Interviewed by Greyson Jett
TSMM: What was your biggest fear, initially, when transitioning first crossed your mind?
Ryan Sallans: When transitioning FIRST crossed my mind, I was twenty-five years old, and at that moment all I felt was relief, affirmation and hope. I became focused at that time and gathered all the information possible on what I needed to do to transition. After two months of research my fantasy became a reality, which is when the questions and fears finally started to settle in. The first fear to cross my mind was losing my romantic relationship with my girlfriend. The second fear was being completely disowned by my family, which would leave me completely alone in this world. Then money started to enter my mind and I had to just tell my thoughts and fears to stop. I took a breath, and decided to take each day at a time. My relationship did end five and a half years after my transition, but we are still friends. My family has not disowned me. And money is money, you never have enough but you figure out ways to make it work.
TSMM: Once you decided to move forth with your transition, did you have any lingering doubts or inhibitions? How long did it take you to feel 100% confident in your decision to transition?
RS: I am a type-A personality, which means I don’t linger, I go and do. I discovered I was transgender in December of 2004 and began my transition in May of 2005. The first step I completed was my chest surgery, which although right before surgery I was nervous, I never had any doubts about having that surgery completed. The next month I started on testosterone. I was excited to begin, but a few days before my first shot I started asking myself if I was making the right decision. I realized that with hormones, my body and my face would change, and people would SEE these changes. Changes I couldn’t hide under baggy clothing or an excuse. When these doubts started to invade my mind, I freaked out and began to question if I was ready for hormones. Fortunately, I was part of an online support group and so I asked the other guys on the group if they felt the same way before starting T and ALL of them said, “Yes.” I decided to move forward with the first shot, and after a day of being on T, there was no turning back. I finally felt alive.
TSMM: When would you say you began to finally feel comfortable in your body?
RS: I don’t believe that I will ever feel FULLY comfortable in my body. I am currently going into my eighth year of being behavior free from an eating disorder; however the thoughts that can take me to dark places are still there. When I do talks on eating disorders I argue that this illness shouldn’t be termed an “eating disorder” but rather a “feeling disorder” because most of the time people that struggle are conducting behaviors to deal with or avoid their actual feelings. For me, those feelings I don’t understand are held in my body, which I then begin to think negatively about. No amount of hormones or surgeries will change what we carry on the inside and how we react to those internal beliefs.
TSMM: Do you still envy physical aspects of cisgender men?
RS: The one thing I envy most in the typical cisgender man (because not all can do this) is the ability to pass on their genetics through sperm. Now, in a way, I am happy that having biological kids can’t happen for me due to my travel schedule and my work demand, but there is something about having that particular biological option that I envy.
TSMM: It is a pretty common fear in the transgender community that starting hormones may result in a change in personality. Do you feel like this fear has any validity? Do you feel like your core identity changed at all with your transition?
RS: I personally do not believe that a person’s personality changes, at least to the degree that you don’t even recognize the person anymore. They may be happier and more attentive after a transition, or there may be a few things that are slightly different, but those are slight changes. Internally, you are who you are. When we speak about identity, like gender identity, we are referring to our psychological sense of self, which also does not change. A body changes, but who you are on the inside stays the same.
TSMM: Do you think living in a small town in Nebraska made your transition more difficult? Why or why not?
RS: I think it may be more difficult for people in more rural areas to transition simply because there is less access to resources, such as therapist, doctors, and support groups. You also may be more likely growing up in families that haven’t been exposed to these types of concepts so it may be more difficult for them to accept your truths, or find support systems to help them in their own grieving cycle.
TSMM: What would you say has been your biggest struggle in this journey so far?
RS: My journey, like any person’s has many stories, experiences and challenges. My biggest struggle is more about my emotions and the hardwiring of my brain. Although my depression has never fully stopped me I still struggle with the darkness. In the past I took on self-harming behaviors because the darkness was just too much, now I am learning to sit in it and ask myself what it is I am fearing. Sometimes this works better than others, but I don’t believe we can be a full human being without feeling ALL of the emotions and recognizing them as part of a way for our bodies to bring us balance when one emotion is getting stronger than the others.
TSMM: Do you still face struggles related to your being transgender?
RS: The biggest struggle I have is health care. This includes finding providers that are first trans-friendly and second know what they are doing. It also includes financing the visits and the hormones. It seems that some of the more affordable places for testosterone are either raising their rates or switching away from compounded testosterone which makes it, financially, harder to access.
