Erased No More
Five trans men share their struggles
By Dawn Ennis
Researchers say that the transgender population of the United States amounts to more than 1.4 million Americans, with more than 12,000 here in Connecticut. So, what image pops into your mind when you see the word “transgender?”
If you’re like most people – specifically, cisgender people, meaning not transgender – you see a woman whom you suspect has not been female all her life. You might inspect the prominence of her brow, or her chin, or look for an Adams apple. Is that a trace of facial hair? Are your eyes drawn to her shoulders or her “man hands”? You cannot avoid noticing how much makeup she’s wearing. And then you find out you’re looking at Christina Aguilera on RuPaul’s Drag Race. That actually happened to a transphobic troll on Facebook in 2018, as Teen Vogue hilariously reported. The point is, looks can be deceiving, as there are many more ways to be transgender than meet the eye.
What most people don’t immediately conjure is an image of a balding, bearded dude. Or any dude. Even in the bathroom bill debate, much of the media focus was on transphobic messaging like, “no men in women’s bathrooms,” although those discriminatory laws would have actually meant husky trans guys would be peeing in the stall next to you, your daughter or wife. It’s this erasure from the national conversation that presents a problem for many transgender men. Five shared their varied experiences with Connecticut Voice. “I am always mistaken for a cis guy,” says Tony Ferraiolo, an author, inspirational speaker, life coach and trainer from New Haven who says he feels sad when his own community doesn’t see him for who he is. “We have to come out like all the time; it’s a constant thing,” confesses Bryan Ellicott, 29, of Staten Island, who expresses that having to reveal his true identity is a burden. “And it’s like we’re supposed to be proud that we ‘passed.’ I’m sorry. I’m not proud that I ‘passed.’ I’m proud that I’m happy and that I’m allowed to be myself.”
“Just like women aren’t all the same, men aren’t, either,” says Kansas college student Isaac Thomas, 20. “I am not a cis man. I’ll never be a cis man. I’ll never have the body of a cis man or the childhood of a cis man, and my ability to be treated as a cis man hangs on a thread.” “I’m one of ‘them,’ ” realized Elijah Nealy, 60, a West Hartford social worker and college professor, soon after he transitioned to live as a man. His awareness was the result of seeing a young woman walking alone late at night become visibly nervous as she became aware that he was walking behind her. “I’m [perceived as] a threat to women now.”
“Media and culture have a very different relationship with femininity than they do with masculinity,” says Tiq Milan of Brooklyn, N.Y., when asked about the divide between trans women and trans men. “It’s commodified and consumed in a way that masculinity isn’t. Also, cis men, gay and straight, are gatekeepers in our culture and in the media we consume. Often, and unconsciously, they place more value in the stories of people that they may have a connection with: being born or perceived as male. Also, femininity, trans or not, attracts the male gaze, whereas trans masculinity disrupts it. This is complicated. We just had this conversation on my podcast this past week.”
In addition to his podcast, Masc Undone – in which he discusses culture, transition and navigating masculinity with co-host Aydian Dowling – he is a busy dad to a daughter who turned one in January. He is raising her with his wife, Kim Katrin Milan, who identifies as cis and queer. The family is currently living in Toronto. “I haven’t been read as transgender in years,” Milan, 36, tells Connecticut Voice. His trademark hat, neatly trimmed mustache and his velvet voice comfortably confirms his male identification. But who he is, Milan insists, should not be misconstrued as to be an act. “The one thing I take issue with is the language we use. I’m not ‘passing as cisgender,’ I’m assumed to be cis.”
“Passing” is a controversial state in both the trans masculine and trans feminine universes, given that some do, some don’t, and those who do “pass” as cisgender are often misconstrued as having “fooled” cis people. Milan is sensitive to this topic, and appropriately so, as it not only relates to his gender identity but also to his race. Milan is black. “The term ‘passing’ has a historical context where light-skinned black people would pass as white for safety, to have access to education, housing and jobs,” he says. “I’m not trying to pass as cisgender for whatever privilege it may give me.” Yet it still happens, says Milan, a former spokesperson for GLAAD and now a strategic media consultant and the owner of his own production company, Milan Media. “I’m assumed to be cis and that can’t be further from the case,” he says. “I love being transgender, my LGBTQ community and all that I’ve experienced. I’m very queer, trans and proud, despite people’s assumptions.”
