Category Archives: Trans

“Hidden Figures” in the struggle for civil rights

holding-it-collageIn 1999, I was also a “hidden figure” in the struggle for civil rights in this country.

Laverne Cox talked about the parallels between the real-life NASA “computers” from the movie, “Hidden Figures,” on Stephen Colbert’s talk show recently, and the case of the young Supreme Court plaintiff, Gavin Grimm, who is suing for the right to use the boy’s bathrooms at his public high school. Like me, Gavin is FTM, and we’ve both facing the same civil rights barrier today, in 2017, as black Americans did in 1961.

I came out later in life than Mr. Grimm, who is now seventeen. I was 24 and a divorced parent, living in Florida, working at my first job out of college, when I finally knew what it was that had been crushing me, all of my life, without a name. I was transgender, a man. And that meant I was going to have to fight.

I’d fought bullies all my life, starting with the ones in my own family. It was one of my first obsessions, to figure out what it was about me that made me seem a victim to others, a stranger. Another recent film, “Moonlight,” brought this home to me, watching the young hero, Chiron, hide from the boys who chase him through the streets of Miami. He learns why he is their target, and then has to learn to hate himself for being what even his mother despises.

For my transition from female to male, I began by following the standards of care for the time, which required a “real life test” before medical intervention. That meant dressing as male, using my new name, and using the men’s restrooms. It meant coming out to family and friends, and weathering their responses. When I first came out as trans to HR, I got their consent to begin using the men’s, but within a few days, one of my male co-workers had complained. After that, I was given a key to a bathroom in another building on campus and told I’d have to use either that or the women’s room.

Even after I came back from surgery and had new documentation as male, because my co-workers knew my history, I was still not allowed to use the men’s room. To go into the women’s would have felt like an admission that my transphobic employers were right, and I was “really” a woman. That what I knew about myself was not as true or trustworthy as what other people knew.

The company was planning new headquarters of its own, down the road. We all toured the newly constructed building a few months before the move from our rented offices in a corporate park. My old boss told me there would be no bathroom solution for me here, no single user bathrooms. That was my timetable: find a new job before my only bathroom disappeared. I didn’t have a hero for a boss, dedicated to smashing barriers to my participation. I was a replaceable cog in a capitalist machine, and for all I knew, it was my new, evangelical boss at the firm who objected to my presence in the men’s room. It wasn’t hard to intuit that they would welcome my replacement, with some new cog who wasn’t such an uncomfortable fit.

One of my jobs in college was in a hospital that was constructed in the mid 1950s. It was evident from the placement of sets of public restrooms and water fountains, that it was originally built with segregated facilities for colored and white staff and visitors. I knew it on some level, but still lacked the words to describe what I saw: that public access is a civil rights issue, that it is built into society with laws and myths as well as with bricks and mortar, and that it’s easier to take down some signs than to change people’s ideas of how to divide us, and where we belong.

For the rest of my tenure at that firm, when I needed to go, I left my air-conditioned cubicle, crossed courtyards and parking lots in sweltering Florida heat and sudden, powerful rainstorms, and unlocked the semi-private bathroom on the other side of the corporate park. I didn’t call it transphobia, or civil rights, or public access. I just called it going to the bathroom. That was how my oppressors preferred it.

Stealth was my goal and my privilege as a transgender man, an escape unavailable to people of color during the Jim Crow years. In public places, I am invisible even to people looking for a transgender person. I’m proud of who I am today, and resent having to hide. I’m not proud of the times when I’ve buckled under the weight of transphobia. I felt humiliated, like I’d failed.

I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is.

Fighting to be who I am, in a world that has systematically removed me from its own image of itself, is a struggle that has shaped my life. I had to penetrate a wall of deception, beginning in early childhood, at the age when we first come to see ourselves, including our genders. As a child in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was denied the knowledge that being FTM was even something a person might be. I didn’t know we existed until I was in college. And then it took a period of grief, to take stock of my life and see how this new knowledge fit my condition. That being FTM was not just an idea with no consequence, but that I am FTM, and it means my condition has a name, that there are others, and avenues for relief. Being able to name that pain has been powerful.

I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is. I’m not a sexual predator, or a habitual liar. My gender identity is not a “lifestyle choice.” Being trans is part of who I am. It is something essential to me, and I was denied that self knowledge for such a long time. Without realizing, I absorbed false, damaging impressions of what it meant to be trans.

To say, “I am racist,” or “I am transphobic” is a universally true claim for all Americans, regardless of our race or gender. We breathe in these myths and phobias like smog, because we need to breathe, even when the air is polluted. We need to have families, friends, and communities, to share their values, and if the only ones available to us are poisoned by bigotry, then that’s what we’ll take in. Living in a deeply conservative place, I struggled not to believe in the correctness of the transphobic reactions I got from other people. The majority of people seemed to believe I deserved to be treated this way. The more power people had to take away my rights, the harder it was to convince myself I was actually an okay person.

I began my transition more than seventeen years ago. In that time, I’ve grown older and my society has grown more interested in the experiences of oppressed people, in breathing the clean air of our true diversity as a strength of American society. That we would become less transphobic over time may seem like a given in retrospect, inevitable progress in social justice, but it takes lifetimes, and in mine, acceptance of transgender people has happened more quickly than in any other generation in American history. Trans people are part of the ongoing story of civil rights in this country.

America has a lot of its own myths, not all of them good, but I always thought Americans had agreed on some basics that we wanted for one another, like equality. Somewhere along the line, some of us have lost sight of this civic lesson: that we need equal access to the necessities of a decent life—bathroom facilities and schools, roads, marriage, clean air and water, healthcare, and the rest of the things we’re fighting for right now. Each of these things needs to be available to all of us, not just the well off. These are not special privileges. Everyone has to work, and go to the bathroom, and protect our families.