TSMM: You have said that your brother was your biggest support system during your transition. Do you feel like that relationship has changed any now that you are fully through your transition? If so, how?
RS: I think that relationships constantly go through changes, growing pains, times when you feel more a part, and other times when you feel more connected. Some relationships can’t handle these cycles and end, others, like my brother’s and mine, continue on. We love each other very much and are there for each other no matter what.
TSMM: Are there any people in your life who still struggle with your transition?
RS: No one who is in my life still struggles with my transition, but it has been almost eight years now. Those that do struggle are not part of my current life.
TSMM: Your book Second Son covers not only transgender issues, but also issues related to body image, alcohol abuse, and general relationship struggles. Basically, you have made your life an open book to the public. Are there any aspects of your life that you were initially reluctant to share? If so, what motivated you to share those stories?
RS: All humans are flawed, but when someone is put into a more public figure spotlight, I think it is difficult to share those things about you that make you human. I think if one has made a career from their name, there is a fear that if they show their weaknesses they’ll no longer have an impact or move forward in their career. Sometimes I blush when I think about aspects that I have shared through my book, such as masturbation, suicide attempts, or bad coping skills, but I feel that all of us can find a little more peace if we know that people we look up to have been in the same place as we have, or even darker.
TSMM: It is clear that you have an intense passion for sharing your story. But now that you are pretty much through with your physical transition and present strictly as male, do you identify any less with the LGBT community?
RS: Although I don’t walk around the mall or the grocery store saying, “Hi, I am Ryan…a queer transgender man,” those are two of many identities that are held within me. My work as an educator began six years before I started sharing my own transition story. I feel that sharing my story has been propelled more by my education and my passion to teach over the fact that I have transitioned. We must also remember that there is a physical transition as well as an internal transition, and that both will continue to impact us until the day we die. Our physical bodies are continually transitioning with age, and our internal selves are continually learning, forming attachments, and exploring.
TSMM: Many transgender individuals feel like they have to abandon their trans identity in order to establish the identity of their chosen gender. Do you ever feel as if embracing your trans identity inhibits your from fully establishing a male identity?
RS: This is a tricky question because identities are not black-and-white or concrete. For instance, what a “male” identity looks and feels like to one person will most likely look and feel very different to another. There is also the added layer of what the physical identity looks like compared to the internal. For me, I couldn’t have my male identity without my transgender one.
TSMM: You are a huge inspiration to many people, specifically those in the transgender community. Is there anyone in particular in the trans community that has had a large impact on you personally?
RS: I am impacted everyday by the transgender stories that I’ve come into contact with or read about. When I first started transitioning I was influenced by Loren Cameron’s book, The Body Alchemy. I was also impacted by the guys that put up their homemade websites that detailed their transitions, those sites looked very different from what they do today and have been taken down by now, but back in 2005 they were my savior.
TSMM: What is the biggest piece of advice you can offer someone who is struggling with their gender identity?
TS: Growth cannot come unless we go through our struggles and acknowledge our fears. The question you have to ask yourself is where am I struggling most and what do I fear the most? After you identify these areas then ask yourself what would happen if you faced those struggles and fear? Also, what would happen if you let go of all other people’s expectations and opinions and were just you?
TSMM: What is one common misconception about transgender people that you think others should know the truth about?
RS: Currently outside the community I think there is a tendency to lump everyone into the same category, with the same wants and desires, which is not how this identity works or what it looks like.
TSMM: Your book Second Son was hugely important, informative, and inspirational. Do you think you will write any more books in the future?RS: Besides speaking, the other love in my life is writing. Lately, my writing energy has been focused on healthcare modules for clinicians, but I do plan to go back to writing within my own scope again. Although nonfiction was never a genre I envisioned taking on, I feel there will be another book on eating disorders and one on finding self. From that I plan to move back into fiction where I can take myself outside my world and immerse into wherever my fingers and my keyboard take me.
By Matthew R C
The way in which people interact with me because I'm disabled (I use a wheelchair most of the time) and the way in which people interact with me when they know I'm trans are quite similar. People think that this gives them some sort of a right to my body, a right to information about it, they'll ask personal or invasive questions and not realise why those might not be appropriate. "Do you have a dick yet?" and "so what's wrong? Why are you in a wheelchair?" don't feel that different as questions, both uncomfortably invasive, and yet other disabled people ask me those sorts of questions about my transition, when I'm out, and other trans people ask me those sorts of questions about my disability when they know about it. I've had to work hard to reclaim the right to privacy about my body. Asking someone whether you can help them (and taking no for an answer), or asking someone their preferred pronouns, are far more appropriate than personal questions about somebody else's body.
