…gonna lay down my load and be free…
I have not used my blog in a while since life got…life-y. I turn to the incredible Séan McCann for inspiration today. His story, in short, comes from a successful career as a part of the band Great Big Sea… until his demons caught up to him and he decided to come clean and face his addiction head-on.
I am also inspired to finally write on my experience as a transgender man and survivor of abuse. This is my truth.
(Also a note that I began writing this a few nights prior to my 30th birthday.)
violence, domestic abuse, suicide, mental illness, addiction, and all sorts of whatever I write about.
“They’re singing, “Happy Birthday”, you just wanna lay down and cry. Not just another birthday. It’s 30/90.” – Jonathan Larson
I am on the verge of turning 30. The big 3-0. Three decades. I wish that I had more wisdom to impart at my age, or that I had anything to show for it. Instead, my thirty years have been a cycle of violence, instability, and abuse. I don’t really know a life devoid of that and chaos has always been my default.
On the outside, I am an extremely boring Philly bloke. I love the Flyers, have a stellar relationship with our illustrious public transit system, speak with an “accent” that I truly don’t think I have, the word “jawn” leaves my lips often, I can tell you where to get the best (vegetarian) cheesesteak, and pretty much always say “stay safe!” instead of “good night”. I live with a cat and pretty awesome housemates and smoke entirely too much. I have experienced the world as a musician and have proudly performed for many “firsts”, all while having the privilege to do so authentically.
On the outside, I’m just another man on the train.
Yet the recent “me too” hashtag has put me in a very uncomfortable headspace. There are few stories from men like myself who have experienced abuse and sexual trauma. Men are pressured into not reporting in fear of being deemed all sorts of sexist slurs that I will not repeat here. It’s been a challenge being a man who has had this history, as I almost feel that my experience is not of any importance solely because I am a man and society dismisses that history because of that. Saying “me too” in the face of the horrors of women sharing their most vulnerable moments has felt uncomfortable and almost wrong of me. Or is it?
There are men like myself, who have female socialization and female experience and female histories whose voices can lend a hand into this conversation in a very unique way.
I was born to literally off-the-plane Greek immigrants at the fall of Steel industry in Eastern Pennsylvania. Billy Joel wrote a song about my hometown, but “Bethlehem” didn’t have the same ring to it as “Allentown”. The fine doctors at St Luke’s Hospital declared me “female” at birth, and they couldn’t have been more wrong.
“There’s one life, and there’s no return and no deposit; One life, so it’s time to open up your closet. Life’s not worth a damn ’til you can say,“Hey world, I am what I am!” – La Cage Aux Folles
As someone who has experienced the world on both sides of the gender binary, I’m in a unique position. Nearly two years on testosterone and being perceived as a cisgender man (someone who was assigned male at birth) 100% of the time has also had its nuances… mostly in the form of having other men be comfortable with casual misogyny and sexism in my presence. As I navigate the world as a feminist while learning how to be an American man in 2017 without ever having been a little boy, I’ve wanted to scream and dismantle the patriarchy almost daily. Maybe it’s because I’m just noticing it more from a position of arbitrary societal privilege. I’ve been in several Ubers where male drivers found it acceptable to say really horrible things against women. At first, I stood idly ignorant and silent as these men felt comfortable enough in my presence to be overtly sexist. I recently witnessed a group of men on a train talking shit about their girlfriends and wanting paternity tests before paying child support. The second a female-presenting person entered the car, their tune changed to buying their girlfriends flowers. Women cross the street when they see me, clutch their bags tightly, and often make a phone call while walking faster. Yet, whenever someone sees my current ID, the tune changes to apologizing profusely for calling me “sir”, emphasizing female pronouns. Then the transphobia, ignorantly directed at transwomen, begins. Because most people cannot fathom the existence of a man like me because of pure sexism — why would a “man” lose “his” privilege by wearing a dress and acting like a woman? — because socialization states that being a woman is being “weak”. Well, I am that man that conservatives will place in the women’s bathroom, very much without realizing it.
