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How Filipino Trans Rights Advocate Geena Rocero Turned an Insult into a Badge of Honor

“I decided to embody their cruel name for me, flipping the insult on its head. Little by little, I became the dark horse, literally and figuratively. And once I was on top, ‘horse’ wasn’t an insult anymore.” – Excerpt from “Horse Barbie,” Geena Rocero’s memoir.

Geena Rocero is a Filipino American award-winning trans producer, director, model, public speaker, and trans rights advocate who was recently awarded by Gold House as one of its A1 Award honorees for being one of the most impactful Asian American Pacific Islanders.


She recently directed and executive produced the 2022 Emmy and GLAAD Media Awards nominee, Caretakers, a four-part original documentary series with PBS/WNET that featured stories of Filipino American frontline healthcare workers.

Geena is the founder of Gender Proud, a media production company that tells stories on what it means to be trans and gender non-conforming.

A former beauty pageant contest regular in the Philippines, the statuesque long-haired brunette also made history as the first trans API Playboy Playmate in 2019, then became the first trans Playboy Playmate of the Year in 2020. Her Playboy article was nominated for a 2020 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Magazine Article. In August 2019, she also made history as the first trans-Asian Playboy Playmate.

Chosen by Time Magazine as one of the “Top 25 Transgender Persons Who Influence Culture,” Geena is also an advisory board member of SeeHer – the most influential global coalition of marketers, agencies, media companies, and entertainment leaders working to increase the representation and accurate portrayal of all women and girls to transform society.

Her memoir, “Horse Barbie,” recently came out. We interviewed Geena via Zoom.


Congratulations on your memoir “Horse Barbie.” Can you tell us about the inspiration for the title and why come out with a memoir right now?

The title, “Horse Barbie,” is a reclamation. But, also, it’s a spirit. It’s a reclamation because, when I was 15 years old in the Philippines…We have this very vibrant transgender beauty pageant culture in the Philippines…

At 15, I was still in high school, I met this trans woman named Tigerlily who was this icon in the community. She’s known as the beauty queen maker. I met her through a mutual friend. I was 15 and in senior high school and she saw something in me. She told me, “You should join a trans beauty pageant, and there’s one happening soon.”

My very first pageant in Manila was this big pageant where all the famous transgender beauty queens join every year. Everyone was there. There were about 45 candidates. I joined that pageant. I ended up winning my first pageant, second runner-up, and best in gown. I was hooked.

At 15, I reached the top so quickly I became the most famous, the most prominent transgender beauty queen. As you know, this is very competitive, with lots of drama and all that – the passion in our pageant culture.

I came out of nowhere and I stayed in my reign for two years. So, people started calling me “horse” as a slur, an insult, a taunt. They said that I look like a horse. So, they would call me, “Where’s that horse? She looks like a horse.” And they teased me backstage, that I’m a horse.

Of course it hurt to hear that, especially from some of the women that I looked up to. Then, one night, my pageant manager, Tigerlily, saw me on stage. I was wearing my iconic red gown. I looked very elegant. She told me, “You know what? I saw you on stage. You actually look like a Horse Barbie.”

So, she gave me that name and I say it’s a reclamation because I reclaimed that insult and turned it around. But it’s also a spirit because it’s that spirit of that 15-year-old famous, successful, vibrant, trans beauty queen that I have to carry with me, especially when I moved to New York City. I was living stealthily as a fashion model where I had to hide my trans identity for eight years.

So that’s the book title and the history around that. Obviously, in the book I covered so much more of what that meant for me. I’ve been thinking about wanting to write my memoir since 2015, when I had a production company, when I became an executive producer in all of my projects.

That was the beginning. With no background in directing, producing, I was just, like, ‘Oh, this is how you put together a story.’ I realized, ‘Okay, this is how I want to tell my story.’

So, since 2015, I have been collecting stories in my life. I wrote this book during the pandemic, two years of writing every day from nine to three o’clock. And I’m just so happy that this book is out now in the world. I’m on a book tour now. I’ve been traveling all over.

I just came from the White House to meet with Karine (Jean-Pierre), the White House Press Secretary. And not just that, I brought my family with me.

I bought all my Filipinx community, including Angela Dimayuga, who’s a chef, my stylist. I even brought my friend Ara, who I used to join pageants with when we were 15; and who is now a nurse.

I just came also from Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington DC, the most iconic bookstore in DC. I used to watch videos of authors that I love in Politics and Prose. To be there is just crazy. So, to write this book now, it is from my most unapologetic self. This is truly who I am.

People have said that this is a global saga of life. It is. Obviously, I’ve lived half of my life in the Philippines. It traces my migration story but, more so, I’d say the fullness of who I am.

I shared the dream of what I had since in the Philippines, the cinematic life that I’ve lived. It can’t be more cinematic with the transgender beauty pageant and Catholic fiesta celebrations. I shared my desires, my pleasure, my art, my dream making, my journey to love, and my career ambition.

To share the fullness of that at this moment when trans people, particularly trans kids, are being attacked. That’s one way to combat how we’re being dehumanized – to be unapologetic in living our truth. This is what I gave to the readers and the audience and to the listeners in this book.

When did you realize you were trans or femme and how did your parents react when you came out to them?

In the book, I detailed this. I had never used the word gay. Even at such a young age, I shared with my mom I’m a girl. I knew at a young age; I never used the word gay. My mom is a devout Catholic who loves her trans daughter. And to have the support of my mom and also my very macho father, I couldn’t ask for better parents to have.

