This story is a part of Selves, a newsletter about gender and identity by PublicSource.
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At 5:33 p.m. on October 17, I felt a headache coming on. I had worked a full Monday, my ride was stuck at work and it could be hours until I could get a ride out of Downtown. I decided to make a rare exception to frugality and allow myself to use a ride-sharing app to get home before the headache worsened. When I got into the car outside of the City-County Building, the driver confirmed my name after some brief confusion and we headed off toward Brookline.
I didn’t imagine that my ride home would include a journey back in time to some of the most frightening and formative moments of my youth as a transgender man.
Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, in the 1990s and early 2000s, I didn’t see many examples of transmen in my community. I was lucky, however, to live where one of the first Gay-Straight Alliances [GSA] was born and adults tended to make efforts to understand things with which they were unfamiliar.
Our GSA had an annual program called Transgender Bisexual Gay Lesbian Awareness Day [TBGLAD], which included discussions of issues across the LGBTQIA+ community. It was in one of these programs that I first knowingly saw another transgender man — we’ll call him Jerry. Getting to see Jerry who, like me, did not develop in a way that reflected his inner identity was transformational. It allowed me to understand what was possible for me. Not that I was sold on having his same body or voice or hair, but in seeing Jerry I realized that it was possible to become more myself.
Two years after first seeing Jerry, I started to seek out physical transition. Meeting Jerry allowed me to seek out more examples and discover that transmen exist in many physical forms, depending on what is right for the individual. Seeing the diversity of the trans experience gave me the confidence to seek out my own path.
My transition was on my own time and I worked with my parents to decide what was right for me at 16 versus 18 versus 25. Throughout that time, I was able to learn and grow in other ways. I completed my undergraduate degree and started to wonder about life in other parts of the country. When I was 26, I set out for Pittsburgh, hoping to get to know and serve a new community through social work and public service.
Back to that autumn evening commute. At first, the only unsettling thing about the ride was the fact that the driver had paused at my name. Did he recognize me from my work at the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, and as a Black and publicly trans man? If so, what sentiments did that stir?
As we headed down Ross Street and turned toward the Liberty Bridge, the radio played a familiar early 2000s Mariah Carey tune, which made me nostalgic.
Then an advertisement began to play. A familiar-sounding voice began to talk about “boys taking estrogen” and “girls growing facial hair.” I immediately went on alert. It was the same type of rhetoric that had followed me in my early transition.
At that moment, the driver missed the turn to take us to the bridge and went straight into Duquesne University’s campus. An innocuous mistake? I began to feel concerned, wondering where I was going, what I was listening to, and why.
The campaign-season ad went on, telling listeners that “they” want to make it easier for teens to have breasts or genitals removed. It continued, claiming that boys would be allowed into our daughter’s bathrooms.
As the driver continued off course, a familiar, but long-suppressed fear began to surge in me.
Newton, where I lived from ages 9 through 18, has long been listed among the safest cities in the country. Safety, though, is always relative.
Starting my transition in high school was not without challenges. Many of the words the advertisement used to attack trans people were used against me as a teenager. When I first began my transition, I was assured that having facial hair but not a flat chest was gross, and got dirty looks in whatever bathroom I tried to use. Other children felt the need to ask about the configuration of my private parts. These slights were embarrassing, but my most fearful moment came late in high school.
I had taken a walk into Newton Centre and lay in the grass. Three other young people talked in the distance. As I listened more closely, I heard one of them mention the “queer kid.” I immediately became tense, wondering if I should run or play dead. Finally, the group approached and stood over me. They asked me if I was “that kid,” and I said yes. After a pause, they advised me that I better “get out of here,” and I did. I walked the mile home constantly wondering if I was alone or safe.
Sitting in the stranger’s car, listening to the advertisement shaming trans youth and their parents for supporting them, I was gripped with the same fear: Am I safe? As the driver made a few more turns, I thought about the fact that this stranger, whose sentiments I could only guess at, would know where I live.
As we finally got to the Liberty Bridge, I started to release myself from fear. The radio played on, bringing a bewildering mix of oldies, but no new horror.
I came to Pittsburgh to get to know new people and new cultures. That part was a success! Pittsburgh is unlike any other place in the country in terms of history, community and social dynamics. As a student of social work and public administration, there is no place I would rather have ended up.
After I completed my degree programs, I was lucky to get a job that took on one of Pittsburgh’s biggest problems. Daily, I examine complaints of discrimination in our city and try to find ways to prevent it through public education or policy advocacy. The work inspired me to make sure that my identity was known.
It is, perhaps, easy to know that I am Black and male, but I wanted the city to know that I am a trans person.
Recently, Mayor Ed Gainey asked me what I was proudest of doing and I replied that every day is a victory when you are a Black trans person. Because I was able to survive high school, to pursue my education, to have a job that I find meaningful, I want other Black, trans people to know that I made it and they can, too. I want to be, for others, what Jerry was for me. While that choice makes me vulnerable, it makes every action I take more meaningful.
Finally, I arrived home safely. I began to realize that my driver had probably not thought for two seconds about who I am or about the ad on the radio.
But that ad — which turned out to be the work of a group called America First Legal — was meant to cause fear, and I fell into its trap. On one level, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.
Yet I realized that even if I never heard that ad again, its damage wouldn’t be contained to one cab ride. What if someone who had not yet met their “Jerry” hears it? What if, for them, that bracing interlude between pop songs was like my moment in the Newton grass? What if, for that person, the ad was a resounding “get out of here?”
In the next few weeks, it became clear that the ad had reached the ears of many of Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable LGBTQ people. My colleagues at the LGBTQIA+ Commission worked tirelessly to address the issues with the radio stations and support the children and families affected by the ad.
My contribution to the work is, in a way, less hands-on, but still driven by the same feeling. When a person experiences discrimination, whether through a radio ad or in the supposed comfort of the home or workplace, the feeling of safety they have is stripped away and fear can take over. As I work through cases and work with complainants, it is more important than ever to me that they understand they are heard and safe in my office and throughout Pittsburgh.
Jam Hammond is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations and can be reached at email@example.com or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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