Milan’s own website describes him as “one hell of a force of nature. He’s a media maker. He’s a journalist. He’s a human rights advocate. He’s a husband. He is a vital voice within the trans community.” Milan has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Source, Vibe and others on issues facing the LGBT movement, and has taken to the stage and to video with his wife to speak about creating love in queer communities of color. “Their marriage stands as testament to something bigger than themselves, as a representation and pure reflection of the love, worth and respect that all members of the LGBTQIA+ community deserve, but are often denied – especially by their own families – betrayed by those they trust the most,” wrote Chelsea Catlett in the TED Talk blog. As outspoken activists and public speakers, Milan and Tony Ferraiolo share the positive experience of being widely known within the LGBTQ community as the men they are. But outsiders don’t always catch on.
“I typically don’t come out as a trans guy until halfway through the training,” Ferraiolo says about his work helping to educate businesses, schools and groups on the issues faced by transgender Americans, and in particular, trans and gender nonconforming youth. “So I hear things like, ‘No fuckin’ way!’ and ‘Did he just say he was trans?’” After Ferraiolo reveals this about himself, he’ll ask the audience, “So what’s changed for you?”
Ferraiolo came out as lesbian at 15, came out as trans in 2004, and now identifies as straight. “If I listened to everyone who insisted they knew me better than I knew myself,” he says, “I’d be a married Italian woman with three kids, cooking pasta every Sunday.” In addition to his dozen years as a trainer and life coach, he is a cofounder of the Jim Collins Foundation, which funds surgeries for indigent trans people – as well as the author of the book series “Artistic Expressions of Transgender Youth,” and the subject of the award-winning documentary “A Self-made Man.” “If I am in a situation where it can be physically unsafe to be a trans person, I am grateful,” to be mistaken for cisgender, he says. “But then I think that this is the way it should be for everyone in the trans or any marginalized community; no one should ever have to fear for their lives for being their authentic selves.”
Ferraiolo recounts one experience in which he noticed a trans woman, standing off to the side of a crowded dance floor. “She looked like she was a little scared, and looked very alone. I approached her and said, ‘Hey, my name is Tony. Why don’t you come and sit at my table?’ She looked at me, and just shook her head, ‘no.’ Then I said, ‘It’s cool, I’m a trans guy.’ “ Ferraiolo recalls that the woman was stunned, and confessed she thought he was a straight cis guy trying to pick her up.
“It made me feel invisible, and I know I scared her at first. I don’t know, I just felt bad,” he says. To the casual observer, Ferraiolo is a sturdy, bald man, with a goatee and a hearty laugh. But his “invisibility” can be an emotionally challenging experience. “Sometimes I wonder, where do I fit in? It can be very lonely sometimes.” Overall, he says Connecticut has been “awesome,” as a place to live his truth. Yet when asked where he feels most emotionally endangered, Ferraiolo admits it’s ironically among lesbians, gays and bisexuals. “The only spaces where I get the most negative vibes, is when I am in certain LGB spaces,” he says. “People can be very mean and sometimes purposely call me by my birth name or misgender me. Sometimes, they will even laugh after they say it. I try to have thick skin, but man, bullying is not easy to deal with, no matter how old you are!”
“That was probably the worst coming out moment for me. He kept reassuring me that I would meet a man one day, and I’d be happy with being a woman, and that being trans is hard and he wouldn’t want me to go through that,” says Thomas. At age 20, the fear of how those closest to him would respond is a source of worry
for Isaac Thomas in northeast Kansas. “I’m not out to my family because I know they’ll take it extremely poorly,” he says. “I basically live two separate lives.” Thomas was one of the countless transgender people who found their way to their authentic selves via the Internet. “The first time I came out was online, to online friends in high school, which was easy enough, really,” he says. “The first time I came out in real life was to my high school best friend as we drove together to the fall homecoming dance. I don’t remember how we got to that conversation, but I told her that I thought I was transgender, and she says something like, ‘Oh, I already knew that.’”
However, Thomas says the actual experience of living as a transgender man in the Midwest is hard for some of the cisgender people he knows to grasp. When he came out to a high school classmate, that boy seemed to understand, up to a point. But Thomas says his friend was under the mistaken belief that orientation or gender identity is just a phase. “That was probably the worst coming out moment for me. He kept reassuring me that I would meet a man one day, and I’d be happy with being a woman, and that being trans is hard and he wouldn’t want me to go through that,” says Thomas. It’s hard mainly due to rejection, which leads to depression, a major issue among transgender youth and young adults like Thomas, who is well-versed in the challenges he faces. “We contract HIV at higher rates, we’re at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted and abused, we have high rates of being abused in intimate relationships, we’re more likely to be depressed our whole lives and to attempt suicide, all compared to society as a whole,” he says.
