Posted by Irene Ojo-Felix | June 23rd, 2017

FREE TO LOVE

“Love is Love.” A simple phrase that sums up how now, more than ever, freedom and love should be upheld in their truest sense. Whether it has meant questioning the terminology surrounding identity, attraction, expression or gender, the LGBTQIA community has continued to proudly represent themselves and live out their multifaceted truths, despite political leaders’ threat to undermine their tremendous strides. On the brink of NYC’s Pride festivities, Hao Zeng captures exclusively for Models.com a street-casted assembly of New York’s finest to talk about love, identity and personal tales of dismantling the barriers between us all.

Photographer – Hao Zeng for Models.com
Stylist – Solange Franklin | Casting – Daniel Peddle
Hair Stylist – Eric Williams | Makeup Artist – Jenny Kanavaros (Honey Artists)| Manicurist – Julie Kandalec (Bryan Bantry)
Stylist Assistant – Kyle Hayes | Production – Sasha Grinblat
Models – Matthew Sosnowski, Jovel Ramos, Karis Wilde, Chayse McMullan, Omar Ahmed, Justin Torres, Chauncey Dominique, Mica Levine, Sammy Riley, Chella Man, Mary Benoit, Laramie Mose, Anya Katz, Tawan Burel, Chelsea Valentino, Cheeky Ma and Nar Rokh
Editor – Irene Ojo-Felix

Cover image:
On Cheeky: Shirt – M. Martin, Pants and Belt – Jennifer Chun
On Narok: Shirt – Frances de Lourdes, Pants – Jennifer Chun, (Right Hand) Bracelet – Eddie Borgo, Ring – Paula Mendoza. (Left Hand) Rings – Khiry, Bracelet – Eddie Borgo, Glasses – Stella McCartney

On Jovel: Sweater – M. Martin, Briefs – Tack, Bracelets – Dylanlex | On Matthew: Coat – Anonie, Necklace – Model’s own

Jovel Ramos, 19, from Boston, Student
Matthew Sosnowski, 19, from New Jersey, Student

I think you just need allies. Wherever you are. You just need a close, second family.

How did you guys get together?

Jovel – I was visiting for college in New York and we had a mutual friend.

Matthew – I was always here during high school because my family lives in Brooklyn. We have a mutual friend and it was all our first time hanging out. We went to the east village and went to this bar, but I got really like paranoid and high… *laughs*

It will do that to you, I heard. **laughs**

Matthew – I just had to leave. And I didn’t see Jovel for a really long time after that. Then towards the beginning of my senior year and his first year of college, all of our friends just started hanging out and Jovel was in my immediate friend group. I found out he liked me the whole time…

Jovel – Yeah, I liked Matt for a while. We hated each other at first and then we became, really close friends.

Who made the first move?

Jovel – Me, but then it backfired.

What is your understanding as far as love? When you first interacted I probably wouldn’t say that you fell in love at first sight.

Jovel – I think my understanding of love is you just see something in someone that you admire a lot. I saw that in Matt when we were just friends.

Matthew – I think that love is something that you really have to find. It’s not easy to find in a person and once you find the right person that you do love and you do care about, you just know.

When it comes to identity and how you define yourselves, when did you finally become comfortable in saying this is who I am and this is how I want to present myself to the world?

Jovel – I think that varies for everyone. For me, I think it took me well into my teen years, moving away from home, and separating myself from everything. Maybe even a year ago I was finally comfortable in myself and realized, oh this is who I am and this is who I’m presenting to the world. I think it takes a while for everyone.

Matthew – Yeah definitely. I didn’t really start to realize who I really was until I really left high school. When you’re in school, especially in a suburb, people are so closed minded it’s really hard to be who you are and be comfortable because you’re in a closed bubble. Once I started coming here all of the time I met people that just introduced me to so many things.

Jovel – Like minded people.

Do you think you need to be in a major city to get that acceptance?

Matthew – I think it’s really helpful. I don’t think you need it but I think it’s harder to find your identity when you don’t have those people.

Jovel – I think you just need allies. Wherever you are. You just need a close, second family.


On Karis: Overalls – Diesel Black Gold, Necklace – Eddie Borgo

Karis Wilde, 30’s, born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, CA, dancer, model, and costumier

I’ve always been comfortable, it’s just the people around me that need to catch up. It’s gotten to a point of not having to explain why.

What are your ideas about love? Have you ever been in love and if so, when?

