When I was 12 years old, I remember standing in front of my closet in my bedroom for almost an hour, running back and forth to my full-length mirror, leaving a trail of clothes in my wake. Each time, I tried to shrug off the taunts from the boys too dense to know how to spell the names of the words they call me: "She's so ugly. She looks like a f*cking dyke." After deeming my favorite oversized t-shirts and basketball shorts "too masculine," I fished out a floral, ruffly dress from the depths of my closet. Perfect, I thought, because this is what all the other girls I knew wore. I ran back to the mirror, full of hope this cheap fabric printed with daisies would be the suit of armor I needed. As I put it on, I imagined I would transcend, leaving my earthly body and its dyke appearance behind to sit atop the throne of beauty alongside the likes of Britney Spears and Casey from my English class. I didn't. But at least now you look more like a girl, I thought.
I began to succumb to the inevitable clutches of unattainable beauty standards and would spend years aspiring to the thinnest, blondest, most feminine version of myself I could, all while navigating a sexual identity and a body that didn't fit into any of those things. Luckily, my journey with beauty and sexuality — what I find beautiful in others and myself, and how my sexuality contributed to that — has evolved over time in a way that makes me happier. And I'd be lying if I didn't say finally embracing the fact I am really, really, really gay played a major part.
Fast forward to May 16, 2019, where I am on set for Elite Daily's Pride beauty shoot, a day when I feel damn good about myself, a far cry from that girl running amuck in her bedroom, so eager to fit in. I'm wearing denim bermuda shorts, an oversized t-shirt, an oversized blazer, and loads of mascara with no other makeup, wheeling racks of clothes back and forth, doing what I love: putting underserved communities in the spotlight. I meet the shoot's eight LGBTQ+ models, all with different, equally delightful personalities. As I help them get dressed, laugh with them in the hair and makeup chair, and watch them come alive in front of the camera, I feel giddy. This — this — is beautiful.
I ask each of the eight models questions about their relationship with beauty, sexuality, and their identities, and I am overcome with emotion, learning the ins and outs of their powerful LGBTQ+ journeys. Each one was filled with ups and downs, just like mine — this is the part we all share. But how they got here, and how they now view themselves, is something else, something spectacular.
Through their quotes and their photos, they tell their stories in their own words.
On set, Nina Kossoff's strong energy is palpable, and I immediately feel that bold red is particularly fitting for them. When they were younger, Kossoff, creator of Them's Health, tells me they, too, felt the pressure of "normative" beauty standards growing up. "I grew up in the '90s and 2000s in Columbus, Ohio, so there was one set thing," says Kossoff, who identifies as non-binary and queer. "There were a lot of different ways where I didn't fit in, in any of it, which was a challenge."
Kossoff says things like moving to New York, being surrounded by so many different people, and being able to make conscious, intentional choices about themselves gradually helped change their perception of beauty. And after coming out, Kossoff was able to gain a greater confidence in themselves and the image they felt most comfortable. "I fully had the baby gay rite of passage where I cut off all of my hair ... and it was like, 'Oh, this feels more like who I am.'"
After coming out, Kossoff tells me their strong point of view and feeling confident in expressing that opinion is what they find beautiful about themselves. "When you are the only anything in a room or in school or growing up ... you're already such an outsider. Having an opinion? God forbid. That's something that I'm now really proud of. I'm now finding more people want that opinion or they want that kind of point of view ... I do have something interesting to say."
Model Garnet Rubio's presence on set felt like a bright light shining over everyone and everything, and given her journey with beauty and her sexuality, that makes sense. Similar to Kossoff, Rubio says she, too, felt immense pressure to fit herself into society's narrow beauty standards prior to coming out — especially as a trans woman. "I really felt that, in order to be beautiful, I had to just be a masculine man — a big, buff, stereotypically masculine male."
On top of grappling with the aspirational image of what society deems beautiful for men, Rubio's journey with her sexuality and beauty was a bit more complicated. Though she eventually came out as gay, she says she didn't immediately feel confident as she hoped she would — for her, something still felt off. After realizing she was trans, she felt pressured to conform to the "public perception of what defines a beautiful woman."
Rubio says that for a long time it was difficult to feel beautiful, and that's something she still struggles with. But she's making progress toward finding beauty in every aspect of herself every day. "Lately, I've come to the conclusion that, really, I'm my own definition of beauty. That sounds so stereotypical and cheesy, but it really is true. There's no one else out there who looks like me. There's no one out there who has the same personality as me and has the same background that I do. I'm my own person."