My life began with an elderly drunk driver nearly taking off my father’s right arm a few weeks after my brother was born. Thus began a cycle of increasing addiction to stronger and stronger painkillers chased with alcohol that he would, poorly, try to hide. At 2 years old, I had made the mistake of doing what 2 year olds do and had gone into the street to get a ball while my young parents were attending to my baby brother. The aftermath was earning a lifetime of emotional and physical violence. He’d often come home angry and beat the shit out of me — so that I could feel what I had done to him. I very much internalized and normalized the abuse. In fact, it took about 3 years of therapy to even get the courage to quietly utter the word abuse to my therapist. During my school years, I became an expert at lying to authorities. If I didn’t lie “well enough” to the child services people whom my teachers would alert occasionally, I’d earn a more severe beating. I became increasingly distrustful of authority for not doing anything about the pain and silent cries for help that I was experiencing.
By the mid-1990s, the Steel went bust and my darling Little Town of Bethlehem didn’t know what to do with itself. I’d see other families struggling after having status. I didn’t understand any of it; how could anyone? This was before accessible and reliable Internet, and way before smartphones. I grew up in a time of immense change in an industrial city centered around the manufacture of the steel that is responsible for some of the world’s most beautiful and iconic bridges and buildings. I couldn’t escape the chaos anywhere I turned. The day the Steel went dark is forever etched in my mind, as I had become accustomed to the smokestacks billowing their smoke into a peaceful sky. As a teenager, I would hide on a fairly inaccessible spot by the Lehigh River, in the shadow of the behemoth blast furnaces of the once-mighty Bethlehem Steel. The decay and smell of the red rusting steel became my escape and is often in the background of my dreams — standing silent and ever-present. Few knew of my little corner of the world, and that’s how I wanted it.
There was definitely no use in fighting the inevitable change, either. I increasingly kept to myself, as my own demons began to fight me. Some nights, it was just the River, the blast furnaces, cocaine… and me. My dreams were as big as that rusted skeleton fortress– to get the hell out of that environment and go to music school. To stand tall despite that horrible feeling of chaos and uncertainty. Anything to get away from the pain and abuse.
I managed to get into music school just outside of Philadelphia, PA and just as quickly began learning that abuse is a cycle. My first suicide attempt was during winter break of my freshman year of college.
Thus began my crash into the world of mental illness. Only I did not know it then.
“This man’s about to turn his whole life upside down.” – Steven Page
Looking back, there were definite signs that I was headed down the path to that first attempt at ending my life.
I was a young, muscular female-presenting person with a very prominent chest and knee-length hair. I was conventionally attractive and would often be cat-called walking down the street. In attempts to deny what I knew very clearly by then — that I am not female — I talked and acted myself into being this persona that I knew that I was not. I quickly fell in love with my friends cocaine and molly (MDMA)… and even quicker began vehemently denying what I solidly knew about myself – that I am not a woman. I began dressing myself in revealing clothing, heels, and too much makeup. I thought that if I presented as ultra-feminine, that the feelings of discomfort of being deemed a “woman” by society would go away. I also began getting much unwanted attention and “compliments” from primarily older men that I had absolutely no interest in. And I definitely used this to my advantage; being overtly flirtatious in order to get drinks and drugs. It was way too easy.
The casual sexual advances were an almost-daily occurrence. “Hey! Nice tits!”, “I’d like to tap that juicy ass!” “Sexy mama!”. It was so common that I learned to ignore it or make some covertly flirty retort. When I made the decision to try to live as a gay woman, the advances became downright homophobic. Things like “You’re too pretty to be a dyke!”, “You just haven’t had a good dick inside you!” and “You’ll be straight after you suck my cock!” became my normal.
On a rainy November night, I was capping off a night of heavy drinking and cocaine use. While only one person did the heinous act, there were several others watching. Laughing. Masturbating. Acting like seeing a screaming person fighting being penetrated was somehow acceptable. Not doing a damn thing. His eyes were the red of the blast furnaces – cold, obstinate, relentless — piercing the darkness of the bed I was thrown onto.
No one, especially not the police, believed me because of how I was dressed, which in all honesty wasn’t much. I was “asking for it”. Being high on cocaine and dressed in revealing clothing and high heels was somehow deemed implicative of consent. That I somehow deserved it.
