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I’m a Non-Binary Greek Model and Queer Activist

Born in Greece and currently splitting their time between L.A. and New York, Tzef Montana is a model, dancer and queer activist. Last year, Montana paused their career in music management to pursue modeling. They are passionate about representing gender non-binary and queer people in mainstream entertainment. They have since walked in fashion shows for designers including Eckhaus Latta and Hardeman and have appeared in numerous editorials, as well as on The Tonight Show earlier this month.

As a kid in Greece, I struggled a lot. I grew up in the suburbs, in the town of Corinth, so I’m a Corinthian who had that typical sort of small-town experience. Although we have a history of helping refugees and are influenced by these integrations, there’s still great homogeneity in Greece. I was visibly different from my peers to begin with, because my parents were European and African and because my body didn’t look like that of the other boys. I didn’t have that typical Greek build. I was tall and lanky. I looked like a girl; I’ve always looked like a girl. Every single day of my life there, for as far back as I can remember, the whole village called me “it.”

People would question my gender out loud, expecting, and sometimes demanding, a response.

“Is it a boy or girl?”

“What is it?”

“Is it a girl?”

Every time people asked my mother and father about my gender or sexuality, why I was so girly or whatever, I’d be like, “Here we go. Another shit show.”

Dressing was a whole separate issue. It wasn’t just about me wanting to wear dresses or skirts. The policing and shaming of what I wore began long before that, with choices as tiny as having a hint of pink in the design of my socks.

I hated these gender norms, especially because I seemed to break all of them.

I’ve been a dancer my whole life and it’s always been something I’m great at, but growing up, boys couldn’t dance. As a kid, one of my favorite things to do was to pick up my older sister from ballet class with my mom. I would insist we arrive earlier than necessary so I could practice the last 10 minutes or so of the routine with the group. The Billy Elliot of it all was very real.

I couldn’t place myself anywhere I wanted to belong. Boys had to play soccer. That was how I was supposed to serve masculinity as a child. But I preferred volleyball. Only girls could play volleyball though, so I would sneak away from soccer and play with the girls. That in and of itself caused a mini-revolution at my school, just to show you how unyielding it all was.

When I was 14, my father was invited to the school for a big discussion after a project I did for my technology class. The assignment was to create a presentation about any topic you wanted. I chose homosexuality in nature. I got up and spoke about hermaphrodite mussels and stuff like that. I made this whole, beautiful presentation but didn’t get a grade for it. I was confused, because my teacher knew what the topic was in advance, but she made me go to the principal’s office, where my dad was sitting and waiting for me. The principal told him that he invited him there to address a serious problem.

“Your son is a faggot,” he said.

My dad’s response was even worse: “When I was fucking his teacher all those years ago, she wouldn’t dare say that!”

Basically, my dad was a playboy, and he’d fucked my teacher before my parents got together. He was bringing it up to be like, “How dare you accuse us of having a problem?”

By the time I was 16, I reached a low in terms of how I came to see myself. I was swallowed up by other people’s ideas of me. Outside of my house, I was treated like a problem, and oftentimes a disease. Everyone reinforced this idea, so you can only imagine how unsafe I felt. My classmates and their parents, the teachers, the police officers and the politicians all openly reinforced this idea. You can imagine how unsafe I felt.

Despite how much I was talked about, I had no real opportunity to talk about what I actually felt. As a young person, I was listening to what people had to say about my gender and sexuality more than I was actually talking about myself. It made me develop body dysmorphia and an unhealthy relationship to my own body that I’m still healing from, even though I use my body every day as a model and performer.

My gender is queer. It’s not just about pink or blue, it’s about fluidity beyond any one idea of what’s right for anyone. I didn’t discover the word queer until a little later, but around the age of 19, I started to feel more aware of who I was and what I wanted. It required a lot of communication skills just to be me, but if you’re okay with explaining yourself all the time and have the ability to do it well, your life can be very rich. Plus, I eventually realized gender norms and the way people performed them were the problem, not me.

Although there are masculine archetypes from both ancient Greece and modern Mediterranean culture, Greek masculinity isn’t all that different than any other “alpha male” culture. I’m very close to many men who adhere to this very socialized masculinity, and I think their masculinity is all a performance. The acceptable level of vulnerability a boy can express is very, very, very little. And for a man? Even less.

The way I approach these men is simple: I stare deeply into their eyes and see them for the being they are beneath all their macho bullshit. When I do that, I always feel how permissive they are beyond their acts, so I know the emerging generations in Greece are even more open-minded than we can yet see.

Telling my story is what keeps me living, really. It’s my passion. That’s why I’m involved in fashion and entertainment — to push for the empowerment and representation of queer people in this field. I’ve only taken modeling seriously for the last year or so. Before that, I got my undergraduate degree in London and then moved to the U.S. to earn my master’s degree in business at UCLA. My focus was music management. Up until a couple years ago, I was managing bands like Slayer. Instead of getting mistaken for a girl all the time because of my long hair, I started getting mistaken for a metalhead.

Eventually, there was an issue with my visa and I had to go back home to Greece. I was very depressed, but returning to Greece with a fresh set of experiences encouraged me to try something new. There were some queer celebrities in the public eye, who would go on talk shows and things like that, but they were from another generation. I thought I should try to share my voice as someone experienced in the global shift of consciousness in terms of queer advocacy and gender diversity. My objective was to share a queer person’s success story and to show that despite any backlash or hatred I got growing up, I was able to have a good life and career.

Since entertainment was the business I knew best, I decided to use local media to spread my message. I appeared in conversation with a very archetypal Greek anchorman, the macho host of a huge late-night program. My objective was to open up the conversation about identity and sexuality, which it did. At times, it’s been even harder for people to understand me because I’ve been in serious relationships with women, so I’m often expected to explain my sexual orientation to people too, which I had to do on the show.

I’m happy to say, though, that last week, the Greek government passed a law that allows transgender people to change their gender on their federal identification cards without the medical evaluations and tests previously required. This policy shift is important because it makes it easier for transgender Greeks to express who they are. It legitimizes the idea that someone’s gender might change. It’s a simple thing, but it encourages people to see beyond their fixed ideas of gender and begin understanding it as more of a spectrum. I feel very much a part of this success story, and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t still telling me what I am. When I’m in Greece, people still yell, “Transvestite!” They insist I’m nothing more than a man with a fetish for dresses. But a lot of people in fashion sort of insinuate that, too. They think of queer as a marketing technique. They meet me, and they’re like, “Wait, so you’re not trans?” Or: “So are you thinking of taking hormones?”

At the same time, I recognize how “safe” of a queer model I am by American standards. I’m tall and skinny with high cheekbones and big lips. The way I uphold many of fashion’s beauty standards gets me more jobs than anything. Stuff like the recent Charlie XCX performance on The Tonight Show.

She performed her song “Boys,” and me and this trans boy kissed on national TV. It was hot.

— As told to Tierney Finster