Date Published: February 19, 2020
Transgender activist Mahogany Phillips walked away from a successful career as a male model to focus on her transition. Later, she helped win low-income New Yorkers the right to gender-affirming surgery. In this interview, she talks about bullies, gender dysphoria, and how surgery has helped her feel comfortable and safe in her body.
Ms. Phillips received care from Jess Ting, MD, Surgical Director of The Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Just five years ago, if you were a transgender person in New York City, and you wanted to get surgery to bring your body in line with your gender identity, you pretty much had to be rich. Gender-affirming surgeries can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and at the time Medicaid wouldn't pay for them. And there was another problem—there wasn't a single specialist in the whole city of New York who could perform the surgeries. Things are very different today and that's thanks in part to people like my guest. In the 1990s, Mahogany Phillips was a successful male model. Her face was all over post-apartheid South Africa. But inside she had a nagging feeling like she was in the wrong body, and eventually she made a brave decision to give up her career to be her true self. Mahogany is nothing if not resilient. She's overcome schoolyard bullies and fashion jerks, and Medicaid officials who said that the facial feminization surgery she wanted was purely cosmetic. She currently appears in a beautiful documentary film called, "Born to Be." The film follows Dr. Jess Ting of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, and looks at how his work changes the lives of his patients, including Mahogany. So here's Mahogany Phillips. I hope you enjoy our conversation. First of all, thank you Mahogany for being on Road to Resilience.
Mahogany Phillips: 01:18
You grew up in Cincinnati in a black family in the 1970s. And my understanding is that it was not an easy place to be a queer person.
Mahogany Phillips: 01:27
Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Mahogany Phillips: 01:30
Well, you were sort of ostracized. You were thought of as strange or weird or just not included. I mean I spent a lot of time in my childhood not having friends. I would get teased at school and then I would go home and I would be teased. And then every neighborhood that I would move to, I would feel like I would have a fresh start. "This is going to be a fresh start. Thank God I'm going to start over. This is a new beginning, I can try to fit in and I could have friends and stuff like that." And then my brothers and everybody would say, "Well, if you don't do what I say, then I'll tell that you're gay!" You know what I mean? So they would always hold that over my head. I love my brothers and sisters today, but I mean it's just something that is the truth that really happened. Back then, people just didn't know the weight that that carries for a person. And now it's more talked about.
Mahogany Phillips: 02:29
Then it wasn't talked about.
You didn't hear the word "transgender" until you were in your thirties. I remember when we spoke, you said that you knew about "transvestite." That was a term that was familiar to you.
Mahogany Phillips: 02:43
Right. And I didn't identify with that at all because the people that I saw that were living that lifestyle were around the meatpacking district and turning tricks and all that sort of stuff. I didn't grow up in a city, I grew up in the suburbs. It was a whole different lifestyle. I just couldn't relate.
When you were 19 you did an extraordinary thing. You moved to Europe to go into—well you had already been in modeling for some years, but you moved to Europe to develop your career as a model.
Mahogany Phillips: 03:16
I want to talk about your development of your identity. Can you tell me about that?
Mahogany Phillips: 03:23
I go to Europe and I was immediately free. I was just so like, "Oh my God." I was just like, "The sky's the limit. I can be whoever I want to be!" They're just so open and they love black people and they love natural black hair and they love people to be themselves more so.
Did that apply to kind of your sexual exploration or coming of age as well? Was that included in the freedom of Europe?
Mahogany Phillips: 03:53
Yeah, because they were very open to gay society. At the time, I thought I was gay. So they were very open to—there is no line as far as feminine or masculine or, you know, in Paris it's like, "Oh my God, you're an artist!" Like, "Oh my God, you are unique. You are something—I don't know." And they can't even think of a word, but they love you for that.
So you felt appreciated, really for the first time.
Mahogany Phillips: 04:26
Whereas in America when you're different, it's like, "Oh, but you don't agree with the group? Oh."
So you go to Europe, and then your career started to really take off.
Mahogany Phillips: 04:41
Right. After I went to Europe and then I started working bits and pieces here and there and people started taking notice of me. And then I went to London and then I went to South Africa and that's where my career—
That's where you blew up.
Mahogany Phillips: 04:54
Right. That's where I became a top model in South Africa.
Tell me about what it was like to be a supermodel.
