For Years, Tiq Milan Felt Like the Only Black Trans Man On Earth
It wasn't until he stumbled into an online chatroom in the early Aughts that activist Tiq Milan saw himself reflected for the first time.
Courtesy of the author.
Broadly has launched the Gender Spectrum Collection, a stock photo library featuring more than 150 images of trans and non-binary models, in an effort to improve the representation of transgender and non-binary people in media. View and download them for free here.
Being seen as a transgender person is different today than it was 15 years ago, when I began my transition. Back then, Laverne Cox was still performing at drag bars, Janet Mock hadn’t wrote her legendary memoirs, and Jazz Jennings was only a few years old. The faces of trans people in America had not yet become common in popular media. There was no Caitlyn Jenner, no POSE—and damn sure no representation of transgender men.
What transgender people needed and were experiencing wasn’t on the radar for most advocates in the LGBTQ community, as they were focused on marriage equality. And transgender men? Forget it. We were an aside—a footnote in the movement for transgender lives. In my experience, there were no social spaces for trans men, except for a support group here and there in the bowels of some clinic or LGBT community center. It seemed that all the dialogue about trans people that was starting to happen revolved around how to respond to trans misogyny or comprehensive hormone and medical treatment for transgender women. Don’t get me wrong: Those are very important conversations. But as a transmasculine person, I felt ignored and unsupported.
For years, I felt as if I was the only Black trans guy on the planet. The closest thing I had to representation in media was the cult classic The Aggressives, a homage to the handsome Black butches of New York City in the 90s. But being butch and transmasculine, although on the same spectrum, are different identities, and I didn’t see myself there fully.
Meanwhile, being viewed as a woman, albeit a masculine one, began to feel increasingly unfamiliar and emotionally exhausting. As I embraced my masculinity further, I was changing and moving away from the person I was and the community of women who raised me. It was painful, but that shift was vital to my livelihood and sense of self. If I lost everyone in the process, at least I’d find myself, and that meant more to me than anything else.
I didn’t tell anyone to their face that I was beginning my transition. I couldn’t imagine hearing myself say the words aloud, or even worse, weather the reaction from people I loved. How could I tell anyone when it felt like I was the only trans man to ever transition? I had no blueprint or role models; no transmasculine icons I could readily recall; no person to tell me how to become a man, what to do or expect.
For a long time, I was alone—until I stumbled upon a secret group for trans men on Yahoo! called “Urban Transman.” (This was in the early 2000s when “urban” was a commonly used euphemism for “Black.”) I reached out to the admin of the group and explained that I was early in my transition and needed to talk to other men like myself. I was immediately granted entry into what was basically a chat room. That room changed everything for me.
Here I was, sulking because I thought I was the only Black trans man in existence and I’d found a group that had over 400 Black trans men from all over the world talking to each other, giving advice on how to cope with dysphoria, and creating surgery aftercare plans for guys who had no family to care for them. We gave talking points to each other on how to come out to parents, siblings, and children. We shared intimate surgery photos and grainy instructional videos on how to take the T shot as painlessly as possible. The only community resource we had was each other. It was in this group that I found the courage to begin my medical transition, come out to the world, and begin my life as Tiq.
I push back on the idea that online spaces or movements aren’t real. Real change can happen online. The Black Lives Matter movement took hold on Twitter, I met and fell in love with my wife on Facebook, and in a chat room I found a huge community of transgender men who gave me the inspiration and tools I needed to finally be myself. Eventually, we grouped together by city, and trans men all over the world began meeting up for soccer games and potlucks.
Through that group, I met a crew of mostly no-disclosure (except to each other) trans men in Brooklyn, many of whom I’ve lost contact with over the years as they’ve melted back into their worlds where no one knew they were transgender except their partners and close family. These guys weren’t advocates or activists. They didn’t work or even socialize in LGBTQ community at all. They were content living a quiet life away from all the politics and momentum that was beginning to build for transgender people. But just knowing they existed made a world of difference for me.
I think about these long-lost friends often as I continue to be as visible as possible. I respect people’s choice to be private, but for me, it feels important to be a model of possibility for other trans men who may feel they don’t have a place in this world because they aren’t seen. I want them to recognize me as an example of what’s achievable, just as I was inspired by these trans guys, so many years ago. I hope they see me and know how much seeing them changed the trajectory of my life. I hope they know that just them taking those few weekends to kick a ball, made me know that I was real, worthy and ready for this life ahead of me.