EQUAL GROUND interviews Ryan Sallans

EQUAL GROUND interviews Ryan Sallans – a transgender man, International Speaker, Activist, Publisher and Author of the book, Second Son!




-When did you first realize you were transgender?

In December of 2004, my girlfriend and I were combing through the bookshelves at Calamus Bookstore in Boston, MA. I was 25 years old at the time. While in the bookstore I purposefully bypassed the gay and lesbian sections, and moved into the transgender/transsexual aisle. It was there that I found the book, Body Alchemy, by Loren Cameron. My hands shook and a smile grew inch-by-inch as I flipped through the pages and looked at the pictures and stories of people who were born assigned female, but had transitioned to male. Unfortunately, my excitement wasn’t shared by my girlfriend, who simply looked over my shoulder, scrunched her nose and asked, “You don’t want to look like them do you?”

By the end of her question, my hands stopped shaking and my smile disappeared. I knew what I wanted, the thing I had just connected with, wasn’t something she would accept. When we returned home I began to research transitioning. I did this mainly through online personal web sites and support groups hosted by Yahoo!. I spent three solid months reading everything I could before I decided to begin my transition.


IMG_5696-Describe how beginning your transgender transition experience affected you physically and mentally.

 When I first came out as transgender I felt terrified and alone, but also elated and relieved. Information and support around being transgender was limited at that time, and my parents and partner were less than accepting of my decision to transition, but I finally understood who I was as a person. Knowing that I couldn’t share this excitement with my family or partner, I had to keep a lot of my feelings to myself and turn inward for any shred of support. Something that helped me process how my family and partner were reacting at this time was to remind myself that I needed to give them time to understand what being transgender is and what a transition will mean, not only for me, but for them.
-Was your home environment a supportive one given your situation?

As I mentioned in the last question, when I began my transition, my family and partner also began a transition, so it was hard for my home environment to be supportive right away. My parents had to wrap their heads around what it meant to have a son instead of daughter. They also had to process how it would feel for them to use a name and pronoun that wasn’t what they had given me. My partner had to wrap her head around what it would mean for her to be in a relationship with a man. As a lesbian, she also had to ask, how will my partner’s identity affect what other people think about me? How will my identity be seen? Will my community (the LGBTQ) still accept me?

When I put myself in their shoes, I had more understanding of their own processes. I knew that it would require time. It took me 25 years to realize I was transgender, so I shouldn’t have expected my family and partner to be 100% on board right after I came out. Of course, this awareness didn’t mean that it I felt okay with the way I was being treated, it still hurt. Fortunately, I was in therapy at this time, so talking with my therapist, helped shore me up when I was feeling defeated.

-Were there any instances of bullying that stand out in your memory?

When I was a kid, we always referred to it as teasing instead of bullying. I, unfortunately, was a prime target for jokes, rumors and harassment in my school and also at home. At school, kids teased me because of my appearance, and even kids from other schools would make comments about my body, clothing, or hairstyles. I remember, even when playing a basketball game, guys from the other team would shout things out about how I looked. One day, while sitting in math class, two of the popular guys sitting next to me said, “I wonder who could win in a fight between Kim (my old name) and Mike Tyson. . . Probably, Kim.”

While  walking down a street, or through the hallways of my school, I can’t even count the number of times little kids would yell at me, “Are you a boy or a girl?” or “Do you wear boy’s underwear?” I was already very insecure in my body, so the way kids would tease me just made me feel even more alien in my skin.

Unfortunately, the teasing didn’t end at school. I was also lectured at home about my appearance. My parents were not happy with how I dressed; they hated how I did my hair, and were frustrated by how I didn’t have any interests in make-up. When I was in high school, lectures from my parents about how I should look escalated. My mom even went so far as to take me into town to have a consult and demonstration with a Mary Kay make-up saleswoman. The day of my college graduation, I stepped out into our family room in a button-up shirt, linen pants that were slightly baggy and sport sandals, and right when my dad saw me he said, “That’s what you are wearing? You look like a slob.” No, congratulations or statement of being proud of me for not only graduating with two majors, but also with honors.

The insecurities I developed growing up, still follow me to this day.

IMG_5801-What are some of the legal and social challenges (like career-related discrimination for example) you have faced on coming out? 

