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 Laith Ashley Medically Transitioned at 24—And Became a Top Model, Actor, Drag Race Pit Crew Member (& Much More)

Q&A with Model Laith Ashley: Breaking into the Entertainment Industry as Trans

Four years ago, Laith Ashley posed for legendary photographer Bruce Weber in a national ad campaign for Barney’s. Since then, the 28-year old heartthrob has exploded in the modeling world. He’s walked the runway at NYC fashion week, posed for Diesel, and most recently starred in a dangerously sexy campaign for Rounderbum.

Related | RuPaul's Drag Race Introduces First Trans Pit Crew Member

Just last month, the NYC-native was the first ever transgender model to be a member of the Pit Crew on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alongside 25 other models, Laith posed shirtless, exposing his undies while contestants had to match the models’ underwear to one another in a mini-challenge titled “Pants Down Bottoms Up.”

 

 

After seeing Laith on Drag Race, OUT decided to catch up with the aspiring actor, to learn more about his life prior to transitioning and to discuss how his career as a model, actor, singer, and advocate has been evolving.

OUT: Tell us briefly about your childhood and parents.

Laith Ashley: I grew up in NYC. My childhood wasn’t out of the ordinary. I went to school. I played sports. My dad made sure I got my homework in on time. You know, everyone did their ‘parenting thing.’

Did you realize you were transgender growing up?

Growing up, I always knew I was different. I identified more with the boys. Whenever my mom would dress me in anything stereotypically feminine — a dress or something with little frillies on it — I would throw a fit and rip it off. You know how little girls’ underwear have little bows on it? I would rip them off to make them look like boys’ underwear. Oh, and you know how much Latinos love their frilly things and quinceanera dresses.

 

You were an athlete from a young age too, right?

I started boxing at three, playing baseball at six, [and] basketball at seven. Sports were something I did throughout my life. In high school, when I couldn’t play on the boy’s baseball team, the baseball coach said he would trade me for my brother because I was better athlete. In fact, I was named the number one athlete of both boys and girls at my school by the athletic director there.

So when did you realize and embrace being transgender?

Prior to 19, I wasn’t familiar with the term. I didn’t know a medical transition was possible. I don't remember what I was looking up on Youtube, but it led me to several Youtube channels of trans men documenting their transition. I had had contact with trans women in the past, but didn’t know that’s what they were. It was something I never really researched. So when I saw these Youtube videos, I was like, holy shit this is me. I’m trans!

I think the amount of information about transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary individuals has exploded in the past 10 years since you first discovered what it meant to be transgender. Prior to a decade ago, larger society had a very limited understanding of what it means to be transgender.

Even in the past three or four years it’s really exploded. Before then it wasn’t something that was popular to talk about. It wasn’t something people cared to understand. Prior to working in entertainment, I worked at Callen-Lorde, a community health center in NYC. A lot of patients would come in that didn't use male or female pronouns. They’d use “they” or “ze” and some of the staff were tentative to use the pronouns. It made them uncomfortable, or they didn’t understand it, but now, it’s like okay, you’re going to respect people’s pronouns. You’re going to ask them which pronouns they use if you’re not 100% sure.

 

So when did you begin medically transitioning?

Right before I turned 25.

What’s changed in your life since you’ve transitioned?

Obviously, I now feel a lot more comfortable in my skin. I feel like I’m myself. After I started my medical transition, doors began to open. I think it’s the universe opening up to me for being authentically me. Still, I don’t think the way I’m treated is much different.

I’ve also wanted to talk about something for a while and that’s being trans and having male privilege. Yes, trans men do gain male privilege after transitioning, [however] male privilege is often stripped away the moment someone learns that you are transgender.

There’s a lack of visibility and representations for trans men. Even yesterday, I was feeling down because I feel like I’m always either fighting against or running from something. It’s very tiring to be the one who has to break the barriers. It may look like I’m doing so well and doing all these things, but the reality is that the struggle is still there.

I’ve been declined representation; they’ll say you have a great or interesting look but we’re not interested at all. Even with my music career, when I ask for help recording — no, writing — no. Everything is coming out of my pocket, and I am grinding and hustling for every little thing. Everything I’m doing myself. When you have a team, it’s lot easier to get things done, but when you do things alone, it’s a lot more tedious, and it takes more time to complete projects.

