By Paula Gilovich
With the most recent announcement that James Charles is the new CoverGirl, modeling is quickly becoming the queerest landscape for the un-queer mainstream.
Of course, it is titillating. And of course, they are doing it for a story. But, the story inside the appropriation is that modeling can be a radical act for those who are gender nonconforming. Or perhaps it’s a radical act for society to witness—making trans, genderqueer, nonbinary bodies public facing, highlighted for their beauty. Modeling in this way means something different than what it means for a straight cisgender person. Perhaps modeling can even be, in certain instances, categorized as a kind of subversive activism.
Dezjorn Gauthier started modeling when he was 6 months old—when everyone perceived him to be a little girl. He continued modeling through his transition, and so he is uniquely a story of what it means to be transgender on camera. He was told he would never model again when he transitioned, but he discovered very quickly that wasn’t true and was thrust into the limelight in 2014, with a Barney's campaign featuring 17 transgender models.
Regardless of whether or not Barney's was harnessing trans bodies as a means to be “on board” with a cultural moment, Dezjorn’s modeling nets as a very positive experience—both for himself, but also for the outreach to young people that modeling affords him.
Starting at the very beginning, when did you first feel the tension that you were not in fact, female as you had been labeled at birth?
I was 5, 6 years old, when I knew something was different. Of course, being that age, your vocabulary is very minimal, and so “different” is the best word I could get to at that age. About 5th grade-6th grade, in middle school, I knew for a fact that I liked girls. I knew that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I just liked the same “gender” because at that time, my understanding was that I was female. But I knew I wasn’t entirely comfortable still. There was something else going on...
When did this sense of being trans first start to develop? With awareness of that word?
I started to familiarize myself with lesbian, gay and bisexual, and even queer, but the trans part fell out. I didn’t really know the T even existed in LGBTQ. As I started to enter high school, the T became more visible. But the T wasn’t “transgender,” it was “transsexual.” And so, I was like, “I don’t think I’m transsexual because I clearly haven’t changed my sex.” I mean, looking down, I thought, “that’s me, that’s what I see.” So I moved away from the T for a minute. The problem was that I wasn’t educated, and I didn’t understand the terms correctly. And so I identified as lesbian, but I didn’t like it when people would correct my gender. I’ve been dressing masculine since I came out of the womb. Any time I could dress myself, I was putting on boy clothes. I would cut the grass with little shorts on, like my dad, with no shirt on, you know, these are the memories that go back to 4, 5, 6 years old. And I went to private school so our whole thing was “find yourself.”
It was? It was a very accepting high school?
Yes, it was, I went to private schools my whole life, and literally, I’ve never, ever had a problem with being lesbian.
Where were you born and raised?
Nothing, not once, never ever?
No, not once. And it was never considered a sin, even at Catholic school. The institutions I went through were accepting. They saw me as a child of God. I am very grateful for that, for my elementary school, my high school, my colleges, that I’ve never had that issue. I’ve never been bullied. When I go to speak for keynote addresses, I sometimes shy away from speaking on bullying because I’ve never been bullied.
It’s not authentic to you.
Right, and so I would speak on it as far as supporting anti-bullying but if you want personal experience, ahhh, that’s not my experience.
Well that’s exciting. But did that make it harder to find your true self in the end? Do you know what I mean? Having been so accepted as a “lesbian”.
So yes, I had so much support, and so trying to figure myself out with all of that support—from friends, teachers, family—it was a little confusing. But as I said, I knew I did not like it when people would correct my gender. So in the grocery store, if the cashier would be like, “I gave the change to your son.” And my mom would say, “That’s my daughter.” I’d be like, Really? Really?
Or when dating someone. If someone said, “Oh, your boyfriend is cute” to my girlfriend, and she would be like, “Oh, that’s my girlfriend.” I would be like, Oh yeah? We aren’t going to date anymore. Thank you. I would get really ticked off. That’s when it clicked. Wait a minute, this is definitely not a lesbian thing because I don’t even like identifying as a female. There’s something more going on. So I really started digging into it, and I started watching YouTube videos, the word transgender popped up, and my really good friend in Milwaukee was transitioning from female to male.