It’s a ground level of what I’ve become because in a world that’s already so difficult, or in a world where there are spaces that don’t allow trans people to be who they are, particularly as a trans Filipino immigrant, to find my place in the world, the love and support of my parents is what propelled me to keep going.

How was it growing up in the Philippines and competing in beauty pageants at age 15?

It perfectly encapsulates because, yes, we have this very vibrant transgender beauty pageant culture in the Philippines. But I always say that trans people in the Philippines are culturally visible. We’re a part of mainstream society but we are not politically recognized.

To this day, transgender Filipinos are still not treated as full citizens because, in your identification, you’re not recognized as you are. To this day, I can’t change my name and gender marker or my legal documents.

So, it’s complicated and difficult. To this day, it’s still very much do-it-yourself when it comes to accessing the most basic care for trans people in the Philippines. There are no comprehensive anti-discrimination policies for the protection of trans people.

It’s still a very conservative culture. The powers of the Catholic Church have influenced the systematic approach in blocking the passage of policies of the most basic rights for trans people, LGBTQ people.

When you immigrated to the US, first in San Francisco, then moved to NY, you were legally recognized as a woman on your documents but you worked stealthily in the fashion industry, passing as a cisgender woman. Can you share your fears then and the challenges you encountered as an Asian Pacific trans woman trying to make it in the US fashion industry?

I moved to New York City in 2005 to pursue a career in fashion. So, it was a very different time. To be an out and proud trans fashion model was not allowed. Every single transgender fashion model that came before me, particularly trans women, these trans women paved the way for me. I stand on their shoulders. I honor them.

In a way, this book is dedicated to them. It’s because our community has so many stories of trans people working in fashion – the moment they got outed, their careers vanished. They were thrown like trash as if they never existed.

I didn’t want that to happen to me. So, for eight years, I had to hide that part of who I am that made me that vibrant Horse Barbie in the Philippines. I had to hide that. But, in a way, I had to keep that spirit of Horse Barbie in me, to be able to survive eight years of being in fashion.

Fashion is all about the power of the image, the visibility of being on a billboard or magazine covers and commercials. You can’t be more visible than that. I was living that very visible life while, at the same time, consciously being invisible. The mental anguish and paranoia that I had to live through for eight years took its toll and I couldn’t continue living that life. I would’ve gone crazy.

Please talk about why you decided to come out finally on a TED Talk that focused on transgender issues; and your speech titled “Why I Must Come Out”

 I couldn’t continue living that life. So, when I decided on my 30th birthday, as I’m entering this new decade in my life, I was just like…This is 2013 when I decided to do that, on my 30th birthday. But I did a TED Talk on March 2014, still a very different time. I’ve suffered for so long. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so low that there was no way than just to go up. And to go up is to speak the truth. At the time, it was considered a risk. I said: ‘If I’m going to risk a career that I could lose, go big or go home. You cannot go bigger than the TED Conference, the main conference, the biggest conference for personal speaking.

Then you became the first trans Asian Pacific Islander and the first trans Playboy Playmate of the Year in 2019 and only the second openly trans Playmate. Why Playboy and how was that experience?

Playboy, because it is iconic. I remember Tetchie Agbayani (the first Filipina to appear in Playboy), who she is and how iconic she is, to follow in that footstep and to be associated with a brand that has long stood for unapologetic self-expression, sexy.

Also, now as a writer: every single famous, iconic writer in the world has a byline on Playboy. Artists and thinkers, from Martin Luther King to Truman Capote. To have that association on a brand that stood for individuality of free expression, hell yeah, I’m going to do that. But more so, even Playboy allowed me to write my own article in my Playmate profile and I got nominated for Outstanding Magazine article for that year.

To be given that chance, not just to express myself and to feel sexy and sensual and to write my own voice. That’s rare. When we did that shoot in Costa Rica, I’ve done so many shoots in my life but this one, it was a small team. We wanted to shoot in the Philippines but we only had limited time. But we were in the jungles of Costa Rica. It felt like the Philippines. And I felt affirmed.

I felt safe. I felt beautiful. I felt sexy. I felt powerful. Maybe for so long, those things are contradictory. That was just part of who I am. To be the first AAPI Playmate, trans Playmate was an honor.

You are now an in-demand public speaker with speaking engagements at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland and the Milken Institute Global Conference recently. What is it that you want to impart to young trans who want to follow in your footsteps?

Maybe some people are inspired by the story, but I want them to find their own footsteps. Don’t follow my footsteps. Find your own footsteps. People should. Whether you’re trans or not.

Find your own definition of your most absolute authentic expression and do that. Find people who want to support you to do that and do it. Know that, yes, it might be difficult. And, yes, there would be roadblocks. But find that sense of belief and purpose in what you want to do and keep doing that.

Keep pursuing that. Whatever that is, you have to do it. And live unapologetically Now I know, with all my heart and all my belief, that I am so proud as a trans person, as a transgender Filipino immigrant.

I carry so much of that wisdom of our ancestors, of beauty, resilience, power, intellect and spirit. That’s how I speak about this, because it’s in me and it’s in every single young trans person. They must know that.

You are also a director, an executive producer and the founder of the Gender Proud media production company that tells stories about transgender and what it means to be gender nonconforming. What are your other dreams?

Right now, obviously I’m enjoying going on a book tour, speaking with people. Having that in-person engagement. There’s nothing like that. I love that. Directing is my passion – directing scripted projects, specifically. And that’s what I’m going to do next.

If you were to describe yourself in one sentence, what would it be?

Geena Rocero is an unapologetic transgender Filipino immigrant.