‘Mic Dispatch’ episode 20: Trans male models on the runway; taxi driver suicides (full transcript)


On this episode of Mic Dispatch, correspondent Evan Ross Katz speaks to several people in the fashion industry about including transgender male models on the runway, and the beauty standards that have made that more difficult. Then, correspondent Cristian Rossel speaks to a New York City taxicab driver and city council members about the recent suicides among cab drivers and why it’s happening lately in the wake of Uber’s and Lyft’s popularity.

Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: Transgender women have gained visibility on the runway and on magazine covers. But trans male models are having a harder time. Correspondent Evan Ross Katz talks with Laith Ashley, a trans man who’s trying to change the fashion world.

Laith Ashley, model: I want to be a star. A huge one. I want to be on the cover of Vogue, not because of my transness, but because I’m on the cover of Vogue.

Evan Ross Katz, correspondent: The rise of transgender models in the fashion industry has been well-documented over the past few years. In the last six seasons, the number of out trans and nonbinary model appearances across fashion month has risen from six to 64. But there’s been a surprising scarcity of trans male models among those ranks. That’s until a record number graced the runway in a single show this past New York Fashion Week.

James Scully, casting director: In the last 10 years, the whole face of what beauty is has changed and, mostly because of this aesthetic, we’re more teenage, wispy — not such a masculine man. Most of the trans males who have big Instagram followings are athletic models. It’s really more, “Do you fit the market profile?” instead [of], “We don’t want you and we wouldn’t embrace you.”

Katz: So many trans women making a remarkable stamp on this industry right now, bursting in the door and showing up on runways right and left. When it comes to trans men, I can think of you, I can think of Casil McArthur.

Katz (voiceover): That’s Laith Ashley, a model who’s cemented himself as a force in the world of fashion. He’s modeled for Barney’s and Diesel, co-starred in the Oxygen series Strut, and graced the covers of Attitude and Gay Times magazine.

Ashley: I think that the reason that I guess trans women are having more so of a moment in media than trans men is because, well, trans men are socialized female. And as trans men are socialized female, we’re taught to be quiet, to be more docile, not to take up space — whereas trans women, who may have been socialized male, are taught to take up space and to be louder and more boisterous. Trans men are kind of lagging behind, but I’m looking to change that.

Katz: Have there ever been opportunities that you think you were rejected from or not given the opportunity to advance in because of your trans identity?

Ashley: Absolutely. I do remember going in to several different castings and them being super excited and then I don’t hear anything back or they say something like, “That wasn’t the direction that we were looking for.”

Katz: Is that coded language?

Ashley: Yeah.

Katz: Why do you think we’ve seen such massive incremental advances with trans women on the runway and in campaigns and not the same for trans men?

Cecilio Asuncion, founder, Slay Model Management: It would have to be because of some physicality issues.

Katz (voiceover): Cecilio Asuncion first met Laith Ashley in 2015 when Laith signed on to be a model at Slay Model Management, a talent agency dedicated to transgender individuals founded by Asuncion.

Asuncion: Like if we’re talking runway, it’s, “Oh, he’s too short.” And that’s whether you’re cis or trans. Working with Laith was a lot — like he was the first one. When you say “trans male model,” he’s the first one you think of.

Katz: Absolutely.

Asuncion: His trajectory was both hard and quick. A lot of — like the men I date.

Katz: Did you ever experience with Laith, or with any of the other trans male models that you worked with early on, that sense of burden that they might’ve felt in being first in the door?

Asuncion: Of course. I mean, I think — I’ve worked with a number of models who still go through that. However, it’s my job to go and convince them: “People aren’t staring at you because you’re trans, people are staring at you because you’re beautiful.”

Katz (voiceover): However, when it comes to the runway, being overtly masculine-presenting can put trans men at a disadvantage.

Scully: Real fashion magazines and real runways seem to be more androgynous males than — or just more prepubescent or teenage than actual super-masculine males. And the real print jobs, which is athletic modeling, goes to athletic males. And that is where the trans men are breaking in.

