Twenty-one-year-old gender-fluid Lewis Freese has been recognized by Sports Illustrated Swim as the first-ever male finalist in the annual Swim Search for 2021, which is led by an open casting call. This is his second year applying to the contest, and he's still a full-time student designing a major in business marketing, gender women sexuality studies, and retail merchandising. Lewis hails from Minnesota and takes his spot as one of the 15 finalists who could go on to be included in the issue among others from the LGBTQ+ community like trans woman of color Leyna Bloom and trans model Valentina Sampaio, both of whom made history on their own.
"Swimwear is one of the most binary forms of clothing, and I believe Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has redefined the true meaning of what a swimsuit embodies."
Lewis took the time to thank his followers and support system in a video posted to Instagram, also expanding on the importance of this moment to SI's representation in an interview with People. "Swimwear is one of the most binary forms of clothing, and I believe Sports 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," he said.
Lewis understands that every person's gender presents itself differently and will continue to be open about his own journey in discovering himself. "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 . . . I know things will fluctuate, and I want those who too are struggling to know I am, too," he said, explaining that the SI team, which includes renowned editor MJ Day, takes the time to listen to each person's story and career goals, giving them a platform to stand for the inclusion that is so beyond necessary in the media space at this point.
"The modeling industry has so much impact because it's really how the fashion, cosmetics, and entertainment industries present themselves. If we can increase the number of times we see different gender and sexualities in advertisements and campaigns, those variations can become more accessible and respected," said Lewis, who has a dream of owning his own business to promote gender-neutral products down the line, and even delving into legislative work revolving around trans, queer, and nonbinary reform to improve accessibility to safe healthcare and a quality education and lifestyle.
It is because of the inclusion of people like Lewis that we continue to have this conversation and support brands, such as Sports Illustrated, that are moving in the right direction and paving the way toward an all-embracing fashion world without any exception. Read on to see some of Lewis's Instagram shots, taken by his photographer Ella Johnson, and get to know his backstory, then click through to see the other SI finalists.