I learned that employment or lack thereof is a problem for the trans community, and I wanted to create a space where a trans model can flourish and feel safe and focus on just being the best possible model," says Asuncion.

But Thomas says there is a more problematic assumption in the U.S. that "trans people are subhuman and it makes it easier for people to prey on us because they think we are not going to say anything because we're trans and we're afraid we're not going to get a job — but we're starting to get a lot of jobs now."

There has been progress in the form of visibility and, hence, demand for trans models. In 2019, Valentina Sampaio revealed she was working with Victoria's Secret, less than a year after the company wouldn't hire a trans model.

But there is still further to go. Asuncion agrees.

"Things have changed," says Asuncion. "However, there's still a huge number of things that need to improve: Pay equality, tokenism, being used for marketing purposes."

Booking a Pride campaign isn't good enough, says Asuncion, when trans is the flavor of the month for companies looking for something different. "While that's wonderful, normalizing trans models as part of the fashion landscape throughout the year is what we should be working on."

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.