Was he the first person you met who was trans?
He was the first person I knew. We were lesbians together. We were like bros, and then he started to transition. And I thought, Wait a minute. What’s happening? This is how I feel. Can you explain this to me? And he was like, “I can only explain it to a certain extent, the rest you have to discover on your own. I can give you these websites, but I can’t tell you you need to do this. As your best friend, I know you, but this is something more than reading some article. You have to put two and two together for yourself.”
So that’s what I did. I read medical articles, everything I could find. Probably studied harder about this than anything I was studying in school.
By my senior year of high school, I knew I was identifying with this term transgender. There was no question.
It doesn’t sound like you had to come out as gay/queer, and it doesn’t sound like you even really had to come out as transgender—it seems more like you rolled out. But did you have a conversation with your parents or your school? With your classmates, or did it just organically flow? Did you have a moment when you had to tell someone?
Oh yes, I like that term, rolled into it—that’s how it happened, especially with my interest in girls. And as far as being trans, in college, there was huge diversity and so there was really no need for me to come out. Slowly here and there, I would correct pronouns, things of that nature, educate people.
I technically did have a coming out, because I didn’t mention it to my mother’s side of my family, I didn’t really mention it to my mother either, she was kind of figuring out what was going on, but didn’t know for sure. Then Barney’s campaign happened, and I was one of the 17 transgender models. When it came out, I just handed my mom the press packet they sent me. And then when Vogue and Vanity Fair came out, I gave her those copies as well. So I came out to my family and the world at the same time. I took a huge jump by going right into it by doing something that was international versus let’s sit down and have dinner, I have something to tell you.
My dad just already knew. I said, I’m transitioning, and he said, ok, yeah, I knew something like that was happening. Even my grandmother on my dad’s side before she passed away, my dad had mentioned that she told my dad that it was going to be something like transgender. So my dad’s side saw it coming. I was really masculine and I never need to hide that. My parents are separated. On my mom’s side, with my cousins that were my age, again that rolling effect. My aunts and my uncles and that older generation though, it came off of a shelf. They were picking up a magazine. They thought I was doing regular modeling. When it came out though the word “Transgender” was written right across the top.
That’s a great way to come out, through a Barney’s campaign.
I know, right?
How old were you when you had your first girlfriend?
I was 7 or 8, sharing crayons. She probably never knew, but I knew. But 8th grade, it was official, I had a girlfriend.
When you did get to college, did you have an official “transition” then?
When I went to Marquette I was in an all-girls dorm.
An all girls dorm, ha!
Yep, let me use this to my advantage...
Use it while you’ve got it.
My fiancé now, we will be married in like 250 days, or something like that, I met her in the same dorm. And, again, I was probably the only person at that time that was very masculine. Several times, I had “Sir, you can’t come in here.” And would be like, um, no, my room’s right there.
Even my roommates totally understood. Even if someone was uncomfortable, they wouldn’t say they were. A couple of times I would go to the men’s bathroom.
Were you starting to get uncomfortable going to the women’s bathroom?
Yeah, yeah. I was out being trans, but I didn’t have any facial hair and I wasn’t on T. But it did start to get kinda weird, because some people knew me as He, this man, Dezjorn. But I’m from Milwaukee and going to a school in Milwaukee, some people knew me anyway. So it was in my head like, people that know me, I should go into the girls bathroom. And then after a while being in law and criminology, I realized I had the right to go into whatever bathroom I wanted to go into.
And then my junior and senior year of college, I got very firm. I am Dezjorn. My pronouns are he/him. Correcting people, really hitting the gym, packing, binding and everything that goes with transitioning. Endos, and how do I get hormones and who’s the right doctor. Who is the best in the state of Wisconsin, insurance, all of those things. Did I need to see a therapist? What were the laws? Then I had the shoot with Barney’s at the same time.
How did Barney’s discover you?
When did you start modeling?
When I was 6 months old, so I have been modeling for 24 years of my life.
Do you have those pictures?
Yes, I have those pictures.
Are they girlish?
