Latino singer-songwriter and activist Gio Bravo knew very early on that he was not like the "other girls." But being transgender was such a taboo in his Mexican-American community. It would be more than a decade before he began to learn what being trans even was.
"I was young -- I was maybe like 5 or 6 years old... my mom would put the school uniform on [me], which would be like a dress or a skirt. I would always come back with my knees peeled from playing soccer," he recalls. "I was like, 'I don't want to wear this stuff...this is for girls!' And my mom would be like, 'Well, what do you think you are? You are a girl.'"
Though Bravo disagreed with his mother's assessment, he could think of no rebuttal. He quietly accepted it, and in turn his family quietly ignored his identity struggle, which they chalked off as "tomboyish" behavior.
"Growing up I had nothing but, like, boy cousins, so my parents just kind of disregarded it. They didn't really think much of it because we didn't really have a lot of friends or family who were openly LGBT -- so it was kind of like a foreign concept to them and to myself," he admits. "I always had those awkward situations where people or kids would [ask me], 'Are you a boy or are you a girl?'"
Bravo explains it wasn't until his teens that he began to get a clearer perspective on who he was. He says when he began writing music, he realized it was from a male perspective. And then Bravo met someone who would unknowingly change everything.
"My grandma actually had a friend who was transgender, male to female, and then I realized like, hey, that is kind of how I feel... and so it kind of stuck with me," he recalls. "But we're a very culturally Mexican family and I felt like it was bad enough that I already came out as a lesbian. I don't want to add like, 'Oh, I'm trans' on top of the equation."
When Bravo finally did have that conversation, his family turned out to be surprisingly supportive, and he realized it was primarily internalized homophobia and transphobia from cultural messaging that had made him ashamed of who he was. A few years later, he began his physical transition.
"Seeing myself physically become the person I always wanted to be just did something to me internally, it just made me feel invincible," Bravo enthuses. "It gave me confidence I had never had. It gave me a sense of security. It made me feel like I finally knew who I was... I have dreams, I have goals, and no matter who I am, I should be able to fight for these dreams. And so I said, 'Screw it, I'm going to do my music and I'm going to face the world and I know it's not going to be easy -- but someone's got to do it!'"
Above: Edwin Bodney and Gio Bravo
And he is doing it. The 25-year-old artist, whose sound leans toward the traditional regional Mexican music favored by his father, is currently on tour promoting his new album, El Comienzo (which means "the beginning.") The album includes "Perfecta," Bravo's amazing Spanish-language banda version of Ed Sheeran's "Perfect."
Music isn't the only thing up Bravo's talented sleeve. He is also developing a semi-autobiographical web series. In order for trans people's stories to be told authentically, he believes, they must be told by actual trans people.
"It's kind of going to be inspired by me [and] my transition, while fighting for my music dream. It's going be very Mexican, traditional, cultured," Bravo says of the project. "And I really want it to be that way because I think most Mexican families are similar and we experience similar things in life. Through this web series, yes, I want to put my music out there, but I also want to address social issues that we deal with in the community... [like] the immigration issues and the high rates of suicide."
He wants to create a story that is "good drama, good for TV, but at the same time, putting out the message--and not just putting out the message, but putting it out by someone who's living it, someone who's experiencing it."
GLAAD recently named the musician a winner in its Rising Stars program. Bravo, who considers himself an activist, says he is "really, really excited" about the honor, which is helping him promote the web series project. He also recently starred in GLAAD's video campaign, I Love Being Trans, in which well-known transgender folks offered positive perspectives on their unique identities.
"I don't forget for one single instant that I was really blessed to have a family that supports me, that loves me unconditionally, but unfortunately that's not the case with all of my trans brothers and sisters," says Bravo. "People get kicked out of their homes, they get beaten, they get abused, murdered, just because of who they are.
"I feel like I have so much to show the world, to give the world as an artist, as a person, as a creator, and to know that these people could have felt the same way about themselves and didn't get a chance, it just really, really bothers me.... I'm trying to break those barriers. I'm trying to educate people in the way that I best know how."
Photography by Luke Fontana Photo assistant Dillon Matthew Glam Calvin Scott Glam Blondie for Exclusive Artists, using MAC Cosmetics Stylist Aisha Rae Assistant stylist Angel Cross