Words: Will Stroude
As two LGBTQ trailblazers at the top of their game, Gus Kenworthy and Laith Ashley are used to being heard.
But now, the Olympic freeskier and transgender activist and model are coming together to use their voices to uplift those in the LGBTQ community who are often overlooked or left behind, and to call on gay men to do more to challenge the violence and prejudice faced by trans people as they become more visible in society.
Sitting down for a candid discussion with Editor-in-Chief Cliff Joannou in Attitude's October issue, available to download and to order globally now, Gus and Laith talk at length about the most pressing issues facing the community today, and learn from one another as gay and trans men.
"I feel 'gay' and 'gay Pride' have sort of become this umbrella term for everyone in the community," says Gus, who came out publicly in 2015 after winning a silver medal at the Sochi Winter Olympics the previous year.
Gus Kenworthy and Laith Ashley on the cover of Attitude's October issue
"But when you think back to what happened at Stonewall and even before that in San Francisco, there were trans people at the forefront, trans people fighting for our liberation... and they didn't get that recognition.
"It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend other people’s struggles. You think about your own struggle and if the people you are hanging out with are also people who are similar in the way they identify, and even though the community is this incredible, beautiful, melting pot of people, it can also be segregated in a way where gay people don’t hang out with lesbians and trans people."
The 25-year-old American Horror Story star goes on: "I don’t think it’s even intentional a lot of the time, it just happens. But because of that, sometimes it takes someone actually thinking about it and realising they have to step up and look out for everyone else."
He adds: "When I came out, a lot of really wonderful things came to me. I feel like, for a while, I took and took and took, then after enough time you sort of realise, 'Fuck I can’t go on doing that'.
Photography: Santiago Bisso
"At a certain point I have to be like, 'Wow, why am I getting a lot of these things?' And I think it goes back to the fact that I am privileged, and I should be trying to do right by the rest of the community and recognise my place in that fucked-up social hierarchy."
29-year-old Laith, who first burst onto the scene four years ago after being signed by New York's first transgender modelling agency, Trans Models, highlights both the abuse and fetishisation trans people often suffer at the hands of cisgender people, whatever their sexuality.
"I haven’t personally experienced physical violence, but I have been disrespected and mis-gendered by people both within and outside our community", he says.
"There was one situation about 18 months ago in West Hollywood where a guy was just really disrespectful. I was with a friend, waiting for an Uber and I looked over and noticed a group of three gay men talking and they kept whispering to each other, looking over at me.
"One of the guys gets up and I notice him coming towards me and he says, 'Oh, so those guys over there said that you’re a woman. Is that true?'
Photography: Santiago Bisso
"I thought: 'What did you say to me?' And he was like, 'Oh, it is true. Yeah, that’s a woman'."
Laith goes on: "I was enraged but I knew I couldn’t react. However, violence does happen and because there is, at times, a need to be viewed as hypermasculine, as male, and to be respected as a man, a lot of trans men tend to stay silent when they do experience violence from a partner, because it’s something that is expected to happen only to women.
"And if it does happen to a man, they 'should be able to handle it'.
"That way of thinking is a product of toxic masculinity."