We’re lucky to be living in an age in which there has been greater visibility for transgender people in the mainstream—notably including Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Amazon’s hit series Transparent. Undoubtedly, more discussions about gender identity have happened, and there’s been greater attention dedicated to asking and answering important questions in the media.
Yet, there is still an incalculable amount of work remaining to be done when it comes to raising further awareness around issues concerning transgender identity. Of course, too, it’s important to recognize that raising awareness and generating more visibility won’t solve particularly challenging facts of life for many trans folks. For instance, 64% of transgender adults have considered suicide (often times because they fear societal rejection), and there is intense discrimination for transgender individuals in the realms of employment, healthcare and more.
That said, it’s so exciting to watch as more transgender folks come out to the world, and engage us with very urgent advocacy work and incredible talent. Before I start, I want to note that I am using “transgender” as an umbrella term while also recognizing that many folks don’t choose to fully transition from female-to-male and male-female (FTM and MTF) and that many identify as gender non-binary, bigender, non-declarative and more.
With that, here is our list of 17 trans superstars who are paving the way for trans visibility and activism with courage and charisma.
Who inspires you? Please let us know.
Amos Mac is a New York-based photographer, writer and publisher, and one of the co-founders of Original Plumbing magazine, a quarterly publication that documents the culture of transgender men. Original Plumbing has featured interviews with and portraits of other trans superstars Janet Mock, Geo Wyeth, Ian Harvie, Silas Howard and others. While Mac’s talents are diverse and probably innumerable, his artistic gift in the visual arts has been where he gets most attention; recently, he was featured on the Huffington Post’s roundup entitled 10 Transgender Artists Who Are Changing The Landscape Of Contemporary Art.
Alongside Amos Mac, Rocco Kayiatos is the other co-founder and editor of Original Plumbing. That said, Kayiatos is perhaps better known by his stage name Katastrophe, which he uses for his career as a rapper and producer of hip-hop. He is often cited as the first out transgender performer in the world of hip-hop, and often alludes to his identity as a trans man in his work with disarming vulnerability and honesty.
Elle Hearns is an activist, who received a great deal of attention in 2015 when she helped spearhead the organization of the first international #BlackLivesMatter retreat. Hearns’ work particularly focuses on fighting for the safety of trans people of color; Hearns is continuing her work with #BlackLivesMatter, and also works closely with GetEqual, an organization fighting for the legal and social equality of LGBTQ folks.
Skylar Kergil is a transgender musician (singer-songwriter, to be exact), activist, educator, writer and visual artist. His creative career began when he started documenting his transition from female-to-male on YouTube in early 2009; people simply started catching on. What started as a DIY project of confessional videos turned into his current work, which harnesses his passion for trans rights and education. Currently, Kergil travels to speak, educate, and mentor people on trans issues, and is currently writing a book about his transition through high school and college. Full disclosure: He is also running our social media programs here at trans.cafe.
AJ Ripley is an activist and writer, who identifies as trans-masculine and non-binary, as well as queer and a feminist. In 2015, they released an impressive documentary entitled “On Hold” through VICE Canada, which documents the struggles faced by many transgender folks in Canada trying to seek health care access. Ripley has written for VICE, The New York Times, After Ellen, The Puritan, among other publications. They’re currently working on a PhD in feminist media studies and queer theory at University of New Brunswick.
At present, Jazz Jennings is 15 years old, and known as a YouTube personality and LGBTQ activist. She came onto the scene in 2007 during a 2020 interview with Barbara Walters entitled “I’m a Girl: Understanding Transgender Children.” She is often cited as one of the youngest people to identify as gender dysphoric in the public eye.
Ryan Cassata is a YouTube sensation, working on his music career at the same time as he gains increasing prominence as a young transgender activist. He has talked about issues ranging from health care problems, pronouns, surgeries, and more, and has appeared on The Tyra Banks Show as well as to a range of high schools and colleges around America. In his off hours from all this important work, Cassata has also finished his first album, which came out in March 2016.
Eli Erlick is the director and co-founder of Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering advocacy and empowerment in educational environments for trans and gender nonconforming students. Erlick is also an activist, writer and public speaker on these issues as well as a current National Advisory Council Member for GLSEN and a Youth Advisory Member for The Trevor Project.
Vaginal Davis is a performance artist, painter, curator and writer who was born intersex, and identifies as genderqueer, though is known to use female pronouns. Her name is a “wink” at Angela Davis, as her work aims to engage in questions about feminism, race, gender, and identity at large. While Davis has been “on the scene” for some time, she was recently lauded by The New Yorker as a “muse” for an entire generation of queer critics and writers this past year.
THOMAS PAGE MCBEE
Thomas Page McBee is a non-fiction writer whose work almost always engages with questions about gender identity, and particularly the nuances of masculinity. He was formerly the “masculinity expert” at VICE, and has written the columns entitled “The American Man” for Pacific Standard and “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus. His essays and cultural reportage have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Salon, Glamour, Playboy and TheAtlantic.com.
Silas Howard came onto the team of Amazon’s hit show Transparent as its first trans director, and will be staying with the series into its next season as a producer. Howard is also known for his roles directing Hudson Valley Ballers, created by Paula Pell and James Anderson (formerly of SNL), and the indie feature By Hook or by Crook with Harry Dodge. He was a former member of the seminal punk band Tribe 8, and still identifies as a musician, writer and actor alongside his directing and producing career.
Tiq Milan is a prominent media personality In the LGBTQ world. Milan currently serves as a senior media strategist for national news at GLAAD (which used to be an acronym for “Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Before this, Milan was the Editor-in-Chief of popular LGBTQ magazine IKONS.
Hari Nef is an American model who is redefining beauty. In 2015, she made her debut as a runway model during New York’s Fashion Week. She then co-starred in the second season of Amazon’s Transparent. Nef is the first transgender person to have been signed to worldwide representation by the globally recognized modeling agency IMG.
Writer and editor Janet Mock is best known as a transfeminine public figure who has specifically worked to help redefine how trans women are regarded in the media. In 2012, she started the viral hashtag #GirlsLikeUs in an effort to empower transgender women and create a movement of solidarity. She is also a former editor at People magazine, the author of Redefining Realness and a writer for publications like xoJane and Marie Claire.
C. RILEY SNORTON
While Dr. C Riley Snorton is not a “celebrity,” he is a public figure in the trans community because of his contributions to the scholarship around transgender issues. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Northwestern University, and writes on queer and transgender theory, performance studies, Africana studies and pop culture. He is the author of the recent book Nobody Is Supposed to Know, which is about black sexuality.
D. Smith is a Grammy Award-winning artist and the first transgender cast member of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. She wrote Lil Wayne’s 2008 single “Shoot Me Down” and is vocal about her role as a transgender woman in the often heteronormative and cisnormative hip hop community.
Chase Joynt is a writer and video-artist who, according to his artist statement. In the words of Joynt’s own public artist statement: “I artistically endeavor to tell stories about experiences that I fail to find elsewhere.” Much of his work wrestles with questions about gender-based violence. Chase is also known for appearing as the lead role in John Greyson’s Murder in Passing, a film that has been referred to as the most ambitious public project of transmedia available to the public.