In her interview with QUILL Editor-in-Chief Tess Aurore, OYT Cosmetics founder Courtnei Lee speaks five years ago to now, trans representation, being an LGBTQ2S advocate, and her goals as a business owner and human being.
Tess: Why don’t we just start with, who are you? You just founded this amazing business. What led from, let’s say, five years ago, to now, with OYT Cosmetics?
Courtnei: Five years ago was the very start of my transition. I think I just got to a place in my life where at that moment, it was life or death. It couldn’t be put off anymore. I’d spent 25 years living in the wrong body, but I was too terrified to do anything about it because of the weight of society that I felt like came with transitioning.
I can’t imagine how stressful that decision was.
It’s hard when you’re a trans person and you’re reflecting within yourself and you just feel like this scared girl that doesn’t know where to turn.
Just based on where we’re at today and at least what I saw five years ago, there wasn’t much trans representation.
There wasn’t any representation, really. And if there was representation, it was in a very comedic, degrading way. I had no language to try and understand myself for the feelings that I was having. So I’m grateful to where things came to because there was representation being created by the time that I decided to transition. You know, there were actresses like Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black, and all of a sudden, there were faces popping up that I could look at and say, ‘oh, my God, there’s other people like me.’
I remember that being such a huge deal, the amount of people who felt that they were seeing themselves, finally.
Right. My other business partner has also been a friend of mine throughout my life, and he was brave enough to transition early. So I had a trans friend, but from a very different experience.
And everyone’s transition is different. No one has the same transition.
It’s not a baking recipe. We’re trying to understand who we are as people, and we’re complicated individuals that deserve the time to sit with ourselves and really understand what that means, but it’s never going to be the same as the other person.
And of course, there’s the lack of representation for the non-binary community.
Definitely. One of my good friends, Skyler, is somebody that right falls in the middle and is completely non binary and doesn’t identify with either gender. They went through a transition from female to male thinking that that’s what they had to do as a trans person because that is the lack of representation for the non binary community.
There’s a whole chunk of a community missing. Not because they don’t exist, of course.
We’re still missing a huge piece of the community, which are people that don’t want to just completely transition in a binary way. And everyone’s transition is so unique. Skyler just needed to find somewhere comfortable within themselves and what they wanted to identify with.
Plus, things like surgery, that’s very invasive.
It’s something really harsh to put your body through. And while for some of us, that’s something that becomes a decision that could save our lives, for other people, it’s not something that affects them that way and they’re happy with their body the way it is.
Do you ever get tired of explaining this? I can imagine educating others about yourself is exhausting.
I’m exhausted. [Trans people] are in this constant state of trying to explain ourselves to [cis people] so that they get it, rather than just telling them, ‘we don’t fucking care if you get it. This has nothing to do with you. This is our body and our lives. And you can educate yourself if you want to understand it, but it’s not our responsibility to do that for you.’
It’s not your responsibility. At all. But you’re advocating regardless, even through OYT Cosmetics.
So, actually, when I started the company in 2020, it was C.L. Essentials, which is Courtnei Lee Essentials, and I wanted to be loud and proud about developing products directly made for trans individuals. But C.L. Essentials as a whole was just delivering to the masses. So any person that liked to consume makeup and beauty was able to buy it. And there was not really any advocacy besides if you were actually following me, and knew that I was an advocate.
Well, when Kas and I decided to partner up, I said, ‘I think it’s a good opportunity for us to rebrand,’ because what we want is to disrupt the beauty industry and create space for LGBTQ2S people within it. And I think that that movement has to be bigger than me and has to be bigger than Kas. So we rebranded to be a lot more LGBTQ2S-forward.
And now you’re loud and proud.
You know, I think, as LGBTQ2S people, we are tiptoeing in and around where we can to try and place little pieces of ourselves. To be like, ‘okay, this is for us, and we fit in here. Okay?’ And then cis people are like, ‘okay, you can have that. You can have this.’ But we don’t need anyone to tell us where to be or what we can or can’t do.
It’s this weird sense of control over our community. Like, we’re the Other, and the heteronormative world gets to dictate what we “get” so as to keep this heteronormative world in place.
Which is why we want this to be disruptive, where we’re saying, ‘this is just as much our space as it is anybody else’s. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re gender fluid, we’re whatever you want to call it, and we’re not going anywhere. We deserve this space just as much as any straight, white, cisgendered, six-foot-one, gorgeous model does.’
What drives you to be this outspoken of an advocate? Because, you know, you could just donate here and there, or make little acknowledgements. But you’ve started a company that is branded FOR trans people. There’s no subtlety here.
To be an advocate, you have to put yourself out there and armor up as best as you can and know that the impact that you’re making for the community that’s standing behind you, specifically our youth, our LGBTQ2S youth, you’re being a barrier for them to be able to walk through this and not have to go through it to the extent that you are.
It’s about normalizing it, in a way, in a heteronormative world.
Yeah. We’ve come a long way from the point where we had no ability to have representation and to be on TV and to be having these conversations, and we’ve fought really hard to be at this place. So I think for all of us as communities of minorities, whoever we are, whether we’re a person of color, whether we’re an LGBTQ2S identifying individual, we’ve come to a place now where we have space.
There’s still plenty of discourse within our community.
There’s fat shaming and racism within our communities, and those are the things that we need to make sure are not happening and we’re not tolerating within our communities, and that we’re all standing up for each other. If we start going in between our own groups and spreading hate and harassment, it’s only going to divide us further, which works against us in the long run.
We really have to band together. The Other has to band together and use the minuscule power we’ve been given.
Now we just need to use it and stay together.
Courtnei, what is most important for you to accomplish in the near future?
I think my hope is to be able to create safe work environments. It’s my number one priority. I think so many LGBTQ2S people have had the worst working experiences, working under transphobic, homophobic bosses.
I was a part of a homophobic work environment. Post about Pride all day, silence the rest of the year.
It’s lonely and it’s hard and it’s aggravating, and on the outside, you’re just trying to fit into this heteronorm work environment.
Visibility is important to you.
I want to create representation for our youth to be able to see on TV or walking down the street or on a billboard, so they know that their experience is valid and they have a family and a team, even if maybe their family isn’t supporting them. They don’t need to turn to self harm or a substance to try and escape that.
If you could sum it up in one sentence? Big ask, I know.
I’d say… “I want to help create a healthier environment for our LGBTQ2S youth.”
Courtnei, you’re a doll. Thank you for your time.