For things to change, they need to change. In the world of modeling and in certain ideas of sexuality and physical attraction, Laith Ashley is breaking new ground in both areas. As a transgender person, this runway model with matinee idol looks is bringing attention to both a new way of looking at models as well as continuing the conversation on sexuality in general. We sat down with Laith Ashley post Fashion Week to chat about his insane workout routine, what sexuality and attraction really feel like to a trans man, and a what his journey has been like thus far.
So right off the batt, you physique is remarkable!
Thank you so much, it's a lot of work!
Summer is coming and everyone is going to want to know: how do you stay in such fantastic shape?
Honestly, I was trying to go to the gym at least four to five times a week, and then before I started actually transitioning I was going seven days a week. I've not been going maybe two to three times a week, and I've noticed I have been losing some definition, so I have to get back in there!
It's so wonderful that being transgender is becoming more and more thought of as just simply "normal" in our society. You however, have done it very publicly. Is it harder to do it in front of the world in a sense?
I've only been transitioning for two years as of January 27th. I came out as trans maybe, a year before I started taking hormones. It was basically letting my parents know, since they probably never thought I would go through with it, but it was me letting them know that this is what I wanted to do. I was actually warning them for a year before starting to transition, and then I did the Trans campaign with Barney's.
The actual photo shoot was done before I started hormones as well. Up until then, no one really knew who I was and it was a big deal, but it was kind of short lived an died down. After that, I was free to transition and it wasn't necessarily in the public's eye so to speak. On social media, I would post and only my friends would see it, it was definitely pretty recent.
How did becoming a high profile model become your "launching pad" of sorts to coming out as trans?
When I decided that I wanted to continue modeling, people reached out to me and I said to myself "hey why not, I'l take some pictures". Being in front of the camera definitely boosts your confidence, so I decided I would keep doing it on the side. Someone introduced me to Nelson Castillo, who shot the black and white photos for Calvin Klein underwear. I was excited to do that shoot with him, but it was definitely not what was planned. We were just going to do some head shots and he wanted to help me expand my portfolio. I was so thankful and he was doing it all on his own time. He just wanted to help me out of the kindness of his heart. We did the shoots, and I happened to have Calvin Klein briefs in my backpack and he was up for doing a shoot with me in them. After we finished, I checked out the shots on his computer and I thought they looked pretty good. After the shoot, he told me he would do some editing and I would have them in my email when I get home. I was anxiously awaiting them, and I posted them on Instagram as soon as I got them. I went to bed, and when I woke up, I had so many messages from friends asking if I had seen what was happening on social media! A blog site was first, who made up a story about a trans guy's photo and talking about me very personally. I read through the comments and people were so nasty and being such trolls and making nasty comments about someone they didn't know based on a picture.
That must be very overwhelming to someone who was virtually unknown before this.
It was. And you know, I really considered erasing all of my social media, I just couldn't handle it. About a week and a half later, Laverne Cox re-posted the pics on her Instagram and all of the good things started to come. I got so many people being supportive, sending me supportive comments, all kinds of things like that, instead of people just being nasty. My followers shot up from 500-600 followers, to over 30,000 in one week! Initially, I was scared to death, but Nelson told me to stay confident and that "all publicity was good publicity". I started getting contacted by people who wanted to do pictures with me and it really felt good. From being kind of depressed and not sure of what direction I wanted to go in, people were reaching out to me and wanting to hear my story. It was great having these good things finally come my way.
So it was essentially a sense of validation correct?
Definitely. Validation as well as confidence to not let the naysayers and negative comments affect me. I had to keep in my mind that everyone would have an opinion about what I was doing. Let them say what they wanted, you just have to stay positive. Sometimes people will say things that will require an answer, and I definitely give it to them when necessary, but I try to keep it positive for the most part.
You mention the Barney's campaign and I know the legendary photographer Bruce Weber shot that. You recently did work on Fashion week. Who's runway would you love to walk?
My dream would be Tom Ford's. I would love to put on a beautifully tailored Tom Ford suit and really walk down the runway in one of those. I know that a lot of the designers on Fashion Week, mens or women's, the designs can be out there, but I really love the suits he does. I think it would maybe be hard for me to get work like that since the body type is so tall and skinny and Im shorter and stockier. I get a lot of underwear and swimwear work because i wont fit the other designers sample sizes because I'm too big. Thats the downside for sure. People have suggested I lose some muscle but I don't want to! lol. I always tell the designers that if they need me to be taller I carry lifts in my bag, don't worry I'm 6'1 now!
