Genderfluid student in the running to become Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue’s first male model

In a side-by-side, Lewis Freese posts in a cropped top in the middle of a lake, their stomach visible

The Sports Illustrated Swim Search is down to its final 15 – and for the first time, a queer man is in the running for a spot in the magazine’s annual swimsuit issue.

Lewis Freese, a 21-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, could be the first man in the publication’s 57-year-long history to appear in its swimsuit special.

After a virtual casting call, the full-time student, who identities as male and is exploring their gender fluidity, is now one of 15 finalists, six of whom will be selected to be in Sports Illustrated.

“The entire concept of being the first male does not phase me,” Freese told People.

“I really don’t view myself as the first but as the next. The next model to break a barrier, the next model to have these uncomfortable conversations, the next model to be unapologetically myself.

“I am so grateful to be a part of a group of finalists who all represent completely different messages, yet have the same goal, to further inclusivity.”

‘Inclusivity means so much more than just checking boxes’

Last month, Leyna Bloom became the first Black trans woman to appear on the swimsuit issue, following Valentina Sampaio, a Brazilian model who was the first trans woman to appear in the issue.

Freese first applied for Swim Search, which scouts for new swimwear talent, in 2019, and says he was dealing “with a lot of confusion” at the time.

“I was confused about my identity, my gender, and really where I was going to go,” he said.

“Growing up I always felt the need to suppress any form of femininity, however, brands like Sports Illustrated Swimsuit instilled confidence and hope in me,” he added.

“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.”

With the likes of Marsha P Johnson and CeCe McDonald as their inspirations, Freese admitted that the irony in modelling swimwear, “one of the most binary forms of clothing”, is not totally lost on them.

“I believe Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has redefined the true meaning of what a swimsuit embodies,” he said.

In his bid to be chosen as a model, Freese said the opportunity would allow them to promote inclusivity through a national platform.

“Inclusivity means so much more than just checking boxes, it’s creating new ones that eventually become universally required,” he added.

And in an Instagram post celebrating the news that he’s a finalist, Freese reflected on what gender means to him.

“Going through this process I have learned so much about myself and most importantly my identity,” they said.

“To be honest, I have no clue where my gender really falls at the moment but all I can do is take things day by day and share every moment with all of you.”