I have. I mean I think we’re all crazy! It just trying to find someone that compliments your crazy. Everything is a cycle and sometimes you feel like we want to be monogamous and I think communication is the key. When I was in a relationship I was monogamous but, you know, I don’t know where I would be right now and it all depends on my partner. Everything in life is fluid especially sexuality, views, everything. I don’t take a hard stance on anything.

When did you first establish how you wanted to present yourself to the world?

I’ve never denied who I’ve been I’ve always been non-binary. It was, I just didn’t have the language to be able to articulate what I’ve been. I never identified as a man or a woman and yet I identify as a man and a woman. I always feel like when it’s girls night I feel like I fit in and when it’s boys night I fit in and in reality I don’t fit in! It’s been hard and it’s been difficult. I’ve always been comfortable, it’s just the people around me that need to catch up. It’s gotten to a point of not having to explain why.

There’s been a lot of talk as far as safe havens in the current political climate. When you talk about human rights offenses from the current administration, do you feel that you gravitated naturally to LA?

You know, I come from the hood. You don’t leave the hood looking like this and not being able to take care of yourself. I’ve always been very flamboyant and just myself and very eccentric. But I’m not stupid! I know what I can do and where I can go. You know what I mean? There are a lot of limitations but you have to know them. I mean if you want to be carefree, sometimes there’s a huge price for that.

What you just said was a really great quote. You knew but it was more about getting the people around you to catch up and I think that in the past 5 years, the majority of cis-gender communities are starting to learn more about terms like non-binary. What has been your personal experience as the movement itself as evolved?

I was one of the first models to do a global campaign for a huge corporation as a woman. That was about 9 years ago, a little bit before Andrej Pejic really hit the market. In fashion there has always been a crossover with people that play with gender. When it comes to big brands they’ve always shied away from it. I worked for Philips electronics. I don’t know if you remember that Epilator? It used to tweeze your leg hairs…I was the epilady. *laughs* It was not received very well by people. It was way too early for that. So it’s really nice to be a part of new campaigns now where people are just loving it. Things have definitely evolved a lot in the last few years.


On Chayse: Shirt – M. Martin, Briefs – Tack, Earrings – Marlo Laz | On Omar: Pants – Cyclas, Necklace – Marlo Laz

Chayse, 19, from Seattle, Washington, living in Brooklyn, New York, model.
Omar, 22, from Cairo, Egypt, living in New Jersey and working in New York, model.

I feel like New York is one of the few areas in the world where I really just feel comfortable and laid-back and you know, don’t think, oh is someone watching me. Is someone watching me hold my boyfriends hand or is this making someone uncomfortable?

Where did you guys meet?

Omar – So, social media can bring a lot of people together!

It does…who jumped in who’s DM’s?

Omar – Honestly, it was me. We started talking and hit it off and then we met up for a little date and from then on…

Chayse – We went to Prospect Park. It was romantic.

What is your definition of love? Whether you think about it platonically or in a romantic sense?

Omar – My definition of love is a certain amount of commitment and passion towards a relationship.

When it comes to your identity and how you kind of put yourself out there in the world, when did you first become comfortable with who you are and how you wanted to present yourself?

Omar – For me it was actually really difficult growing up in a Muslim, Egyptian, immigrant household and it was a really, really intense rollercoaster ride for me. But I got through it, I got through it with my family. Now, if anyone asks I let them know. If nobody asks, nobody needs to know. The first thing that really got me out was my best friend, Barbie Ferrera. She literally dragged me out of the closet and was like, enough of your shit, Omar! I know you’re gay. She was the first person I ever told. Since then I’m finally comfortable and at ease with my tensions, with my sexuality.

Chayse – I think it depends a lot on who you associate yourself with. I grew up in a small town and I didn’t have it as hard as Omar did in Egypt but it still was tricky for me as well. But now living in New York, there are so many people. It’s always refreshing to have in the back of your head that there’s a place where there are so many different types of people…

Omar – Yeah and wherever you go you always know that there are people like you.

Chayse – I love New York because it offers all different kinds of perspectives from all different lives. Every day is a different day here in New York. You see something different, you see someone different, and you interact with all kinds of different people. I feel like New York is one of the few areas in the world where I really just feel comfortable and laid-back and you know, don’t think, oh is someone watching me. Is someone watching me hold my boyfriends hand or is this making someone uncomfortable? New York is just a place that I just feel free.


