Minnesota native and full-time student Lewis Freese just became the first male finalist in the history of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s annual Swim Search. Which is A VERY BIG DEAL, I’m sure you know.
And although he is definitely challenging the norm – not only as male but identifying as gender fluid – he says he’s happy to be part of a larger conversation about inclusivity, but “the entire concept of being the first male does not phase me.”
Below, a bit of his exclusive conversation with People magazine:
PEOPLE: What inspired you to enter?
Freese: When I first applied for Swim Search in 2019, I was dealing with a lot of confusion. I was confused about my identity, my gender, and really where I was going to go. It was hard for me to find a lot of people on mainstream media platforms discussing these issues. Being that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has always led the conversation of inclusion and diversity, I thought why not bring this discussion to the brand? There have been thousands of transgender, queer, and nonbinary activists like Marsha P. Johnson and CeCe McDonald who have inspired me to continue the conversation they started. I think it’s ironic for me to be doing a swimsuit competition when swimsuits have been the downfall of my confidence in the past. Swimwear is one of the most binary forms of clothing and I believeSports Illustrated Swimsuit has redefined the true meaning of what a swimsuit embodies. So Swim Search was and is the best avenue for me to not only continue this conversation, but to take back the power that a swimsuit has had over me for so long.
What was the message behind the video you sent in?
Freese: Being that this is my second year to apply to Swim Search, I love going back and comparing the two videos. My messaging at its core has always been the same, but my understanding of it has completely transformed in the past two years. It used to revolve around being male and how important it is to feel empowered by all, women, men, or nonbinary people. However, as I’ve continued down this path of self-discovery, I’ve realized my message is so much more about gender variety and how every person’s gender presents itself differently. With those differences comes a need for acceptance so we can all inspire, encourage, and love each other regardless of how we identify. Growing up I always felt the need to suppress any form of femininity, however, brands like Sports Illustrated Swimsuitinstilled confidence and hope in me. I was able to experience — through their platform — the opportunity one can find when being authentically themselves. People need to know that feeling internally and externally different about your identity is okay and by taking things day by day you will slowly discover yourself.
Why are you inspired by SI Swim‘s message on inclusivity?
Freese: It comes down to their courage. There are very few prominent brands that choose to represent a form of inclusivity that stretches far beyond a “trend.” I really hope it becomes more clear each year that SI Swimsuit is truly a brand that cares about representation. As I work more with [editor] MJ Day and the entire SI Swim team, you can hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes that they care so deeply about each of our stories. I want to follow in the footsteps of the entire brand by never letting anything overpower my moral and ethical compass. Inclusivity means so much more than just checking boxes, it’s creating new ones that eventually become universally required.
How do you hope your finalist achievement in Swim Search will inspire others who may be struggling with their gender identity?
Freese: It is so exciting that I’m doing this at this stage of my life right now. I’m only 21 and I feel like I just started my road of coming out. Even since the beginning of my Swim Search journey last August, I’ve discovered that my gender fluidity is always present and some days I wake up feeling like I fall under multiple gender identifications. I describe myself to others as just Lewis because identifying with one set of pronouns or gender makes me feel so limited. From all of that, I want to be very public about how I’m feeling during the journey. I know things will fluctuate and I want those who too are struggling to know I am too. It’s such a confusing and lonely path to go down sometimes as it seems like all those around you have it figured out. One of my favorites things I’ve ever heard is that “people don’t like those within the queer and trans community because we actually have the audacity to be and present our most authentic version”. I love it because it’s so true. It takes guts to admit to yourself that you’re different and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to explore one’s self-identity. For anyone struggling, just know I see you, I hear you, and I will work every day to help bring more visibility to this community.
Read the rest of the interview here.
(Photo: Lewis Freese/Instagram)