In 2018, researchers found that risks for attempting suicide more than tripled for those who experienced a “high level” of familial rejection. More than 42% of all respondents say they had attempted suicide; the rates among the cisgender population are 2-3%. “The experiences in my life have been rooted in society perceiving me as a woman,” says Thomas, a survivor of child abuse. “I’ve been physically assaulted by men for being a girl and being gender non-conforming, I’ve been molested, I’ve been called a bitch, slut, skank, and whore. I’ve been shamed for my weight and my appearance. I walk down the street with keys between my fingers and check under my car to make sure there’s no man waiting for me before I get in.”
On Twitter, the short-cropped raven-haired and spectacled trans man explores his authentic identity as well as his adoration of Al Pacino. His old high school friends,and now his university classmates, know him only as a trans man, but he hides that identity from his parents. “I am still partly in the closet because of my family situation, so it’s a weird balance sometimes. More than anything, people assume I’m a butch lesbian. I’ve had maybe three people who have referred to me as male upon meeting me, which made me feel absolutely elated, until my family quickly jumped in and informed whoever that I’m actually female.”
Nealy and his partner Alexandra Soiseth of West Hartford have formed a family of their own, one that fosters acceptance, love and embraces education and introspection. Dr. Nealy is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Saint Joseph, and an ordained minister. “I grew up in a rabidly fundamentalist Baptist church family, just outside of Philadelphia; big church, 1,200 people, a working class town with several oil refineries,” recalls Nealy. “I never even heard the words gay or lesbian until I was 16 or 17, and people certainly weren’t talking about gender identity then.” Nealy came out as a lesbian when he was finishing his bachelor’s degree in social work at a fundamentalist bible college. “I’d never heard the word trans,” he confessed. “I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. Sure, I’d heard of Christine Jorgensen, but it certainly did not register. It was before I was old enough, you know? All I knew was that I was attracted to women and I was in what clearly appeared to be a female body. So by process of deduction, I must be a lesbian.” Nealy frequented lesbian bars in Philadelphia in the 1980s and quickly discovered the world of butch lesbians. “Well, at least this way I can wear the clothes that fit,” he recalls – buttoned-down oxford shirts, ties, tweed sport coats.
By 1992, Nealy was working at the LGBT Center in Manhattan and rose up the ranks to become the deputy executive director. “It was not until I arrived there that I consciously remember even knowing that gender identity was separate from sexual orientation, and that trans people existed,” says Nealy. “All the trans people I met initially at the center were trans women, and trans men were still pretty invisible.” He says throughout the 1990s, he slowly explored the idea of “genderqueer” and being butch, in his words, “as an alternate gender construct.” It would be another decade before Nealy found the answer to the question: “Who am I, really?” “In 2005, it became really clear that being seen in the world as a man was what felt most authentic,” he says.
After Nealy started to live as a man, he felt euphoria mixed with trepidation. “On the one hand, when I’m in a men’s space, when I’m moving through the world, when we’re out and I’m seen as a guy, this is exactly what I want for my life,” recalls Nealy. “I’m moving through it, I’m not navigating the dysphoria I navigated before. Nobody’s tripping over what to call me. I’m just a regular guy in the world and, in many ways, that’s what I wanted when I transitioned,” he says. “On the other hand, my queerness is invisible,” he says, his gravelly voice barely betraying the frustration he feels. “Totally, totally invisible, to the point that my history as a woman and understandings of that experience, and how it shaped me, is totally invisible.” His shock at realizing that being seen as a cis man meant he was perceived as a threat to a woman walking alone late at night wasn’t the only instance in which he felt erased as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I was riding the subway,” says Nealy, a stocky, balding man with a whisper of a beard and mustache. “Two gay guys were across from me and I’m sitting with a girl I’m dating. One guy goes to put his arm around the other, and we just coincidentally make eye contact. His arm comes right down.” Nealy immediately understood that he was perceived as a threat to the gay couple. “You want to stand up and scream, like, ‘Wait, wait, wait! You don’t get it! I’m queer! I’m queer! I’m safe!’ But to these Latino gay guys, I’m a straight white guy.” Not everyone thought Nealy was scary. At one point, he decided it was time to come out to a woman he’d been seeing on their third date. But after he revealed his secret, the woman left their table at a Manhattan cafe and spent 20 minutes in the ladies room. “She could not stop laughing,” he says. “She was so profoundly uncomfortable!” After that, Nealy decided he needed to be up front about his trans status on his online dating profile.