When you were younger and you pictured transitioning, did you ever think it would ever turn out the way it has?
Absolutely not. When I was younger and I would see myself in my own dreams, I was never myself. I imagined myself in a male body. I saw myself as a tall, handsome and very masculine guy. I think I'm very close to that now.
With people like Candis Cayne, Catlyn Jenner and the like, being trans is almost "the trend." How do you feel that now being trans is almost "in vogue" now?
Well, some people will definitely have their negatives to say about it, but I really think that's just how the world works. When something is different and differs from the societal norm people tend to sensationalize it. Before trans, it was gay people. In music, fashion, the entertainment industry as a whole, gay people ran that. Especially since we are some of the most creative people in the community.
I think the representation of gay men on television, especially, is so stereotypical. I don't think that's a problem, but it's not all gay is. They just don't have to represent this one image. People then want to make fun of that one particular kind of gay person and it becomes laughable, which then almost becomes accepted. I think that's a process.
Same with trans people. You sensationalize it and oversexuallze it, and then you have people asking questions that they would not be asking a cis gender person, especially about your body types, which can get uber annoying. It's privileged, and people feel that it's their right to ask. It can get super frustrating and then people can get easily offended.
Do you find that as a trans people you are asked intimate questions that a cis gender person would not be faced with?
I try to be open, more open than others may be. I try to think of it as a cis gender person who is looking at their gender as another other than their own, and if this is something they have never thought about or researched. It's normal that they will have a lot of questions, it's just how you ask them. You have to at least be sensitive.
My mom for example, she has been a super supportive. She loves me very much and wants what's best for me. But because of her religious views, she wants me to go back to living the way I was before. I can't say that I was living as a woman before though, because I wasn't. People knew I was female before, maybe I looked female and my voice may have been softer. I was often confused for a young boy until I opened my mouth.
I think it's important to talk about it but we want to let people know we are people just like everyone else. Don't put us on display and under a spotlight and make it uncomfortable.
What is the difference and impact you want to have on your community?
I want to show everyone that yes I am trans, but its not all that I am. The same goes for all trans people. Everyone's transition is their own; my story, my transition, my identity is my own. Everyone's identity, trans or not, is their own. Every trans person does not feel that they were trans from a young age, every trans does not feel they were born into the wrong body. It does not however, invalidate their feelings or their journey. With Cait for example, people say "I'm not going to call her Caitlyn, I'll call her Bruce." To me, that's the most disrespectful thing you can do. Her transition has nothing to do with you and everything to do with her. Doing that is just invalidating her as a woman, and these things fester. People tend to be self centered sometimes which is unfortunate.
So maybe you'll start doing speaking engagements like Ms. Jenner has done?
I would love to go to universities and speak on this, I was asked to go to Kingston University and not only talk about trans people and gender binary people. I went from female to male and I look pretty masc. so there is no in between. I think trans is a big spectrum. There were people that went male/female or female/male and people that are in between. I think before I was in the industry and working with the LGBT industry, I was very on the masc. spectrum; Now I feel more fluid. Being around all different kinds of people, lesbian women, gay men, genderqueer people, my experience as a whole is that I was not socialized male. I didn't fit that mold of what would be a girl or a woman, but I was still socialized as a woman. My experiences are going to be totally different than someone who grew up and was socialized female. Now as a trans individual, I see the differences in the way I think, interact with people. It's so interesting to me.
For example, one of my best friends is gay, and when I see him I want to kiss him on the cheek and hug him. Now though, if I'm in a certain area, I just can't do that because we might be perceived as the "f word" and people may try to beat us up. I have to be conscious of that now and that that it has to be that way.
What is your interaction with straight men like now? You're somewhat of a walking dichotomy.
To me, sexuality is very much a spectrum as well. I have spoken to a lot of cis gender straight men that feel more comfortable disclosing certain things to me, probably because i was born female. They disclose certain things to me that can be surprising. When no one is around, their usual straight behavior an be very different. I have been asked into certain situations by straight men, which is definitely different. They identify as straight, but are attracted to me, since I was born a female.
It just seems like both sexuality and people are both becoming very fluid, wouldn't you say?
I definitely think so. As time goes on, so many things are starting to mesh, becoming all part of this big queer bubble. I think it's fantastic.
Photo 1-Courtesy of New York Post
Photo 2-Courtesy of Nelson Castillo