Rising Model Hunter Schafer Is Fighting for the Future of Trans Individuals On and Off the Runway

In early 2016, Chase Strangio, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a Facebook message to Hunter Schafer, then a 17-year-old student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ high school program. Would she be interested, Strangio wondered, in adding her name as a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the State of North Carolina over House Bill Two?

House Bill Two, or the “bathroom bill,” as it was known, was a measure that prohibited U.S. cities from expanding on existing antidiscrimination laws to include provisions for transgender and LGBTQ individuals. State laws included explicit protections for individuals based on race, religion, age, disability, nationality, and gender—but only biological gender, and they made no mention of sexual orientation. Officially known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, the “bathroom bill”—passed in direct response to one such antidiscrimination law in Charlotte—provoked an immediate, enormous backlash, of which the ACLU’s court action was just one aspect, both inside and outside the state.

Schafer had already been vocal about her identity as a transgender woman on social media and through her art.

“It was no secret,” she recalled on a recent afternoon in New York. She joined the lawsuit, becoming its youngest plaintiff; in July 2016, she published an essay about the process in Teen Vogue; and just last summer, she expanded on it in i-D, outlining how HB2 was, in some ways, a proxy battle over discrimination against transgender individuals in all spaces, public and private: “We are on the forefront of a revolution in which identity and expression will take priority over the labels assigned to us at birth,” she wrote. “In which self-identification will take priority over perception. In which gender will fall away entirely.”

Schafer, now 19, admitted she didn’t quite grasp the extent to which she would be involved with the lawsuit. She embarked on months of depositions and hours of meetings with lawyers, recounting her early life and experience as testimony against the bill. But she assured me, without hesitation, that she would do it again.

“Hell, yeah,” she said. “Hell, yeah.”

“I knew I should take the opportunity, especially coming from a background of privilege,” she added. Her family had been supportive of her transition, and she had been able to begin the process before developing, for example, an Adam’s apple. In her essay for i-D, she writes, “while some trans people might be able to avoid the consequences of breaking the law—because they pass as a cisgender man or woman—much of the community risks being profiled, facing harassment and, potentially, violence.”

“The more beyond the binary you are, the less safe you are, is the reality,” she told me.

Over the past year, Schafer’s involvement with the case has slowed. Last March, the bill was repealed, clearing the way for a second, even more draconian measure that eliminated the bathroom clause while preserving the terms that prevent antidiscrimination measures enacted on the local level. The ACLU’s case continues its slow march through the courts, but without the bathroom cause around which to cohere, public attention has flagged. Yet the stakes remain as high as ever. “It’s not just the lawmakers who are making the decisions,” she said. “It’s a social structure that’s being upheld by them.”

At the same time, though, Schafer’s own career has begun to gain momentum. After graduating last year, she moved to New York City to pursue modeling full-time; later in the year, she also accepted an internship with the up-and-coming American designer Vaquera, for whom, ahead of the Spring 2018 season, she copied patterns and sewed garments (in addition to the usual coffee-fetching, of course). That season, she walked Shayne Oliver’s Helmut Lang debut—“exquisite, highly artistic, and appropriately gender-f---ed, leaving me feeling more at home than I have felt at any other fashion function,” she wrote on Instagram that day—and, this past season, she added Miu Miu, Mansur Gavriel, and Marc Jacobs to those credits. And here she was, having recently wrapped up a W photo shoot, modeling as the quintessential Capricorn. Her hair remained in a precariously teased coif, her eyes rimmed with black, a sharp contrast to the Hood by Air pullover she quickly changed into.

Since joining the ACLU lawsuit, Schafer has wrestled with the term “activist.” She argued that, while “there’s an argument about whether existing [as a trans person] is enough to call yourself an activist,” her own activism is maybe not enough to make her comfortable with calling herself an activist.

“With the profession that I’m working in, being a model, it has not felt hard to be trans, recently,” she said. Her tone grew very measured here: “I’m being tokenized, in a way, so it’s this weird sort of in-between platform, where it’s a privilege, but it’s also not doing my community the best,” she went on. “I’m not representing my community in its entirety.... But, at the same time, I am trying to lift my trans siblings up, and my gender-nonconforming siblings and those of color, and trying to use this platform for them.”

In Fall 2017, Marc Jacobs, for example, drew attention when he cast three transgender models to walk his ’90s-hip-hop-themed show; in the following weeks, several of those models noted that they felt it was a bigger deal that casting transgender individuals on a high-fashion runway was no longer a big deal. I asked Schafer if she agreed with that. “I mean,” she began, “no. We still have so much work to do.” After all, she noted, the models who walked Fall 2018 were largely tall, thin, and able-bodied; “next season, I want to see trans models that are dark-skinned and fat and disabled and transmasculine, transfeminine,” she said.

For her part, next season Schafer is bound for London, where she will begin as a freshman at Central Saint Martins, the famous English design school that produced such talent as Alexander McQueen and, more recently, Matty Bovan, for whom Schafer walked this season. When Schafer was in elementary school, she would draw superheroes, inventing characters and designing their costumes and backstories. Though illustration was her first interest—she once fancied herself a future comic book artist, and she still carries a sketchbook around—she turned to fashion in high school, enamored of its own storytelling capabilities. And, months out from matriculating at CSM, she has already set a high bar for her work: “It’s got the…” she began, hesitating. “The grit of Hood by Air, the narratives of Vaquera, and the craftsmanship of Thom Browne.”