By Alyse Burnside
I read Ryan Sallans’ book Transforming Manhood in bursts during my first semester of graduate school. Each night, settling into his book felt like the treat I’d given myself for reading Foucault, planning an English 101 lesson about how to write a thesis statement, or simply walking around the Las Vegas desert feeling utterly alone. Finding a particular kind of comfort in someone else’s transformation is not unfamiliar to me. As a young queer from the Midwest, I often spent all day waiting to get home so I could read my clandestine queer books under the covers. I read Stone Butch Blues with the hunger some kids read Tiger Beat!, and Dykes to Watch Out For with the sort of admiration and desire some relied on Marvel comics to fulfill.
All this to say, I’m well read in the (white) queer bildungsroman. The stories of my queer elders are shaped by pain, isolation, loss, and above all, being denied the ability to dream of a limitless future. Before attending grad school, I worked as an advisor for a high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance in Minneapolis. I was a decade older than my students, but a world away from them when it came to their experiences as queer high schoolers. While I was too afraid to come out to anyone until I was through with high school, they were openly, and unapologetically queer. While I was just learning to feel comfortable changing in my gym’s locker room, they were navigating polyamorous relationships.
As things progress for the queer people in this country, there is a need for a new type of story. One that does not ignore the struggles queer people still face, but simultaneously allows for queer futurism. Narratives that dare to imagine what lies beyond survival – these give me hope, and Transforming Manhood was one such narrative for me. Sallans’ memoir moves beyond the transformation story and shows us what lies on the other side of struggle.
I had the honor of chatting with Ryan Sallans, and what follows is our conversation:
Alyse Burnside: Hi Ryan! Thank you for talking to me. I wanted to first tell you why I chose to interview you.
This past fall I moved to Las Vegas from Minneapolis where I had a really supportive queer community. I’m queer and since moving to Vegas I’ve really been feeling the loss of my community. I’m slowly building my queer community here, and this experience has me realizing just how important community is to me. So when your publicist emailed Witness about book reviews, I was excited by the possibility of talking to you about your activism and Transforming Manhood. While I’m not trans, there was so much in your book that resonated with me. A sometimes fraught relationship to my body, the fear of rejection, the navigating of my identity in straight spaces.
Ryan Sallans: I am hearing so many people tell me “’I am not trans’ but I connected with so much of what you had to say”—which is the whole point of storytelling and the power of nonfiction. It is interesting because when I was receiving my MA in Creative Writing, I only wrote fiction; I couldn’t imagine writing about my life. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything BUT nonfiction.
AB: I remember my fiction teacher having a conversation with me about my work. It was basically an intervention, he was like: “There’s this genre called creative nonfiction, and it’s actually what you are doing but calling fiction.”
This is a good segue into one of the questions I had for you. I want to talk about vulnerability. This book is very personal! What do you think is possible through honesty?
RS: Oh man, this book literally nearly killed me. As we sent it to the printers I had a physical and mental breakdown. My body completely collapsed and I lost a dramatic amount of weight in a week. This experience let me know I wrote a damn good book because I put my heart and soul out there and addressed topics that need to be addressed.
My life’s work is in inclusion and diversity, which for me means, having authentic relationships with people, meeting them where they are at, and giving them time to grow and change. Some forms of activism seeking to be inclusive are actually doing the exact opposite because these forms are focused on language, labels, judgement and shame. This is not the way to build relationships or help people who are uncomfortable with a topic; it actually just reinforces the discomfort and defensiveness.
I felt I needed to write a book about it, because sitting with a book you get a longer journey and get to see a person’s intention/soul. But I was scared to death to actually get it into readers’ hands because of the fury that can rise quickly with social media platforms, opinions, and soundbites. I am happy to say, all I am receiving is praise and thank you’s. Vulnerability helps bring down the defensive shield and open up people’s hearts to the same emotions/connections.
