Model and actress Carmen Carrera is famous for her appearances in “South Beach on Heels”, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Couples Therapy.” But Carrera also uses her spotlight to educate people about transgender issues and advocate for tolerance and understanding.
Carrera took the stage at Princeton University on Thursday night to talk to students about her journey, work, and activism. The event was sponsored by Princeton’s LGBT Center, the Women’s Center and the Princeton University Latinx Perspectives Organization as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
“I don’t really think that everyone really knows my true story,” Carrera said. “And that’s probably because I don’t like to speak about it too much because I feel like it’s still happening – my story is still developing.”
A New Jersey native, Carrera was raised in Paterson by her Peruvian immigrant parents. She described the pressures she faced trying to be successful for her family and navigating societal standards while simultaneously discovering her identity.
“I didn’t know what transgender was. I didn’t know what gay was. I just knew that wasn’t accepted, and it was something that I could not even think about being or else I would lose everything I worked so hard to surround myself with,” she said. “Living in kind of an urban-influenced setting, you kind of learn really quickly where you don’t belong and where you don’t fit in, or what standards are acceptable.”
As a young adult, Carrera visited neighborhoods and dance scenes that were known for their strong LGBT communities. She said learned about rejection and belonging from those around her, and also discovered the harsh realities that people in the LGBT community faced such as death by drug overdose and STDs.
By 25, after being a part of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and despite feeling inexperienced and unsure about her own identity, she became an example and role model for trans women.
Although she valued her career, Carrera said she knew she wanted to find a way to spread awareness about the discrimination, violence and transphobia that she and other trans people face.
“Back then I learned that many of us who have been deprived of love…we put ourselves in dangerous situations,” Carrera said. “I’m shedding light on all of these terrible conditions that could easily be changed with just a little bit of interest. And that for me means more than any photo shoot.”
Carrera has become an advocate around the world, traveling to countries like Brazil, Mexico and Columbia to spread awareness about her experience as a Latina and trans woman. She recognizes the ongoing challenge for trans people to be accepted, and is calling for more conversation and understanding from others about what it means to transition as a trans person.
“Having to go through that transition, it’s tough because you have to trust so many people with your body,” she said. “This is the only vessel I get to function on in this dimension, and I have to leave it to someone else to make sure it looks the way it looks and functions the way it functions. It’s not about just the look, it’s about what’s happening inside, and a lot of trans people have yet to be able to express themselves in a way that is received as how they are perceiving
Despite past friendships changing since her transition, Carrera, who is a mom, said as a heterosexual woman she has kept her connection with both the LGBT community and the new community she has found for herself in.
“I feel like I’m that link (between the LGBT community and outside communities),” she said. “I cannot wait to be on another platform where I can connect the dots for a whole lot of people and really explain things and have understanding.”