Mahogany Phillips: 05:01
To be a supermodel was amazing. It was the most amazing experience. I mean, I was literally walking down the street and people were like, "Hey you! The supermodel. Hey you, hey you!" And I was like, "Who?" And I was turning around and they were like, "You, you, you!" with their accents, "You, you!" And, then I was like, "Okay." And it was weird. And I went back to my agency and I was like, "There's lots of people stopping me on the streets and stuff." And they were like, "Well that's because your poster is all over the highways and expressways and it's in malls." And so I called my family and I was like, "I'm not coming back. I'm not on my way back to Ohio." Because they were like, "Well you better be your [bleep] on the way back to Cincinnati, Ohio." And I was like, "well, I'm not coming back to Cincinnati, Ohio."
You're going through this, you're having this amazing career, and there's still a part of you inside that's figuring out who you are.
Mahogany Phillips: 05:59
There's still the identity of a transgender person. You still hadn't reached that point yet.
Mahogany Phillips: 06:04
I still wasn't sure. I really was not sure. I wasn't there yet. I still thought that I was a gay male trapped—I didn't know what I was, I knew that I was way—I felt like a woman? But I feel, like I said, I just am myself. So I'm just regular, you know what I mean?
At a certain point you decided to come back to the United States.
Mahogany Phillips: 06:28
Tell me the steps that take you to the moment when you're on the set and you decide, I can't do this anymore. This doesn't feel right.
Mahogany Phillips: 06:35
Nick At Nite was doing—they were doing these throwback commercials where they had these throwback shows from the '70s and different time periods. They had the '70s, the '80s and the '90s. And they put me in the one from the '70s with a girl, and they wanted me to play her husband. And I knew the girl from the clubs and she knew me and we were cool. And I didn't want to leave the dressing room. I didn't want to leave the dressing room. I was getting paid really well and it was for Nickelodeon and everything and it was on national. And that's how strongly it was hitting me.
What was hitting you?
Mahogany Phillips: 07:10
I don't know what was hitting me. It was hitting me in the dressing room that I can't do this anymore. I can't do this [bleep]. Like I can't do this for no amount of money. I cannot. I felt way unprofessional, but I was like—
You couldn't do what?
Mahogany Phillips: 07:28
I cannot play these roles anymore. I can't, even though I'm at work and it's my job and I'm portraying a role and even though I'm acting for stills or I'm acting for a commercial, this is even difficult. That's when I knew this is a problem.
You didn't feel authentic.
Mahogany Phillips: 07:42
Right. It didn't feel right. It felt strange. It felt weird. And then I said, "Oh, my goodness!" I don't want to put myself out there to pretend like I'm this straight male, like I'm this father figure on this thing or whatever, and then be miserable.
And that meant that you walked away from a successful career.
Mahogany Phillips: 08:12
I have to walk away. So I'm like, "Okay, I don't know what--I'm just doing." And to my family and to everybody, this is the craziest thing in the world. Because you've worked so, so hard and then you built, built, built, built, built, and you went to Europe and then you went to South Africa and you've endured all this other stuff to get all of those tear sheets to come back and say, "I don't want to do it anymore. I'm not this person." Like, what? So my family didn't know what--and I'm like, well, I'm not on drugs. You know what I mean? I know it seems really crazy that I just walked away from a successful modeling career and I'm just choosing to work like a nine-to-five at AT&T, but I couldn't do it anymore.
Tell me about the moment when it clicked that you were transgender.
Mahogany Phillips: 08:54
Okay. Well when it clicked was when a family friend came to bring her kids.
You were like in your mid-thirties, right?
Mahogany Phillips: 09:07
More towards forties.
Mahogany Phillips: 09:10
And I'm 51 now. And, she was like, "When are you going to start your transition?" And I was like, "What? Trans what?" And she was like, "Well, when are you going to start your transition?" And I say it was like as if somebody was—if you have a light on the ceiling with a chain, it was like she pulled that chain like click, click and clicked on the light from me. Click. I was like, "Right. Transition. Right. We're getting to that part. Yeah. Transitioning. Transitioning? Right. Well, soon, soon, soon, yeah. Definitely soon." And she said, "Well, yeah, because I think they're now starting to do stuff, I think you can get hormones." And the next day I called my doctor and I think by Tuesday I was on hormones. That was a Friday. And I think by Tuesday I was on them. I went in and literally the next day I was on hormones.
What did it feel like after 35 years to finally have a name that felt comfortable and have an identity that felt like it was you?
Mahogany Phillips: 10:25
It felt awesome. It felt clean to me. "Transitioning" sounded really nice. Not a transvestite or anything like that, which sounded really more derogatory. And then what I saw, what they thought of, what is a transvestite or whatever. And so then I was like, "Okay, well that's a nice word for it." Because remember I came from that very conservative neighborhood. So, I can call back home and I can say, "I'm transitioning." That sounds nice. You know what I mean? Because it sounds like you're going through a change.