I was robbed of more than a job when I transitioned in 1999, gave up more than the hours spent in crossing campus to use the bathroom. I lost relationships and a home, and my illusion that society was not hostile to my existence. I found out that people who pray, and people who told me they loved me, were perfectly willing to express their disgust for me, in every way you can imagine, great and small. Little things are all our lives are made up of, the atoms of our existence. If you take them all away, all of the safe, clean, interesting places where life can exist, there’s nothing left. One of the ways you take them away from others, is when you look away, and decide this isn’t your fight.

It takes every kind of resistance to face down injustice. Sometimes it looks like Kevin Costner as Al Harrison in “Hidden Figures,” using a heavy pipe to destroy barriers to his vision of a patriotic meritocracy at NASA. And sometimes progress comes in a form like Katherine G. Johnson’s, taking the risk to speak truth to power. Or like Dorothy Vaughan, by finding innovative ways to empower yourself and the people around you through education. Next month, in this same tradition, a shy teenager named Gavin, who has faithfully worked within the system, will stand before the Supreme Court to say, “I belong here.” And so do I, and so do you.

Feature Image: clockwise from top left: Gavin Grimm, Katherine G. Johnson, still from “Moonlight”, 1943 sign for segregated bathrooms

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How to naturally boost testosterone

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn't prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

“Naturally boost testosterone, and increase the size of your penis.” Does it work for FTMs? Here’s how one trans man and technical writer researches those claims.

Maybe you’ve got “absolutely no problem (TM)” with the size of your unit. If that is not the case, such promises are beguiling. All the more true for transgender men. A pill, or a diet, that will masculinize a person’s body, without taking testosterone, is exactly what some trans and gender nonconforming folks are looking for. And the industry delivers: people spend billions of dollars on products (and books about diets) that don’t live up to the hype.

Why are we so gullible? Because we want it, a lot, and because there’s so much to know about how our bodies work, that it’s easy to be confused by scientific-sounding claims. This weekend, someone told me that if you eat a lot of broccoli, it will stop your tongue from producing estrogen. What they said exactly was, “Broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen.” And other people believed it.

Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

I knew this was not true, but now I was faced with the challenge to disprove a nonsensical statement to people who didn’t particularly want to not believe it was plausible.

“Does broccoli block absorption of estrogen?” is not the kind of question that Google can answer (yet), not like it will if you ask “How old is Cher?”, or “What’s the capital of Assyria?” If you try, the results may lead you to some articles about broccoli and estrogen and, if you have been misled or don’t understand what you’ve read, you may end up believing something like what I was told about broccoli.

Complicated information like how our bodies use food and hormones isn’t as easy to transfer as simple advice like “eat broccoli.” It’s like a game of telephone. On the starting end, there may have been a true fact, but by the time the message reaches its final recipient, it’s nonsense.

I’ve written before on this blog about how difficult it is to figure out what is trustworthy information, among all that is posted as “fact” on the internet. When I was growing up, traditional publishing included fact checking, providing some reassurance that the contents of a book marked “Non-Fiction” on the cover were just that. Online, the job of separating fiction (or garbled nonsense) from fact is the responsibility of the reader.

To find out whether it’s true, that “broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen,” I have to know how the human body works. Without a fundamental education, I wouldn’t know the right questions to ask.

The person who says that broccoli blocks the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen presumes the following are true:

  1. Estrogen comes from food.
  2. Your tongue is the organ that turns food to estrogen.
  3. Broccoli can prevent this conversion.

All three of these are false.

First, estrogen does not come from food. Sex hormones are naturally produced by our bodies. We can also absorb hormones in the forms of pills, creams, injections, and patches. Some kinds of estradiol pills are designed to be taken sublingually. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, beneath your tongue, and some medications are designed to be absorbed sublingually, directly into the bloodstream. If you hold a micronized estrogen pill under your tongue, your tongue is absorbing estrogen. It is not turning one thing (phytoestrogens) into another (estrogen), and it’s only able to efficiently absorb chemicals that have been very finely milled, to a microscopic degree, so the molecules are small enough to cross the mucous membrane. If you hold peas, or milk, or avocado, or tofu, or any other food, under your tongue, estrogen is not going to come out of it and go into your bloodstream.

There are substances called phytoestrogens which occur in small amounts in our food, and mimic some (but not most) of the effects of estrogen. Phytoestrogens are chemically and structurally different from the estrogens that human bodies make, and from the kinds of synthetic estrogen that come in pills and patches. These differences are why there’s no amount of phytoestrogens that can replace estrogen at normal, healthy levels in a human. When you eat broccoli, a small amount of phytoestrogens are absorbed through the walls of your digestive tract (starting with your tongue), and circulate in your bloodstream. They have a weak effect on the body that is not well studied, and you excrete them with your urine, just like with other hormones.  

To recap:

  1. There’s no way to prevent your tongue from converting food into estrogen, because it does not do this.
  2. The phytoestrogens in foods (like broccoli) occur in small amounts, and have different, weaker effects on the human body than either natural or synthetic estrogens.
  3. No food can replace hormone therapy.

But what about the claims to “naturally boost testosterone”? The majority of supplements contain misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and mislabeled ingredients. This doesn’t stop Americans from spending billions of dollars every year on vitamins and other dietary supplements. Transgender men in my Facebook group ask this question often: “How can I masculinize my appearance without taking testosterone?”

The answer is that you can’t, at least not to a significant degree. Surly Amy turned to professional bodybuilders for information on “Natural Transition,” a trademarked term. “I asked [natural bodybuilder Denise James] if following the prescribed routine would result in masculinization: a deeper voice, increased body hair, etc. She said that women who are natural bodybuilders don’t generally experience those effects.” 

When I investigate claims of products that are said to raise testosterone levels, I’m skeptical on a number of levels. First of all, the claim is generally directed at cisgender men. Whether the product will have an effect on a trans man, is another question, and much like the broccoli claim, you have to know more about how human bodies work, to properly evaluate its value.

Read the whole claim, including the studies your source says support their statements. Understand what the claim is.