The two sets of issues tend to interact quite a lot - being disabled and being trans - and to quite an extent I view them as two similar things for me - things that I was born with that can have the occasional benefit, but generally suck. My disability is quite invisible - I have two legs, they move, and they can support my weight sometimes, although not always. This leads people to not necessarily understand why I'm using the wheelchair, and either believe that the wheelchair and my transition are related (no, transitioning does not automatically put you in a wheelchair) or that one or the other is for attention, to which there really isn't much I can say!
Being disabled has made parts of transition harder, and being transsexual has made parts of my disability harder to manage. It's harder for me to get to appointments at the Gender Identity Clinic, and this doesn't just go for me as a wheelchair user, but for anyone with a disability that affects energy levels or mobility. It's also harder for me to socialise in trans only spaces. I don't tend to travel far without a friend who can act as my carer if necessary, and most of the people I know that well are cis. It means that I can't always go to trans events, because I wouldn't be able to go without someone to get me home safely, and when I do go it's taking a pretty serious risk. If you organise trans events, think about the presence of cis people as carers, and why you would or wouldn't allow them, because for some of us, needing one is essential. This isn’t to say all these spaces should allow cis carers by any means, I went to an amazing event which didn’t, and was truly lifechanging, but if you’re organising something that doesn’t, think about alternatives that you can offer, and support you can offer to the person in need of a carer.
The interaction between the two has also affected me on an emotional level. Trans people are often, in my experience, perceived as not having a sexuality, and not wanting sex, and disabled people the same, which has made it hard for me to find people to have sex with (and then I have to deal with both "what bits do you have?" and "do they work?". I've also found using a wheelchair makes it harder for me to pass as male, even after eighteen months on testosterone. I think this is tied to the social perception of women being weaker and more vulnerable, and especially if my chair is being pushed by a woman, people misgender me. Accessing personal care has been hard for me, sometimes I've needed help showering this year, and finding someone to help who really understands my body and my relationship with it has been difficult, the best person I've found is a cis guy who has some female secondary sex characteristics (as sometimes happens) and experiences a lot of dysphoria about those - he really understands it.
Despite these negatives, there are a couple of positives aspects of transitioning to male and being a wheelchair user - since I've had top surgery and stopped binding, and even since I started testosterone, it's become a lot easier to self-propel in my manual wheelchair, which is a definite benefit. The treatment I get as a result of being a wheelchair user has also changed – the more I pass as male the more people assume that I’m in a wheelchair as a result of a sports injury, not illness. Male privilege at work!
Because using the wheelchair makes it harder for me to pass as male sometimes, it often increases my dysphoria. The way I look in it means that I look all hips and hourglass, despite when I look at photos of myself, having a pretty male fat distribution now. I just try to focus on that though, and look at those photos more often. I'm lucky inasmuch as I've got a masculine wheelchair, and I want to learn to make back covers for it that emphasise that, bit by bit, but sewing isn't exactly my strong point at the moment! Keeping busy can help with dysphoria, but given my energy levels, a lot of what I can do for that is just lying in bed watching television, which I have to reassure myself, is okay.
I think I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that dysphoria is and always will be a fact of my life. I will never have the body of a cis man, and I will always feel, on a very visceral level, that I should have, so it's more about learning to deal with it, in the same way that I deal with my disabled body. I wish it wasn't disabled. Sometimes the constant pain and lack of energy really depress me, but no amount of being depressed by it will change it, so I take my meds, and get on with it as best possible. I do see the dysphoria as a symptom of my transsexualism, and one that can be treated to quite an extent, but not cured, and that's just how it is. I just need to deal with it, even when it's hard.
I would like to see far more positive representation of trans men with visually different bodies in the community. I've contributed to this lack of representation - I am terrified of photos of me in a wheelchair - I don't want to "look" disabled. I don't want that to be the first thing people know about me, but with this article maybe it will be easier for other disabled trans men to become visible, to talk about our disabilities and our transitions, and how they interrelate. For me, it's a big personal step because I'm publishing a photo of myself, in a wheelchair, and totally unashamed, because in the end, it's probably there for life. Time to get used to it!