AB: I used to work as a Gender Sexuality Alliance Advisor for High Schoolers in St. Paul, Minnesota,, and one of the struggles I found in that role is that even though I was only eight or nine years older than some of my students, their experiences were so different. In particular, my trans students. I often felt like I was ill equipped to advocate for them because they were navigating something very different than me. And, some of my students were so nonchalant about their queerness. I had one student tell me that it wasn’t a big deal at all for them to come out. I feel like the queer experience is really evolving quickly.
What do you think is the most important issues facing Gen Z queers?
RS: That is one of the reasons I loved Chapter 1—it is so healing to have spaces where older LGBTQ folks can spend time with LGBTQ youth, one: to help them feel heard, but two: to help provide them with guidance. The queer experience is evolving, but the human experience will always be the same. Deep down we all experience fear, happiness, anxiety, uncertainty, etc. We need to keep generations connected because while the world looks different, the emotional experiences and developmental processes will remain the same. Finding meaning in life and a sense of purpose. Gen Z is in this beautiful place where they are the first generation to grow up with us talking about gender and sexual orientation openly and more positively. (Obviously we have a lot of work still to do). This open space allows them to explore their sexuality and try on different labels. What can be frustrating for these youth is that older generations do not take them seriously, or try to shut them down, so I think they are in the position to move us to the next wave of essentially feminism. We are now shifting from focusing on men and women and opening it up to freeing gender and orientation. This is going to be amazing to watch, but it is important that older generations are there for guidance, assistance, and perspective.
RS: I think a challenge is that, developmentally, Gen Z is using labels to try to understand self, but then in turn are applying labels to other people. This is harmful and creates those moments where people write each other off because of what they physically see or assume. Things like referring to people as “Cis, het, old, white guy, etc” is not helping build bridges or understanding. It is labeling and judging.
AB: Yes, even as a lesbian I’ve never felt so old, boring, monogamous, out of touch. While I see that this can be polarizing, I also understand the urge toward self-protection. Because Gen Z is still young, I sort of feel it is my task as a millenial to try and bridge the gap in some ways.
RS: Yes—absolutely. We will all figure this out as we navigate the healthy and unhealthy approaches to change.
AB: I’ve been reading a lot about queer futurism and potentiality lately. Have you read or heard of the book Cruising Utopia? I’ve just started reading it, but the title really summarizes it. It’s imagining the potential of a queer future. One in which there is flourishing rather than resistance. I see your work as future focused. I think a lot of books center on the transformation narrative, but Transforming Manhood to me feels like it’s pushing further than just transition. What do you think of this?
RS: I have been on the forefront of this current wave of LGBTQ rights and development. Just as an example, I had one of only a few websites about personal transitions on the web in 2005; think about what it looks like today! So I am in a place where I can write about themes that go beyond a transition or coming out (my first book Second Son did that). My third book, which I am starting to jot down little things [for], will focus on Self (not about being trans) and what happened in my life when I found my center of balance while moving further into middle age.
I think “futurism” is also what comes with age. I am a Gen Xr, like the middle child. I can look at older generations and think about what their lives looked like and everything they had, and continue to go through and then ask them for guidance when I start experiencing what they have in the past as developmentally they were in my age range. I can also look to the generations below me and take pause to give them space to express what they are going through while also listening to what they are truly feeling, and then having a conversation with them. I think futurism in a way is a representation of maturity, patience, open hearts and vulnerability. I am always trying to seek ways to describe the emotionality behind the language. We can connect through the emotions but interpret the language very differently.
AB: Hmmm, I like that. It sounds so…doable, allowing space for those who need it and connecting through common experiences/emotions. I wonder why it is actually so difficult sometimes. Are you willing to talk about book three?
