Culture

Transgender creator Stef Sanjati has something to say about the bad words people use online

The 22-year old from Wallaceburg, Ontario is a YouTube star, Toronto fashion darling and activist.

The 22-year old from Wallaceburg, Ontario is a YouTube star, Toronto fashion darling and activist.

(Credit: Mina Gerges)

Growing up in Wallaceburg, a small town in south western Ontario, 22-year-old Stef Sanjati says she "had a very hard time, being queer." Sanjati spent her teen years making short films and YouTube videos with her friends, carving out her own creative space.Two days after graduating from high school, she moved to Toronto.

While studying makeup at the College of Makeup Art & Design, she continued making YouTube videos. One in particular, about her Waardenburg Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects her appearance and hearing, garnered millions of views and was the catalyst for her switching gears and putting herself in front of the camera more.

Sanjati made videos about her love of beauty and fashion, her dating life, her family, and about being a transgender woman. Her videos have hundreds of thousands of views and she's amassed more than half a million subscribers in just a few years. But Sanjati doesn't call herself an influencer. She embraces the term creator and has found a community of other creators to work with in Toronto, including fashion designer Hayley Elsaesser. After interviewing Elsaesser for her YouTube channel about the intention behind her brand, they formed a friendship and a working relationship, and that's how she ended up walking in her Toronto Fashion Week show this season, making a statement.

Sanjati walked the runway with the words "f**k Doug Ford" written on her stomach to show her disappointed in the decision made this past summer to revert the Ontario sex-ed curriculum back to one that excludes things such as  bullying and gender identity. Both issues that were extremely relevant to her as she was growing up. "My sex education had no queer topics, there was no consent taught, and those two things are so core," Sanjati remembers. "So it was really horrifying for me to see a culture where queer youth again were being taught that they are something that had to be hidden, or that they are a shameful secret."

"A runway might not necessarily be 'the place' for discourse," she says. "But in my mind, as a trans person, I can't turn that off. There's no time in my life where I'm not going to worry about politics."

Elsaesser's runway is one that Toronto Fashion Week regulars expect to see diversity at, because the designer has always championed models of all shapes, sizes and ages. Yet this was the first time it got blatantly political. And when Sanjati opened her jacket to expose that message about Premier Ford, she felt the support from the fashion community as people cheered  "It felt like I was giving something back to the community here that helped elevate me and enabled me to have this life."

(Credit: Mina Gerges)

But Sanjati knows that being in the spotlight doesn't always result in support. And it's why she just debuted a short film at Buffer Festival that focuses on our digital culture and how comfortable people have become scrolling past negative comments on social media.

Called "Bad Words", the film features a diverse group of influential digital creators sharing some of the most common (and horrendous) insults and threats directed at them by commenters. It then contrasts them with the empowering effect of positive comments. "I want to confront viewers with the power that they have, and that something as little as a comment can really affect someone" says Sanjati of her latest project. She hopes to tell more stories like the ones in Bad Words, too, as her career evolves.  

(Credit: Mina Gerges)

"I just love seeing stories used for a purpose. I'd rather watch a film that leaves me with a drive to do something or question something," she says. "There's a lot of power in that and I want people to take advantage of it and use it to create change."


Tara MacInnis is a Toronto-based writer and editor with a deep love for lipstick, jumpsuits and dogs. Follow her on Instagram @tara_macinnis.