For example, when I search on “natural testosterone enhancement” I get a mixed bag of results. Many of the hits I get are just lists of vitamins and nutrients that you already need to be healthy. The Livestrong site says this about broccoli and estrogen: “Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, contain many nutrients that promote healthy metabolism of hormones.”

Your body needs nutrition to work properly. Part of healthy bodily function is making hormones. So sure, broccoli is related to hormone levels, but no more so than a hundred other nutrient-dense foods. Being properly nourished is always good advice, especially if you want to feel better. The more diverse your diet, the more likely you’re getting all of the nutrients you need—like zinc, vitamin D, and saturated fat—to make hormones, sweat, muscles, hair, and everything else you’re made of.

The Livestrong site also says that xenoestrogens (phytoestrogens are plant-based xenoestrogens) have two different classes of side effects. “In men, high estrogen may lead to a decrease in sex drive, decreased muscle mass, chronic fatigue and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Women may experience severe premenstrual syndrome, unexplained weight gain, hot flashes, allergies, osteoporosis and depression.” Which ones should I expect will apply to me, an FTM? And how much support do any of these statements have in the medical literature? According to one abstract, “The possible impact of xenoestrogens, to which humans are also exposed through the food chain, needs to be further clarified”: a fancy way of saying, “we just don’t know yet.” The Livestrong site doesn’t say, so I would have to search for the answer to each one: “sex drive xenoestrogen”, “muscle mass xenoestrogen”, and so on, maybe add “female” and “male” to those searches, and see what comes up. 

There’s something called a “xenoandrogen,” too, which have characteristics similar to xenoestrogens. These have been studied even less, and while they exist in substances like certain kinds of tree pollen used in Ayurvedic medicine, they are not found in food.

Some products that claim to be “testosterone boosting” are really designed to make your penis hard. Classic (and totally unproven) aphrodisiacs, like eggs, avocados, and other egg-shaped foods, will sometimes appear on these lists, and are based on magical thinking that says if it looks like a testicle, it must be good for virility. Some products claim to improve your vascular health, which may help with the underlying cause for impotence, but are really best left to a doctor to diagnose and treat. My point, in either case, is that neither of these has a thing to do with testosterone. The only connection among these health claims is they all play on male fears of sexual inadequacy, which is what a “natural testosterone booster” search is really all about. Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

If you have found a product that claims to “boost testosterone,” next ask the question, “How does it work?” How does this product (or practice) affect testosterone levels? Based on your understanding of the body, does the explanation make sense, or is it like the broccoli example, contradicting what you know to be true about the body? You might have to return to your general studies in digestion, or the endocrine system, to be sure. That’s okay: no one knows absolutely everything about a subject. As you read, when questions arise, jot them down and do the research.

Once you’ve identified the method by which a product or practice claims to increase testosterone levels in the human body, study the literature around this, until you understand how it claims to work. Search on the keywords involved in the mechanism, not just the product itself. Has it been tested in a double-blind, controlled study with a large number of participants? Were the results written about in a peer-reviewed journal?

And if it does make sense, generally speaking, will it work on your body in particular? Not all our bodies work like the subjects that appear in medical studies. Trans men’s bodies are not the same as cisgender men’s bodies. If you’ve studied the product and it affects production of testosterone, will it still work in a body without testes? You may have to study the way the product or practice works on female bodies.

Pay attention to sources. Just because it’s on a blog doesn’t mean it’s not true. Who’s the author? Are they credible? Are they trying to sell you something? Keep track of where you pick up your facts. Even a sales website written by non-doctors can be telling you the truth, but before you accept it, confirm it with another source, one you are sure is not making money off convincing you to buy their product.

When are you done? Ask yourself, if I were a journalist writing an article on this subject, who are the authorities I would ask? Then go find those sources by adding their name to your search. What are the organizations you consider reliable sources of health-related information? Some terms to consider adding: “peer reviewed” “endocrinologist” “gastroenterology.”

A final tip for your searches: try adding the word “controversy” to your keywords. The results will give you another perspective, and address the differences in opinion that exist on a subject.

Keep studying. The more you know, the harder it will be to fool you, and the easier it will be for you to investigate a claim.

Share your work. If you are out with the guys and one of your buddies starts talking about this amazing study and how he’s eating six cups of broccoli a day, and it’s really working because look, he’s got four new chin hairs, ask if he knows how it works. When you come to the part where your friend doesn’t know how his body works, send him a link to one of your sources that explains it. 

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Who wins? Love wins

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Not so long ago, when everyone was talking about Rachel Dolezal, I found myself in the minority of people who supported her right to self-identify. Since then, has come a torrent of violence against the Black community: the church shooting in Charleston. More churches in the South, burning. The Klan marching with the Confederate flag. The President being greeted by this symbol of racism.

And then, the marriage equality decision, and the celebration. The rainbows erupting on my Facebook page. My friends, online and elsewhere, care about both of these events. Already, my more radical friends are moving on to celebrate Obama commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, because the frontiers of social justice stretch out in all directions.

We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities.

In a group I moderate on Facebook, “All transmen know each other,” a member posted that they identify as trans* on the FTM spectrum, but also as a member of lesbian community. The kinds of remarks I deleted from that thread were made to show disrespect and disapproval of the original poster’s identity. Which just goes to show, even in a tiny subset of a minority, gathered in solidarity over at least one of our identities, we are fully capable of tearing down strangers for claiming to know who they are and where they belong. Familiar much?

One of the strongest allies I have, in all of my struggles, is my therapist. I’ve been seeing him for several years, and I trust him to see me, not to reduce me to my identity labels, to understand that I have both a history and a present. He’s even helping me see that I have a future.

And he’s a straight, married white guy. When he told me that his family went out to dinner to celebrate the marriage equality decision, I bristled, but didn’t say anything. (To my therapist. I know. And he’s probably reading this.) On a personal level, he’s a flamboyant nerd. There have been days I’ve walked into his office and bitten my tongue, so as not to say, “What is up with that shirt?” (Did I mention he’s probably reading this?) Over the years I’ve gotten a better focus of what has made him into the person and the professional I’ve come to trust. Those of us who know what the inside of a locker looks like, understand something about one another. My therapist and I have a few identities in common, but they’re not why I trust him. It’s because he’s passionate and believes in his work so much that he is my ally.

