I was assigned a seat next to Mayor Betsy Hodges my very first meeting as an appointed member of the city of Minneapolis’s Youth Violence Prevention Executive Committee. I was incredibly nervous. I was not an executive of anything, but a rather vocal youth worker in a low-paid fellowship, sitting next to the mayor of Minneapolis.
She leaned over and asked me how I got involved with the committee. I gulped and through a shaky voice explained that I had been recruited at Minnesota’s Trans Equity Summit a few months earlier. I suddenly felt uneasy because I had just passively outed myself as transgender to the mayor. To my surprise, her eyes brightened and she gave me a soft punch of approval on the shoulder with a big smile.
I outed myself and in response received a warm welcome? I was flabbergasted. For the first time, I felt comfortable to share my full life experience as an openly transgender person. And it was in front of a room full of elected officials and executives.
I have always viewed sustainable social change as requiring three simultaneous “tiers” of work: community mobilization, better cross-cultural relationships, and institutional change through public policy. I view my role in the social progressive movement as an advocate for positive system changes among the decision-makers, but as time went on and I grew into who I am — a black gay trans man — my goals felt too unrealistic.
It certainly did not help that I grew up in a rural town as an extreme minority. A teacher chastised me in front of my class, remarking, “You will never be a politician because you are black and a woman.” So when I finally pieced together my trans and gay identities and began the internal process of self-acceptance, I mourned the presumed loss of my dream career. If I stood no chance as a black woman, there was definitely no chance as a black queer trans person.
I could tell Minneapolis was a different kind of city when City Hall sent policy aides to the Minnesota Trans Equity Summit to recruit transgender folks to sit on boards, commissions, and committees. That was further confirmed when I met Andrea Jenkins, the black trans woman who worked at City Hall for nearly 13 years and organized the summit. She paved the way for my dreams to be possible.
Prior to moving to Minneapolis, I lived in Chicago, where I transitioned as a junior in college. After I graduated, I started my career in a teaching fellowship and taught special education on the South Side.
I had the “passing” privilege to go into teaching stealth (not telling anyone I am transgender), but that did not save me from the hostile, transphobic work environment.
Because there are not many stories out there about black trans men, I was unprepared for the consequences of transitioning into being a black man.
I struggled with accepting my gender identity because I could not cope with the different world that now surrounded me.
I have never performed black masculinity in conventional ways. As an effeminate man who struggled with being shy, I found myself isolated in my workplace. I was mocked and ridiculed. I became the butt of everyone’s jokes.
On top of difficulties in my professional life, I now was experiencing for the first time in my life, at 23, the stark reality of being a black man in America. I started being followed in stores. People were no longer friendly. I repeatedly had to prove my intelligence to be taken seriously. I was confused by everyone’s sudden suspicions of me and was no longer given the benefit of the doubt. Misunderstandings now escalated quickly.
I juggled newfound frustration and fear in a vast majority of my interactions. It was exhausting. While I have always known how much better I feel in my body and life now, for a while I questioned if I had made a mistake in transitioning because of how much harder it made my life.
In order to cope with my new reality, I looked critically at what was making life so much more difficult. I wanted to truly understand what caused these struggles...