Interview: Elite Model Carmen Carrera On Fighting For Trans Rights In “Trump’s America”
The moment she shot out of obscurity on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Carmen Carrera committed to using her fame as a vessel for change. Thanks to a newfound tribe of supporters, the Puerto Rican-Peruvian model pulled back the curtain on her transition from man to woman and hasn’t minced words on transgender rights since.
No longer in hiding, the lionhearted advocate challenged the use of “shemale” on the show that introduced her to millions across the nation to prevail. “[It’s] an incredibly offensive term, and this whole business about if you can tell whether a woman is biological or not is getting kind of old,” she wrote in a statement. “We live in a new world where understanding and acceptance are on the rise.”
And from that vantage point, the fashion muse landed in the center of a campaign to become Victoria Secret’s first trans angel with the support of almost 50,000 fans. The world-class brand hasn’t publicly addressed the call, but the Elite model isn’t deterred by hurdles on the path to inclusivity—a point she makes clear in the face of the Trump administration.
Carrera doesn’t deny the sting of the 45th president’s assault on bathroom rights for transgender students. After all, she had just cleared her female gender on paper when the news swooped in this February. In a position of influence, however, the Couples Therapy’s alumna swats at the temptation to wallow in fear. “As someone who’s visible, I feel it’s part of my responsibility to have a voice for trans people because the fight is not necessarily on television,” she tells VIBE Viva over the phone. “The fight is every day.”
Below, Carrera weighs in on the Supreme Court’s letdown in the case of Gavin Grimm, contention between hip-hop and the LGBT community, and the common ground between the fight for equal rights overseas and in the United States.
VIBE Viva: When America was introduced to you on season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you were a self-identified gay man. Unknown to viewers at home, you started your transition shortly after filming. How did you know it was time?
Carrera: I knew it was time before I went on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In my early 20s, I set out to kind of find myself. At that time, if you were different or if you ever questioned your gender identity or sexual orientation, society kind of put you in the gay club. That’s where you ended up, but my generation was a mix of all these different people from different walks of life, so I was exposed to a lot of the drag performers, a lot of the trans performers, the competitions, the pageants, and I was fascinated.
About five years later when I got the call for [the show], I had already been questioning what I wanted in the future, and I decided, “If I get on Drag Race, that will be my time capsule. I’ll be able to go back and watch myself before I take this journey.” Literally the day after filming, I started my transition. The show aired six months later, and we started to tour six months after that so I was already a year into my transition as people got to see me in person. I wasn’t really too open about it because I was afraid I was going to be judged by the other performers. I was afraid that people might not love me anymore or think I was losing that transformation aspect of my performance art so it took me a long time before I opened up on Facebook and YouTube.
What inspired you to come out on social media?
It was basically all the love that I was receiving from fans. I was doing about five or six different cities a week where I had to do one or two-hour long meet and greets, and let me tell you girlfriend, I met every single fan. I didn’t turn anybody away. If you’ve ever met me, I would give you so much love, and the stories they would tell me about how empowered I made them feel—I started to have a sense of responsibility. I felt I needed to be honest because they were being so honest with me, and it wasn’t something I was used to. Coming into the gay scene and going out to the gay clubs, you’re almost not allowed to be vulnerable because of the social stigma and the abuse you put yourself through, feeling like you don’t belong and you’re not allowed. Having all of that openness, I felt like I had to give something back by being honest about what I was going through, and I was afraid that I was going to lose a lot of that admiration, but the truth will set you free. I received an outpouring of love and understanding, and it’s gotten me a modeling contract with Elite Models, which is super difficult to get into, and my career basically took off from there.
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Days after you received your birth certificate reflecting your female gender, the Donald Trump administration rescinded protections for transgender students established under Barack Obama. What was that week like for you?
