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“There are so many ways to be a man” — Casil McArthur.
In a world where trans people continue to be harassed online and in the media, it’s more important than ever to shine a light on their joy, strength and resilience. “He/Him” sets out to do just that, uniting three transmasculine people who are bringing visibility to the runway, box office and small screen to tell their stories. For HUNGER, actor and activist Marquise Vilsón, multi-hyphenate Chella Man and model and musician Casil McArthur have come together to reflect on the importance of representation and what community means to them.
The accompanying visuals emphasise these three individuals’ unique personalities and passions. Vilsón demonstrates his dynamic physique, formed by the physical rigours of ballroom, while Man draws upon his background in visual art to paint up a storm and McArthur shows off his musical talents as he lives out a David Bowie fantasy. Across different ages, identities and lived experiences, the trio invite you to leave your preconceptions about masculinity at the door. As McArthur succinctly puts it: “There are so many ways to be a man.”
Marquise Vilsón is a man of many talents, to say the least. Beginning with a turn in Charm, 2017’s boundary-breaking off-Broadway play from trans director Will Davis, Vilsón has appeared on stage and screen as a variety of characters, both trans and cis. You might have seen him in the Netflix drama Tales of the City or the Julia Roberts-starring Ben Is Back, but he’s most recognisable from parts that educate as much as they entertain, such as his appearance in Disclosure, Sam Feder’s documentary that discusses trans representation in film and television.
But long before he started acting, an education in the ball culture of the mid- 1990s taught him the importance of queer, intergenerational community – something he still carries with him. “Community to me means taking care of the people you love,” Vilsón says. “I’ve learnt how to take care of my community from my elders. They showed me love, kindness and grace, celebrated me when the world didn’t and checked me when I needed it most. All out of love.”
So far, Vilsón’s career has been motivated by a similarly loving spirit, a desire to provide the kind of positive media representation that is still so lacking for trans men, particularly trans men of colour. “Growing up as a trans person, when there was no representation, I often felt doubtful because there was no dream to aspire to,” he recalls. “Trans representation matters. The more we see trans, gender-non-conforming and non-binary figures in media, the bigger our dreams can be.”
As a Black trans person in the public eye, Vilsón finds his experiences are innately political, but he keeps fighting for his community even after he walks off set. If you’re based in NYC, you’ll likely have spotted him at protests for Black and trans rights, work that he sees as a necessary extension of his acting career. “My activism work keeps me grounded and connected to the real-time issues that vulnerable trans, gender-non-conforming and non-binary people, particularly those who are also Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, face,” he says. “Ingesting their many stories and showing up to actions like protests, rallies and vigils reminds me why I’m here.”
Ten years ago, movie execs had a fixed idea of what a superhero could look like: white, cis and able-bodied. Now, thankfully, these gatekeepers are having their keys taken away from them, allowing previously overlooked talents to undertake iconic roles among the DC and Marvel universes. Among these fresh faces is Chella Man, a deaf and genderqueer actor, model and artist, who as Jericho in Titans, made history as the first transmasculine actor to be cast in a DC superhero series.
Even if comic books aren’t your thing, you’ll likely have caught a glimpse of Man in campaigns for Calvin Klein, Gap and American Eagle, but he admits that his personal wins in fashion and entertainment mean little if they don’t stop becoming radical and start becoming the norm. “Existing and thriving as a disabled, queer individual is a form of activism and will continue to be until we are acknowledged, respected and granted the basic human rights we deserve,” Man says. “Doing this on screen, especially on a mainstream show, grants those watching a glimpse into a life that has historically been erased.”
Rising to prominence with videos exploring his transition, Man has had no problem giving others a glimpse into his life and, in doing so creating representation where it didn’t yet exist. In the years since, he has amassed more than 800,000 followers across Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, helping other trans people contextualise their identity and learn from his experiences. Understandably, he is confident about the power of representation – “It grants viewers an opportunity to reevaluate what is possible” – but mindful that change doesn’t begin and end there. “Representation is not the only thing we’re fighting for,” Man says. “Alongside visibility through representation, culture needs to shift to be accommodating for queer, trans and BIPOC individuals.”
For Man, it’s not just enough to have trans people in front of the camera, they also have to have the opportunity to seize the means of production in order to capture the diversity of their lived experiences. “We can be anything, we can look like anyone,” he says. “I want trans people to write their own scripts and perform them.” Man is putting this into practice in his own work, drawing on his experiences as a trans person with his diaristic first book, Continuum. Yet while his work naturally resonates with his predominately queer fanbase, he admits that it’s time the wider world woke up to the importance of trans stories. “Everyone has something to learn from the resilience and exquisiteness of trans individuals.”
Continuum is published by Penguin Workshop and out now.
A “male princess” who has walked for Coach and Marc Jacobs, featured in campaigns for Gap and Kenneth Cole, and been lensed by photography giants Steven Meisel and Collier Schorr, Casil McArthur is bringing transmasculine visibility to the runway and the pages of your favourite glossy – not to mention tearing it up on stage as an aspiring rock star.
And while he’s only in his early 20s, McArthur is keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with a platform like his, as well as the impact that seeing an openly trans model on a billboard might have on other queer and trans people still coming to terms with their identity. “I don’t want to hide the queer or trans parts of myself,” McArthur says. “I’m conscious that knowing my truth, and sharing it with others, will cause many ripple effects. All I want is to encourage another person to be themselves.”
For McArthur, this kind of positive representation is a necessary antidote to the negative messaging and gaslighting that trans people experience, a reminder to other people in the community that, “you matter and your experiences and feelings are true”. This community, however, is not limited to McArthur’s fellow Gen Zers. “As I grow up, I realise it’s really important for the younger and older generations [of trans people] to listen to and befriend each other,” he says. “We can’t be so focused on differences, because that keeps us apart, we’re in this together. We have to learn the history while also learning the history being made right now.”
Beyond being a role model to other trans men in the fashion world, McArthur is also flying the flag for kinder, more fluid expressions of masculinity. While male models can often be stereotyped as brooding and solemn, McArthur is an unabashed delight and unafraid to goof off online (his Instagram handle is @casil_the_goat_lord) or publicly explore his love of cosplay, anime and pretty dresses. “There are so many ways to be a man, no right or wrong way, just be a good person,” he says. “Encourage yourself to find who you are.”