Katz (voiceover): But that’s not the case for Chella Man, a trans-masculine model who breaks that very mold.

Chella Man, model: I didn’t expect to take on this industry. This industry kind of took me on, which is the best part, because it just means they’re opening up their doors. People’s ideas of beauty are shifting to become more of a spectrum, and this is the perfect time for me to be alive and to be here.

Asuncion: This year alone, Chella has modeled for Gap, American Eagle, ASOS, Dr. Martens, Mac and more.

Katz: What’s it like for, like, all these months later, when you see your scars and everything, what’s it like now? Has it set in, like, completely?

Chella Man: Every time I look in the mirror, it’s like a present. At 19, I never expected to be working with such big names and brands and corporations that I’ve looked up to as a kid.

Katz (voiceover): However, trans male models, like many minorities in fashion, stand the risk of having their identity tokenized.

Katz: You and I know about the conversation of tokenization within this industry.

Ashley: Oh. Absolutely.

Katz: I think you might know it better than anyone.

Ashley: Yeah. This summer for example, during Pride, all of these fashion brands are saying, “Oh it’s Pride, we have to hire some LGBT people, make it a rainbow and now look, we’re inclusive.” I’m like, “No, you don’t know the language, you’re misgendering people that you’re hiring, you are doing it all wrong in the name of inclusivity for just this one season.” I want to see fashion brands hire LGBT people outside of Pride. I also try to remember that I have to speak on behalf of people that are visibly trans, because I’m not visibly trans. I think that I know a lot of community members tend to say like, “Oh, not all trans people look like this,” like, or, “He’s getting this far because he looks like a cis man.” And I’m just like, “Yeah, that’s exactly it,” because my look is something that straight cis people can wrap their heads around and understand and, because of that, I have a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who don’t fit that mold.

Katz (voiceover): And, while barriers remain, more trans men are entering the fashion industry than ever before, like 36-year-old Yonik.

Asuncion: Yonik applied and I was like, “Holy ****, this man is beautiful.” And then I met him. He has a really good personality and he has the drive. And he’s one of those people who’s allowed himself to dream.

Katz: What would you say to any young trans boys out there who say, “You know, I don’t see myself reflected in this industry right now, so it’s probably just not for me.”

Yonik: Self-confidence is a big thing for trans guys. I build out my own self-confidence through the years, and it didn’t happen right away. That’s what makes us stronger in the end.

Katz (voiceover): History was made at New York Fashion Week this September when underwear brand Marco Marco walked 34 trans models down its runway, 20 of whom were trans men. That’s over half the total of trans models across all the shows in London, Paris, Milan and New York last spring — all in a single runway.

Chella Man: Just because you don’t see anyone else like you out there doesn’t mean that you can’t be your own representation and do it for everyone else. I can tell you that there’s, like, a revolution coming and it has so much momentum and it’s building and it’s going to pop, I swear.

Del Toro: When was the last time you hailed a cab? Since the rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, cab drivers are struggling to compete. The situation has gotten so bad that a number of drivers — who aren’t on ride-sharing apps — have died by suicide. In New York, new legislation has been introduced to fix this, but the city has already seen six driver suicides since 2017. So, is it too late?

Cristian Rossel, correspondent (voiceover): Nic Hunt has been driving a yellow cab in New York City for over 30 years, but this year has been one of the toughest. In March, his best friend killed himself. Nicanor Ochisor was also a cab driver.

Hunt: This is my friend car. This is his house.

Rossel (voiceover): And his family believes that the financial pressure he faced from increased competition from ride-hail apps like Uber and Lyft contributed to his death

Hunt: I still have the texts in my phone when he text me, “Half an hour, I couldn’t pick up a passenger” or, “Forty minutes I could not find a passenger.”

