From confected fury over a simple cartoon representation on a Costa coffee van mural to the outdoor advertising first from razor brand Estrid earlier this year, transmasculine representation has been headline news.
This month, I spoke with transmasc people – a novel idea, I know – who have featured in ad campaigns. I talked to Fox Fisher (non-binary artist and campaigner) and Gialu M (non-binary model and content creator). They’ve collaborated with brands such as Nike, Durex, Ikea, Bloom & Wild, Estrid and Samsung.
I wanted to explore what this representation means to them, how it feels to get these opportunities and how brands can improve representation.
Transmasc visibility is becoming mainstream
Representation has been growing steadily over the past few years. In 2021, Gottmik became the first trans man to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Soon after, Mae Martin – comedian, writer and star of hit Netflix comedy Feel Good – came out as non-binary.
In 2022, Chris of the band Christine and the Queens told us they were genderqueer and using he/him pronouns. Then Elliot Page made history by becoming the first trans man to appear on the cover of Time magazine with a photograph that proudly showed his chest post top surgery.
We’ve seen trans+ representation in sport, film, music and ads become the subject of constant op-eds wrongly framing trans people as a danger and a threat. And, in the onslaught of negativity, missing the joy of embracing their identity.
Much of the anti-trans commentary directed toward transmasc people focuses in on the scarring from double mastectomy, also known as top surgery. In the Daily Mail, prominent “gender critical” writer Julie Bindel referred to being trans as a “dangerous ideology” and called the surgery “horrific”. She said surgeons performing this surgery should be criminalised.
The NHS says top surgery is “intended to reduce gender dysphoria by achieving changes to your body that are consistent with your identity expression goals”.
Fisher explains: “For those who are not familiar with the trans journey, the sight of top surgery scars may be startling. Yet, for those of us who have navigated this path, these scars symbolise our liberation, a tribute to our self-affirmation and freedom over our own bodies.
“Every day, as I put on a t-shirt without the need for a binder, I am reminded of this life-altering choice: a daily surge of joy that I treasure.”
Gatekeeping and excluding certain body types from mainstream media is harmful. It tells minority groups that they don’t deserve to be seen, and that they should be ashamed of their bodies. The Mental Health Foundation reports that one in eight adults experiences suicidal thoughts or feelings due to poor body image.
No one should feel shame over their body and trans healthcare is often lifesaving.
Costa and the van mural
This began in the typical way with a prominent transphobic voice, on the platform formerly known as Twitter, drawing attention to a Costa van with a mural of a person with top surgery scars.
The trans-obsessed media, on the hunt for clicks and ad revenue, used sensationalised headlines such as “Fury as Costa uses cartoon image of ‘trans man’ with mastectomy scars” and “Angry customers now warn they will boycott chain over ‘horrific imagery being used to sell coffee'”.
We’ve seen this pattern play out multiple times now, forcing brands to defend what is a simple commitment to include all people in the marketing they produce. But this representation matters to trans people.
“When large franchises like Costa choose to advocate for those communities that are often overlooked and misunderstood, they play a significant role in dismantling entrenched stigmas and biases,” Fisher tells me.
“The influence of such initiatives extends beyond mere visibility, promoting a culture of understanding, compassion and inclusion.”
Estrid and an outdoor advertising first
Earlier this year, Estrid, the Swedish subscription-based razor brand, launched its first UK campaign, “For human beauty”. The campaign, developed by Save Our Souls and Bicycle London, celebrated everyone’s beauty.
One 48-sheet on the London Underground featured the entire diverse ensemble. Gialu M is one of the campaign’s models, pictured in the centre of the composition with their top surgery scars visible and chest out. It’s subtle but powerful transmasculine representation and a first for Transport for London. And while it drew complaints to TfL, the campaign ran fully.
“Everyone needs representation in advertising,” Gialu M tells me.
“It influences us and how we see the world. Our media needs to be as diverse as the world is and we are far from that.”
On 1 July, Pride in London drew more than one million attendees and TfL recorded 6.9 million entries and exits on the Tube, which made it the busiest Saturday on the network since December 2019.
Incidentally, a sneak peek at our Outvertising Consumer Report – to be released in November – tells us that 19% of LGB people live in greater London and gay men are almost twice as likely to be users of TfL than straight men.
For these reasons, I’m thrilled to have been invited to join the Mayor’s Advertising Steering Group for TfL. I’m looking forward to being part of the continued effort to develop Europe’s largest outdoor advertising estate as a place where all Londoners see themselves, including queer and trans+ people.
What does this all mean for your next brand campaign?
Unfortunately, inevitable backlash is making brands more fearful to include transmasculine people in their campaigns. But that’s not the solution. Instead, it’s important to guide them on how to do it competently and authentically.
Are brands backing away? After speaking with a couple of talent agencies, things seem mixed. One agency I spoke with suggested there were less explicit requests for trans+ and queer talent since April, when Dylan Mulvaney partnered Bud Light.
Zebedee talent agency, on the other hand, said that its LGBTQIA+ division is “bigger than ever” with 80 models on its roster.
If you’re working on a campaign and are considering transmasc representation as part of it. I’ll leave you with some red flags to look out for.
- Trans+ inclusion is undeveloped in the brand’s business. Facilitate pronoun sharing, gender-neutral facilities, name-change policies, private healthcare provision and more
- Trans+ people are not involved in the creative process. Hire trans+ talent and work with external consultants.
- Community support is lacking and commitments are short term. Invest in community initiatives and work with appropriate charities to create long-term change.
- There’s no plan for backlash. Maintain a strong stance on your commitments in the face of backlash. Make sure the teams are trained and well supported.
I hope you’ll agree with Fisher and Gialu M that all communities and all bodies deserve positive authentic representation in the media. I’m certainly proud that our industry is at the forefront of creating it.
Between January and the end of August, there have been 4,359 articles about trans+ people in the UK news media (excluding Pink News) – the majority with negative framing. All with advertising around them. Source: Community database Dysphorum.
Marty Davies (she/they) is joint chief executive of Outvertising, the marketing and advertising industry’s LGBTQIA+ advocacy group; and co-founder of Trans+ Adland, a grassroots community group of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex people across the world of marketing and advertising. They are also the founder of creative strategy consultancy Smarty Pants.