As Rubio continues to find beauty in herself, she says one thing she finds most beautiful about her now is her "light," and she's committed to building people up and strengthening all those around her, especially during dark times. "Because my childhood was so dark and depressing, and I was so alone for most of my life, rather than let that weigh me down and be angry at the world, I, instead, want to do the exact opposite. I want to use it to make myself stronger and instill that in myself so I can make other people stronger."
When Mecca Mozelle, founder of the #ImWithYou mental health movement and model, steps in front of the camera, I'm struck by the ease with which they move, how utterly intentional and sure they are. Growing up, Mozelle says they drew beauty inspiration from "women in androgyny" and the courage it takes those people to be intentional and reject the boxes people try to place them in — the very same qualities I observe in them now. However, despite being particularly inspired by androgyny, Mozelle says they still felt compelled to fit themselves into the femme/masculine binary queer women are often pushed into, even after coming out.
"I remember when I first came out, I was trying to go through this whole thing of, 'what kind of lesbian am I?' Sometimes, a lot of people push, like, 'Oh, you're either going to be super femme or you're going to be super masculine,' and I always identify with both," says Mozelle. "I can be free in all ways, and I can be whomever I want to. If it's my masculinity and I want to wear boxers one day and I want to wear a thong the next day, I can do that. I have that right."
Mozelle says they find beauty in the strength and patience they show in facing whatever obstacles life throws at them, especially as a queer person in the black community, where she says being gay isn't always accepted. "Dealing with that and then dealing with my anxiety, I think the most beautiful thing about me is facing those things and acknowledging them, and then working through them and being patient with that."
As Creative Director at Bustle Digital Group, Bry Crasch says, his perception of beauty in others prior to coming out was very much a contrived narrative. Because he grew up closeted, he eschewed the things he thought were beautiful in order to fit the mold of what most guys his age thought. "Everyone was always like, 'Oh, this celebrity’s so hot. I love her,'" says Crasch. "I, not even consciously, realized, 'Oh, I need to make sure that I have an answer to that question.'"
Growing up, Crasch says he didn't really think he was physically beautiful. Instead, he prioritized things like humor and personality — things he felt were his "best qualities." However, after coming out as gay and getting older, Crasch has grown more comfortable in his skin and is able to find the beauty in himself, particularly through his authenticity.
"Sometimes, I want to paint my nails or wear some makeup, and that was a scary thought to me [when I was younger] because I was worried about how people would perceive me," says Crasch. "But I've seen how people embrace authenticity, even when they may be uncomfortable by other things ... And that is something that I've been trying to work on in myself."
Now, Crasch struts onto the Pride shoot set, hair dyed green, a glitter cat eye, a bedazzled manicure. He's in his element. And if this isn't authenticity, I don't know what is.
For Caitlin Kinnunen, actress and star of Prom on Broadway, her relationship with beauty growing up was a bit different, in short because, well, she didn't really think about it, she says. "My family was very, like, non-typical in that way. My mom just let my sister and I be whomever we wanted to be, and it was never a question." Kinnunen says that, because of that freedom, she embraced a tomboy-ish style of "camo pants" and "Old Navy t-shirts" and she "cut her hair really short."
Still, during her teens, Kinnunen, who is still determining her sexual identity but knows she falls somewhere in the queer or bi area, found it hard to ignore the image Hollywood and the media highlighted and to know she didn't "fit that type." Because of that, she says "being [herself] and being true to [herself] and not being afraid of what other people think of [her]" has been crucial in being able to find her beauty.
Kinnunen knows finding acceptance and beauty within yourself doesn't work like a light switch, so she's quick to note finding her own idea of beauty is a "work in progress" — one she says social media has had a huge, positive influence on. "So many people can present their version of beauty, and there are so many body positive accounts, and there’s 'abnormal' beauty that is becoming the normal," she tells me. "I think people being able to see that is really important."
As a final question, I ask her about one thing specifically she finds beautiful about herself, and she responds almost immediately with such sincerity and firmness. Confidence, she says, adding that not only does she consider confidence something that makes her feel beautiful now, but that it's also something she thinks makes everyone beautiful. "People can be wearing what you think is the most outrageous thing ever, but if they’re confident about it, they're the most beautiful thing ever," she says.
The minute Marketing & Audience Development Manager at Bustle Digital Group Willa Bennett walks on set, nearly everyone on the team, myself included, screams. That's just what you do when you see Willa approaching. As she moves through the set, it's impossible to ignore how she immediately connects with every single person, regardless of whether she knows them or not.
This ability to connect so easily is something Bennett, who identifies as queer, finds most beautiful about herself now. In fact, she prides herself on it. "Over the years, I learned that [being able to connect with people] is a gift that I really appreciate about myself, because a lot of people can't connect," she says. "That's something that I find beautiful about myself; that at the end of the day, I really care about people."