Yeah, it's a nice gradual—
Mahogany Phillips: 11:01
Oh, they're going through a change.
I think it's so important for people to realize that—this is like 2007-2008—at that point, actually having top or bottom surgery, gender affirmation surgery was extremely expensive. It was something that only very rich people could afford.
Mahogany Phillips: 11:23
Not going to happen.
Not going to happen. It was somewhere in outer space.
Mahogany Phillips: 11:24
I went to see a doctor and he told me to forget about it. He kicked me out of his office and was like, "Are you serious? You came over here and wasted my time. For you to come over here and me to tell you that ain't gonna never ever happen." I told him, "Would you think Medicaid would ever–?" Because I was like, "I could fight for it, and I could be the first one to fight for it." And he was like, "That ain't ever gonna happen. And if that ever does, then you give me a call. But don't hold your breath."
So if you're in this period and you're thinking, how much do I need to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, right?
Mahogany Phillips: 12:07
So I would figuring, between $125,000 to $145,000.
And that's problem one, right? The cost is one thing. The other problem is that there are so few places that would perform the surgery.
Mahogany Phillips: 12:25
At the time, they wouldn't even do it. They wouldn't even touch it. They were like, "What? No." You had very few people that would even touch it. Even if a doctor was interested in doing the surgeries, they would be under a lot of scrutiny because it's like, "Oh, are you trans? Are they transgender? You trying to tell us something." You know what I mean? Like, "Why would you be interested in this? You know, for those freaks, why would you want to—." Because that's what they thought of us at the time as freaks and strange and weird. This was not thought of as something that is really great and wonderful and we're unique people and wonderful people. People didn't see us like that. They saw us as weird and freaks and strange. People that wanted to dress up. So that's what people thought transgender was.
So this is something that comes up in the film, and I think the film, "Born to Be," you should all see it, is so beautiful. One of the reasons it's so beautiful is because it really captures the urgency. Like why are gender affirmation surgeries so urgently important?
Mahogany Phillips: 13:46
Because this allows a person to be themselves. It allows a person to come into what their purpose for being here is. And if they can get that out of the way, and then they can leave the house. It's hard for a transgender person when they wake up in the morning. It's like that's the first thing before you--when your feet hits the floor, it's like that's the first thing you deal with. So before you even are able to leave the house, before you've had surgeries, you're just—you're taking a shower, and whereas the other person would take a shower and just get dressed, a trans person is like, we all look in the mirror. So it's like you have to deal with you. You have to look at yourself in the mirror. It's hard for a transgender person to even get out of the house. That's a huge goal. That's a huge goal in itself. And then you have to go out to the rest of the world, and then you have to go deal with all this [bleep]. You're just trying to get from A to B, but you got somebody over here sitting across from you looking at you, judging you, you know what I'm saying? And so this surgery gets you to a point where you can just be, so now you can get on with your life, whatever that is. Whatever your purpose is, you can go now and be.
I want to talk a little bit about your experience with Dr. Ting and Mount Sinai. But first, I should say that two things that changed that I think are really important to mention between when you first had that light-bulb moment of, "I'm transgender and transitioning," to when you were actually able to pay for it. New York State became one of the first in the country to require insurers to pay for gender affirmation surgery. That was in 2015. And in 2016, the next year, Mount Sinai opened their Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.
Mahogany Phillips: 15:47
So suddenly people on Medicaid could have the surgery, which was unprecedented. So the surgery used to be only for rich people essentially, and it could now be for everybody.
Mahogany Phillips: 15:59
Talk to us about your experience with Dr. Ting.
Mahogany Phillips: 16:04
Well, Dr. Ting for me was like a light at the end of the tunnel. I mean, his personality just shines, of course. And when I went into the room, I was just like, of course, my crazy self. And so when I walked in I was like, "Hey!"
And he's so quiet, right?
Mahogany Phillips: 16:20
And he was like, "Hi." I was just elated. I was elated. It was finally happening. I was in front of a doctor that could help me. I was in front of somebody that could help me. I was just like, "I cannot believe it. I cannot believe it." And his spirit just came and hit me like a ton of bricks. I was just like, "This is the man that is going to help me." And then he told me at the time, he told me the first day, he said, "Well, they're doing the breasts, and they are doing the bottom." Which I had already known, "But they're not doing the face yet."
They're not covering.