On Justin: Coat – Nomia, Earring – Marlo Laz | On Chauncey: Dress – Paris Georgia Basic, Bracelets – Marlo Laz

Chauncey Dominique, 24, from Pine Ridge, Louisiana, lives in Brooklyn, New York, performer.
Justin Torres, 21, born and raised in New York City, performer.

We all have both masculine and feminine traits within us. And some choose to touch on that energy and some choose not to.

How did you two first meet?

Chauncey – Justin joined the House of Amazon (started by Leiomy Maldonado). The House of Amazons is a house that I’m a part of…well we’re a part of.

Justin – We, bitch.

Chauncey – It’s a brotherhood, a sisterhood community organization and it’s all about raw talent and dancing. So, Justin joined about 4 months after I joined. I’m a year in.

Justin – I was looking to join the house and I got…recruited? I was told to come by, audition, and to meet everyone just so I could find that little family. I came through and I met miss thing over here. Basically what it ended up being was an audition for me to join and I was nervous down. I saw another queen in the corner and we was like…giiiiirl!

Chauncey – He came in with such good energy, ready to communicate and talk to people and I was just like, oh my God…perfect! The other thing about it, he can do a mean spin. And I’m bad at spins so I’m like, girl teach me.

What are your experiences with love? Have you ever been in love and how would you define the feeling?

Chauncey – Love just kind of came about unwanted! Totally unwanted, I was too inexperienced and I was not ready but the feelings came about and I didn’t know how to handle it. I look at love as something that keeps me warm and comfortable and as an energy that I can rely on and actually feel safe. Just a listening ear. I just want that in a physical form, so I am patient with it. Right now I am very career oriented and I understand that I sometimes don’t know what I want so I still need to work on that and be full so that I can give that overflow to others.

Justin – I’ve yet to really fall in a romantic type of love…anyone cute you listening?! I guess my journey with love is a lot more about self love and especially being a dancer in New York City we don’t get a lot of validation for what we do until you make it.

When did you first establish yourself like, this is how I want to be… this is how i want to present myself to the world… I love myself enough that I don’t care what… When did that kind of transition first happen?

Chauncey – For me that kind of transition happened after I was done caring what the world thinks. Done caring what my loved ones thought about me and actually understanding, wait I’m the one putting in the work every day to build a great life for myself and also for my family. So, why do I consider my family’s opinion? They’re not the ones actually getting me up and leading me to the direction that I need to be going to. That’s why I pray and that’s the only opinion that I care about, that higher power. However, being gay in Southern Louisiana meant having the freedom to be yourself was very limited because people tend to place judgement on you due to religious preferences. I moved here at the age of 19 for school and I was like, this is my ticket out of there. I am gone! The first acceptance, I’m taking it. I came to New York City and I was free, just able to find myself without having to consider many opinions or judgement around me because it was just clouding my vision of who I was.

Justin, you’re born and raised in New York right?

Justin – It’s funny because I actually have like almost an inverse experience where we think of New York City as this free and open place and yes, God, it is. Thank God that it is. But growing up, I didn’t always express myself like this. Especially being in Brooklyn and being in a more urban type of setting with a Latino family. I can’t come out the gate how I want to all the time. So, it’s weird to really feel like I was holding back myself in a place that is so free. It wasn’t until I started becoming my own individual and started thinking, I need to live with myself. Embracing femininity and be able to tell everybody, fuck ya’ll. I’m going to do what I want to do and you’re going to gag for it!

Chauncey – You’ve gotta do it right. Femininity lives within everyone you know. We all have both masculine and feminine traits within us. And some choose to touch on that energy and some choose not to. I feel as though like, I’m a man and I still love my masculinity, I never would change it. But I love to play with my feminine energy because it’s fun and it lives within me and I like to explore and discover new things.


On Chella: Shirt, pants, and ring – Model’s own, Belt – Zana Bayne, Bracelets – Eddie Borgo | On Mary: Shirt – FRAME, Socks and jewelry – Model’s own

Chella Man, 18, from central Pennsylvania, student.
Mary V Benoit, 19, from Denver, Colorado, student.

I definitely struggled with every aspect of identity you could possibly think of – gender, sexuality, appearance…I think the main important thing I’ve just recently learned is it’s 100% okay to be confused.

How did you first meet?