I also became pregnant due to this, because — SURPRISE!! — it must’ve not been legitimate rape. My uterus clearly didn’t get the memo on this as being legitimate rape and didn’t shut that whole thing down. I became very withdrawn and increasingly suicidal. Until recently, I did not have the courage to speak about the abortion I had to ease some of the suicidal feelings that came up following that “twenty minutes of action” (on behalf of pretty much ALL survivors of rape: screw you, Brock Turner’s father!). This is when I found myself at the River, note written and expecting to not survive the overdose I had meticulously calculated to put me to sleep forever.
After leaving the psychiatric hospital, my behavior became increasingly erratic in attempts to deny what had happened to me. The police didn’t believe me, so why should anyone else? I would live for that next party or club while supporting my increasing cocaine habit by playing at sketchy piano bars in hiding in theatre orchestra pits. I had an illusion of keeping it together, but did poorly in school and barely got through. My usual outfit would be showcasing my large chest, and I didn’t think that I knew any better. This wasn’t the physical abuse I grew up with and I enjoyed the seemingly “positive” attention from beautiful women who were just as high as I was. Barstool romances over cocaine and whiskey became my new “normal”. With every passing untreated manic episode, I became increasingly more psychotic.
And then there’s the whole “not being a woman” thing.
I finished my final courses of college living in my car and having survival sex. I remember dyeing my hair blue, and then shaving it completely off. I was done with presenting as a feminine woman. Despite best efforts, it never went away. I fell in love and thought that I could keep that part of me tucked away forever. I cancelled my appointment to start hormone therapy and settled into the outwardly-perfect life. I abruptly stopped using cocaine, drank sparingly, and quit smoking.
It worked until it didn’t.
When will this feeling go away? When will this feeling ever stay? – Carbon Leaf
After many years of denial, self-medication, and looking forward to what I know as being mania, I was hospitalized three times in six months following several months of flashbacks that rendered me incapable of working a job that I loved. I soon lost that outwardly-perfect life. My cats, partner, life in the suburbs. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, OCD, and an anxiety disorder. Answers that I refused to accept for a long time.
So I did what any rational human being would do: moved into the city and gradually returned to my love of cocaine to cope.
Coming out again felt natural. I began presenting as male, and asking people to use male pronouns and a name that I continue to feel right using to this day. While in early transition, the street harassment started to switch to things like “dyke” and “tranny”.
In this vulnerable state and in the midst of a new round of drug abuse, I was introduced to a charming and charismatic transgender man. We quickly began dating and I experienced homophobia in a new way — as a cisgender-passing man holding hands with another cisgender-passing man. Being called a “faggot” on transit became yet another new normal. It felt uncomfortably familiar.
The relationship became abusive fairly quickly, but I didn’t think much of it — it wasn’t as “bad” as what my normal was growing up. He reminded me of my father, only less physically aggressive — at first. This is how I know that abuse is a cycle. It creeps in uninvited and isn’t noticed until it’s too late to do a damn thing about it.
This horrible individual raped me repeatedly and often.
I recall one particularly horrible day when he locked me outside wearing nothing but maybe a necklace. It was cold and raining and neighbors ignored my screams for help, just like the men masturbating around me had over 10 years prior. After he let me in, I was thrown on the bed, sending me straight into panic and vivid recollection of the first time I was raped. I began screaming “I AM NOT GIVING YOU CONSENT!!” as my assailant was violating me. I bled for over a week and then had to lie to my doctor that it was “just rough sex”. It felt like I was a child again, lying to the authorities. I also felt that no one would believe me once more, and truly believed that if I’d spoken up that my rapist would kill me like he’d threatened to do if I even tried.
When I finally got the courage to report, several months after, the SVU officer further made me feel worthless and not human. The officer — a middle-aged cishet white man — placed the blame fully on me. And then he told me that he didn’t understand why I was reporting something he immediately deemed insignificant. After a slew of inappropriate questions asking if I were “becoming a woman” or if I had “the surgery” (implying vaginoplasty) –and then being absolutely dumbfounded that men like me exist… and that my rapist and I are both the kind of trans people that aren’t transwomen– the officer determined that it “wasn’t rape” because there was no flesh penis involved. Apparently, violent penetration, bleeding, and non-consent just isn’t legitimate rape, either. Just like what I was wearing when I got pregnant without consent. I’ll be damned if I know what “legitimate” rape truly is, because I’ve certainly never had that legitimate experience. This whole time I thought that non-consent was just a synonym for “asking for it”!