Thinking of him and his family out at dinner, celebrating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, I thought of all the people who come to our local Pride event each year. Some of the straight people there have politics as radical as mine, if not more. Some of the gay people there are conservatives with whom I have nothing else in common but an LGBT umbrella. My husband told me about standing in line for beer after the parade, behind two women who were complaining about the furry presence. There was no one more modestly attired than the furries, but this couple saw them as rubbing their sexuality in other couple’s faces. At a Pride event.

Identity politics erodes not only common decency, but our sense of irony.

My community can turn on its own, always has, in times of crisis. We’re not that different from any other group you can think of, as far as that goes. What’s remarkable, and worthy of celebration, is when we’ve fought together in solidarity for justice. We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities. The uproar on “All transmen” against lesbian-identified FTM-spectrum trans people, the lesbian mommies who objected to the furries, and Black people and their allies who mock the idea of cross-racial identification, are all guarding the same source of personal dignity and self-knowledge.

When I went to my tenth high school reunion, almost fifteen years ago, it was my first time seeing my classmates since I’d transitioned to male. I went to a small public high school in the rural South. I recognize and know the names of most of the people I graduated with, and they mostly knew me, too. There were just over a hundred of us, so not too many to get to know. And we’d had this formative experience together, going through high school, beginning to figure out what kinds of adults we’d become. One of my classmates, who is Black, showed me the photos in her wallet of her family, watching closely for my reaction to her white husband and their children. This was her litmus test: If you don’t like what my family looks like, then screw you, I could imagine her thinking. She’d passed mine the minute she started talking to me. Not everyone wanted to talk to the transgender classmate.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see interracial marriages happening among my graduating class, because when we were in school together, there was no interracial dating. Few of our parents would have allowed it. No one came out as gay in those years, either, though I learned from my sister, who attended after me, that in her class five years after mine, there were one or two who came out.

I really like my high school class. I think we’re an exceptional group of people: a lot of very smart people, and kind ones, too. Some of them suffered a great deal: from poverty, racism, divorce, disabilities, bullying, domestic violence, substance abuse, you name it. “Suffering does not ennoble,” is a phrase my husband likes to quote. We were mostly much kinder, ten years out, than we’d been in school. We are capable of becoming more sympathetic from having suffered, but it’s not the only possible outcome. Abuse begets abuse. It takes effort to break the cycle.

The woman who showed me her family photos, posted on her Facebook wall on the importance of having a “loving” conversation about what marriage is and is not, and this definition is purportedly Biblical, and not inclusive of gay and lesbian couples. (So far, she hasn’t had anything to say about polygamy or divorce.) The larger culture of our country, in the forms of social approval and formal legislation, now includes my marriage, but my former classmate’s religious subculture does not.

It wasn’t long ago—around the time my parents married—that legally, my classmate’s interracial marriage was considered no more legitimate than my same-sex marriage. My father’s generation was the first in his family to marry non-Sicilians. My mother is of English and German descent. When I was in high school, my parents told me that interracial marriage was cruel to the children, who would have no place in the world. They said this without irony: my parents were racists who said they weren’t racists. They were not the first such white people to exist, but because they were my parents, they were the most confounding to me, and their racism, which became my racism, would be the hardest to see and undo. My parents hadn’t considered how the world had changed since their own marriage, and how it could change again. They hadn’t thought of how their messages to their children reinforced racism instead of changing it.

I agreed with my classmate that marriage has been redefined, and went on to say that this has been the most important change to marriage’s definition since Loving v. Virginia. I asked her which side of this change she wanted to be on. She hasn’t answered me, but I kept thinking about her, and seeing her continue to draw a circle around her marriage with her  Facebook posts, and excluding mine from legitimacy. Then I dealt with the same circle-drawing in the “All transmen” group, and then I had my silent recoil from an act of earnest solidarity from my therapist and his family. What did all of this turf-guarding mean?

I realized that, while part of me wants to protect my valuable identity as a queer, I will have to share my queer values with an ever expanding circle of allies, if I want to see progress in the world. Because there is a difference between a subculture and a culture. You can’t live in your subculture all of the time. The greater culture is constantly affecting it, forcing us to live by its standards, but also changing with us. In forty years, marriage between a Black woman and a white man has gone from dangerous and illegal to mainstream. You can now see interracial couples in ads for cars and breakfast cereal. Interracial celebrities: musicians, actors, models, comedians, athletes, and even our nation’s President. My parents were wrong: there is a place for the child of an interracial couple in this country. One is in the Oval Office. And there’s a place in this world for me, too.

What’s larger and more all-encompassing than identity politics is our human dignity, which does not rely upon us having one identity or another regarding our gender, race, beliefs, or abilities. Because as I’ve seen in my own, small trans community, we can define and subdivide identity groups in every possible way, to include those who are like us and exclude the ones who we don’t understand and don’t want to. If we can’t put a label on someone that makes their choices or existence make sense to us, some of us are at a loss as to how to respect them. Our real lives are complicated, and not just internet-famous people’s lives like Caitlyn Jenner’s and Rachel Dolezal’s, but all of us who are honest about our personal growth, how we’re not the same people we once were, and yet we are, and are capable of becoming so much more.

Violence against Black people, and against trans people, particularly poor trans women of color, isn’t going to go away unless the mainstream culture changes. Because I think we can agree, it’s not what the Black people are doing inside their churches, or trans women in public bathrooms, that makes hateful people kill them. It’s what we’re telling one another about who’s on the inside of the circle of dignified existence and who is not.

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How many trans men are there in the world?

How I run “All transmen know each other” on Facebook: with transparency, liberally, and without pity for trolls of any gender identity.