Chella – Classic freshman party in a house in Bushwick. I went upstairs and my friend was talking and this girl comes up and says hi to him. She turns to me and says I like your hair. I was bald so I say, “Thank you, what hair?” *laughs* I still remember thinking she was the coolest person in the room. It wasn’t what she was wearing because I know exactly what she was wearing and it was all black. Everything was focused on her face and she’s so beautiful and I was like, oh no… she complimented me! I was just so excited talking to her and we were just talking small talk. Somehow we got separated and at the end of the party I went up to her and said, this is really crazy but would you want to go out sometime?

Mary – I was freaking out! I was like, oh my gosh, what?! Is this a date? Or does she just want to be friends? Maybe she just wants to be friends. Yeah, let’s hang out… here’s my number.

Chella – So we swapped numbers and then I left.

Obviously that first date went well?

Chella – It was very confusing and a very bumpy ride.

Mary – Yeah.

Chella – But we’re here now, so…

What is love to you?

Mary – Just having a good connection. Being in love with Chella it’s, I don’t know. It makes me feel like, ahh I don’t even know. It’s been a journey but it’s easy to be in love with her.

Chella – She said something before that really stuck with me and it’s when you know everything you do for that person they would do it back for you. I think that’s really important in any general type of love. It’s always easy with her.

When was the first time you showed your identity? You were like, okay this is the way I want to present myself to the world?

Mary – I guess with me I’ve always been confident in myself and knowing myself. I went to an art school so everything was very free and I could kind of do whatever. Then after meeting Chella and being in New York it went up another level. She made me feel much more confident about my choices. I used to have really long hair and then one night it was like, 4 in the morning and I was like, let’s cut my hair. She cut it for me and I love having short hair now.

Chella – Well, I always struggled with my sexuality. I grew up in a really conservative place. Everyone around me told me it was bad and horrible. Obviously now I’ve broken out of it and I feel amazing. I wouldn’t have gone up to some girl who stereotypically didn’t look queer before. I definitely struggled with every aspect of identity you could possibly think of – gender, sexuality, appearance. My hair used to be down to here and over the years it just got shorter and shorter. I think my identity is perpetual and will always be perpetual because I don’t ever see it really coming to an end. I don’t think personally I can really make a statement on that yet. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to make a statement on that. I think the main important thing I’ve just recently learned is it’s 100% okay to be confused. You can dismantle it just takes work and I’m working on it.

There are a lot of transplants in the city…did you always want to move to New York? Or was it just like an organic process as far as finding yourself that brought you here?

Chella – My parents had bought an apartment in Brooklyn and so occasionally we would go up to visit. I also did some pre-colleges as a kid. I would come up here and people would talk about things I never would have expected people to talk about, like sexuality and gender. I just felt so, I felt like I could breathe here. I just knew I had to get out and come to some place like this. I just happened to come here because of college and The New School.


On Mica: Dress and Earrings – Ellery, (Left Hand) Bracelet – Lady Grey, (Right Hand) Bracelet – Eddie Borgo, Shoes – Model’s Own

Mica Levine, 22 years old, from Atlanta and living in Brooklyn, New York, stylist.

I used to be really into experimenting with different makeup looks. Anything to kind of put me outside of my body. Then one day I realized maybe I don’t need to be outside of my body but maybe I need to be more comfortable in my own.

Have you been in love before?

I would say I fall in love every day. I think love is pretty abstract and it can come in so many shapes and forms. When I say I fall in love every day, I seriously mean it. Whether it’s with my friends, my crushes, people that I’ve just met or people that I just see gesturing on the streets in ways that give me a little hope in humanity.

Do you feel that there’s a huge differentiation between platonic or more romantic love?

I think the difference between platonic and romantic love would be slim to nothing. I love my friends the same way I would love somebody I would date. However, I think the slim difference would be that non platonic love most certainly can unveil more intimacy sometimes. There can be more room to talk about conversations or topics that are more closed off with your friends sometimes… more room for vulnerability.

When it comes to identity when did you first kind of mold your identity into how you want to present yourself to the world?

I think it’s been a very long, drawn out, but very natural process. I think I definitely knew what I wanted to be or how I saw myself move through the world. It was sort of a very abstract, hard conclusion to come to. However, I guess in the past few years I’ve really discovered myself through clothing and through fashion. Fashion editorials, just going through images and thinking wow I hope I can be pretty one day. Makeup, as well. I used to be really into experimenting with different makeup looks. Anything to kind of put me outside of my body. Then one day I realized maybe I don’t need to be outside of my body but maybe I need to be more comfortable in my own.

