This week, Playboy announced its first transgender playmate, a decision that Cooper Hefner—chief creative officer and Hugh Hefner’s son—says was made in an effort to keep his father’s founding mission alive. For the magazine’s November 2017 issue, 26-year-old French model Ines Rau, who was slated to appear on the issue’s cover before Hugh passed away, will appear in its centerfold. It’s the first time in the revered brand’s legacy that it has featured a transgender playmate, but it’s not the first time it’s lended its platform to the fight for socio-sexual rights.
“This is really a moment for us to take a step back and say that so much of what the brand stood for in the early years is very much still alive in culture,” Hefner told The New York Times. “It’s the right thing to do. We’re at a moment where gender roles are evolving.”
Of course, Playboy’s decision was not met without backlash. Rau, who described the opportunity as “a compliment like I’ve never had,” says she’s received a lot of “hateful comments” since the announcement. “I would have never thought about people being so transphobic,” she said. “I knew we still had a lot of work to do to get to a point where people see trans women as women, but I would have never thought of that.”
“It makes me even more proud and happy to have done that, because we need to make a mentality change,” she continued. “We have to. My story is very heavy, and you’re going to always have people who don’t understand and are being very mean, and seeing that, it makes even more sense to fight for awareness and respect.”
Rau’s story echoes with a similar trajectory to that of Caroline “Tula” Cossey, who was the first model to pose for Playboy in June 1981. After being cast as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only, the British model appeared in one of the magazine’s pictorial with the film’s other Bond girls. It was a moment to be celebrated in Tula’s burgeoning career, but a year later, British tabloid News of the World outed Tula as a transgender woman without her consent in a story whose headline read: “JAMES BOND GIRL WAS A BOY.”
Though the story ultimately ignited Tula’s modeling career and propelled her into the limelight as a role model for other trans women, the callous mistreatment of Tula by the media ultimately cost her first marriage in 1989 when the tabloid printed another outrageous headline:”SEX CHANGE PAGE THREE GIRL WEDS.” Fattal, to whom Tula had disclosed her transition, was called away by his family. Tula never heard from him again.
“You have four years with someone and you feel you’ve covered everything,” she told Playboy in 2015. “My heart was broken. The whole thing is ugly. But you pick up the pieces and get on with your life.”
While the transgender community has reached a pivotal juncture since Tula’s time, the backlash experienced by Rau show there’s still a way to go. Which is why Rau being featured as a playmate in 2017 is so important. In a world where the bodies of transgender women are abused, mishandled, and misrepresented, positive representation matters.