Courtnei Lee has stopped smoking.
It’s been a long time coming, this rejection of a habit she’s relied on for years to cope with stress. But it’s time, she says.
We’ve just met 30 seconds ago, but I tell her I’m proud of her – it’s hard to take that step.
“Thanks. Honestly, I think I’m just at a place where it needs to go. It was my little clutch, and it needed to go,” she says. There’s no hint of regret in her voice, just a sense of “alright, well, that’s that.”
And I come to find that this is representative of Lee’s broader attitude in life. As we speak, it’s clear that she’s decisive. Not rash, but decisive. As someone who goes back and forth between whether or not she wants a smoothie or coffee when she doesn’t even like coffee, I want to have Courtnei Lee’s determination.
So, there’s no cigarette on camera. There’s no clutch. What does that mean for Lee? Will she close up, curl in on herself?
The answer: nope. She’s raw and open from the get-go, not once hesitating, not once stuttering or revising her statements. Decisive in who she is, in what she stands for, in what she believes and what she hopes for.
We go over our time by 20 minutes. (Cough, I go over by 20 minutes.) It is an illuminating and inspiring conversation, and I don’t want it to end. Don’t worry – I’ll let you in on why.
Courtnei Lee realized she had ended up in a “life or death” situation.
“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,” she reflects. “It couldn’t be put off anymore.”
It was scary, but she had hit a wall. “I was like, okay, I need to choose happiness for myself. Fuck the world, fuck all these stereotypes and thinking that I’m just going to become this target for harassment and negativity – which you do, in a way,” Lee says. “But the positive things that come along with transition and loving yourself outweigh any of the negative aspects that you might receive from it by far.”
On top of this, she had reflected on past activists; while she can simply delete and block the hate and homophobia on Instagram, she knows that women like Marsha P. Johnson didn’t have that luxury. Plus, LGBTQ2S youth today are in need of representation and strong role models.
“To be an advocate, you have to put yourself out there and armor up as best as you can and know that the impact 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,” Lee explains.
Lee did not have adequate representation when she was growing up. “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,” she says. “So I’m grateful to where things came to because there was representation being created by the time that I decided to transition.”
For example, Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black blew up as a trans advocate following her role on the show. “There were faces popping up that I could look at and say, ‘oh, my God, there’s other people like me,’” says Lee. “We’ve come a long way from the point where we had no ability to have representation to being on TV and to having these conversations. We’ve fought really hard to be at this place.”
Lee’s business partner, Kas Van Neste Baker, is a trans man; she had watched his transition, though it was very different from her own. Still, there were similarities: “both of our transitions were very binary. I’ve always identified as extremely female. There was nothing masculine about my transition that I was in the middle of identifying,” Lee says.
“Mine was very binary, and I identify as female. And his was very binary, he identifies as male. We’re both on the far end.”
This thinking, however – men transition into women, and women transition into men, and that’s that – can be detrimental, and there is still a lack of representation in the non-binary community. Take, for example, Van Neste Baker’s and Lee’s non-binary friend Skylar. “For them, it was really confusing, because they had to go on testosterone and they were doing HRT, and it took them going through those motions to realize that they didn’t actually need to completely transition,” Lee explains.
On top of this, not everyone wants surgery. It’s invasive, and the healing process takes time. “While for some of us, surgery is 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,” says Less. “So I think there’s just so many misconceptions of what trans is, and what it means to be, to the heteronormative world.”
So, these kinds of conversations are important to have now. But Lee also acknowledges that many conversations can still be intrusive – especially because, despite progression and growth in collective consciousness, “so many people talk about anyone’s transition and being trans.”
Still, Lee could not be more elated with where she’s at. “I think it’s definitely the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” she gushes, “and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything I did in the last five years if I hadn’t done that.”
So, why don’t we dive into those accomplishments, hm?
Courtnei Lee was living in a small apartment in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 2020 – when COVID hit.
She was a server in a restaurant, and with the pandemic, she had lost her job.
“I was just overwhelmed, and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she tells me – mirroring the experiences of many when businesses began shutting down, leaving millions unemployed.
But she didn’t want to sit around and sulk. Instead, she began thinking about something she’d reflected on for so long, but had never given herself the chance to do: create makeup products for the trans community.
“One thing that happened when I transitioned, kind of why I lead with my transness is because – I hate this word – I never thought that I was going to be a passing trans woman,” she says. “I’m six-foot-one. I’m tall. I was skinny, but I was broad. I assumed that I would always be a trans person that didn’t fit into, like, a stereotypical gender norm, and that was something I had accepted when I transitioned.”
So, Lee leaned into makeup, her “armor” and “shield.”
“It was me telling you very blatantly that I don’t identify as male,” she says.
She would search for beauty tutorials and makeup products, collecting her favorites for her “jigsaw puzzle,” as she put it, because the products weren’t designed for people transitioning, and especially those going through HRT.