Do you feel like you needed to also move to New York for acceptance? What was your experience growing up back home?

I would say that it’s definitely different in the South, being a trans woman. However, the level of acceptance probably doesn’t differ much. I think it’s hard to compare different challenges in different cities. I’m certainly in a good place here which makes my experience a little softer than it was before I looked how I do now.


On Sammy: Suit – La Perla, Stole – Cinq a Sept

Sammy, 20, born in Massachusetts, raised in Maine and New Hampshire, student.

I moved here and I realized that I’ve been so much in touch with my female side that I left out this masculinity and it was unfair to myself because not that many people get the opportunity to go back and forth.

Where are you from originally?

I lived in Maine and moved to New Hampshire for all of my high school career. I had done a lot of cross dressing in that stage right before going to high school.

What brought you to New York? Why did you think that you wanted to be in this city?

Ever since I was super young I just knew that I was going to be drawn here. I guess it was just creative minds… I wasn’t able to find that as much back home. A ton of good friends from home, I’m still good friends with. My best friend from home I dragged here with me, we go to school together. I was so involved in fashion and I came here because of school but I didn’t entirely know what I wanted to do. My Dad helped me out and said, just go to fashion school for marketing. Now I’m doing accessories design at FIT!

Did you feel like New York City was where you needed to move to be out and open?

I came out when I was 14 in high school so not really. I knew it was definitely more accepted here but I felt like I already started finding myself back home. Coming here was just to be with more creative people but not necessarily because they were more open-minded about my identity or my sexual orientation.

What is love to you?

Love to me…you know how sometimes you’re just going to the store and you’re shopping and you see something and you just *snaps fingers* connect? I don’t even know where it derives from. Maybe it’s because we have the same soul, in a sense? Our souls are so big that they embodied more than one body, you know? It’s like multiple people? Maybe you’re just finding yourself in others.

That sounds so romantic.

When I’m thinking about love I’m thinking about my best friends. I live with all of them and they’re just so nice and they always want me to do more. And I think a big thing is even if they don’t agree with something, they’re still there to support me no matter what. Likewise, it’s hard for me to support people in things I don’t believe but I’ll do it for my best friends and I think that is true love. It’s hard to find.

You brushed on it a little bit when you said you came out when you were 14, but was that the same age that you first shaped the identity that you present today?

It has changed so much! I came out as bisexual first. It was just a cover up because I thought “gay” was a big thing! As soon as I came out as gay, I started experimenting with makeup and all through high school I was cross dressing – like long hair down to my back, heels every day to school, dresses. I don’t do it as much now, as I just try to bend the lines a bit. I moved here and I realized that I’ve been so much in touch with my female side that I left out this masculinity and it was unfair to myself because not that many people get the opportunity to go back and forth. I guess finally now, I’m at a happy equilibrium. A nice balance to my life


On Laramie: Pants – Ellery, Bracelet – Khiry, Ring – Model’s own | On Anya: Top and Pants – M. Martin, Jewelry – Model’s Own

Anya Katz, 22, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, student in Ohio.
Laramie Moser, 21, from Los Angeles, student.

…there still a sense of hiding behind a mask of “We are progressive. This space is safe”…or at least it appears so we don’t have to do active work to make sure it actually is safe and inclusive.

How did you two first become friends?

Laramie – We met through a mutual friend.

Anya – The first time we hung out we spent an hour on the fire escape talking. You should talk about the mattress!

Laramie – I needed another mattress for my room and Anya had a free one. I came to pick it up but we had been planning on hanging out after that first meeting. I met your Dad and your dog for the first time! We were both into tattoos so there was a connection.

What is love to you?

Anya – First and foremost, I definitely am a hopeless romantic. I think I inherited it from my father. I’m always trying to love and sometimes it’s too much and it’s hard to hold back! I think for me in terms of platonic love it’s about community. Creating family and various forms of kinship since I was super young. It was kind of the way I was brought up, kind of loving people regardless of blood relation. For a love time, I tried to love people who I didn’t want to love and then I came out and opened myself to a different pool of people and it was super liberating.

Laramie – I agree with a lot of what Anya said. I definitely think love is community, a chosen family, safety and respect. Just being thoughtful and conscious and caring of other people.

When did you first shape your identity and how you present yourself to the World.