How I run “All transmen know each other” on Facebook: with transparency, liberally, and without pity for trolls of any gender identity.

There may be as many as 35 million transmen in the world. I base this figure on the very rough estimates that, of all the people in the world:

  • One in two are assigned female at birth,
  • One in ten are somewhere on the LGBT spectrum, and,
  • Of those on the spectrum, one in ten are trans.
The Facebook group I created in 2011, “All transmen know each other,” has recently reached the ten thousand-member mark.

Figures for the transgender population vary: Gary Gates says that about 0.3% of the adult US population identifies as transgender, or three times as many as I’ve estimated. Extending Gates’ work to the current global population of over 7 billion, and presuming half of trans people are assigned female at birth, there are potentially over ten million trans men in the world.

The Facebook group I created in 2011, “All transmen know each other,” has recently reached the ten thousand-member mark. That’s nowhere near the millions or billions of trans men who might possibly be alive today, but still makes “All transmen” one of the largest FTM groups on Facebook. I have a theory on why my Facebook group is so popular: the administrative rules foster community, and are simple to enact and replicate.

I made some decisions when I created the group that I have held a firm position on, over the years. The group would be public. This makes it easier for Facebook users to find us, and it makes people accountable for what they do in the group. The membership would not be limited by personal identity. Trying to police the gender identities of people online goes against not only my ethics, but common sense. And since the premise was that we all know one another, or aren’t far removed, we might know one another through other people who aren’t trans men: via mutual friends, lovers, allies, trans and queer people. The group would be about trans men and our experiences, but we would not be the only ones allowed in.

My plan was to create a space that was mostly wild: just focused enough to be worth joining, and moderated enough to be worth participating in. I delete the spam, ban the trolls, defuse escalating tempers, and remind members of the rules of the group, but mostly, I let discussions run their course. I’m cautiously optimistic, based on this experiment, that public, identity-based groups with simple “don’t be a jerk” rules for participation have a future in social media.

The tweaks I made to the rules, early on, were intended to reduce negativity and increase clarity of the group’s vision. It was not a group that would become whatever the current vocal minority said they wanted, and up for debate each time a new vision became popular. It would not become closed (in the Facebook sense, of non-members being unable to see our discussions) or exclusive to trans men. Bullying people for using the “wrong” words or displaying the “wrong” feelings (having expressed, for instance, a sexual preference for trans men) would not be permitted. The limits of my power are as admin of this one Facebook group, so I don’t allow fights that begin elsewhere to erupt on the page. No screencaps of text or IM conversations that identify anyone other than the person posting are permitted in the group.

There are literally hundreds of groups on Facebook for trans men: stealth men and public speakers on the subject, breastfeeding men, newly transitioning men, senior men, men of color, gay and bisexual transmen, survivors of abuse, open groups, closed groups, you name it. If “All transmen” isn’t for you, and none of the other groups are, either, it takes about three and a half minutes to create your own group and find out whether your vision for the perfect trans group on FB works as well as you think it should.

The group is not staffed 24/7, no one has taken responsibility for members in crisis, and despite every member’s efforts, sometimes bad posts make it into the group and hang around for a while before they’re deleted. Despite the caveats that the group is not a support group, and not a “safe space,” “All transmen know each other” provides a reasonably secure online environment for trans men to come out and find community, support, and resources. The group is active enough that nearly any query gets not just one but several useful and timely responses. It’s full of engaged members who retain group memory: to refer new members to other resources, and demonstrate the kind of clear communication and healthy boundaries the group set out to embody.

There are certain questions that new members ask repeatedly. “How do I begin transition?” “How do I have the coming out talk with my parents?” “Who is a good surgeon in my area, and do they take my health insurance?” I answer when I’m qualified and have the time, encourage those I wish I could do more to help, if only to bump his post back up near the top so that someone else might see it and answer. The question that seems to elicit the most annoyance from other “All transmen”  members is, “Do I pass?” However, it’s not the kind of question that one n00b can ask for everyone else’s reference, so everyone that needs to ask it, will have to do so for himself.

There are several categories of posts that I don’t enjoy, but neither do I delete them. The “Do I pass?” posts are one. Another category that is unpopular, but permitted, is the “Go Fund Me” post. I’ve rarely seen a “contribute to my transition fund” request that courteously explained the exceptional reason why those of us already paying for our own transitions should pay for someone else’s, as well. The campaigns are often created by people so new to their own transitions that they’re asking for tens of thousands of dollars for procedures they haven’t researched, much less are ready to undergo. Some of them haven’t even come out to anyone, yet. There are no hard rules of transition, but moving out of your childhood bedroom and/or coming out to your parents typically precedes phalloplasty. I know, it’s not fair. It’s also not my fault.

Sociopaths are a vanishingly small minority—about two percent of the population—but they exist in my community like they do in everyone else’s, and it only takes one to ruin an experience for thousands of people. More than ten years ago, I saw the death of a beloved transgender conference, due to the antisocial behavior of a few troublesome members of my community. These privileged children felt entitled to stick it to our host because their weekend got extended by a snowstorm that trapped every out-of-towner at the conference venue for an extra day. While most of us made the appropriate arrangements for an act of nature, because sucking up inconveniences is one of the pitfalls of travel, these people played “dine and dash” in the hotel restaurant, slept on couches and stairs in the lobby, and just to make sure their aggrieved message was clear, destroyed the frames on the artwork displayed in the hotel where the conference was held. There’s a metaphor there, for people who are angry at situations that were created by no one on Earth, and who lash out at whoever inspires their jealousy. The actions of a few selfish members of my tiny community destroyed an institution, one that has not been replaced in the years since. So I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some little trolls come fuck up my Facebook group.