It was a really difficult week for me. First of all, I had no idea the Trump administration was going to—rescind is the word, but for me it’s like they’re actually turning their back on us. At the same time, I was so privileged to have my birth certificate changed because there are so many people that don’t have the same opportunities as me. It was a very bittersweet moment. I went through hell and high water to get my birth certificate. Every single time that I would get one inch closer, somebody would push me back whether it was the court saying that I didn’t have enough paperwork yet or the State of New Jersey sending back my birth certificate twice with the wrong information, so it was a lot of running around, a lot of BS I had to put up with that I couldn’t believe I had to go through. Then the very same week that I get it, the Trump administration decides to not support us anymore. It was a difficult time for me, but honestly, I’m the kind of person that’s extremely resilient. I had to just get up and say, “I’m not going to let this get me down.”
I wasn’t even going to post up my birth certificate, but I decided to because not a lot of trans people even know they have the option to do this. You have to be able to give people some light in the darkness, and I know this gives people hope because now it’s, “Fine, if you want me to use the bathroom that correlates with my birth certificate, well I’ll get my birth certificate changed.” In these times, there’s so much ignorance. There’s so much adversity, and I want to be able to give my community options, so I just put it out there that this is what you could also do.
Did the news take you back to your childhood in any way?
It did. When I was a kid, I was really quiet. I didn’t really share a lot of the things I was going through, and I feel like, nowadays, there are so many more kids that are brave enough to open up. When you open up, you open up yourself to the good and the bad. To be honest with you, I felt like fighting because you have these kids who are so honest, so vulnerable, who are so brave—braver than me because in school, I made sure that I kept my mouth shut. I made sure that I didn’t walk or talk differently than anyone else, and I really pushed myself down to a point that I stopped developing my own character, so I started to think back to that. For me, [the ruling] made me want to really go out there and fight the good fight. It breaks my heart for kids to have to go through this, but there’s so much support right now, and I’m not going to stop fighting. I want to be able to use my platform wisely. I want to be able to use my career and use all of the tools and resources that I have, I want to be able to pass that down to them as well. They deserve to thrive. They deserve to feel safe.
In the wake of the president’s ruling, the Supreme Court has now backed out of its decision to hear the landmark case of Gavin Grimm, whom you’ve met before. Have you shared any words with him since?
We talk on social [media], and I try my best to send him positive messages. This process is going to be a lengthy one. The Supreme Court isn’t hearing the case now, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to hear it later. We just hope that the Court of Appeals does the right thing. I just want to send my support to Gavin Grimm and let him know that he’s doing an amazing job telling his story. I’ve watched so many of his videos, and to have the courage to go out there in front of the camera and all of the lights and be vocal about this issue is huge. He’s become the voice of trans youth on this whole bathroom issue and not even unwillingly.
I don’t know if you’ve seen his profile on the Gender Revolution documentary with Katie Couric, but there’s footage of parents speaking out against Gavin, and it was so heartbreaking because I feel they’re missing the point. Everyone is so concerned about children’s safety, but why isn’t anyone concerned about Gavin’s safety? Why be isolated just because of who he is? He spent weeks and weeks using the restroom without incident, and all it took was one person saying they were uncomfortable. I really hope that justice comes out of this, and that this issue goes to the Supreme Court because it is a federal issue. I can’t stand the fact that the Trump administration says this is a state issue. It’s basically throwing off the responsibility of the highest power. It’s so ridiculous, but I just wish [Gavin] all the best, and I’ll continue to share updates on his story on my platform, and I hope that will motivate the rest of my community to be an ally for this cause.
So sad to hear today that the Supreme Court has sent the #GavinGrimm case back to court of appeals instead of hearing it as it was planned to. It did so because recently the Trump administration withdrew guidance to schools that had instructed them to grant transgender students’ bathroom preferences. The Trump administration promised the LGBT community it would protect us. Is this their definition of protection? I cannot imagine Gavin having to forcefully use the women’s restroom or become excluded from his peers by using the unisex restroom. I stand with Gavin. Let’s hope the Court of Appeals does the right thing! #StandWithGavin #GavinGrimm
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According to reports, at least seven trans people have been murdered in 2017 so far. At the end of February, Chyna Gibson and Ciara McElveen were killed within 48 hours of each other in New Orleans. How does your work as a transgender advocate, especially one of color, shift in the era of “Trump’s America”?
