Transgender Trailblazers

From fashion models to actresses and film directors; we look at eight of the world’s choicest transgender pioneers.

The LGBT lauded Bruce Jenner when he spoke to ABC’s Diane Sawyer last month of plans to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The revolution allowed millions of viewers to see a glimpse of the struggles a transgender woman faces. 

To honor his announcement, we look at eight trans trailblazers that have proudly come out, acting as a vanguard for this previously dearth community.

Who: Janet Mock

Why: New York Times’ bestselling author of Redefining Realness, Mock is also a journalist, transgender campaigner and founder of #GirlsLikeUs – a social movement that empowers trans women to celebrate the diversity of womanhood. Furthermore, named Mock one of the “15 Most Powerful Gay Celebrities of 2012”.

When: Mock, who was raised in Hawaii and California, wrote an article for Marie Claire about growing up as a trans girl in 2011. It came as a surprise to many and she had, in fact, undergone gender reassignment surgery in Thailand at the age of 18 during her freshman year at university in Hawaii. 

Word: “I was born in what doctors proclaim is a boy’s body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth. My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.”

Photo Cred: Aaron Tredwell

Photo Cred: Quitin and Ron

Who: Carmen Carrera

Why: After appearing on the 2010 series of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Carmen was signed by Elite Model Management and has since been photographed by Steven Meisel and David LaChapelle; and appeared in magazines W and Italian Vogue. Last year, a petition for Carmen to be the first transgender Victoria’s Secret Angel was unsuccessful but received 45,000 signatures – turning her into something of a poster girl for transgender rights.  

When: Although Carmen, who grew up in New Jersey with her mother, grandmother and elder sister, has had breast augmentation and a nose job, whether she has completed gender reassignment surgery remains “a private matter.”

Word: “I felt like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon as I strutted on stage for the first time, wearing a curly wig and rhinestone lingerie. I arched my back, burlesque-style, as I sang the Toni Braxton songs Un-Break My Heart and Breathe Again.”


Who: Amanda Lepore

Why: A muse to David LaChapelle, LePore has appeared in many a prestigious advertising campaign. Her hourglass figure has also popped up in music videos for artists including Elton JohnThalíaGrace JonesKeanan Duffty and TIGA; and magazines including French Playboy and Paris Vogue.

When: Lapore parent’s withdrew her from school and hired a private tutor when she became isolated from her peers. At the age of 17, through a legal loophole, she was granted gender reassignment surgery, which she underwent surgery at the age of 19 in Yonkers, New York. 

Word: “If I could have a crystal ball and see what I look like now – you know, modelling, David LaChapelle, hanging out with Daphne Guinness, singing with Lil' Kim, and traveling all over the world, I'd be like: "Wow, I can't believe this.”

Photo by: @dylanjamesnyc

Photo cred: Ivan Nikolov/WENN

Who: Laverne Cox

Why: The Emmy-nominated American actress, reality television star and producer is best known for her portrayal of Sophia Burset in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. However Cox, a strenuous LGBT advocate, was first noticed when she appeared as a contestant on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy, which was followed by her hosting and producing her own makeover show, TRANSform Me.

Cox, who was the first trans woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine and appeared nude in Allure, has acting credits including Doubt, Law and Order, Law and Order: SVU, Bored to Death, and the independent films Carla and The Exhibitionists. A dedicated campaigner for trans rights, Cox has won many awards including: The Guardian’s third annual World Pride Power List, which ranks the world’s most influential LGBT people, and was honored by GLAAD with its Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her work as an advocate for the transgender community.

When: Cox, who grew up in the southern US town of Mobile, Alabama feels talking about her genitalia and surgery is not productive in raising transgender awareness.

Word: “Black people watch shows the whole time wondering where the black people are, and I did that, but I also watched shows as a trans person wondering where all the trans people are. Then I thought: maybe instead of wondering, you should be that person.”

Who: Lea T

Why: The Brazilian model became a household name after Givenchy designer, Riccardo Tisci hired her as his fit model-personal assistant. He then used her in his 2010 ad campaign. She has since been featured in magazinesVogue Paris, Hercules, Interview, CoverLOVE, Vanity Fair and Grazia France. 

In 2013, she participated in the Italian version of Dancing With The Stars, and this year she was chosen by Forbes magazine as one of the 12 women who changed Italian fashion, alongside Miuccia Prada, Anna Dello Russo and Franca Sozzani. Lea T is an icon of transgender advocacy in the LGBT community. 

When: Brazil-born, Italy-raised Lea T was identified as a male at birth but, despite being aware of her difference to other children, she didn’t choose to have sex reassignment surgery until she became friends with Tisci – the “T” in her name is a homage to the designer. 


Word: “One night he [Tisci] encouraged me to wear pumps to a party. We went shopping for 'drag queen' shoes and we bleached my eyebrows. It was a revelation.”

Photo cred: Karel Losenicky

Photo cred: Tony Velo

Who: Isis King

Why: Fashion model, designer and motivational speaker. She is a graduate of the Arts Institute of Philadelphia, who majored in Fashion Design King gained a scholarship and graduated with the Industry Award for Best Evening Wear in 2005. 

King worked as a catwalk model whilst studying for her degree, and it was when she appeared as an “extra” on series 11 of America’s Next Top Model that she was spotted by host, Tyra Banks. She then went on to appear in series 17 of the show. New York magazine spoke of King being one of a few transgender models in history to rise to prominence. 

When: Born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland King where she came out as gay in high school. But it wasn't until 2007 that she began hormone replacement therapy, eventually going through gender reassignment surgery in 2009. 

Word: “Even though I am transgender, I've always identified as a heterosexual female, even before my surgery. That's just how I've always seen myself.”

Who: Alexis Arquette 

Why: One of the Arquette family acting dynasty (Patricia, David and Richmond) she has had roles in films including Last Exit to Brooklyn, Pulp Fiction, Threesome and The Wedding Singer; appeared in television shows The Surreal Life and Californication; and performs in drag as Eva Destruction. Arquetteoften speaks out as a LGTB advocate. 

When: Her transition from male to female was documented in the film, Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother, which debuted at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.

Word: “I want parents out there to know that it's totally natural for kids to make believe and play games. It does not mean your child is going to be transgendered. And even if it were true, why is it such a horrible thing?”

Photo credit: Adriana M. Baraza/WENN

Photo cred: C.M. Wiggins/WENN

Who: Lana Wachowski

Why: Lana and brother Andrew Paul Wachowski are known collectively as “the Wachowskis” (and previously “the Wachowski Brothers”). The American film director, screenwriter and production duo are best know for The Matrix franchise, but have more recently written and produced V for Vendetta, Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. 

When: It was when promoting the highly-anticipated Cloud Atlas that Human Rights Campaign Visibility winner Wachowski become the first major Hollywood director to publicly come out as transgender. 

Word:I knew I was going to come out, but I knew when I finally did come out I didn’t want it to be about my coming out. I am completely horrified by the “talk show,” the interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host [applause] whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person.”