Marty Davies
Jun 19, 2024

From ancient scrolls to Outernet London, how trans visibility evolved over time

It’s important to showcase trans stories as a way to confront and dismantle prejudice.

From ancient scrolls to Outernet London, how trans visibility evolved over time

Last month, we marked the first ever Trans+ History Week with a national billboard campaign. And at Outernet London, in the heart of Soho and during Pride Month, Trans+ history takes centre stage again with an immersive experience.

To have such high-profile visibility in a public space during a general election is a big deal. Showcasing these stories is a way of confronting and dismantling prejudice – of highlighting that we deserve to take up space in the world like everyone else.

Trans+ visibility in the media and in advertising was already a rare thing. But it’s been diminishing still over the past 12 months.

The truth is trans+ people have always been part of our advertising, we’re not going anywhere – and it’s only more recently that we’ve been included, celebrated and seen on screen.

When was the first trans+ ad?

Language is always evolving. I use the term “trans+” to be inclusive of all gender diversity and the many ways people describe and define their relationship to their own gender or absence of gender. This term is inclusive of transgender, non-binary people. And also inclusive of intersex people who have natural diversity in sex characteristics.

So the first trans+ ad? Advertising itself can be traced back to ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls promoting products for sale. It’s curious to think that the first trans+ representation in advertising maybe goes as far back as C1479-1458 BCE with Hatshepsut: a gender non-conforming Pharoah.

The era of silent visibility

But fast-forwarding millenia to our modern era, perhaps the first representation is in 1975, when the model Tracey Norman featured on the box for Clairol Nice ’n Easy No 512, a shade of dark auburn. She was assumed to be a cis woman, but she was transgender. Norman had to hide this part of herself because she was afraid it would end her career. And she was right.

In 1980, she was outed and lost everything. Clairol brought her back 36 years later for its “Color as real as you are” campaign.

Caroline Cosey, an intersex British woman and model working under the name Tula appeared in countless ads for brands such as Smirnoff. She was outed by the News of the World with the headline: "James Bond girl is a boy." 

Her career declined soon after and she became the focus of jokes about her identity. In 1997, she starred in an ad for Sauza, a tequila brand, with the copy: “She’s a he. Life is harsh, your tequila shouldn’t be.”

Our industry has been an incredibly hostile place to be trans+. And this still lingers today.

The era of representation 

By 2014, things had begun to change. Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox appeared on the front cover of Time. It was dubbed a “tipping point” for trans visibility.

That opened the door for more representation in advertising, too. In 2016, Nike made an ad starring Chris Mosier, the first trans triathlete to compete against men. And Clean & Clear ran a campaign with Jazz Jennings.

In the years that followed, more brands centred trans+ stories and we saw rich TV campaigns from Gillette, Starbucks and Vicks. Trans+ models and influencers were booking work frequently, leading to some powerful moments of visibility illustrated well by Estrid, whose campaign "For human beauty" can claim to have been responsible for the first trans masculine person with visible top surgery scars to appear on the Transport for London advertising estate.

This era wasn’t perfect but more trans+ people were visible than ever before.

The era of backlash – and an eye on rebuilding

We’ve seen reactionary backlashes growing – like Bud Light’s now infamous collaboration with Dylan Mulvaney. It was a moment that ultimately revealed how hollow LGBTQIA+ representation was.

And it shows no signs of letting up. Brands’ Pride briefs have either failed to materialise or are muted in their message and level of investment. That silence is a choice and it is loud. 

Some brands, such as E45, are laying the first bricks for a resurgence. Its "This is me, this is my space" campaign won Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award and launched last month. It worked closely with the community. It planned for backlash. And it underpinned its representation by authentic real-world action. So there’s some hope to be found this Pride.

Pride season has always been about achieving progress through adversity. Business leaders need to remember that queer people and their allies are in the majority. It makes no business sense to alienate us. Outvertising will shortly be launching a new free playbook to support businesses in the effort to rebuild, this time with stronger foundations. Sign up to receive it when it launches.

Let’s follow E45’s lead and rebuild representation together, brick by brick.

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 and founder of Trans+ History Week.

Campaign UK

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