To this day nearly a year later, I cannot believe that statement. It is constantly in my nightmares. The fact that this officer dismissed what had happened to me as not being rape reminded me of the Officer that I reported being raped to a decade prior. This SVU officer diminished my right to bodily autonomy and the ability to have any say in what is done to my body. That I somehow deserved it. That no one believed me. That I was asking for it. It’s bad enough that men don’t report, but I felt the same way that I had when I reported while presenting female. Diminished. Worthless. I was taken home by a Sheriff feeling absolutely filthy and unable to move or speak.
I fell into an absolutely crushing depression that left me unable to even form a sentence in English or shower or eat or do anything remotely resembling being alive. Soon after, my rapist nearly took my life.
“If we live another day, we will leave this fortress and be free to breathe again.” – Trevor Lewington
I had made the decision to leave several weeks prior, but he had destroyed my credit, depleted my savings, and isolated me from anyone that even remotely gave a damn about me. I had no real way out and hopelessly knew this. ABUSE IS A CYCLE. The threats to my life resulted in almost losing it. In a drunken rage on the 27th anniversary of going into the street to get a ball, I was so violently assaulted that when I escaped, a woman outside had asked if a bomb had gone off. I guess I didn’t realize what day it was until several weeks later. The medics didn’t believe that I was being beaten within inches of my life for what was determined to have been over 8 hours. I was blacking in and out and had pretty much accepted that I would die that day. In a recent position, I was working with adults with sometimes aggressive behavior and I was trained in manual restraints to keep these beautiful individuals safe. This training saved my life, and I cannot stress this enough. My escape from a second floor rear apartment felt like it was several hours, but in reality it was only about 4 minutes from the second I texted a friend to call rescue to when I was in the ambulance.
It took glue and staples to put my head back together. The crazier part is that after a lifetime of abuse, I didn’t see the signs until I nearly lost my life.
“I’ve taken some wrong turns, and they all brought me here.” – Enter the Haggis
Recovery has been a slow and challenging process. In nearly a year, I have been unable to work and be around the group of artists with disAbilities whom I consider about 60 of my personal heroes. I think about them daily and it hurts to not be learning from them. I’ve also had trouble as a musician due to continued spasms in my left hand and memory trouble. It’s been frustrating knowing that I cannot fully rely on my education or experience as a musician to do what I love. I fight daily blackouts, headaches, nightmares, sleep issues, mania from not sleeping.
I’ve wanted to give up constantly. To scream. To run away. To disappear. When I was on the stand testifying about nearly losing my life, my assailant’s public defender had the gall to ask what I was wearing and how much I weigh. Once again, I felt so worthless and diminished as a human being. Once again, I was reminded that there’s no possible way that I have experienced sexual violence. And this is the problem.
The rhetoric that “men don’t get raped” is a load of horseshit. And even worse is the slut-shaming and labeling women who come forward against their abusers as being attention-seeking. There is absolutely zero excuse for taking away someone’s autonomy and consent. It does not matter what they were/weren’t wearing. It does not matter if consent was originally granted — the second consent is revoked, that is the end of it.
So yes, #METOO.
“I’ve seen a little but it ain’t enough. Been down to the bottom and all the way up. I’ve seen a little but it ain’t enough.” – Alan Doyle
The term “survivor” aggravates me. I feel that it is not an accurate description of my experience. ASS-KICKING FIGHTER is a more apt label. I haven’t survived a damn thing — I have fought through it. Sure, things aren’t feeling “normal” right now, but that’s fine. I feel free. I have a beautiful support system that’s been there for me, unconditionally. I just celebrated an entire year free from cocaine and substance. While knitting to get the dexterity back in my left hand, I’ve started my own Etsy store. I’m enjoying freelancing again and know that I will be ok, if I just keep fighting.
I write this not as a transgender man or an ass-kicking fighter, but as a human being. The human being that I’ve been led to believe that I am not. Because I know that if I don’t give up, then I’m unstoppable. That I can break this disturbing cycle of abuse — if I work for it.
Recently, the Bethlehem Steel’s remains were returned back to the music that Moravian settlers founded the town with on Christmas Eve, 1741.
Like those blast furnaces, I stand tall with hope and a new life.