Rossel (voiceover): Six New York City cab drivers died by suicide since November 2017, and cities across the world have seen driver suicides and mass protests from drivers against ride-hail apps. According to the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance, between 2013 and 2016, taxi workers’ incomes declined by 23% on average.

Rossel: Can you describe what it’s like to suffer from anxiety from financial problems?

Hunt: You sleep like two, three hours, then you wake up and you turn around in bed, you know. I had an anxiety attack in my physician doctor office. So then I find out I suffer of depression.

Rossel (voiceover): Nic and many of his fellow drivers in New York had been calling for a cap on ride-hail apps for years and, in August, the city council passed a bill making New York the first major city in the country to stop issuing vehicle licenses to ride-hail app cars. The cap will last for a year while the city studies the issue.

Rossel: The bill passed, now there’s a cap, right. You think that eventually in a couple years — 

Hunt: Temporary, temporary cap.

Rossel: Is it enough?

Hunt: Well, right now, they stopped the bleeding. So no more bleeding now for one year.

Rossel: Are you happy about that?

Hunt: For now, yes.

Rossel: OK.

Hunt: But the fight is just beginning.

Rossel (voiceover): Thirty-nine city council members voted for the cap. Eric Ulrich is 1 of only 6 who voted against it.

Ulrich: I believe in capitalism. Standing in the way of Uber, as I said on the floor of the city council, would be like standing in the way of Netflix because we wanted to save Blockbusters from closing. My heart truly breaks for those people who have medallions that’ve in some cases been passed down from generation to generation that were once valued at a million dollars and that are now rendered at a fraction of what it was once worth.

Rossel (voiceover): In New York, taxis need a medallion or a license in order to operate. The city’s kept a tight cap on the total number of medallions for years, and that limited supply made medallions increasingly valuable until ride-hail app cars, which don’t require medallions, became popular. Three of six drivers who killed themselves owned medallions. City council member Steve Levin sponsored the bill to cap ride-hail apps.

Levin: I didn’t expect that the bill was going to pass in the coming months. It didn’t seem as if it had a lot of movement behind it, and so these men taking their own lives really put this issue in the forefront for a lot of us and — 

Hunt: What does it mean that six people had to kill themselves in order for this legislation to pass?

Levin: Well, it’s terribly tragic. It’s a very sad commentary on the state of affairs that we weren’t able to act on legislation until something so tragic happened.

Hunt: This is a picture of Nicanor Ochisor, and this was made in Punta Cana when we went on vacation.

Rossel: So should the city council do something to help struggling cab drivers?

Ulrich: I would love to see that. I want to see somebody step up to the plate to help those struggling families, because they deserve our help.

Rossel: Well, you’re a city council member. Why haven’t you stepped up to the plate?

Ulrich: Well, I have. I’ve said that many times —

Rossel: You’ve put forward bills to create a fund for struggling taxi drivers?

Ulrich: I have not proposed that legislation, but I know that that’s currently under consideration. The council is internally looking at a lot of those remedies. I think that is absolutely something that should be addressed.

Rossel: Some people are going to say, “The market should decide how many cars are necessary and, if people don’t make money, that’s the way it is.”

Hunt: Absolutely right. The market should decide. City of New York sold me the license, and there is a rule in the book: The taxi owners, you know, the city has a responsibility to protect the investment of what you make, because I invest in New York City. I did not invest in Paris or London — I invest in New York City.

Rossel (voiceover): Nic is right. The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission rulebook says that the Commission has to “establish and enforce standards to ensure all licensees are and remain financially stable.”

Rossel: What if someone said, “It was a bad system, it was an anti-capitalist system that stopped competition and we needed to get rid of it anyways?”

Hunt: OK, if they wanna get rid of the yellow taxi, I’ll be first tomorrow at the table, “OK, you want me out and get something better? I agree with that, but not homeless in the street. I’m not gonna go homeless in the street. If I will have to die, I prefer to die fighting than to live the rest of my life in shame.”

Del Toro: And that’s it for another episode of Mic Dispatch. See you next time.

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