GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - transformation; stories and ideas about changing everything you are, becoming who you are meant to be. This is a little bit strange. But when you look in the mirror, do you think, God, you know, I'm a beautiful person, I look great?
GEENA ROCERO: I think no because it's my work as a model - yes, I do feel beautiful. But there was moments in my life where I never felt beautiful.
RAZ: This is Geena Rocero. She's been a fashion model for about a decade. And to describe Geena as beautiful - something of an understatement. She is stunning - high cheekbones, long, dark hair, slender. And when she walked onto the TED stage, she stood in front of a huge photo of herself in lingerie. You know, it's just unusual.
ROCERO: I'm auditioning, basically. This is a casting call, maybe someone wants to hire me. (Laughter).
RAZ: But of course, you were showing that photograph to tell a bigger story about your journey.
ROCERO: Yeah. It's giving me goose bumps bringing back that memory because it's one of those moments in your life where you're so conscious about what you're about to do. And what you're about to do will change your life.
RAZ: Here's Geena's story from the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ROCERO: The world makes you something that you're not. But you know inside what you are. And that question burns in your heart. How will you become that? So when I became a fashion model, I felt that I'd finally achieved a dream that I've always wanted since I was a young child. My outside self finally matched my inner truth. At that time, I felt like Geena, you've done it. You've made it. You have arrived. But this past October, I realized that I'm only just beginning. In my case, for the last nine years, some of my neighbors, some of my friends, colleagues, even my agent did not know about my history. I think in mystery, this is called a reveal. Here is mine. I was assigned boy at birth based on the appearance of my genitalia.
RAZ: At this moment, when you spoke on the TED stage, and you revealed this for the first time publicly, it was just, like, silent. You could hear a pin drop. And you had revealed this thing that you had kept secret from so many people for so long.
RAZ: You were born a boy. I mean, do you remember thinking as a kid, I'm not a boy?
ROCERO: Yeah. So growing up I would always wear this T-shirt in my head or the blanket or the fabric. I would want my hair to be long. And I would wear it in my head. And I remember that moment when my mom asked me, how come you always wear that? And I told her, Mom, this is my hair. I'm a girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ROCERO: Gender has always been considered a fact - immutable. But we now know it's actually more fluid, complex and mysterious. Because of my success, I never had the courage to share my story - not because I thought what I am is wrong but because how the world treats those of us who wish to break free. Every day I am so grateful because I am a woman. I have a mom and dad and family who accepted me for who I am. Many are not so fortunate. There's a long tradition in Asian culture that celebrates the fluid mystery of gender. There's a Buddhist goddess of compassion. There is a Hindu goddess - Hijra goddess. So when I was 8 years old, I was at a fiesta in the Philippines celebrating these mysteries. I was in front of the stage. And I remember out comes this beautiful woman right in front of me. And I remember that moment, something hit me. That is the kind of woman I would like to be. So when I was 15 years old, still dressing as a boy, I met this woman named TL. She is a transgender beauty pageant manager. That night, she asked me, how come you are not joining the beauty pageant? She convinced me that if I joined that she will take care of the registration fee and the garments. And that night, I won best in swimsuit and best in long gown and placed second runner-up among 40-plus candidates. That moment changed my life. Not a lot of people could say that your first job is a pageant queen for a transgender woman, but I'll take it. (Laughter) In 2001, my mom, who had moved to San Francisco, called me and told me that my green card petition came through, that I could now move to the United States. I resisted it. I told my mom, Mom, I'm having fun. I'm here with my friends. I love travelling, being a beauty pageant queen. But then two weeks later, she called me. She said, did you know that if you moved to United States you can change your name and gender marker? That was all I needed to hear. My mom also told me to put two e's in the spelling of my name. She also came with me when I had my surgery in Thailand at 19 years old. At that time in United States you needed to have a surgery before you could change your name and gender marker. So in 2001, I moved to San Francisco. And I remember looking at my California driver's license with the name Geena and gender marker F. That was a powerful moment. I mean, some people, their IDs are license to drive or even to get a drink. But for me, that was my license to live, to feel dignified. I mean, all of a sudden, my fears were minimized. I felt that I could conquer my dream and move to New York and be a model.
RAZ: So you moved to New York. And then you get discovered. You start modeling. How open were you about your past?
ROCERO: So when I moved to New York, I made a conscious decision to not fully share about my journey into womanhood. And first, I wasn't ready to talk about it. Second, I just - I knew just people have this misconception about what it means to be trans. And I just don't want to have that conversation first and foremost. And it wasn't until December, last year, 2013 when they told my model agent that I'm a transgender woman.
RAZ: What did your agent say?
ROCERO: When I made the decision to go public about this...
RAZ: Not just going to go public, I'm going to go on the TED stage and go public.
ROCERO: (Laughter) I remember, OK, that's right, I need to talk to my agent and share with him. I picked up that phone call. I said, Ron, this is what I'm about to do, and this is the story I want to share. And I remember having that pause. And then he said, well, congratulations. I'm proud of you. I am - you know, I'm here. I support you, which is a big sigh of relief. I mean, I remember being, you know, so nervous, so nervous. (Laughter).
RAZ: I mean, in that time - because you were a model in New York for more than a decade - were you ever afraid that somebody would - I don't know - find out and it would hurt your career?
ROCERO: It's a big yes. I was always in a constant state of paranoia. There's nothing worse than being outed. There's nothing worse than people taking control of your narrative. So I guess subconsciously I did let that fear paralyze me.
RAZ: What happened to get you to decide to do that? Like, what inspired you to say, you know what, I'm going to tell people about my past?
ROCERO: I think first, I want to free myself. There's a sense of, you know, I just want to be fully open about things. And also at the same time, I want to give back to the transgender community.
ROCERO: Today, this very moment, is my real coming out. I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror. My deepest truth allowed me to accept who I am.
RAZ: When you think about your life, do you think about it as a life transformed or do you think about it more of almost like a life restored?
ROCERO: I think it's definitely life transform. And I think I'm still transforming. I think I'm in constant evolution. Especially with the support of my family, that allowed me to just be fully who I am. And added what opportunities that was presented to me that I accepted that I did everything I can to achieve that goal.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I think about your story. And it's almost like you can't, like, control your circumstances, right? You couldn't control who you were born as. But you - in some ways, you can shape your future.
ROCERO: Certainly. If you are conscious, you know, of what is being presented to, if you have that consciousness of opportunity, of really foreseeing a goal or a dream that you have, just do it.
RAZ: Geena Rocera. She is the co-founder of the transgender advocacy group Gender Proud. To find out more about Geena and to see her talk, go to ted.npr.org.
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