Some are, and some are not. I love a lot of my baby pictures because we don’t always put clothes on babies, and so they are genderless.
How do you feel about the pictures of you dressed very distinctly like a little girl?
I don’t feel anything negative because I am openly out as trans. A lot of the things I did as a model were like playing dress-up.
I did a lot of things because I modeled at such a young age. I did a lot of community service and volunteered and did youth empowerment stuff. So for me, I was going to work: I’m putting on this dress, and at the end of the day when I’m done working, I can put my boys clothes back on.
I never had a problem modeling. Which is why I continued doing it as a trans man. It’s always a thing I’ve enjoyed doing. So I might not enjoy having on a skirt, and I’d rather be photographed in the jeans and t-shirt, but modeling as a whole was very exciting for me.
What do you like about it?
For me, the smile is one of the most powerful weapons that the human body contains. I think just capturing that. Especially after I transitioned, I was able to be who I was. I’m not afraid to be photographed with my scars from top surgery, and I actually prefer if they weren’t blurred away.
Then there are the stereotypical things like traveling, and the clothes. For example, for Barney’s I was in Balenciaga. I will probably never have that experience again. I can’t even touch that kind of clothing here because we don’t have those kind of stores here in Wisconsin. But it’s crazy too because now modeling is a way for me to advocate and be an activist and be a role model to the kids. A lot of people push to the side the idea that modeling is a real job, but actually it is a real job, it’s just how you use it.
When you were rolling out as trans, did you fear losing modeling?
Oh yeah, but I knew I wanted to do it, to pursue modeling as a man. And I had people tell me, “Oh you can’t do it, you’re not masculine enough” or “Oh you are going to be a black man now, so it’s not going to work.” I had all these comments come my way, but all it was doing was adding gasoline to a fire. I was like, “OK, I’m gonna shine even brighter.”
So you were like, I’m going to model as a man, I just don’t know how that’s going to happen?
Being pre-top surgery. I thought, I can get through the casting call and get right up to the booking. But they are gonna be like take your shirt off, and I will be like, “Um, uh, well.” So I started saying, “I’m a trans man, and I haven’t had top surgery so I can’t do anything topless.” My management teams started to say it for me. It worked out perfectly fine.
Was Barney’s the first shoot as a trans man?
Barney's was the first official industry standard shoot as a trans man. It was killing several birds with one stone. Working with Bruce Weber…a lot of my dreams as a model got checked off through that experience. Being trans, all it did was help me.
A little bit right place, right time?
So then after Barney’s what happens to you? Your world blows up?
It did. It blew up. And then it stood still.
Let me explain why. I actually didn’t know if I wanted to pursue, because it was so hectic. I was one of the photos—me and Ahya along with Arin and Katie—we were the two sets of main pictures that floated with the campaign as the cover page.
I didn’t know though if they were doing this because it was a trending topic, so I was kind of hesitant. But what actually kept me going was all of the teens who wrote me on Instagram, or Facebook, saying, “Dude, I can’t believe it! Oh, you inspire me!”
Simply being a trans man of color, what I got from that community was mind-blowing. I know I don’t represent every trans man on this planet, but I am definitely carrying a weight on my shoulders, and there’s no way I’m going to give up. It did take a toll, I had to discuss it with my fiancé because it was pulling time away from her, pulling time away from my parents, and “a real job”. People didn’t really understand. Until I showed people my inbox and started reading messages to them.
Then there was the day when I got a message from a young person saying, “Today is the day I realized that I’m going to continue living, because I was going to commit suicide.” Right then and there, I was like, I gotta do this. This is my job, this is right, and it was a job well done going to bed at night thinking that one more kid felt OK about who they are.
Pardon me for drifting into the spiritual, but it’s as if it was divined. As if this was supposed to happen?
I’m a proud Catholic man, and so you can’t say those exact words. But it is almost a calling. Life is important. And when you are a teenager you don’t quite get it. So adding on top of it that you are trans, or adding on top of it that you’re black. Your life is important.
With touring where is the most trans-friendly places to travel to?