He met author and former Sarah Lawrence College educator Alexandra Soiseth, a cisgender single mom who at first turned him down for a date. Not because he was trans but because he was a smoker, albeit one who was trying to quit. He quit, and they’ve been married now eight years and raising three children who call Nealy “dad.” He is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, and provides trainings in health and mental healthcare settings and consultation around work with transgender and gender- diverse children, youth, and adults. His book, “Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy with Families in Transition,” was published in 2017. As a scholar, a social worker and as a minister, he often uses humor to help explain the challenges of trans life. For example, during a doctor’s appointment, a urologist clearly didn’t realize he was trans when he asked Nealy, “So, what was the original problem with the phallus?” “For a split second, I can’t think of what to say,” Nealy recalls. “And then I stumble, “Well, I’m a trans man. And so the original problem with the phallus is that it just
wasn’t there.” The nurses laughed, Nealy laughed, everybody cracked up. Everybody, that is, except the urologist, who unfortunately didn’t see the humor in the situation.
“I do a lot of work in the reproductive health movement as an open trans guy,” Bryan John Ellicott told Connecticut Voice, “and nobody talks about our reproductive health needs or the fact that some of us still have female reproductive organs or haven’t had bottom surgery. There’s also this misconception that being on testosterone eliminates your reproductive organs, so you can’t get pregnant. So people who are trans masculine who have sex with men have trouble getting birth control because [they’re told] ‘You can’t get pregnant,’ which is not true.” The 29-year-old Staten Island native says he feels most vulnerable in these kinds of encounters with uninformed medical professionals, like when the handsome young man with the boyish grin and closely cropped coiffure is asked to “verify” his gender. “I haven’t had bottom surgery, so like you basically emasculated me for something I can’t control. I’m not ‘finished,’ and I shouldn’t have to say, by the way I’m not a ‘finished’ trans man.”
On a visit to donate blood, Ellicott was again asked, “Can you verify your gender?” His response: “How would you like me to do that for you? Would you like me to drop my pants to verify that? Because that’s not really going to convince you either!” Ultimately, the “M” on his government-issued identification was accepted, and as for further verification, he told the staff they could “stuff it.”
As an advocate for both trans men and bisexuals like himself, Ellicott says the problems they face are also akin to something many cisgender women experience. “You know how many trans men are victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse?” he asked, rhetorically. “It goes underreported and I’m talking about how it is already labeled if you try to report it. There’s a trans man in Atlanta who is actually in prison for defending himself against his rapist.” That man is Ky Peterson, an unemployed trans man of color, now serving 20 years for the 2011 involuntary manslaughter that he and his advocates say was an act of self-defense. Sexual violence is a silent epidemic that has touched nearly half of all trans people, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Researchers found that 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Like many New Yorkers, Ellicott visits Connecticut mainly as a pit stop on the way toand from New England. And one recent visit really was the pits, he says.“I drove through Connecticut to get to Maine for a wedding, and we stopped at a rest stop on 95. And it was weird, in the usual ‘it’s weird being trans’ kind of way,” says Ellicott, who marked six months with his cisgender gay boyfriend last Thanksgiving. “I asked where the bathroom was, and they pointed me in the wrong direction,” to the ladies room, he says. “Yeah. I had to literally look at [my boyfriend] and be like, ‘Can you and I walk to the bathroom together? Maybe that’ll help?’ “ Ellicott is no stranger to bathroom transphobia. In 2014, he made headlines for suing New York City after he was humiliated and refused re-entry to a men’s public pool locker room. The suit, filed by the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, cited the 2002 NYC human rights law barring discrimination based on genderidentity and expression. The city settled in 2015 for $10,000, but admitted no fault or liability.
As a board member of the Stonewall Democrats of NYC, among other causes, Ellicott has formed strong opinions about how allies can help trans men, centering on three points: Stop focusing on the penis: “Why the fuck does it matter? Is it going to make you respect me more if I have it? Probably not. There’s a guy I read about who’s had 33 surgeries to complete his phalloplasty,” the surgery to create or repair a penis, which studies show are rife with complications for trans men. “I don’t have a penis because, 1: I don’t have half a million dollars, 2: I don’t have a year of my life to lay on the couch and hope to God it works, and 3: if it doesn’t work, what’s my life going to be like?” Get better educated about their lives: “I don’t think people understand that, yes, we’re all trans people, but as people who are assigned male at birth and assigned female at birth, we all have very different journeys and our end-games aren’t the same, either. And our medical needs aren’t the same, and our resources are not the same.”
Invite us in: “Trans men don’t get the visibility that trans women enjoy. Like, where are we? If you [go to] an open trans group, or some sort of trans anything, you’re outnumbered considerably if you’re a trans man.” Ellicott, Thomas, Nealy, Milan and Ferraiolo each experience being trans differently from one another. But every one of these men had one common message, stated simply and eloquently by the youngest among them. “Trans men are marginalized,” Thomas pleads. “Listen to them.”