At a time when President Trump wants to ban transgender people from serving in the military and states battling over LGBTQ rights, the fight for equality has never been more important and timely. Indeed, woke “brands” are using their influence by launching charity and cause based collections and campaigns to impact change. Despite their altruistic intentions, however, this kind of corporate activism isn’t without its critics.
As Callum Gordon writes in this Highsnobiety op-ed, brands like Nike and Adidas are for profit entities and suggests that their intention to fight for social injustice need to come from the right place. “They must do so with a conscience and sense of responsibility for the gesture to be worth anything at all. Otherwise it becomes something all the more sinister entirely.”
But no matter what side of the argument you’re on, one thing is clear—these campaigns have the power to change people’s lives.
And this writer, who worked with Nike to craft and produce an authentic narrative of the voguing community for its latest BeTrue campaign saw it firsthand. As an initiative to celebrate and empower the LGBTQ community for Gay Pride in New York last month, Nike launched a video that told the triumphant story of Leiomy Maldonado, a Puerto Rican trans woman from the South Bronx who overcame hardships to become a voguing dance legend.
The video, shot by Daisy Zhou and poetically narrated by emcee Precious Angel Ramirez, hit a cultural nerve receiving considerable media attention and became a viral hit on social media amassing millions of views.
Much like Nike’s many other campaigns that encourage achievement, Maldonado’s story gave the community a sense of empowerment.
“It was inspiring and brought awareness to how people can uplift themselves,” says Ramirez. “It let the world know that the LGBTQ community is not sacred anymore.” And this is exactly what Jacinto Onofre, a New York-based Mexican fashion stylist, needed to come out to his conservative family in Mexico. “I didn’t want to be afraid of the people close to me any longer,” says Onofre who has other friends that had similar experiences after watching the video. “I realized I won’t lose anything by telling them. It would just make them understand who I really am as a person. And at the end of the day, it would make me feel more free.” Indeed, Onofre has never felt better after telling his family, who accepted him for who he is.
“It was another major one for us, it spoke volumes as to where we came from and where we could be headed,” says Michael Cox, also known as MikeQ, a prominent DJ in the ballroom scene who has worked with Diplo’s Mad Decent.
Indeed, it became watershed moment for voguing, an underserved and vibrant New York urban community first made famous by Paris is Burning, a seminal documentary of the ballroom scene mainly made up of Black and Latino LGBTQ individuals who used these Harlem gatherings as a form of escape—and in many ways survival—from the oppressive, wider world they inhabited in the 1980s. Today, thanks to Youtube and Instagram, it has a massive global following from Stockholm to Seoul and has inspired musicians from Madonna, Rihanna to FKA Twigs. However, it’s still considered a “subculture” that goes in and out of mainstream popularity and still at the fringes of the city’s urban fabric.
“It gave the community a sense of hope for acceptance,” says Maldonado, who felt that it gave the community a real voice and platform. “There were lots of LGBTQ individuals expressing how beautiful it was to be recognized as an athlete through dance and being the first trans woman of color to be respected as an athlete is major.”
The most profound impact of the campaign seems to have been on Maldonado, who also works community health organizer in Washington Heights. “It has opened my eyes and taught me how to love and embrace my body. As a woman of trans experience, I battled with myself mentally for many years due to my physique,” she admits. “I can truly say that today I am completely happy being athletic and loving my body everyday even more.”
Soon after the video launched, Maldonado was shot by Vogue, bringing things full circle. The dance takes its name after the publication because the founding figures of the ballroom scene aspired to pose like models in the pages of the illustrious magazine.
“I always knew Leiomy was a star because of her story, her message, and of course, her talent,” says Xavier Avery who recently signed Maldonado to Wilhelmina for her potential but also a sense of civic duty in today’s tense political climate. “Leiomy is the epitome of the contemporary American…Despite the unprecedented barriers and hurdles that many trans people of color face, Leiomy is a shining example that you can do and be anything you want as long as you work hard, take initiative, and always remain resolute, no matter who you are.”
Next up, here’s what the reaction to “thicc” Rihanna tells us about body shaming in 2017.
- Words: Robert Cordero
- Photography: Nike