Laramie – For me, it was definitely a process. I think in this world we think about who we like before we think about ourselves. Sexuality is a big thing that people ask about that we talk about way more frequently or openly than gender. Especially being young – I remember thinking about who I liked before thinking that I could be uncomfortable with my body. From there it took being educated in a college class that I realized there’s a spectrum of gender. There are things I could do that would make me feel more comfortable and doesn’t define that I’m in a binary. That I’m only a girl or only a boy or have to be either. As soon as I did realize there was space for me in that way, I only continued to grow more into how to shape my language and learn.

Anya – It’s definitely a process that is still happening. I grew up without a mom and I think that informed a lot of my early identity. I was told that I was a girl, or a woman, or a female but I didn’t have a female role model to base my identity off of so I found myself looking to hyper feminine people that were in my life and thought, OK I guess my role is to become a carbon copy. It always felt so wrong. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten more comfortable doing things that actually make me feel comfortable. For a really long time, I was trying to actively change my body because I thought this discomfort was tied up in my own body hatred. But I think it’s deeper than that it’s not necessarily about my body but more about my mind.

Do you feel like you needed to live in a major city for acceptance?

Laramie – Yeah, for sure. I have to stay here in New York until at least I’m 24 because I’m part of the Health Outreach To Teens program (HOTT) and I get my hormones through them and I age out when I turn 24. I went to Chicago for school for 2 years, and I knew I couldn’t just be at home. It’s still very sheltered although Los Angeles is a city – you drive, everything is very distant and separated so there are pockets of very comfortable and safer ideas. But there still a sense of hiding behind a mask of “We are progressive. This space is safe”…or at least it appears so we don’t have to do active work to make sure it actually is safe and inclusive. Chicago was very unsafe publicly and socially. There was a lot of fear and harassment that I experienced and my friends continue to experience. Although in New York, there’s not a high level of active violence, there’s a bit of leaning on the idea that this is a safe and progressive place. Which is not untrue but it also leads to ignoring a lot of subtle microaggressions. I don’t think they’re micro because the aggression is not that bad. No, these are very violent and awful things that are micro because no one is acknowledging them.

Anya – I go to Oberlin College and I think for me when I’ve been able to grow the most is when I’ve been super uncomfortable. I’m really comfortable in New York, for the most part so I think I desired a change. I thought about how there are areas in the country that are deemed either “progressive” or not. Specifically, with places that are seen as being right wing, or not progressive, conservative, I think that we often blind ourselves to communities and various forms of kin and support there that can be super powerful. We assume that a young gay teen in Iowa needs to get out, needs to escape to realize their identity but I think that masks their experiences and the potential to find community in those areas. Even if someone’s family is homophobic or transphobic, they can still love their family. So, I think that in dialogue of community and urban vs rural areas it’s super important to hear people’s narratives because someone could live in Iowa, or Montana, or Nevada and we could see it as uptight but someone there could have a wonderful community.


On Tawan: Track Suit – Norma Kamali | On Chelsea: Jumpsuit – Norma Kamali, Tie Necklace – Eddie Borgo, Leather Choker – Model’s Own

Tawan Kareem Bunch, 24, from New Jersey, model, DJ and designer.
Chelsea Valentino, 24, from New Jersey, rapper and entertainer.

Honestly, one of my earliest memories was me as as toddler being afraid to put my feet in my mom’s shoes so I just put my hands in them, walking around and played with them like that.

When did you guys first meet?

Chelsea – Back in 2009.

Tawan – I chased this one on Myspace!

And how did the friendship blossom?

Chelsea – He invited me out for coffee or something. From there it was just a connection.

What is love to you. Think about it either platonic or romantic.

Chelsea – Love to me is definitely support, dedication, just unconditional respect, honesty and trust. In all aspects.

Tawan – I’m very much in agreeance with Chelsea. Compromise in understanding your partner or friend. Love is a very big spectrum for me. It has to be someone that thinks outside of the box, someone who is very open-minded, and respectful of me and my ideas.

What was the first moment that you can point to where you started to shape your identity?

Tawan – Honestly, one of my earliest memories was me as as toddler being afraid to put my feet in my mom’s shoes so I just put my hands in them, walking around and played with them like that. Looking back, there were notes of who I am constantly growing into being from a very early age.

Chelsea – I can give you a whole story. I had an obsession with Barbie dolls. I used to use my sister’s Barbie dolls and as she started get older she stopped getting them. I started drawing a female character constantly and Tawan’s uncle actually said, “You know that girl you constantly drawing is you? That’s your expression. That’s how you really feel.”

