Becoming a (Trans) Black Man
Young transgender black men are using social media to embrace their new identity
Jabari Miller* stands before a video camera in his home with his shirt off. He points out his new tattoos and growing muscular physique. Less than a year ago, his body was completely different. What stands before the lens is the result of months of hard work, hormone treatments and top-notch surgery. Miller, 23, is just one of the growing number of transgender (a term used to define those whose gender identity differs from their biological sex) men who have begun the physical transition to becoming a man. Transitioning isn't just about a physical change -- use of hormones therapy or surgery -- some men opt to handle their transformation via a name change or sex on legal documents. A quick search on YouTube for "FTM" (female to male), "Post-Opt T" or "Trans Male" will return dozens of videos of transgender men sharing their various experiences.
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Social media sites have provided a “community” for young transgender people. Among the small population that is finding its voice: black transgender men.
Within the black community, being gay or lesbian is still met with much resistance. Gender identity, which has nothing to do with one's sexual orientation is an issue largely ignored and as a result, misunderstood by the black community. Overlooked, the black trans community has succumbed to some startling statistics according to a recent study Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey Injustice.
- 26% of Black transgender people are unemployed. That’s twice the rate of all transgender people and four time that of the national rate.
- 41% of black respondents said they had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, more than five times the rate of the general U.S. population.
- Black transgender people lived in extreme poverty with 34% reporting a household income of less than $10,000 per year.
- HIV affects the black transgender community in devastating numbers.
Going Before the World
Jabari Miller, who declined to give his birth name, isn’t the first trans man to to undergo a physical change but unlike many before him, he decided to chronicle the steps of his journey on YouTube. Miller’s videos are more diary than anything. In the almost 20 videos posted on his channel, all show the 23-year-old—either wearing a tank-top or going shirtless— talking about his latest developments post hormones and breast removal surgery.
Last year, Miller, received some unwelcome attention when one of his YouTube clips was posted on the wildly popular hip-hop video site WorldStarHipHop. Unlike the supportive LGBT community YouTube, many commentors on WSHH attacked Miller. He contacted the site and asked them to take the video down but hadn’t heard back. With his transformation nearly complete he plans to remove his transition videos from YouTube and blend into society.
Loop 21: When did you first exhibit signs that you might identify yourself as a man?
Jabari Miller: I remember being four or five and when my dad left town, I’d walk around in his business suits. All coming up through school I was tomboy, wearing boys clothes. It wasn't until I was 14 when I was seeing a therapist that she told my dad “I’m worried because [your daughter] thinks she is a man.” At the time I didn’t know about what transgender meant but I was just living my life as male. That is how I found out about “gender identity disorder” but my therapist made it seem like the surgery was light-years away and only for the super rich.
Loop 21: That was when you were 14, however you didn’t start your transitions or “T” until you were in college. What pushed you to do it now?
Miller: When I found that the process was feasible I was doing research on YouTube like many do. I talked to my girlfriend at the time and realized that I didn’t want to look like a woman trying to dress as a man for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be an old lesbian stud. That’s when I found out that testosterone was available to me and it didn’t have to be just surgery. Most of the information I found on YouTube was from guys my age so why not do this now. I feel like I know I’m not making a mistake. I know this what I want to do and if it had been available to me years ago I would have.
Loop 21: Describe the process. Were you scared to go under the knife?
Miller: I started taking hormones a year ago at 22. Once I started with that I knew I wanted to have my breasts removed. That was a process. I went to therapy for eight months leading up to my surgery. It was sheer excitement. I wanted to work out as hard as possible to give the surgeon a canvas to work with. I wanted to build up as muscle as I could. I never thought I would miss [my breasts]. I felt relieved, free. I do plan on having “bottom surgery” in the next two years. [Editor's Note: Miller is referring to Phalloplasty, which creates a penis from a woman's genitalia.]
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Black Men Really Do Have it Bad
Dr. Kortney Ziegler, Ph D, director of Still Black
In 2008 Dr. Kortney Ziegler, PhD released the documentary Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen. There had been films about transgender men but none that focused solely on the black experience. Ziegler’s work had pushed this new black male identity into the forefront and became a bible of sorts for young trans men like Miller. At the time of filming, Ziegler was on the fence with his gender identity opting to be “gender queer” but as Still Black grew into a movement, the decision to undergo the transformation felt right. Now, Ziegler is still learning how to navigate life as a black man.
Loop 21: How was that moment when you realized the world is seeing me as a black man?
Dr. Kortney Ziegler: It seemed like it was overnight. One day I was living as a black woman and everything that comes with that and the next day I am a criminal I am a suspect in a way that a black woman isn’t. It opened my eyes to so many levels of discrimination that I knew existed but I didn’t live. Now that I live in this body it really is disappointing and sad how black men are treated. I’m really happy that I discovered hormones and made the transition because I wouldn’t be alive at this moment but it does come with its consequences. I live in Oakland, California in a predominately white neighborhood and my neighbors don’t speak to me. I can’t even really put into words how I’m treated as black man now. People are always afraid of me. People are always suspicious. I tell people I have a PhD and they’re like “No, you don’t!” (Ziegler is the first student to earn a PhD graduate of African American Studies, from Northwestern University.)
Loop 21: What are some of the things you do to mentally and emotionally prepare to handle the stress of being a black man?
Ziegler: I exercise. I eat healthy. I talk about my feelings. I don’t think I talked about things that bothered me as much when I was living as a woman as I feel I need to do now. I talk about it with other men, other trans men. It is important for me to voice my experience because if I don’t it will eat me up inside. I will be so angry.
Loop 21: Black men aren’t told to express their feelings so how do you navigate that when dealing with them?
Ziegler: Black men don’t express themselves and I do largely because I was socialized as a girl but really I’m still a new black man. I’m still learning. I am very emotional and do share my feelings and when I talk to other black men I make it a point to have them share their feelings too. What I’ve noticed is that if you ask questions black men really do want to talk about society and what bothers them and they have no idea I’m transgender.
As a college student in University of Minnesota studying engineering, Jabari Miller has a slightly different take on his new black male identity.
Loop 21: How are people treating you now that you are physically present as a man?
Miller: It is hard to be a black man in America. The only difference I see is in establishments I notice that people watch me a little more. On the other hand I feel as though I get a lot more respect. I think it’s been easier for me. It’s also been easier to make friends. I don’t know I guess I seem more approachable.
*Last name is been changed.