Well, New York and Chicago are the easiest, and most likely L.A., but I didn’t get to engage with it much. I was shirtless on the beach, and there was no issue—so that’s a plus.
And where needs the most help?
Well, I went to North Carolina. For HB2 specifically. And it was probably the first time I went anywhere with precaution. I made sure I had an STP with me, and that I grew my 11 chin hairs out. I made sure I was following these gender norms, being masculine, really weird things I don’t really need to mention, weird bathroom things in the men’s bathroom. But surprisingly, once I got there, I got back to: You know what, I don’t care. Because if I do it this way, I’m not educating anyone and I’m falling right back into where they want me to be. I’m fine with my feet facing a different way in the bathroom. If you are going to question, fine, but you are still not going to figure it out. I do have a legal background, I know what I’m doing. This training I’ve had from being in law school makes me confident even in North Carolina.
You have said twice in this interview, “I’m a black man.” So let’s talk about that.
Those things you fill out, when you have to check those boxes, I personally never care for those. But when you hear people say “black men fail at this,” I make sure to check that box and say “I am a black man.” Because no, we do not fail at this, not all of us have the opportunity, the access—that’s part of the problem. So many black men are incarcerated and have lost their access to society as a whole. I have to be able to represent myself as a black man, and to say don’t label us in this way. There is still some work to do in the black community to accept and learn about trans women and trans men in general. We need each other—both movements need each other in order to progress.
I understand I am being judged twice. Right off the bat, I’m being judged as a black man. Period. Then, I’m trans. Which sometimes can work as an advantage, and sometimes that same advantage is a disadvantage. But the reason why, let me explain this, because it's crazy: it's because the bigoted person is thinking, you're a trans man so really you're a girl. So, I get off the hook as a black man, but I've just been identified as a girl. It's terrible.
Are you more afraid as a black man or a trans person?
As a black man, definitely. That’s what I’m judged as first. Whatever actions are going to take place, whatever judgment you are going to make you are going to do it off the color of my skin first. That’s the first thing that happens. With all of the police brutality, I’m more afraid of them coming after me as a black man and it getting worse because they find out I’m a trans man.
And you are in law school? You are going to be an attorney?
I’m in law school not to become an attorney. If I become an attorney it will just be a natural thing. I would actually really like to teach law. I want people to know their rights and what’s in the constitution. And if I do take the bar, it will be in St. Louis, Chicago, or Wisconsin. My dream if I do become an attorney would be to open up several firms across the states, so not just one, but to be accessed by many people across the country. This would, of course, take a lot of time.
All for trans rights?
Yes, but also about being black, race in America, civil rights. Right now though, I’m only getting my masters in law. I don’t actually want to fulfill my full JD right now, only because of this country’s relationship with student debt. We are sitting on more than 1 trillion dollars in student debt in this country. Mine continues to grow and I have absolutely no support to pay that off. And even if I graduated with a JD, and made the highest amount as an attorney can make, it would still be an impossible timeline to pay off that debt. With where I’m already at, it needs to come to a standstill in order for me to survive. When I can pay down my student debt, or if someone should want to pay it for me… [laughter]…I’ll continue with my JD.
Ok, rapid fire, just for us to know you better. To love you better. Favorite book?
My favorite book is The Giver.
And favorite movie?
Most definitely The Lion King. Hello.
Yes, of course. Favorite television show?
Law & Order SVU. And How To Get Away With Murder.
Favorite thing to eat for dinner?
Cheese pizza. I could survive on cheese pizza.
Favorite breakfast food?
All different kinds.
You can’t tell me all different kinds, you can only have one. You only get one type of cereal. You’re on an island…
Yeah, OK. I’m looking at this organic box of something something, but that’s not what I’m going to choose. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. There, I said it. With vanilla almond milk.
Favorite form of exercise?
Anything that targets the pecs. Chest flyes. Or curls.
Ok, and you are marrying your fiancé in 250~ days? The person you were with before and during your transition?
Yes, on 7-17-2017.
Paula Gilovich is queer, an ally to all those who are trans and nonconforming, and a youth advocate. She is a playwright, an essayist, and a regular contributor to trans.cafe.