Today, Barneys introduced its spring 2014 campaign. It's titled "Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters," and it stars seventeen transgender models photographed in black and white by Bruce Weber.
Dennis Freeman, who came up with the campaign idea, says that his goal is to create awareness of the trans* community, which has remained marginalized even as gay men and lesbians gain mainstream acceptance: "I was exquisitely aware that in the last decade, the L.G.B. communities have made extraordinary advances, and the transgender community has not shared in that progress," he told the New York Times. It's true — even as transgender people gain visibility, the way in which the media tends to cover trans* issues ranges from ignorant to utterly deplorable. In the past month alone, we've seen both ends of that spectrum: Katie Couric thought it was acceptable to ask Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera deeply invasive questions about their genitals on live TV, and Grantland ran a story that may have contributed to the suicide of a transgender woman, in which the author posthumously outed her. Grantland's editor reportedly ran it by 13-15 people without consulting a single transgender person.
In addition to shooting the 17 individuals for the campaign, Barneys had Patricia Bosworth interview each model; the individual profiles will run on Barneys website over the next few weeks, and a documentary filmed on set is forthcoming. Barneys has also partnered with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the LGBT Community Center, and the company plans to donate 10% of its sales on February 11th to both charities. The ultimate goal of the campaign, per Barneys' website, is "to help break stereotypes and build social acceptance of transgender people" by bringing "the personal stories of these 17 individuals to a national stage."
I spoke to Ryley Pogensky, one of the models included about the campaign, about his experience. He admitted to feeling a bit hesitant at first:
"Part of me was like, 'Holy shit, this is amazing; this is so exciting that a huge company or dept store was using trans* people as models. But the other side of me was like, 'Ugh, fashion.' Being black and understanding how often and how prevalent fetishization still is when it comes to black people... I was like, 'I hope this isn't something where, like, they have all the trans*men wearing tutus. It could go in so many directions... but I can't help but be skeptical because of the way the media has portrayed, and has talked about, trans*people in the past year or so.' So I was a little scared."
After meeting with Dennis Freeman, he felt completely reassured. "He's really committed to sharing these stories and talking about the trans world and just really trying to uplift and give money," Ryley told me. "I was really happy when I realized it wasn't going to be some weird art school project."
So far, the website includes a deeply moving video interview with Arin Andrews and Katie Hill, a former couple who transitioned in high school in a deeply conservative part of Oklahoma:
"I never made the decision to transition," says Arin, succinctly and poignantly. "I made the decision to be happy."
The rest of the model profiles, as well, are full of insight and emotion. In his profile, Ryley says, "What is between my legs is not thoroughly who I am. If gender is black and white, I'm grey." Another of the models, Ahya Taylor, states, "If I could describe my life pre-transition, I was a ticking time bomb, ready to explode. There was no doubt in my mind that I was a woman, although everybody in the world kept telling me otherwise. As far as I was concerned, I was just a woman with a different path to womanhood... [Transitioning] was a matter of psychological survival."
In an email, Ryley said that his hope was that the campaign "sheds light on how hard it is to be transgender in this country, especially as a person of color." When I asked later if he felt concerned that fashion's inclusion of the trans* community would be fleeting, he responded, "I don't know that the fashion world is where you can really look for social change, just because, obviously, the entire premise of fashion is what's trendy." The important thing, for him, is the visibility of the campaign. "One of the most important things that happens is when media picks up these things, and then there's a huge change," he said. "A show like Modern Family, for instance — everyone in America can turn on a TV, and Modern Family will be on. Whether you're a huge homophobe or not, it's going to be there. And that premise of these things slowly inching into the homes of Americans — there's a lot of people who don't even know what a transgender person is, outside of the ignorant things that they might hear. So the slow creeping: imagine this popping up on someone's Facebook feed, and them being like, "Oh, what is this? Oh, these trans*people are getting represented just like people are. Oh, these trans*people are just people.'"
The campaign contains a mix of models and non-models whose ages range from 17 to mid-30s. Some of them have already launched successful careers in Europe and are beginning to infiltrate America, which has been slower on the path to acceptance. Ines Rau, for instance, is one of the more established models in the Barneys ads. She already landed a very sensual photo shoot with Tyson Beckford last year, and it's rumored that she'll appear in Playboy. "I'm not surprised," Ryley said when I brought up the Playboy shoot. He mentioned that his stepfather had seen a photo of him and Valentijn de Hingh — who's already modeled for Maison Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons — from the campaign. "He was like, 'Who is that model next to you in that picture? She is fucking gorgeous.' ... That's what we need: straight men who are just seeing trans*women as women. I want those guys to understand that there's no difference between a cisgendered woman and a trans*woman."
In addition to the models I've mentioned, the campaign will include Edie Charles, Ashley de la Cruz, Sawyer Devuyst, Peche Di, Dezjorn Gauthier, Trevon Haynes, Eve Lindley, Niki M'nray, Ryley Pogensky, May Simon, Ahya Taylor, Maxie Neu, and Gisele Xtravaganza. It's wonderful that we're finally seeing more transgender people represented in the media. What's even more wonderful, though, is the fact that we're getting to hear them as well.
Images via Barneys.