RS: Honestly, so much of this is so freaking simple, but we just muck it up because being vulnerable, being centered, and talking about what we are really feeling is terrifying and confusing. So we apply language, talking points, policies, remind people to use “I statements”. I remember when I used to be a health educator (I am still a health educator but do it through being a speaker/storyteller) I hated it when they made us use curriculums or train-the-trainer materials. It never felt authentic. It never felt like it actually gave people tangible information that they could digest. So, I just quit using them and instead got in front of people, read the room, and then opened up so that they felt comfortable with the topic and asking questions. Twenty years later, I am still doing it and it works.
So, book three is going to be about this. Getting back to our center, finding our sense of self, and forming relationships through being authentic humans who are allowed to be vulnerable and unscripted. I literally just started writing yesterday, and as you know, what you think a book will be when beginning versus what it actually becomes are two different things. However, I am excited by this journey and what stories I will tell.
I think what excites me the most is that last year I turned forty and released this book that contained all of my fears and uncertainties. Writing about them, taking five years to spend time with the chapters has allowed me to enter into a new plane for the first time in my life where I am not living in fear, but instead I am living life with curiosity and confidence in self.
AB: Since we are talking about fear and difficult subjects, could we talk briefly about a subject you write candidly about? I found myself really thinking a lot about the relationship with queerness and eating disorders.
I think eating disorders are really common in the queer community because so much pressure is put on the body, even if you are cisgendered. I think that we don’t talk so much about that aspect of queerness, and I found that part of your book to be a place where I really connected.
RS: Since I’ve been sick, I spend a great deal of time thinking about eating disorders and how we can help people heal. This past year I’ve dived even deeper into this both through therapy and also through reiki. Last week I had a reiki session and it so happened she picked up on my desire to understand the deeper roots of my own ED and my desire to heal. While her hands were over my solar plexus (where we store sense of self) she mentioned that something happened to me around 18 months to 2 years of age with both my parents. 18 months to 2 years of age is when children start to see gender and have a sense of their own gender. My sense of self was invalidated at that time by my parents and it continued to be stifled as I aged. My healer also said my eating disorder wasn’t about control, but about acceptance and love. I think for many queer people, we do not feel like we can speak our truths, we then question our sense of self because other people are not accepting or loving of us. Our eating disorders are a way for us to escape from what we truly feel inside. There is something deeper here that I am on the brink of being able to speak to, I can’t wait for when that happens.
AB: That’s really interesting. I like the perspective that EDs can be about acceptance and love more so than about control. That gives me a lot to think about. I only have one more question for you. What art/literature/person/movement etc. is inspiring you most right now?
RS: Things that are inspiring me most right now are—listening to the musician Jose Gonzalez, learning the craft of raising, shaping and moving bonsai trees, not watching TV and not being on social media, but instead, spending time with people or spending time alone where I can then get lost in my thoughts. I guess, I am moving into a transformational movement where I am staying centered and finding music, people, hobbies that keep me there. It is amazing!
I cannot stress enough the importance of getting offline. It keeps us constantly outside of ourselves and what is surrounding us.
AB: I love that! I hope to raise a bonsai someday, I can’t keep my easy plants alive though. Thank you again for chatting with me. Your work inspires me and I can’t wait for the debut of your next book.
Ryan Sallans is a renowned transgender speaker and author specializing in health care, campus inclusion and workplace issues impacting the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) community. Since 2005, Ryan has been inspiring individuals around the world through the programming that he offers. His work as a speaker is rooted in storytelling and branches out to interlace personal stories with research and data focused on creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ individuals, employees and patients. He is hosted as a keynote speaker across the country for conferences and diversity and inclusion events highlighting finding similarities through our differences. Ryan also serves as the Lead Subject Matter Expert and script writer for e-learning courses used around the nation to train healthcare professionals and staff seeking continuing education around serving the LGBTQ community. These courses are now part of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Healthcare Equality Index (HEI).
Ryan’s memoir Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Love and Life is one of a few books detailing the life and transition of a transgender man. Second Son has been noted as required reading in Mary Karr’s 2015 New York Times Bestselling book The Art of Memoir.