Not everyone is welcome in “All transmen.” Almost every day, I let at least twenty new members in, and ban at least one person for breaking the rules. Most of them, I won’t shed a tear over: the ones who post ads for handbags (and much, much worse) are some of my least favorite people on the internet. I feel a little bit bad when I ban a trans man from “All transmen” for being abusive to the other members. I also know that people have to be able to get along, not be vicious, destructive, attention seeking, or cruel, no matter how they identify, or how hard their lives have been. I’d rather the group were only three-fifths transmen, and capture only a tiny fraction of all of the transmen on Earth, as long as the majority of the participating members are courteous and fair with one another, and keep the discussion on topic.

“All transmen” continues to grow at a steady rate, and host varied and thoughtful discussion, daily, on a variety of aspects of our lives. I believe there’s a lesson here for anyone trying to create community online: on how many rules are optimal, and which ones are indispensable. All transmen don’t know each other yet, and probably never will, but with patience and management, I now know ten thousand people who are holding a space open, online, for that dream to be realized.

 

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Sasha Blue

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The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one.

A friend died this year, too far away for me to get to the funeral. He had a chronic condition that I knew would contribute to his early death, but I was still taken by surprise to hear he’d been found unconscious in his home. Sasha never recovered. He died in the hospital about a week later.

When I was in my early twenties, Sasha was my closest friend. He was there when I was figuring out so many things about myself. Sasha was clever, sarcastic, smart, and graceful, making him welcome wherever he went. And because I was his trusted friend, he let me cross some of the boundaries in his life: between the straight world of Tampa and the semi-secret world of gay bars and dance parties, between the youthful university culture where we met, and the eighty and ninety year old ballroom dance students Sasha taught. Perhaps most importantly, he told me once that it is necessary to sort out what one desires from what one wants to be. It wasn’t more than a few months later that I began to transition from female to male.

Sasha was color blind. Color blindness of the most common sorts, like Sasha’s red-green version, mean that some colors are difficult to distinguish, not that there is no color at all. One night, I was riding home in Sasha’s car with two of our friends in the back seat. The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one. He wondered if we saw the same shade of blue he did. He might have also wondered if it stood out for him more than it did for us, because he had fewer beautiful colors in his visible spectrum.

Sasha had a way of being “on,” entertaining but not permeable. This was a different kind of remark, one that invited us in. We all craned our necks to see the shade of blue that Sasha found so captivating. And we agreed that it was, indeed, a beautiful shade of blue. I’ve wondered at times why this moment stuck with me, what it said about Sasha or about me. It is the one that came back to me most clearly, in the days after his death.

For the years that we were friends and roommates, Sasha let me tag along with him to the ballrooms where he gave dance lessons, to Denny’s to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee while we studied, and to the bars where he sang karaoke and danced and tried to score. I’d roam the dark rooms as if searching for someone. In the small country western bar where we threw darts with Sasha’s straight friends, drank Budweiser, and sang, I relearned how to be on stage, close enough to make eye contact, so near to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the sound of my unamplified voice and had to trust my experience in hitting the notes and what it felt like to vibrate at that frequency. Sometimes I failed to polite applause. But sometimes, it was like flying.

My transition put a wall between Sasha and me. Sasha, who studied gender performance and whose books were the first I read on the subject of transgenderism, thought I was making the wrong choice: that I was confusing what I wanted with what I wanted to be. My new identity felt fragile but real and worth protecting, so I pulled away from my closest friend, began making new friends who understood and respected my identity. I dressed more conservatively as a man than I had as a woman. My voice began to change and the songs didn’t come as easily, dropped out of my repertoire as the highest notes escaped my range.

It’s been years, now, since I’ve sang in public. After Sasha died I thought about going out again and giving it a try, to remember him, but it isn’t the same. I’m out of practice and too self conscious to sing anywhere except when I’m in the car alone. I haven’t had my own automobile in more than ten years. When I need to go somewhere, I borrow my husband’s car, and if I’m driving home late at night from wherever I’ve been, sometimes I will sing to keep myself awake. And sometimes, if I’m on winding country roads and put on my brights, the periwinkle glow of the icon on the dash will transport me to my twenties, the streets of Tampa, riding in the passenger seat of Sasha’s car.

Image credit: johnthoward1961/Flickr

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“Heartbreak and Detox” Is Now Available for $0.99

torn heart

“Heartbreak and Detox” is now available as a Kindle eBook.

You can now read my short memoir of trans masculine identity, love, and pain management, “Heartbreak and Detox,” on Kindle. The story originally reviewed in “Manning Up:  Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves,” is now available through Amazon for just $0.99.

Heartbreak and Detox, Kindle Edition

Kate Bartolotta, author of “Heart Medicine” writes:

Justin Cascio’s “Heartbreak and Detox” reminds us that bullying doesn’t necessarily end with childhood, and love—even when it looks complicated on the outside—is often quite simple. …Cascio’s story offers a bittersweet look at the lifelong search for intimacy that transcends gender and orientation, and like many other stories, never truly ends.

Read “Heartbreak and Detox” now.

Cover art courtesy of Neal Fowler/Flickr

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“Heartbreak and Detox” is coming

Justin Cascio reads Heartbreak and DetoxA story of courage, transgender identity, and yes, heartbreak, coming soon on Amazon.

Not all of my stories develop such a life of their own, or recapitulate their themes when they do, but “Heartbreak and Detox” has brought me pride, grief, and hope since its publication.

I mentioned here in February that my story was accepted into an anthology from Transgress Press, “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves.” The book was published in June, and has received fine reviews. I was proud to see my work in print, and read my story at a book launch event in the Boston area last month, where I was gratified by the reception. As many writers can testify, reading one’s work aloud connects the author and his audience with his words in a way that nothing else can.

However, not everyone was happy with my work. Someone I was once close to, and who I mention in my story, was upset to see her name used. Upon consideration of this fact, the publishers at Transgress Press have decided to remove my story from future editions of “Manning Up.”

This is an ironic twist, given the story’s themes of betrayal, bullying, and heartbreak. But she—and from here on I will call her “Mary Ann”—does not get to decide what I write about, particularly when it’s true. I know where I stand as a writer. My story is a powerful one, and it remains true, whatever names are used.