Employment, restroom and locker room access, visiting a medical or mental health facility and meeting new people all can cause anxiety for transgender people. I have experienced discrimination in the past when applying and interviewing for jobs, where discovery of my transgender identity, ultimately led to me not receiving the position. One place went so far as to change the job description so that I would no longer qualify as a candidate. I considered taking legal action, but decided in the end it would not be worth my time or money, for two reasons: I live in a state where gender identity isn’t seen as a protected class, and it wasn’t an environment I would want to place myself in as an employee, even if I would have been officially offered the position.

Another legal challenge that I had to undergo was related to health insurance coverage and medical procedures. In August of 2006, I underwent a total hysterectomy. This procedure had been pre-certified by my health insurance company, after it was completed, a peer-review board stated it was medically necessary, but four months after this review, the insurance company sent me and the hospital a letter stating that “the gender didn’t match the surgery” (my gender on my insurance card had been changed to male when I began working for an organization where I didn’t want everyone to know I was transgender). The insurance company asked for their money to be refunded, and then I was sent the bill. In response, I contacted a friend of mine that was a lawyer with a non-profit organization, and he helped me file an appeal. It took us two-months to compile everything. The day that I went to mail my appeal, it looked like I was sending off a full manuscript instead of just documents. Fortunately, my appeal was approved, but since that experience, I am terrified of going to the doctor and using my health insurance.

-What has changed since the time you first came out that might alter how other trans  people experience life?

 I am still in awe regarding how much has changed over the past ten years for the transgender community. The way the online world has exploded, the way politics is evolving, and how much mass media is focusing on transgender identities today is astounding. This isn’t to say we don’t have a lot of work to do, but ten years ago, at least where I lived, trans identities remained silent and untouched. To give you a few examples of how things have changed, currently there are nine states, plus the District of Columbia that ban discrimination by insurance companies around excluding transition-related care. In 2014, it was ruled that Medicare will cover transition-related care for transgender people, no longer seeing the medical needs as experimental, cosmetic or unnecessary procedures. More and more colleges and universities are moving toward changing their policies and procedures to be trans-inclusive, including women-only institutions. And the United States Justice Department has announced that transgender identities fall underneath the category of sex discrimination, giving transgender employees more workplace protections than what they have had in the past. Again, with these advancements and changes, it doesn’t mean that everything is wonderful and covered for transgender people, but barriers that seemed impossible to break down ten years ago, are and will, continue to change.

-What are some misconceptions of being a FTM transgender person would you like to clear?

 I would say the biggest misconceptions people have about transgender people overall is that we are freaks, confused, sexual predators, or have a mental illness. The other misconception that just makes me want to scream is that transgender people are a threat to other people in public restrooms or locker rooms. These viewpoints are ridiculous and extremely offensive. To everyone out there, trans folk use restrooms for the same reasons everyone else does, there is nothing else going on. So please, let us move past this idea that a trans person is just going to start flashing their genitalia or look under stalls to see other people, it is offensive, and is causing further unneeded distress and anxiety for the community.

I would say the biggest misconceptions people have about transgender people overall is that we are freaks, confused, sexual predators, or have a mental illness. The other misconception that just makes me want to scream is that transgender people are a threat to other people in public restrooms or locker rooms. These viewpoints are ridiculous and extremely offensive. To everyone out there, trans folk use restrooms for the same reasons everyone else does, there is nothing else going on. So please, let us move past this idea that a trans person is just going to start flashing their genitalia or look under stalls to see other people, it is offensive, and is causing further unneeded distress and anxiety for the community.

-Where do you think the world is right now when it comes to the acceptance of transgender people when it comes to jobs, the way they are portrayed in the media, etc. and what do you think can be done to make people understand it better?

Every place in the world is different regarding acceptance and inclusion of transgender people within their culture. In October of 2014, I had the great fortune of being sponsored by the United States Embassy to visit Mexico City and speak at the International Lesbian and Gay World Association (ILGA) Conference. I met transgender people from around the world there, and I was both inspired and empathetic from the stories I heard around how they were treated in their countries.