Mahogany Phillips: 17:01
They're not covering the face. And I said, "Well, can we just go ahead and start?" And he was like, "Let's not bite off more than we can chew right now. Let's just get through the breasts and let's get through—" because I had actually had my breasts done with another physician, "and let's get through the bottom surgery, let's get the paperwork for that and let's get through that, and then we'll start attacking the other things." And I told him, "Well, I'm going to be the first one, Dr. Ting! I'm telling you! I'm going to be the first one to get it. Watch! You watch and see Dr. Ting!" And I would always say his name in a weird way. I would just play with him. And he just thought I was just this crazy person.
But you fought and you fought, and you were the first one to get that surgery covered.
Mahogany Phillips: 17:51
I fought. I was denied two times.
You got it done and you got it covered.
Mahogany Phillips: 17:54
And I said, "We're going to do this, we're going to do this." And I was excited because when I got denied the first two times, then I knew it was on. It was on and popping. I was like, "Okay, now it's really on." I love a challenge. So I was like, "Okay, now we got two denials. Now I might have to go march on Washington. Now I might have to get out in front of the television cameras." Because I know that I can push. I knew that this was my calling. And I knew that they would hear us. You know what I mean? I knew they would hear us.
There's this amazing scene in the film when Dr. Ting removes the bandages on your face for the first time and you see your new face for the first time. What's going through your head?
Mahogany Phillips: 18:39
I'm now completely free. It's done. We are here. This is over. This is a new beginning of the new me. You know, this is—wow. I have a whole new face. A much more feminine face. Now I can go back to work. I'm thinking immediately I can go back to work. Thank you God. I can go back to work.
Thanks to the surgery.
Mahogany Phillips: 19:09
And that's because of the surgery. You know what I mean? The surgery, like I said, it evens the playing field for everybody because then you can go out here also—whereas someone in Beverly Hills can have the surgery, now someone in Brownsville can have the surgery. So I'm not sitting—the sky's the limit. I can go out here and achieve all of my dreams. I can put that behind me. I'm no longer circling my apartment from mirror to mirror to mirror to mirror to mirror. I'm not in my apartment trying to tuck something in a small pair of panties and small extra garments so that it's really extra tight so that nothing comes out or to the side or anything like that. Or I'm just so insecure about my facial features that I can't make it outside of the house. And the first thing that anybody says off to me, then there it goes, my self-esteem is like down low. I'm ready to run back home because that's all it takes. Someone says one little bad thing to a trans person, and you turn literally right back around. And you're like "[bleep] it. [bleep] it. [bleep] it." Like they just want to be happy in their skin. At the end of the day, everybody, whether you're cisgender or transgender or whatever gender you are, you just want to be—everybody wants to be happy in their own body.
What you were just saying Mahogany was so powerful and I think so true. And I see freedom in you and it's inspiring.
Mahogany Phillips: 20:46
Thank you. Now, I feel like I can do anything. I just feel like I can do anything. I'm so happy just to be. It's awesome, really. Like I said, I'm doing all these things. Now I'm taking karate and I'll be taking gymnastics starting next week at the Chelsea Piers, and I'm just doing all these things. It's like, I'm living for the first time. This is like my first year living in my full-fledged body as me.
There are two questions. One, I was wondering, what does resilience mean to you?
Mahogany Phillips: 21:35
Resilience to me means to be able to bounce back. To be able to overcome obstacles, to be unique, be myself, be resilient, be outgoing, be strong. Resilient. That's what it means to me. That's what it says to me.
Is there anything you want to say that we haven't asked you that if a listener just remembers one thing from this interview, what do you think is really important for them to know?
Mahogany Phillips: 22:13
Transitioning is about mind, body, and spirit. You must keep that in mind. You must keep that in mind. There's three parts. Okay. And you cannot leave one section out. You can't just have the physical and then not have the mental, and you need some type of spiritual connection. It will not work without any type of faith. Everything is a walk in faith in life, because you have to put in the work before you can see something happen. That means that you are walking in faith. That means that you're taking a chance. You're going out here and you're taking a chance on something that you can't see it and you can't see it. So you don't know if it's going to happen, you just walking through it. So you have to have those three things going on very, very strong, okay? And it does not matter what anyone else has to think. It's about you. It's about you. This is about your life and about your journey. And this is about your happiness.
Mahogany Phillips, thank you so much. This is such a pleasure.
Mahogany Phillips: 23:27
Thank you for having me.
Mahogany Phillips is a transgender activist and entrepreneur. We'll include links to her Instagram and the film "Born to Be" in the show notes. Road to Resilience is a proud production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's produced by me, Jon Earle, Katie Ullman, and Nicci Hudson. Justin Gunn and Cathy Clarke shoot all the beautiful photos and videos on our website. And Lucia Lee, as always, is our executive producer. From all of us here, thanks so much for listening. We'll be back in a couple of weeks with more resilience stories.