As far as my advocacy works, I kind of focus my efforts within the hip-hop community. I was on VH1’s Couples Therapy along with Joe Budden and Janice Dickinson. It was a great season. I actually got married on the finale. In the house, we had a lot of conversations about being trans and what that means, and I was faced with a lot of the ignorance within that space. I did a project with Complex – a Transgender 101 – and we got like five thumbs up and like 1,000 thumbs down for something that was very friendly and informative, so that really pushed me to continue to work. Trans women of color are often targeted, and I really don’t know why. The same thing happens in Brazil. I just did a documentary with HBO and Fusion about the conditions there. Brazil is the deadliest place to be trans, so we wanted to focus on what exactly is the problem. It’s really sad.
I always try to think about what I can do to let people know that I’m just like everyone else. I have two girls here at home I’m trying to raise. I’m trying to be a good stepmom. I’m trying to stay fit and be a good model and break ground in the acting world. I’m working that same struggle every other woman is trying to work. I’m not here to fool no man. I’m not here to play a character. I’m not trying to do none of that stuff that we’re often stereotyped with as if that’s our purpose. I don’t get it. I always try to make the best decisions that I can to help open up people’s eyes.
You touched on the dichotomy of Brazil, a country that hosts one of the largest gay pride parades, yet sees the highest rates of violence against LGBT people in the world. What was your biggest takeaway when you were filming Outpost?
My biggest takeaway is that our issues are issues that are happening across the globe, but what I can say is that America kind of sets the tone for a lot of countries that have decided not to support equal rights, so I do feel there is a certain responsibility as far as the rest of the world goes. What was really surprising to me about Brazil was seeing how we go a few steps forward to take a few steps back, and I think we need to be aware of how we perceive and embrace one another. This same exact situation is also happening in Spain. There was an LGBT organization that put out a campaign saying some boys have vaginas, and some girls have penises – basically to embrace people from all walks of life – and [a Catholic group] plastered it all over their buses [in Madrid] saying, “Don’t [let them fool you],” so there’s this battle going on, and it’s really hard to educate people when they’re not open to listening. As someone who’s visible, I feel it’s part of my responsibility to have a voice for trans people because the fight is not necessarily on television. The fight is every day. People feel like they can’t even use the restroom. Transgender people should be allowed to function in public spaces, period, and it is the responsibility of the government to protect everyone’s equal rights. That’s something that is so basic, and I wish that people would understand that.
As a Puerto Rican-Peruvian model, you were among 81 of fashion’s biggest names that joined W Magazine’s “I Am An Immigrant” campaign last month. Tell us why that collaboration was important to you.
I decided to be a part of the campaign because my parents are immigrants. I’m first-generation American so the hopes and dreams of my parents rest on my shoulders, and my success is really important to them. It’s a sense of pride to stand up and say, “I come from immigrants.” This whole country was founded on the idea to leave a horrible situation and make a new life among people with equal rights so when this came up, I absolutely wanted to do it because there are so many people who come from the same exact situation that I do. My parents came here poor, no education, and I grew up around the idea that we have to hustle and work hard. That’s why I decided to do it. I carry that with me every single day.
“I am an immigrant.” At the urging of W magazine, 81 high-profile members of the fashion industry joined to issue a united statement and front against Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Click the link in our bio to read more. Video by @Kloss_Films. #IAmAnImmigrant
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How do you plan to use your work as a vehicle for change moving forward? Is there anything we should keep an eye out for that you’re working on this year?
[Outpost] airs on May 7 on Fusion. I’m also working with an organization in Massachusetts where we’re trying to bring LGBT history into schools. It’s called “History Unerased,” and we’re hosting a series of events to raise money for that. I really would love to normalize the idea of LBGT history, so we’re putting together that curriculum. That’s what I’m really focused on. Aside from that, I have Miami Swim Week that’s coming up in July that I’ll be participating in as well as Fashion Week in September. I’m also working on a feature film that I can’t really talk about. That’s pretty much it for now.
And is becoming Victoria Secret’s first trans angel still on your wish list?
Absolutely. To be a Victoria Secret’s angel would be a dream. I would love to parade on a runway and show my pride and be a positive representation for my community, but the question is would “Trump’s America” allow it to happen? And that’s really on them, but I’m here. I’m fit, I’m sexy, I’m young and I’m available.