Tawan – He said that to you?

Chelsea – Yes! From there I thought, OK this is my life. This is what I really want to be. I just took it and ran with it…all the way.

What is your take on safe spaces. Is it about finding mutual friends with the same ideology or an actual place?

Tawan – Coming from growing up in New Jersey and living in New York for a good time, I’ve realized that you have to create your own safe space and network around you. My idea of a safe space is having no fear and being comfortable communicating with my peers. You have to go out and look for the surroundings to build that up for yourself – even living in New York City that not something that is a given.

Chelsea – I was always fearless and took charge so wherever I was I felt comfortable with myself. I still live at home with family so I always felt safe in my neighborhood since I grew up there. Even going back and forth to New York I would see people like me so that gave me a bit more ambition and cemented that there is nothing wrong with me. I’m totally normal. New York is where I got my hormone therapy and talked to the counselors.

Was there anybody older to guide you through the experience of being part of the community?

Chelsea – Yes, I did come across older individuals that would say “ I see your potential.” But like I said I was fearless and I always thought I’m going to do it regardless but thank you for your story *laughs*.


On Cheeky: Shirt – M. Martin, Pants and Belt – Jennifer Chun | On Narok: Shirt – Frances de Lourdes, Pants – Jennifer Chun, (Right Hand) Bracelet – Eddie Borgo, Ring – Paula Mendoza. (Left Hand) Rings – Khiry, Bracelet – Eddie Borgo, Glasses – Stella McCartney

Cheeky Ma, 19, from Long Island New York, model and multitalented freak.
Nar Rokh, from Los Angeles, California and recent New York transplant, DJ and producer.

…living in sanctuary cities has been really crucial during this administration because now that I’m trying to go through a legal name change and changing my gender marker, some of these things you can’t do, like get a new birth certificate, in other parts of the country.

How did you guys first meet?

Cheeky – I was moving into my first apartment in New York and he was staying at the apartment I was moving into. He was only supposed to come to New York for like, 2 weeks for a gig and we ended up meeting and he was sleeping on the couch and I was like, come to my room…and then he just never left.

What is love to you personally? Whether it’s platonic or romantic.

Nar – For me, a romantic love is kind of like having someone there who supports you and you can count on. They balance you out and make you a better person.

Cheeky – Love for me is unconditional and continued support and being someone that can be there through the highs and lows.

Can you point to a singular moment where you first shaped your identity or was it always like a flux?

Cheeky – I don’t really think about my identity really. I kind of go with what I’m feeling. Most of the time I am very feminine but then some days I’ll be more masculine and I don’t really label it as anything. Most people refer to me as a girl and she, which is fine.

Nar – All of my life I’ve kind of had an identity crisis and maybe about 5 years ago I started to meet more queer people that helped me realize that I was all boy, all girl. I carry both masculine and feminine energy but I have been trans and I just started hormone therapy about almost 3 months ago. So, I’m finally feeling happier now that I’m gaining more masculine features.

Do you feel like you need to live in a major city to feel accepted?

Cheeky – Yes, absolutely. Even living in Long Island people there are very one way. I was always an outcast, always really weird and no one liked me. The only people I could really hang out with were drug addicts because they were the only people who accepted me. It’s harder to be yourself because you’re being judged so much there. Not that it should matter but when you get things thrown at you every day it does affect you. When I came to New York City, I could actually be myself without feeling judged because there’s such a large community of people like me.

Nar – Since I moved to New York City there’s definitely been like a huge supportive community of trans and queer people of color and I feel like I go to events that are more of a safe space than I did in Los Angeles. I definitely feel like there’s a bigger community here. And it’s really crucial for me because I used to just go to gay parties and I feel like white gay men are the most misogynistic. It just made me feel really uncomfortable but I don’t feel that way here and I definitely feel there’s more of a sisterhood. I created a new family here and that’s really crucial for me and it helped me become more comfortable with the idea of starting my medical transition. Also living in sanctuary cities has been really crucial during this administration because now that I’m trying to go through a legal name change and changing my gender marker, some of these things you can’t do, like get a new birth certificate, in other parts of the country.

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3 Comments to “Free To Love”

  1. AMAZING WORK! Such an important project / editorial and the photos are amazing! I love to see those kind of works here

  2. Andreas H. says:

    Touching photographs

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