I still want to share my story, so I am preparing to release “Heartbreak and Detox” as a single eBook through Amazon. For a dollar, you will be able to read my story of “manning up” in the face of “indifferent fathers, screaming mothers,” and bullies, then and now.

If you’d like to see more before making this investment in my more intimate writing, here are a couple of essays I’ve published on The Good Men Project:

How We Talk About What Turns Us On

In Defense of the One-Night Stand

 

Heartbreak and Detox” will be available very soon from Amazon.

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“Manning Up” and Becoming Whole

justin in sequoia

On getting broken down and building oneself back up again.

I’m two months out from back surgery, and beginning to feel like myself again. For more than a year, I suffered crippling back and leg pain from what might be a very old injury. The body awareness I’ve regained from surgery is joined by the sense of being gladly alive and sensate, after stripping the dulling layer of pain medication.

While I was still in the throes of my ordeal, and many months from resolution, I wrote and massively revised a story, “Heartbreak and Detox,” which was accepted for publication in a new transmasculine anthology called “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves,” edited by Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway. Keig co-edited the 2011 Lambda Literary Finalist, Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.

“This anthology will help provide the much-needed space for trans men to reposition gender change within the context of their lives as humans connected intimately with others,” writes Kellaway.

I’m at a bus stop and I hear my name being called, and try to pretend that I didn’t. I’d already seen her and Luc when I heard him innocently shout to me. He doesn’t realize how it wounds me to see her, my ex’s new girlfriend, who is with him. Of course she and Luc are friends. They’re all friends, in this small town, the whole queer, poly, trans and allied, kinky hipster crowd. Just not with me.

Avoidance of mutual friends is one of the stages of grief, but it’s not the first. We live in the same town. I used to go past her house every week. When we started dating, crossing the railroad tracks between our neighborhoods became a heightened experience, like crossing between worlds. Now her house is like a rotting tooth in my mouth that I can’t help but probe with my tongue.

 

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Trans 101: What is the process to change one’s sex?

transgender surgery, Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski, female transgender, male transgender, sex change, transgender surgery

What is the process of transition for a trans person? (Hint: there is no process)

“How does that work?” and, “how long does it take?” are just a couple of the questions that people who haven’t been through the sex change process ask. For those about to transition—new trans people—it’s natural to want to know what is in store for them. The people around them, the allies, families, and friends of new trans people, may never have considered what a transgender person has to go through to achieve body congruence. Most people don’t have to think about what it means to go through a sex change, yet they may hold unspoken assumptions about the process, such as that there is a single “transgender surgery.”

What is a gender transition? How does it happen?

In some people’s imaginations, it works like this: “Andy” wakes up one morning and decides to change his gender. He goes down to the Department of Transgender, talks to a social worker, fills out a lot of forms, and a few weeks later he’s packing his bags. Andy disappears from society for a few days or months, then returns, legally the same person, but transformed. A surgeon in Thailand “chops off her penis”—this is the medical terminology—and her body is magically feminized: leg hair falls out, and razor sharp cheekbones rise like the Andes on her now-beardless face. Where Andy stood is now the beautiful Andrella, remembering what Andy does, having all of his experience, yet without a trace of masculinity remaining from her years of Boy Scouts and “man up!” lessons and testosterone. She returns home as fresh as a brand new Barbie doll, complete with passport, wardrobe, and romcom movie deal about a plucky “new girl next door” in search of her Prince Charming.

For trans men in this fantasy, it works exactly the same but in reverse. “Chaz” wakes up one morning, flies to Thailand, and before he’s recovered from the jet lag, everyone is calling him “Mister” and asking him to dance lead on reality TV.

In the real world (not “MTV’s The Real World”), there is no single process for a trans person. Sometimes there is no process, or else it’s not what you’d consider a “process.” Sometimes—a lot of the time—it goes at the speed of money. Sometimes this isn’t such a good thing for Andrella/Chaz, but it’s also pretty rare, unless your name is Wachowski, to have the hundreds of thousands of dollars at one’s disposal for transition related surgery expenses. And then there’s just laws of physics/biology, what you can do with the hands that go with a 6’4” person who lived under the influence of testosterone for a decade before she could get those hands wrapped around her destiny. There’s the priorities of people who might not be entirely sane, but are at least as sane as you are: they won’t get their legs broken like a tragic sci fi hero to gain six inches of height.

And there’s the limits of science, too. We can break legs, but we can’t make big, sensitive, responsive penises, or everyone would have one. At least one. Why stop there? Have one made up for daytime and one for evening wear. One to take out on weekends, and another for weekdays. One that looks good in a swimsuit, and one that your lover has custom designed to fit. A penis for every occasion.

Thanks to a decades-long sci fi habit, I’m waiting for nanotechnology rather than surgery. Imagine: a soft hiss of yeasty steam and the softly whirring magic of millions of tiny, tiny machines, building upon my own genetics to deliver the perfect penis that will work exactly as Nature would have made for me, had she gotten slightly different assembly instructions. Until such time as a gray goo squirted from a tube and applied to my nether bits delivers, I’m living with imperfection, but when it does,  I’ll probably overdo it, ignore the warning on the label, fail to apply it to an unobtrusive test area first. It’ll give me rock hard abs, remove all my back hair, make me a super genius and perk up my sagging butt, while also giving me an incurable computer virus. Because it’s still science fiction and without conflict, it’s just science lies.

So how does it usually work?

There are steps that trans people often take. Here are a few changes that will generally happen sooner rather than later.

Column A: Sometimes a trans person does one or more of these things, in some order and possibly more than once, as part of a transition:

  • Asks friends to call them by a new name, and/or use different pronouns, etc.
  • Asks family members to do this.
  • Comes out as trans at work, in church, to their school friends but not their work friends or vice versa… in other words, selectively. Over time (because it’s exhausting… how many coming out talks can you give in a day?) and to some social circles but not others, for a variety of reasons including power relations and a trans person’s own fears and prejudices.
  • Removes or grows facial hair, changes hairstyle, manicure habits, starts or stops shaving other bodily hair, or otherwise alters grooming habits in a way some might read as “gendered.”
  • Starts dressing differently, possibly in a “very gendered” way (extremely masculine or feminine), or in a way that is notably androgynous.
  • Talks to a mental health professional about feelings of gender incongruity or a desire to live in the opposite gender.