In looking at the United States, I feel the increase in: visibility through mass media, professional associations recognizing the need for competent and accepting care, providers interested in transgender medicine, federal and state policies that are inclusive of transgender people, all put us in a place where we are not the best, but we are definitely not the worst. For example, we are seeing more parents coming out and supporting their transgender or gender creative children. And we are seeing a push for schools and curriculums to move away from gender binaries, i.e., segregating classrooms and activities into boys and girls, and also looking at ways to provide a safe-learning environment for transgender students.

Yet, while we have made great strides, the trauma and distress that we see statistically regarding the transgender community is disheartening. In 2010, The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) along with the National LGBTQ Task Force conducted a national online survey of transgender people across the nation. There were almost 6,500 respondents, and what they found regarding employment, mental and physical health, family acceptance, treatment by law enforcement, violence, discrimination in public spaces, and the risk of suicide was disheartening.

While more and more people are becoming aware of transgender issues, people in power who are completely ignorant on the topic are pushing back and trying to further control and marginalize transgender people, either through ridiculous bills that may be voted into law, or policies within institutions that are used to isolate transgender people from others.

To improve our country and the awareness around transgender identities, we need to continue to share our stories, push back and fight policies that will only cause further harm, and allow time for people who are not wanting to harm us, but just don’t quite get it, to find that place where they finally understand.

-What made you want to become a motivational speaker?

 I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where I received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Anthropology, Master of Arts in English, and a Master of Arts in Educational Psychology. So, even prior to my transition, I was a professional speaker and sexuality educator. After I began my transition, I found that when I shared my own transition story, the audience was more empathetic and open to learning about transgender identities. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a motivational speaker, but I do find that some people find motivation from the presentations that I deliver. I’ve been a public speaker since 1999, and feel very fortunate for the places that I have traveled, the people I have met, and the stories that have been shared with me along the way.

bookpose6 -You are also now an author. What was your motivation in choosing to write your critically acclaimed book “Second Son”?

 Having a Masters’ degree in creative writing, I decided to write a book, to show not only a transgender narrative, but to share a story from someone in the Midwest. Oftentimes folks in the Midwest are ignored, or seen as not being as important because we don’t live in the big cities. I wanted people to know that trans people exist everywhere, and the issues that impact folks on the coast, also impact us in the middle. Another reason I wanted to publish a book is that transgender men are often invisible when it comes to coverage, so I hoped that my story would help increase interests in the lives of transgender men, as well as be a supportive text for people with a trans identity.


-You are a renowned motivational speaker and author. What would your advice be to other FTM transgender persons out there who feel there is no hope when it comes to relationships, intimacy, careers, bullying and other discrimination and having confidence?

 My advice for anyone, whether they are a trans man or of a different identity is first, to not give up hope. This can be difficult, I know because I still struggle, but sometimes we push and push to try to find acceptance from people that cannot give it, when what we should really be doing is finding a home and place within ourselves; in order to understand more of where we should be looking and what type of people we should be letting into our lives. Transitioning can also be very overwhelming. I remember how I felt when I first began my transition process and when I speak with people who are newly beginning their own journey I can see the bewilderment in their eyes, which can quickly move to discouragement.

I try to reassure people that their transition will happen, it just will not happen all at once. I then try to help people think about both short- and long-term goals. I ask, what is something you feel you could focus on right now that could help you feel like you are moving forward? Then, what would be your goal by this time next year? How do you see yourself in 20 years? After hearing people’s answers I restate the importance of giving themselves time, and to appreciate the process that they are in at the moment, for example, if someone is just starting on hormones, I suggest that they revel in it, journal about it, take photos for their own personal library and hold onto the joy they may feel. As you move further into a transition, life moves further away from your trans identity, which can sometimes be frightening because you’ve spent so much time focusing on the transition that you may lose other parts of your identity. The second book I am writing is focusing on this place, and the journey that I am now creating that goes beyond being trans.

-Last but not least, what in your opinion makes a “man”?

This is a difficult question to answer because gender is a part of our identity, but it is not all of our identity. For someone to be described as a “man” or a “woman” we are not describing the whole person. So, when I hear what makes a “man,” I’m left with a question mark because it should really be, what makes an authentic person? I think this is a question that we can all explore. For me, what makes an authentic person is someone who is open to exploring the complexity around who they are, how they feel, and what is right for them in terms of expression. Then taking that understanding and finding pride in the fact that you don’t have to conform to a stereotype, a box or a role, we are all unique and there can never be one definition that summarizes who we are as individuals.