Of course, this didn't come easily. As a former ballerina, she was not only inundated with the familiar societal standard of feminine beauty, but also with the pressure to "physically appear a certain way" as a dancer. Despite how heavily those standards were hailed as beautiful, though, Bennett saw beauty in other aspects of the dancers she looked up to, namely their confidence and their openness with their identities — something Bennett felt she couldn't achieve because she wasn't out.
"There was so much internalized self-hatred I was experiencing as a result of just not sharing myself with someone," says Bennett. "I would be best friends with someone and never talk about my queer identity, and then find myself so angry that this person didn't understand me, but I also didn't help them by sharing it."
Fortunately, the coming out process, pushed Bennett to find more beauty in both herself and others. In continuing to be open about her sexuality, Bennett says she feels she's better able to articulate herself and to really connect with and care for others. "When I look in the mirror, I feel like it very much shines through."
Model and artist Sebastian RoseMarie says they, too, find much beauty in the way they care so deeply about people. "I go out of my way to put a smile on people's faces," they tell me, and it shows.
Sebastian, who identifies as non-binary, queer, and half-black and half-Spanish, says in learning to find beauty in themselves, they've found the most difficulty in the lack of representation of people who look like them. "When I first started looking at magazines, it was very Eurocentric, just one type of beauty. I definitely went through a time where I didn't feel beautiful, just because I didn't see myself anywhere."
They say what helped them learn to find beauty in how much they try to make people happy was to spend time alone, really getting to know and understand themselves before surrounding themselves with diverse groups of people: "I feel like with me getting into the art scene and meeting a bunch of like different people who work the same jobs that I do and look vastly different and come from different backgrounds and have different identities, it makes me feel way more confident."
It's hard to articulate the sheer amount of personality model and dancer Devdoee (Dev, for short) possesses in one human body, so I'll just jump straight to the point. When I ask Dev what pronouns they identify with, the answer makes it all crystal clear: "I go by he/she/they, that b*tch, your majesty, your highness." Once Dev is camera ready with a sleek leather jacket, a shimmery black eyeshadow look, a pearl-embellished manicure, and a wig of cascading black hair, I could feel the Earth quake.
Identifying as non-binary and queer, Dev has been entranced by glamorous beauty from a young age, noting the way they carefully observed their mom applying makeup or the way they loved seeing Beyoncé done up. "It's more so the confidence that is exuded through this performative act of putting on your face and putting on makeup," they tell me. Although, Dev says they often felt they had to suppress the desire to try things like makeup and glam because of the pressure put on boys to be anything but feminine.
Dev began to idolize figures like Beyoncé or "video game character girls," when they were able to see themselves and the confidence they wanted to express in those people. Eventually, they knew they had to "make beauty of huge part of [their] life" because they knew the confidence and unapologetic self-expression that came along with their interest in glamor was beautiful to them.
After being able to embrace themselves more and more, Dev says what makes them beautiful is two-fold: seeing the beauty in others and being vulnerable enough to really put themselves out there, especially "in a world that "isn't always ready for you to be yourself." "I'm really proud of and think it's really beautiful that ... I'm able to walk on a subway in a wig and 6-inch heels, and if someone looks at me, I'm like, 'What's up?'"
With fierce pose after fierce pose that shakes me to my core, Dev clearly came to this shoot ready to slay. Watching them is enough to know I'm in the presence of royalty.
After the day is done and the models have gone, I think back to the models I idolized when I was younger and the photos of them I taped, floor-to-ceiling, in my bedroom. I remember how I aspired to be and to look exactly like them, but didn't know how that could happen when, as a gay, plus-size, timid girl, I felt so far from them. They were (and still are) beautiful. But now, I look at photos of these eight LGBTQ+ individuals who are all leaving their positive, indelible mark on the world and I am filled with gratitude. These people, and so many others, are providing everyone with new aspirations. They're challenging and changing what it means to feel beautiful. And I finally feel seen.
Photographer: Lauren Perlstein
Makeup: Tiffany Patton using MAC Cosmetics
Hair: Karla Hirkaler using Amika products
Manicure: Kayo Higuchi using Essie nail polish
Stylist: Theresa Massony
Model: Nina Kossoff (Red)
Model: Garnet Rubio (Orange)
Model: Mecca Mozelle (Yellow)
Model: Bry Crash (Green)
Model: Caitlin Kinnunen (Blue)
Model: Willa Bennett (Purple)
Model: Sebastian Rosemarie (Brown)
Model: Devdoee (Black)