County of Residence: Allegheny County, formerly Luzerne County and Monongalia County, WV as well as Anne Arundel County, MD
How do you describe your identity? I’m a queer, autistic transgender man; a bodybuilder and lifelong athlete; a trained neuroscientist/linguist; a musician, dancer, and drag performer who has had the privilege of performing all across the country; a writer; a certified personal trainer and former EMT. I’m living with chronic pain at the moment, and this has drastically altered my life in ways that aren’t so pleasant. I’m an expert at rhinestoning things (I recreated Starry Night in rhinestones alone, without stencils. I just needed a cell phone picture). I’ve lived with debilitating anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, survived absurd levels of bullying, and am not ashamed to admit that I have been hospitalized for psychiatric issues more than a handful of times. I’ve been homeless. I love dogs, probably more than most people. My identity has evolved such that the things I used to fear–femininity, pink, etc.–are aspects of myself that I can finally embrace. No longer having to suppress those aspects in order for my masculinity to shine through is a freeing experience and crucial to my identity as it continues to evolve.
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I first came out as something other than straight in 2008, while a junior at Pitt. I had fallen in love with a girl who could see into my soul, and it became harder and harder to deny my reality. While I would rescind my coming out for a short time in response to rejection from my family, I’m pretty sure shotgunning a beer in the middle of Forbes Avenue during a Super Bowl riot, leading a bunch of others in throwing their bras into a small fire, and prancing through the streets together solidified my queerness.
Coming out as trans was a bit more involved. I floated through a summer of genderqueer after recognizing the freedom of performing in drag. Recognizing that it wasn’t really pretend. Piece by piece, my identity began to take shape. I will never forget the day I got my first binder. I had never seen my shirt fit that way, and I couldn’t stop staring at my reflection. I’ll always remember the shirt I was wearing, where I was standing in the room, and where she stood beside me. That fall, attended an event at which Scott Turner Schofield performed pieces from “Two Truths and a Lie”, and I sat there and listened to another person describe my life. My childhood. My experiences. That event opened the floodgates. I watched video after video on YouTube. I made my own videos. I read every book on gender I could find on campus, and I ordered a few more. I wrote novels about my internal struggle. I cried myself to sleep.
Coming out as trans was the most liberating experience of my life. While I faced abundant support from those around me, I did not receive the same support from my family. I remember the threats on my life, the onslaught of verbal abuse, the attempts to squash that part of me. I shut them out of my life for a long time to preserve my own health. I couldn’t handle being screamed at on the phone for hours at a time, the threatening emails, being cornered. It was the hardest decision I had to make until that point, when my mother had been my best friend my whole life, to shut her out, especially during my final year of college. At this time, I was living in a place without heat/hot water that was infested with bugs, eating once every other day except when I could get a younger student to use meal passes for me. I was struggling with drumline practice and remembering things. Then the slurs started. The harassment. Being called “it”. Being refused a place to stay by people I had called brothers and sisters after explaining that it was getting too cold to shower without heat. When I had overheard the instructors engaging in that behavior with the students, I walked out and never returned. I’ve since made amends with many of these people, but my memories will always be tainted by those experiences during that final year. It took time, but my mother finally started using my name 7 years after I came out. I found my greatest sources of support in the early days of transition within the Pittsburgh drag community. An explosion of trans individuals arrived on the scene around the same time. I went from feeling like the only one to being surrounded by brothers and sisters. I had found my home after searching what seemed like all my life.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? Day to day, I rarely think about “being out” in the typical sense. I simply focus on “being”. This isn’t to say that I don’t consider my identity important, but that I cannot envision a life in which I am not out. I could not exist as a full person without being out, without acknowledging and celebrating these parts of me.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? While I had known LGBTQ individuals in high school, my perception of the community was such that this had very little impact on me, other than being something “strange” about a few of my classmates. At the time, I believed that the world contained only a few hundred thousand queer people at most.
The first openly LGBTQ person with whom I had a genuine interaction and relationship was Nicole, whom I met my very first day in Pittsburgh upon arriving for summer orientation prior to the fall semester. She became my best friend, and I found it fascinating that she had no issue with my appearance or behavior, as it had always been a barrier in developing relationships. She would go on to convince me to attend my first Rainbow Alliance meeting at Pitt, and to visit the organization’s office hours with her. At first, the experience was terrifying and foreign. I had no idea how to interact and probably held on to some fears or misconceptions about being around gay people, which had been instilled in me growing up in a conservative Christian household. The Rainbow Alliance allowed me to be myself in a way I never could, and it felt so effortless to be a part of the group. That was something I had never experienced. I came out during my Junior year, ran for an officer position, went on to produce the annual drag show, met my first girlfriend, and attended the event that allowed me to start examining my gender identity–all because a queer person invited me to a meeting. I owe my coming out to NiK.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. I’ve been struggling to answer this question for 10 minutes. I suppose that I’ve never considered a person’s queer identity when looking at television or film. In the literary realm, I’d have to say Leslie Feinberg. Stone Butch Blues was pivotal in my first coming out experience.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? As the co-founder of TransPride Pittsburgh and an until-recently visible member of the community, it hasn’t been difficult to stay abreast of current events. Mostly, I listen to those around me without feeling the need to offer an unsolicited opinion. I let myself be an ally by acknowledging my privilege and allowing the focus to be placed on those in need. Staying informed to me isn’t just reading the news. It involves engagement with voices that are typically silenced, even within our own community.