And all this is fine. I’m happy to do the work. It’s not like I’m going to be handed these things. I’m out here and I have to take it. I’ve asked many designers to dress me for certain events — no. Not because you’re not A-list. I’ve literally got told by a showroom manager, you’re not Beyoncé, J-Lo, Nicki Minaj, the cast of Queer Eye, or RuPaul. We don’t gain anything from dressing you. You bring nothing to our brand.

It’s the same thing with roles. Finally, someone at NTA (the talent agency that currently represents Laith) took interest and signed me, but I’ve been going on countless castings, which I know is true of anyone in this industry, but it’s always no after no after no. There are also few roles for trans people. And those roles are typically very small. Casting agents are often looking for people who are visibly trans, and because I’m not visibly trans — I often times don’t fit what they are looking for.

Have you been auditioning for cisgender roles?

Yes, I have. I’ve been auditioning for everything.

So what’s next? Modeling, singing, acting?

Since I signed with NTA, a commercial, theatrical (acting), and modeling agency, I’m focused more on acting. My dream job would be to get a series regular role, or be a leading man in a movie. I think my comfort zone would be to play the love interest or guy next door. My agency says I should become comfortable with the idea of playing a bad guy or villain. I’m like, “Why? Is it because I’m brown and have beard?” But I have to remember I am also playing a character, and it would be a good way to showcase my acting skills.

So that doesn’t sound related to being transgendered? It has to do more with racist typecasting, right?

It’s def both a trans and a race thing. Am I not getting work because I’m “too ethnic.” I’m not white enough or black enough.

But I try not to get too bogged down on all that. Sure, there’s a lot of rejection that comes from being transgender and racially ambiguous, but one positive thing that I attempt to take out of all of this is being able to be the person who opens doors for younger trans people that are coming up behind. Also, being able to use my platform for advocacy and to discuss sexual health on a broader scale. I can bring the conversation to trans men. For example, HIV prevention is usually targeted towards cisgender gay men and trans women, but now HIV is becoming prevalent among trans men. And they’re not being targeted for outreach. Trans guys are at the back of the bus. We’re not anywhere.

So even though there has been a huge influx in the media that focuses on transgender identity, would you say it tends to focus primarily on transgender women?

I think it’s very layered. I think the reason that trans women tend to be more visible and outspoken is because they face so much violence for simply existing, so they have a greater need to defend themselves. Transmen, on the other hand, are entering a male space—often becoming victims of toxic masculinity. So if we’re a victim of violence of any form, we’re quiet and told to “man up.” So there’s no statistical backing for violence perpetrated against trans men because we’re not speaking up about it. We fear it’s going to emasculate us even further.

Changing topics, tell us about your music.

I’ve wanted to put a complete project out for over a year now, but it’s proven difficult and really expensive, since everything is pretty much coming out of my pocket. I have [however] been able to release three songs, and I’m working on a music video for my single, “Before You Go.”

Can you give us some details about what it was like being the first transgender pit crew member on RuPaul’s Drag Race?

I recently did a campaign for Rounderbum, so I got the gig through them. When I get to the shoot, I realize I’m one of 26 guys. It was so much fun. Guys were getting pumped backstage. Oiling themselves down. And right as we’re lining up to do the matching game, RuPaul walks in, pulls me out the line, and says, “I’m so happy for everything that you’re doing. I’m so glad you’re here.” I froze. For one, he’s huge. He’s 6’4. He’s not in drag. He’s in his suit, and I was in awe of being in his presence. And he admired me! Then, I got back in line and we shot for a couple hours and that was that.

So what projects are you working on next that we can look forward to?

I was asked to be part of the H&M Pride campaign, so I’ll be posting for them soon. I did an interview with Barney’s earlier this week, which will be coming out sometimes this month for Pride. I will be making an appearance on FX’s new series Pose. I will be performing at a Pride festival in DC on the 9th, when I get back to LA the following day, I will be singing at their pride festival, opening for Eve. I’m actually doing several Pride festivals, performing in Seattle later in June, Charlotte in August, and Fort Lauderdale at the end of fall. But that’s pretty much it for the summer.

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