Rocco Kayiatos, chief content officer and former vice-president of marketing at LGBTQ+ telehealth company Folx, is hailed as the first openly trans man to assume a C-suite role. The Drum caught up with the community builder and creative entrepreneur to hear how his lived experience has made him a better marketer.
When Rocco Kayiatos was young he wanted to be an “international pop star.” And while he hasn’t this far made it to the top of the charts, he is credited as the first openly trans man to release a LP. “My music career led me to develop a huge passion for creating community spaces and events,” he tells The Drum.
Going on to develop events and music festivals that specifically focused on LGBTQ+ artists and musicians, Kayiatos later created Original Plumbing, a magazine that focused on trans male culture. It ran for a decade, building on its print presence to include a lifestyle component as well as curated events for the trans community.
With this experience under his belt, Kayiatos spent time at Buzzfeed and then Grindr, where he created and led the video department, before landing his current role at Folx Health – a US-based startup that provides healthcare services for the LGBTQ+ community.
He says his current role is at the center of the Venn diagram of all his interests. “When I saw the call-out for the role I thought there is no one more suited to building a community of followers around this brand. I have gotten to utilize every skill set I’ve picked up along the way when it comes to building this brand for a specialized community. When it comes to the health and wellness industry, marketing is usually pretty traditional – but I’m not a traditional marketer.”
Though he says he sometimes feels uncomfortable with being credited as among the first to do so (“when it comes to marginalized communities we don’t always know our history because it isn’t well preserved”), Kayiatos says he has never found another trans man in a C-suite role. “I think it’s still a very difficult position to achieve unless they create their own companies.”
This lack of representation has meant Kayiatos has largely forged his own path in the industry, “leveraging my own identity, you could say ... I sort of imagined myself into existence.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “Things have changed tremendously for trans people. Progress is being made, but it’s one step forward and two steps back.” He cites everything from the anti-trans legislation and rhetoric that still exists in the US (and across the world) to the violence experienced by trans people due to increased visibility in the media as being among the chief challenges encountered by people in the community.
“Flatly put, it’s still very difficult to be trans,” he says.
It’s not limited to the outside world either. Kayiatos explains it remains a struggle to be trans in the workplace. “Unfortunately we live in a world where you’re just going to experience microaggressions.”
But with around one in six gen Z adults now identifying as LGBTQ+, times are changing. “There’s going to be an ever-pressing need to be authentic in how we engage with that audience, and whether it’s the content being served to them or advertisements, there is a different language being spoken when you talk about multicultural marketing.”
Kayiatos says for him, that’s where the opportunities lie. “I am highly specialized, but first and foremost I am a storyteller.
“My identity is a piece of that; it allows me to think intersectionally about how to reach diverse communities and build a platform that tells their stories, but my identity is not at the forefront of that. It’s not an asset, it’s a tool.”
He says that, going forward, he would like to see more mentorship and support available for people from diverse backgrounds entering the industry. “I think it’s challenging to be a person with any kind of diverse identity within a corporate structure ... I hope that changes in my lifetime, but I don’t imagine it will.”
But in his position at Folx, Kayiatos says the specialized and inclusive environment has allowed him to do his best work. “Putting my identity to one side, or putting it at the center on my own terms, has been incredibly stabilizing because it’s allowed me to be my full self.”
The result has been a swell of positive reception for Folx’s marketing, which has included everything from corporate fundraisers for trans healthcare to an LGBTQ+ hotline to connect the community during the pandemic.
”I’m constantly being asked who does our marketing by people who want to try and reach the same segment. I think this is where I can see the tide turning, as people really start to spend money and focus on engaging an LGBTQ+ audience.”