“When you’re going through HRT, your skin goes through such an insane change; it’s a whole other form of puberty, and your skin cells are changing so quickly,” Lee shares. On top of this, she was going through laser hair removal – not too kind on the skin, either.
So, the jigsaw puzzle consisted of products that worked. Kind of. The multiple products worked together, but there wasn’t just one product for trans people.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘it just doesn’t make sense,’” Lee tells me. “I know that there are so many other people like me, where maybe we’re not in the mass market, like, shipping out to every single person, but I’m still valid, and my existence is still here, and somebody should still recognize that.”
So, when she was sitting, unemployed, in that apartment she couldn’t afford, she made the decision: start on the products she needed, but couldn’t find anywhere else. She began C.L. Essentials (an acronym for Courtnei Lee Essentials), a makeup brand designed for trans people… but still able to be worn by anyone. There was no trans-facing advocacy; unless you followed Lee directly, you would not know the brand was designed with trans people in mind.
When Van Neste Baker invested, however, Lee took a stand. “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,” she says. And C.L. Essentials was renamed OYT Cosmetics.
Lee and Van Neste Baker both felt that advocacy was important to the brand, especially should they lead with their LGBTQS2 identities and mission. Lee jokes, “anything that we do in our lives, like, God forbid I have a scandal or something” – she laughs – “anything can affect the movement.” So, they wanted the movement to be embraced by the masses, and they leaned into being more LGBTQ2S-forward.
“When creating this space, I think as LGBTQ2S people, we are tiptoeing in and around where we can to try and place little pieces of ourselves,” Lee says, thinking aloud. “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 clearly frustrates Lee, because her posture changes – straightens, stiffens, shoulders back and chin up – as she delivers her next statement:
“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.’”
But she’s not done.
“We’re 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.’”
Snaps. For. Days.
Twenty minutes over the amount of time I’d promised, and I ask Courtnei Lee what’s next for her and OYT Cosmetics.
“We’re moving the company into retail now, which we’re quite excited about,” she tells me. “The reason why we want to be in a large retail position is because when it does come to branding and a corporate entity and marketing strategies, it allows us to actually create representation within the beauty industry to a higher scope.”
Lee wants to create a safe work environment, aware that so many LGBTQ2S people experience transphobic, homophobic bosses and overall hostile workplaces. It’s her number one priority as a leader of a brand.
It’s not just the LGBTQ2S community that matters to Lee, though it’s front-of-mind; Lee is also an Indigenous person, and learning First Nations teachings and languages opened her eyes to the white genocide and residential schools her ancestors faced. It’s another movement she’s passionate about, one with a similar trajectory.
“You can see how far back movements come and how far it’s taken to get us to a place where we are now just getting validation,” she says.
And though she can’t share personal details, she shares that OYT Cosmetics has just brought over a refugee through Rainbow Refugee. It’s opened the entire team’s eyes.
“Knowing what they undergo in those other countries and how you can’t exist in general, you can’t talk about it, you can’t even think it without risking your life at the end of the day… Every day that you’re living in those countries is a battle,” she says slowly.
“So as much as where we are battling here, and we still have a really long way to go, there’s other places in the world that are so far behind, and it’s such scary environments for our LGBTQ2S siblings.”
Lee wants OYT Cosmetics to be representative of every LGBTQ2S person, including those in countries like the one mentioned. She wants to help end self-harm and suicide among the LGBTQ2S community, and she wants to advocate to those leading other countries that “these people deserve to be validated. These people deserve health care. They deserve their rights.”
After all, she continues, “we’re all just people trying to get through whatever life throws at us. And life isn’t easy for anybody, so why make it harder for somebody that you don’t even know?”
Lee is proud of her community, but also aware of the discourse within it – the same discourse that exists outside of it.
“One of my assistants just wrote a blog post on body shaming and fatphobia within the queer community and how that’s attached to racism and disabilities and stigmas,” she says. “Our community still has a lot of growing to do, too.” She emphasizes that it’s important for the community to stand together rather than tear itself apart: “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.”
OYT Cosmetics was created for everyone to combat this. “With fat shaming and racism within our communities, 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,” she says. “I think seeing representation within our community, it really helps create space for every individual, not just LGBTQ2S stereotypes approved in aspects in the cis world.”
Okay, we’re really over time, so I ask Lee if she has any parting words about OYT Cosmetics and herself – anything she wants the world to know. She thinks on it.
“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,” she says. “They don’t need to turn to self harm or a substance to try and escape that.” Lee pauses, looking directly at me.
“I want to help create a healthier environment within our LGBTQ2S youth.”
There is no doubt: she’s doing just that.
Thank you to Courtnei Lee for sharing your story. You can find Lee on Instagram, and follow OYT Cosmetics on their website and Instagram.
A feature by QUILL Media.