Gender identity has advanced to the forefront of our collective awareness in recent months, with debates on restroom access, employment discrimination and treatment of transgender inmates filling headlines from coast to coast. In this charged environment, one young trans man is creating opportunities for other transgender individuals through his entrepreneurship, making what he sees as a much-needed "positive statement" on the value and beauty of those in the community.
Meet Aym Icon, whose Transcendence Icon modeling and management company is among the first to be run by and for transgender people. The agency currently manages 86 trans models from 13 countries around the globe, and their recent credits include appearances with such major brands as Coogi, Elle Japan, FTM Magazine, People Magazine, Barneys New York and Skull Candy.
Icon, a former model himself, was recently honored by Rainbow Fashion Week during their Top New Media Mogul event this past June, during New York's LGBTQ Pride Month. Several Transcendence models also graced the runway at this event.
"My goal is to have an agency which will be a safe place for transgender models to work," Icon, 28, told NBC OUT. "When my models go out on assignments, they are assured of safety and a supportive environment."
He built his agency from hard-won experience, allowing him to navigate the tough -- and at times transphobic -- fashion world. "I was involved in an earlier venture, in which my partners took advantage," Icon recalled. Determined not to run afoul of such drama in the future, he has set his sights on making gender-inclusion his driven goal.
"Too often, trans men are ignored or ridiculed to an even greater extent than trans women," Icon said. "We see Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner in the spotlight, but where are the men?"
For Icon, correcting this oversight is borne out of frustration with everyday incidents that remind him transphobia still runs rampant in American society. He recalled an unpleasant experience at a major New York City department store when shopping for a men's suit.
"I asked to have it altered. I was told to 'Go to the women's department, you're a woman.' They wouldn't do it, even after I made a complaint."
Icon, a New Yorker, sees this experience as indicative of the struggles trans people must endure in silence, every day. Recent legislation, like North Carolina's HB2 law, merely amplifies the problem, Icon observed. "This is what we're dealing with," he noted. "But I'm trying to change the game."
As Transcendence Icon prepares to move into its new headquarters high above lower Manhattan, in the new One World Trade Center skyscraper, Icon and his company are also being featured in Mark Seliger's upcoming photo book, "On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories." The book is a historical depiction of the trans community on the very street that saw the beginning of the modern LGBTQ-rights movement.
Icon is becoming a cynosure of the transgender community, as his models and personalities make their names known in fashion circles across the industry. They include Devin Lowe, recently highlighted on LOGO TV; Lucas Charlie Rose, a trans hip-hop artist; and Benjamin Melzer, the first trans man on the cover of Men's Health magazine in Europe.
"I'm trying to start something revolutionary," Icon rhapsodized, "something that will get transgender people into the real mainstream".
Complementing his modeling agency, Icon is also the Executive Director of Queer Pop Up, or QPOP, which brings "art, culture, and retail pop-up experiences to the Queer and Trans community of New York City," per QPOP's Facebook page. The group's upcoming event, Off the Runway and Into Your Closet, is scheduled for September 30 - October 1.
In addition to his fashion ventures, Icon, along with two colleagues, runs a new "gender-inclusive" dating app called Sapiens.
"The app is all about safety and freedom," Icon said. Its defining attribute, according to Icon, is a "gender matrix" that allows users to choose among "over 100 gender identity and presentation combinations," according to the Sapiens website.
Icon said he is also branching out into television production, hoping to alter the imagery we see in our living rooms, making it more inclusive.
"I've produced a new reality show," Icon said. "It's currently in competitive negotiations between production companies, including Gigantic and Tremendous! Entertainment." The show, which does not yet have a title, will "be groundbreaking" in its theme and presentation, according to Icon.
Looking ahead, Icon sees a time when real transgender equality is part of American culture. "That day is coming," he said, "perhaps sooner than anyone thinks." For Icon, and others like him, it's rapidly becoming a (trans) man's world.