Describe your geographical community. Compared to the region in which I grew up, the Pittsburgh community is far more welcoming. I applaud the current administration and mayor for attempting to address queer issues in our city, but I believe that this is only a small portion of what is required. Individual members of the queer community must learn to realize that acceptance of others does not hinge on their relative similarity to you. That is, you should not feel the need to claim that “we are all the same” in order to love and accept those around you. I think we have quite a ways to go in terms of the region’s understanding of intersectionality. A community that is not friendly to POC, trans individuals, disabled individuals, and other marginalized groups is not truly friendly at all. I am proud of the work of community-led organizations–most of which goes unnoticed by the masses. I hope to one day again be as active in this community as I was before my injury because I believe in creating the change you wish to see.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. I’ve watched the Pittsburgh LGBTQ community transform over the last 11 years. While these changes had been largely positive for me until the last few years, I worry that I may have been too ignorant prior to that to understand just how pervasive the problems have always been. I feel that attempts to encourage non-cis,non-white individuals to engage with the community are met with resistance in alarmingly racist, transphobic ways. A community that once felt largely welcoming has begun to feel oppressive and sterile. The drag scene itself has shifted from a collective family to a cut-throat competition in which we seem to have lost the ability to support one another. Now that I am unable to perform as I battle chronic pain and search for an answer, I feel largely ignored by people I considered close friends. Learning who is truly family has been a depressing experience to say the least.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. Of the thousands (yes, thousands) of jobs in my field to which I have applied, I have received only a handful of job offers, so I assume that my willingness to put my work with the trans community on my resume has had an impact on my ability to find employment. I have also been denied housing very far along into the process, usually after submitting personal documents. In public, the discrimination ranges from subtle to rather overt. Most of us can’t spend a day on the internet without reading “you’re not a real man unless you have a dick”, usually from members of our own community.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) I have found that competent health care has been largely difficult to access as a transgender man who has been on testosterone for quite some time. I am repeatedly misgendered at UPMC hospitals due to my birth name. While this is an inconvenience, I have also had to educate ER doctors regarding trans health issues, asking for specific blood tests and imaging to rule out certain diagnoses on my own. Overall, the UPMC system receives a failing grade from me. There are some notable exceptions. Dr. Ramgopal of Magee Hospital is quite fantastic.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? People tend to forget that LGBTQ neighbors include those overseas. This week, a gay teenager from Malaysia was beaten to brain death. Every day, trans women in South America are attacked. Many disappear. In our struggle for equality within our borders, it is easy to forget the privileges we do have. It is easy to forget that there are parts of the world where most of us would not be alive. I believe we need to work harder to address these issues and examine how our own prejudices contribute to such actions around the world, especially given the current administration and its unwillingness to acknowledge queer people within our own country.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Expanding PA Medicaid to include gender-affirming treatment would greatly benefit many low-income individuals in the transgender community. However, the simple acts of engaging with marginalized communities, attending workshops and trainings, and learning about life within these communities are often overlooked when discussing what changes we wish to see implemented. These acts are the first steps in creating truly inclusive policies and allow lawmakers to legislate from a place of knowledge and empathy.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. Three things to keep in mind when interacting with trans individuals:
1. They are under no obligation to be your Google for trans issues.
2. No matter how pissed off you are, it is NEVER okay to resort to misgendering someone in an attempt to express your anger. This is an act of violence with no equivalent
3. If you would not want someone to ask your grandmother something upon meeting her, don’t ask a trans person. (Don’t ask to see someone’s genitals, don’t ask how they have sex, and don’t feel that prefacing your comments with “I don’t mean to be offensive, but…” actually makes them less offensive.
I would like to add that comments such as the following are transphobic and should be avoided: “You’re so hot for a trans person. I never would have known!” (My response: So I’m supposed to be ugly?)
Nevertheless, many of us are willing to talk about our experiences and educate. Just not all the time, every time we go out. Sometimes I just want to have a damn beer without conducting Trans 101!
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? The general lack of knowledge or discussion regarding LGBTQ health disparities directly contributes to poor health oucomes. While this may seem silly to some, RuPaul’s Drag Race has inadvertently caused a shift in the way our community comes together, celebrates art, and responds to criticism from others. I don’t think we have quite adapted to this shift.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? SisTers Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Aids Task Force
Lyndsey Sickler alone, but also Persad
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? My greatest fear is that attempts to have a conversation regarding marginalized communities will result in a push back from those who feel that these conversations detract from rather than enhance our unity. That the community will continue to pretend that the most pressing issues simply do not exist, and that those in power will use their privilege to ensure that dissenters are treated as “a fringe group” rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? My greatest hope is that the community becomes a symbol of resistance, of evolution. That we can work to support the various factions of our community both in feeling more welcome as a whole and forging/celebrating their own identities.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Listen, without feeling the need to divert the focus back to you. Engage in emotional labor when the rest of us have run out of spoons. Call out sexism, transphobia, racism, homophobia, and general bullsht when you hear it. Don’t be complicit by remaining silent when it matters.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Listen when members of these communities attempt to educate, practice being inclusive, Google shit for God’s sake.
What motivated you to take part in this project? A desire to share experiences and connect with others in my community. I hope to have shared information others may not have known about me, and I look forward to reading each and every story.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. What does your ideal Pride celebration look like?
Thank you, Dylan.
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AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices.
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