Today, Arisce Wanzer proudly describes herself as a transgender supermodel to her approximately 30,000 Instagram followers. Growing up in West Virginia, she felt like she couldn’t even say the word transgender out loud and didn’t see anyone like her represented in the media.
“Jerry Springer and Maury Povich’s TV shows had the only trans people we saw, and it was all negative,” Wanzer said during From Influence to OUTfluence, the inaugural installment of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s 50 Years of Queer Big Queer Convo series. The series will explore the history and impact of LGBT people in the arts and media as part of the Center’s 50th anniversary.
“We never had a happy ending, we never had a blueprint of what our life was supposed to be,” Wanzer added. “Media presence is so important—every shape of person, every color of person. It can be harmful when they are not present.”
The panel at the Center’s Renberg Theatre brought together a diverse group of social and cultural influencers to talk about the inclusion and visibility of LGBT people in today’s ever-evolving entertainment and media landscape.
“There are people who weren’t discovered by a studio or a record company,” pointed out Dave Rocco, an openly gay executive with Universal Music Group.
“What’s happened in the world of media is that the machine lost control and people got control. As a result, we have far more segmented groups of people watching different pieces of content.”
Wanzer and Rocco were joined on the panel by musician and content creator Sam Tsui, producer and writer Ashly Perez, actor Clark Moore, and social media influencer Andy Lalwani.
“We all have our roles and our duties,” Lalwani, who moderated the panel, said. “If you are talking to one person versus one thousand versus one million people, your impact carries, moves, and shakes and makes. Anybody can make change.”
Perez recalled being so starved for LGBT content while growing up that she would watch the Showtime lesbian-themed drama The L Word under a secret account that her parents didn’t know about.
“Media is so important to just feel normal for a second,” she said.
Perez finds it gratifying that the younger generation of LGBT people can access content far easier than she could while growing up. She was reminded of this during a recent trip to New York when “this girl with red hair came running up to me and she said, ‘I loved your video about coming out! I saw it and I came out to my dad. Your video is what helped me come out.’”
Tsui pointed out that through such platforms as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, it is easier than ever for LGBT people to find “a safe and positive space” and enjoy content without feeling judged or unsafe.
“It’s a place where people go to escape and enjoy this art and feel a sense of belonging,” said Tsui, who has more than 3 million YouTube subscribers. “It’s a place where people can go to feel seen and loved. When I’m making this art, I am creating a community. It’s not just a one-way thing.”
Wanzer shared how different things were for her when she was just starting out in the modeling profession more than a decade ago. She was offered a contract with an agency in Florida which forbid her to say she was transgender.
“I never wanted to hide, but I remember signing that paper because I wanted to get more exposure, more work,” she shared. “The work was fine, but I didn’t know it would be so (emotionally) damaging. You think you have to hide forever.”
After some success, Wanzer was offered a contract with a major agency but this time she refused to sign a similar agreement about her gender identity.
Moore, who had a breakout role in the recent film Love, Simon, had been encouraged to try and hide the fact that he is gay when he launched his acting career. This advice came not just from managers but also from other LGBT actors and allies.
“The reality seemed to be you either need to go through some kind of speech therapy to make it clear that you’re not gay or just reconcile the fact that your career is going to be limited to gay roles,” he said.
Moore has stood his ground and refused to hide his sexual orientation. He is hoping his visibility and openness will lead to an array of gay roles on stage and screen.
“There are gay stories that need to be told,” he said.