Who Is Tracey "Africa" Norman? Plus Other Trans Trailblazers You Should Know
In a recent feature on New York Magazine's The Cut, black transgender model Tracey "Africa" Norman spoke out about her experiences as a closeted model in the '70s and '80s. The star's history has never been explored in such detail and in such a mainstream publication, so hopefully this move will further spark the many changes that she has helped pioneer and bring into the limelight. As she said in the interview, her work and life have opened up the fashion world's perceptions of beauty and gender. “I’ve always said that the person that walks through the door first leaves the door cracked," she told New York Mag. "There was a perception that a transgender woman couldn’t be passable and work in fashion magazines and land contracts. I proved that wrong. I left the door cracked for other [transgender people] to walk through."
What is arguably notable about Norman's story is not just her successes, but her knock-backs. From landing a Clairol contract for six years to being expelled from the New York fashion scene altogether once her secret was out, Norman's modeling career was a series of ups and downs. In some ways, this makes her story more relatable, more realistic, and more recognizable to transgender individuals who have to deal with much of the same struggles on a daily basis. Despite that there were many people out there who understood Tracey Norman's gender identity, there was always an opposing group who refused to be accepting.
Since coming out with her story, the model and ballroom star has inspired many who have listened. Most movingly of all, perhaps, is the way that Norman's story resonated with Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox, who, for many of our generation, is one of the first transgender women to be represented positively in the media. Cox told New York Mag, “I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at that photo of her on that Clairol bottle and that caption, ‘Born Beautiful.' Yeah, we are born beautiful.”
Not only did Norman pave the way for women of color in a time when black models were only just being recognized, but her trans identity meant that her modeling career was a representation for intersectionality: A representation that will spawn a positive impact for years to come.
With Norman's work finally being recognized on a larger scale, we should take some time to highlight other transgender people who have led the path to visibility in their own unique ways.
1. Cy Lauz
Cy Lauz is the designer of the first transgender lingerie line, Chrysalis. Her work began during her own transition, when she struggled to find underwear that was feminine while suiting her needs as a transgender woman. Her lingerie line specifically caters to the needs of trans women while also being aesthetically pleasing.
As Lauz said in conversation with Fashionista, her line does so much that cis women's lingerie might never consider. "Our bras create a natural looking bust line that not only looks natural but feels and moves like natural breasts, using full cup silicone inserts held in hidden pockets," she told the publication. "Chrysalis also provides a panty we call our 'T-string' that effectively tucks, holds, and smooths out our bikini area for a seamless look. And because our products are available through our online store, our customers can shop safely and comfortably from their home."
2. Isis King
Isis King was the first transgender contestant on America's Next Top Model, appearing on Tyra Banks' reality show for two seasons in 2008 and 2011. Since then, King has been featured as the first transgender model for American Apparel and has discussed her rags to riches story with Teen Vogue.
3. Caroline Cossey
Caroline Cossey was not just the first transgender Playboy model; but the first — and as of now, only — transgender Bond girl, appearing in the 1981 film For Your Eyes Only. Although she primarily lived out of the public eye, Cossey still speaks to the press occasionally from her position as a well-known transgender celebrity. She's even given public advice to Caitlyn Jenner.
4. April Ashley
April Ashley was a closeted transgender model — much like Tracey Norman — but when she was outed by the Sunday People newspaper in 1961, she used the story to her advantage and became one of the most notable transgender pioneers of the century. Ashley was one of the first British people on record to undergo gender reassignment surgery, having the procedure in 1960. At age 80, Ashley is proof that a transgender woman can, and should, be able to live a long and fulfilling life.
5. Juliana Huxtable
Juliana Huxtable is an artist, model, and DJ currently working in New York where she runs her weekly queer club night Shock Value, as well as presenting her work and speaking at this year's Art Basel about transgender visibility. Huxtable is arguably a solid representation for a modern transgender person of color. Whereas Tracey Norman had to hide her gender identity to find work, Huxtable confronts others with it as part of her craft. She opens that door even wider for more diverse interpretations and representations of transgender and non-binary people in the mainstream.
Our views and knowledge surrounding the struggles of transgender individuals have changed vastly from the '70s and '80s to today. Hell, they've changed even from as little as five years ago. As the public and the media hopefully become more and more understanding, we can only hope that the visibility and work of transgender individuals isn't only accepted, but celebrated.
Images: Tracey Norman/Clairol (2)