Column B: Among those changes that a trans person might make that suggest that at least some of the new has worn off the situation, these are usually only undertaken once something from Column B has been ordered and digested. As before, these may take place over the course of months or years, and as previously noted, can be seriously delayed by finances.

  • Changes their name legally.
  • Starts taking hormones or hormone blockers.
  • Starts electrolysis (for male to female transition).
  • Has medical procedures to alter appearance or secondary sex characteristics.

There are no rules for what you have done, when, in what order, or anything. There are some guidelines that suggest seeing a mental health professional before having hormones or surgery. There’s certainly no Department of Transgender.

Changing your name, legally, is a different process in each locality. It’s often a family court matter, meaning a judge will want to know why you are requesting a name change: saying “because I’m transgender” is totally fine. You might have “the letter” from your MH professional saying yes, it’s true, this person is known to me as trans, and that satisfies many people: ignorant judges, bureaucrats of all kinds, and trans people themselves, who see themselves as protected from some of the consequences of appearing trans. The government just wants you not to be a crook, which is why this part of the process often requires publishing a notice in a newspaper, and is heavy on the “promise you’re not doing this to evade debt” language. You’ll have to swear, probably. Dress for court, say “Your Honor” when addressing a judge, step through the hoops as presented, and you’ll be fine, probably. It’s the least horrible part of the process for most people.

What is a sex change surgery?

The whole realm of medical procedures is likewise not regulated by any central transgender board. Each doctor decides who they’ll treat and under what conditions, governed by their own professional ethics. Have you ever had surgery of any kind? There’s a consultation. You schedule it with the doctor and the surgery center. Someone tells you what to buy for postoperative care and to make sure you have a ride home. If you’re lucky, you’ve got someone who’ll screen your calls for rabid, angry relatives, and if you’re even luckier, you have a supportive family who brings you fruit baskets and bad movies and fill your prescriptions, just like they would if you were having any other kind of surgery.

I’ve known people who’ve gone through treatment for cancer, chemo and radiation treatments as well as surgery. At first I think it would have been a shock to me, in their positions, that the world doesn’t stop for cancer patients. What do you mean I still have to go to work? But they do, many of them. Cancer patients schedule those treatments like any other medical appointments. You might be surprised how life goes on even as you’re fighting for it. It’s the same for us. For a lot of us, I think, this is a fight for our lives, and unlike cancer treatments, the expenses are usually not covered by health insurance.

The actual procedures that are considered “sex change surgery” are various and include:

  • Tracheal shaving (for male to female transition)
  • Facial cosmetic surgery (rhinoplasty, cheekbone sculpting, jaw and brow reshaping)
  • Phalloplasty
  • Vaginoplasty
  • Double mastectomy
  • Breast implants

And while not surgery, these procedures are often performed by cosmetic surgery centers, are comparably painful and expensive, but usually need multiple treatments to achieve satisfactory results:

  • Silicone injections
  • Electrolysis or laser hair removal

Column C: I can’t think of anything that goes here. Is there some kind of super transsexual act one can undergo? If you think of one, let me know in the comments. Or maybe after you get your card stamped so many times, you earn points… but what are they redeemable for? Again, if you can think of something… I know Transadvocate has been wondering what we get for being trans. It seems some of us are getting cake.

Maybe Column C is the list of those things that a trans person does (or has done to them) that signify a certain level of completion. Because most trans people eventually:

  • Make financial plans that don’t revolve around paying for items in Columns A and B.
  • Mentor trans people who come out after them, who are just as scared and uncertain as they were themselves, back when they first considered ordering something from Column A.
  • Meet people who didn’t know them before transition.
  • Go through whole days where they don’t think about one single transgender thing.
  • Figure themselves “done with transition,” even if it’s with a caveat (such as until nanotechnology is in beta.)

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“Fake It ‘Til You Make It” Isn’t “Faking It” at All

Agrado, All About My Mother, Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Pedro Almodovar, authenticityAuthenticity is aspirational, heroic, and expensive.

Last Monday, I joined Bobby Umar’s leadership discussion, The Power of Connection Chat, on Twitter, for a conversation on authenticity. In answer to Umar’s question, “What is authenticity?” there was a wide range of response:

Too wide, really. Is authenticity really about selfishness, listening skills, or work ethic? What about being true to others as well as yourself? I’d say, “probably not.” But is this really the case—that “faking it til you make it” is inauthentic?


In Pedro Almodovar’s “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” (“All About My Mother”) Agrado, a trans woman and sex worker, entertains a crowd of theater goers with a story of authenticity and transformation. She points to one body part after another, names the feminizing medical procedure performed and its cost. Most expenses are given in dollars, but the other prices she has paid are made clear. “It costs a lot to be truly authentic,” says Agrado, in the conclusion of her speech. “And one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”

Further complicating the question of “What is authentic?” is that we are authentically complex. We are quantum, wave forms of consciousness and particles of identity. If you try to pin us down with labels, we defy them with our individuality. Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.”

While we are largely a product of our environments and genetics, forces beyond our control, we also have at least the illusion of will and self-determination: we have drives beyond survival, to become something more than we are. Which are you, your values or the raw materials? Aren’t we both?

Agrado’s description of authenticity contains within it an argument for its selfishness. To prioritize resembling our dreams for ourselves is expensive, and as the story of “Todo Sobre Mi Madre” makes clear, it takes years or whole lifetimes to achieve. To devote most of one’s lifetime and resources to achieving a dream of self-actualization is either heroic or very selfish, and likely, both.

How do you express your authentic self?

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